Nato plays cagey with the Bear: The East: Some former Soviet satellites are keen to join the Alliance. But does it want them, and will Russia let them?

IT WAS one of those news items that would have made your eyes pop in Soviet times but now seems as normal as six inches of snow in Moscow. The Itar-Tass news agency reported last Thursday that 15 soldiers from a Russian-Kazakh force had been jailed for rioting at the Baikonur cosmodrome, nerve centre of the Russian space programme.

About 500 servicemen rampaged through the vast complex, setting fire to offices and barracks and looting shops. Tass attributed their frenzy to despair about their future. Since Baikonur is a prestigious base, one can only wonder about the depths of demoralisation elsewhere in the armed forces.

Russia's military commanders are in shock. Crime, desertion, lack of housing, money and equipment, and a collapse of public respect for the forces are part of the problem. Last year the army lost 35,000 officers under the age of 30, and in the first four months of this year another 16,000 resigned their commissions.

The crisis reflects the loss of superpower status, the emergence of independent states on historically Russian territory and the sense that Russia has lost a titanic duel with the West and cannot find a new world role. Russia's commanders have reacted by drawing a line in the snow: Nato, they say, must not expand to include Eastern European countries that used to be members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

Boris Yeltsin, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and other politicians generally regarded as 'pro-Western' appear to side with the generals. As early as last February, Mr Kozyrev told a meeting in Copenhagen: 'We are not allergic to Nato . . . But we do not understand the discussions to the effect that Nato must give security guarantees to the countries of Central Europe and in the long term accept them as members of the alliance. How are these states threatened, and by whom?'

When he visited Warsaw in August, President Yeltsin seemed to suggest that he had no objection to Polish membership of Nato. But he wrote to the leaders of the United States, Britain, France and Germany the following month saying that Poland and other former communist states could not join Nato unless Russia did so, too - an idea that is a non- starter in the West.

Mr Yeltsin's inconsistent pronouncements may reflect his domestic difficulties. For most of his presidency, he has faced an onslaught from extreme Russian nationalists, Communists and democrats-turned-national patriots, who argue that Russia has made too many concessions to the West in the past six years. Even before he turned to the armed forces and security agencies to crush the October revolt at Russia's parliament building, Mr Yeltsin's foreign-policy response had been to make tougher noises.

Russia believes that it has many reasons to be concerned about an expansion of Nato. One is that it would supposedly represent an extension eastwards of German power.

No Russian has forgotten that Germany dismembered the old Russian Empire in the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, then devastated the Soviet Union after the invasion of 1941. Russians believe that Soviet control of Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1990 created a buffer zone that protected the motherland against attack. Now they see the region falling under German diplomatic and economic influence, and they are determined to prevent that influence from taking a military form. Hence Mr Yeltsin's proposal that Russia and the West should jointly guarantee Eastern Europe's security, a prospect that appals countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Another factor is the Kremlin's fear that Nato's expansion would reduce Russian influence over former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine. Since the Soviet Union disappeared in December 1991, many Russians have found it psychologically impossible to accept that Kiev, the political and cultural centre of ancient Russia until the 12th century, is the capital of an independent state. Disputes have flared over Ukraine's possession of nuclear weapons, over who should own the Crimean peninsula and the Black Sea fleet, and over the status of its ethnic Russian minority.

Alarmed at the 'loss of Eastern Europe' and the emergence of ethnic and territorial conflicts on its borders, Russia has decided that it cannot afford to be passive any more. It has already demanded the revision of a major East-West treaty on conventional disarmament in Europe. Now it wants the right to 'protect the peace' in former Soviet republics, and to 'defend' ethnic Russians in these lands.

Whoever wins next Sunday's national elections, this tougher, muscle-flexing side to the new Russia is here to stay.

(Photograph omitted)