Serbian retreat spurs Russia to bold advances: Success over Sarajevo means a new attitude towards the old Soviet 'sphere of influence', writes Helen Womack in Moscow

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WESTERN and Russian diplomats met in Bonn yesterday to discuss Bosnia now the withdrawal of Serbian guns from around Sarajevo has made Nato air strikes unnecessary.

The meeting suggests the West accepts that Russia's part in persuading the Serbs to back down entitles it to greater involvement. But Moscow apparently wants the West to learn a broader lesson: that countries once dominated by the Soviet Union still fall within Russia's sphere of interest. That may or may not be acceptable to the West.

Understandably, after Russia seized the initiative from Nato, there was a mood of triumph in Moscow. 'The world was almost on the brink of a crisis, which threatened to grow into a war drawing in the major powers,' said President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, on Monday. 'Without firing a single shot, without threatening anyone, without putting the lives of its soldiers at risk, without spending a single rouble, Russia won an important battle for its world status.'

But Mr Kostikov was not merely crowing. He was also telling the West: 'It is not just that Russia has returned to the roots of its historical role in the Balkans and defended the Serbs, whose faith, culture and national spirit are close to us. It has firmly established the parameters of its influence in Europe and the world.' Former Warsaw Pact countries, the Baltic states and, above all, members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, take note.

Russia's new assertiveness dates from the time when a large number of Communists and nationalists were elected to parliament in December and is clearly not unconnected with that development. British officials who travelled to Moscow with John Major this month are satisfied that Russia's Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, remains a liberal at heart although he now has to play to the gallery.

Back in September 1993, Mr Yeltsin went to Warsaw and said he would not object if Poland joined Nato. But a few weeks later Russian academics were arguing strongly against the expansion of the Western alliance and by last month, when President Clinton visited Moscow, Russia was categorically against former Warsaw Pact countries and ex-Soviet republics taking this step. Instead Partnership for Peace - very much a half-way house towards Nato membership - was born.

Russia has also been active of late in what it calls the 'near abroad', the former Soviet republics. A senior Western diplomat in Moscow said Russia was giving strong signals that, despite its economic weakness, it expected to be treated as an important world power with a right to a say in international problems that affected it, especially on its borders. 'But I don't see that as cause for panic,' he said.

'This is not like the last moment of the horror movie when the monster suddenly comes out of the cupboard, trailing slime. Russia cannot help but be drawn into problems on its doorstep. But that does not necessarily mean Russian neo-imperialism.' He added that so far Russia had changed the presentation of its foreign policy more than the substance and that it continued to be committed to close co-operation with the West.

Provided Russia does not exploit its position as a regional economic leader and peace-keeper to further the imperialist ambitions of those such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, it could play a useful role in eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. In Bosnia Russia has a lot to offer because the Serbs trust it more than they do the West. Russia now wants to build on the Sarajevo truce and an international peace conference for the former Yugoslavia is mooted.

As long as former Warsaw Pact states remain at peace Russia is not going to interfere as it did during the Cold War. But it does want to co-operate with them more. Yesterday Mr Kozyrev was in Warsaw, hoping to step up bilateral trade, something the Poles want too.

In war-torn former Soviet republics, the West has neither the stomach nor the money to play any policing role and can only watch Russia and hope it does not abuse its power too much.

The West does care more about the Baltic states, although whether it would care enough to intervene on their behalf if there was a conflict with Moscow is debatable.

(Photograph omitted)