Russia ready to lock horns with Albright

As Russia's leaders braced themselves to lock horns with the US Secretary of State, Mad-eleine Albright, blows began raining down on Moscow from another quarter yesterday - the republic of Ukraine.

In an interview timed to coincide with the arrival of Mrs Albright in Moscow, the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, delivered his strongest ever tirade against her neighbours. "Absolutely no one in Russia wants to understand our position, to listen to our arguments," he told Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta, "They make it look in Russia as if Ukraine does not exist as an independent, sovereign state."

Although Mr Kuchma said his criticisms were unrelated to tensions over Nato expansion, his tirade will infuriate Moscow, which has been watching with alarm as its former fiefdom has sought closer ties with the alliance, but not membership.

Nor will Russia view kindly that Mr Kuchma - with whom it has been wrangling over the Black Sea fleet - chose to unleash such criticisms just before its talks with Mrs Albright. Fears of Russian imperialism are one of the arguments central and eastern European countries use to press for Nato admission.

Ms Albright is due to meet Mr Yeltsin later today for talks which the Russians believe have ominous historical implications. In her noisy, some would say Napoleonesque, route march towards Moscow, she has been scattering incentives like confetti - including a Nato-Russian brigade, a Nato-Russian consult-ative council, and amendments to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty.

But there has been little hint of a willingness to move in key areas. Nato is unlikely to agree to Russia's demand for a legally binding agreement governing their relationship. Moscow is, Western sources say, doomed to make little headway should it press for a pledge from the alliance not eventually to admit the Baltics - a potential flashpoint in East-West relations.

Despite this, the alliance is making little secret that it is unlikely to admit Estonia, Latvia, Lithunia as full members, because of Russia's huge stake in the region. Ironically, Russia's nagging border disputes with the Balts will help Nato to justify denying them admission.

Ms Albright, who marched off her aeroplane last night wearing a black cowboy-style hat, will need all the swashbuck-ling she can muster. Her hosts regard her mission with with an iciness that is somewhat colder than the sub-zero temperatures - as, Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, found out. He left Moscow this week complaining that he had met universal opposition.

This is partly because Russian outrage over Nato expansion has now risen from a rumbling to a roar, not least because of the alliance's inept conduct over the last few weeks - particularly, an ill-timed visit by Nato's Secretary General Javier Solana to ex-Soviet republics on Russia's southern flank.

Whether Ms Albright fares any better than her German counterpart remains to be seen. The Russians regard her with a mixture of suspicion, because they fear her Czech background may make her anti-Russian, and guarded awe, because she is a woman operating in a predominantly male world, not unlike Margaret Thatcher - whom many Russians admired.

Her dealings with Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's Foreign Minister, are certain to be tense, but they can hardly be worse than his relationship with her predecessor, Warren Christopher. Diplomatic sources say the two men loathed one another.

She arrives knowing that Moscow has few political cards to play. It does, however, have a moral argument or two. Chief among these is the view that Nato is rushing towards expansion purely to satisfy its own political ends, regardless of the consequences.

The argument runs thus: the alliance has to grow to survive as a post- Cold War institution; it has bowed to pressure from the US, which knows there are domestic points to be scored (there is a large Polish vote), and from central and eastern European nations, which are using Nato membership as a staging post for entry to the EU.

But should these considerations outweigh the damage that Nato expansion might cause in an ailing and unstable nuclear power which is humiliated by its Cold War defeat, and still trying to turn itself into a democracy? The Russians say: no.

Vienna (Reuters) - Nato put forward a proposal at conventional arms reduction talks in Vienna aimed at sweetening the alliance's planned eastward expansion for Russia. Officials say the new conventional arms reduction proposal, which modifies the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, should go a long way to calming Mos-cow's fears that Nato could pile up weapons on Russia's borders. The Americans say the proposed modification of CFE, amounts to a legally binding document.