Plan for new Russian army worries West

A senior Russian officer yesterday said that Moscow intended to create a new army in the troubled northern Caucasus region even though this would violate the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE).

But Western diplomatic sources and military experts believe the new 58th Army is to be created from forces already in the area and that this therefore has no further implications for CFE, which only limits certain categories of equipment - not numbers of troops or headquarters.

British diplomatic sources said yesterday the Russians seemed determined to portray the CFE treaty as more restrictive than it really was, in order to use it as a bargaining counter to deter Nato's eastward expansion. But if the Kremlin confirms the officer's comments, then another thorny issue will be added to the list of East-West disagreements which already threaten to make Bill Clinton's meeting with Boris Yeltsin in Moscow next month the frostiest since the end of the Cold War.

Colonel-General Vladimir Semyonov, the commander of Russian ground forces, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying the new 58th Army would be created by 1 June.

There has been no Army headquarters in the area since the 4th Army, based in Baku, was disbanded when the Soviet Union broke up. Western intelligence sources said yesterday the new "army" would probably just be a headquarters to co-ordinate the XLII and VIII Corps, used in the Chechnya operation. It might be based at Mozdok, in North Ossetia, where the temporary "operational group" which controlled the poorly handled Chechnya operation was based.

Many of the forces used in Chechnya were not from the Army at all, but from the Interior Ministry. The status of armoured vehicles belonging to the Interior Ministry is not clear cut, but Western governments may be inclined to treat them as exempt from the CFE treaty.

"The interests of Russia's security and territorial integrity should prevail over fulfilling the document to the letter," General Semyonov said. British diplomatic sources said they were anxious to reassure the Russians that they were trying to be constructive, and were prepared to be flexible in cases where, for example, some armoured vehicles belonged to Interior Ministry troops.

Russia has more or less crushed Chechnya's separatist rebellion by using forces drawn from all over the vast country. But to keep the lid on the Muslim region, where resistance fighters have promised a long guerrilla war, Moscow needs a permanent military presence - preferably one that is better organised.

Russia has been giving hints for some time that it might unilaterally rewrite the CFE treaty, signed by Nato and the Warsaw Pact just before the latter collapsed.