RUSSIAN ELECTIONS : Nato may feel the chill from wind of change

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, 44 ships under the command of a US Admiral aboard the cruiser USS Hue City, among them the Russian destroyer Nastoychivy, were practising the manoeuvres they would use in multi-national peace-keeping and humanitarian aid operations.

The exercise is taking place under the Partnership for Peace initiative, designed to bind Nato and eastern European countries together and pave the way for some to join Nato. Just 200 miles to the east, Russia's 100 million electors were preparing to go to the polls on Sunday.

Western strategists do not believe the result will have any fundamental effect on Russian security policy. But a victory for the communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, would probably cool the cosy climate of co-operation which has evolved over the past five or so years and resulted in exercises such as this.

If Zyuganov wins, next year there may be no Russian destroyer, while the participation of the Poles and Baltic states alongside Nato may be seen not as an expression of international solidarity, but as a threat.

Most Western analysts agree the new President will inherit an economic crisis, heavy dependence on investment from abroad, and a massive law and order problem, and that military expenditure is not a high priority. Many believe Russia cannot afford to alienate the West, and rely on that as a guarantee of security: some disagree. Boris Yeltsin has already begun the process of "reintegration" of former Soviet states into a new military alliance, and whether he or Zyuganov wins, such efforts will undoubtedly continue.

But even if Russia's deep-seated policies do not change, a switch from Mr Yeltsin, whom Western countries know and support, to a new leader will undoubtedly affect the climate in which the Russian military - still the second most powerful in the world - deals with the West.

Anton Surikov, a civilian defence adviser to both Yeltsin and Zyuganov, said in a recent paper that the greatest danger from the US and her allies was posed by "interference in the internal affairs of Russia with the aim of diverting them into directions favourable to the West". It cited interference in the transfer of Russian expertise to Iran and India as an example.

While Nato's eastward expansion is seen as a threat, Surikov admits "there is no real possibility of hindering this by force. But threats, not supported by actions, only discredit the state." He cites Russia's ineffective opposition to the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in September last year as an example.

To counter Nato expansion, a "reintegration" of former Soviet states, within the CIS, is proposed, which has already begun with the conclusion of a new alliance between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The CIS recently produced its first joint statement on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. According to Surikov, Western attempts to foster confrontation between Russia and Ukraine must be resisted, and Russia must aim to establish a new alliance with Ukraine.

The CFE treaty, recently revised to enable Russia to put more forces on its flanks, provides Moscow with another means of countering Nato expansion. Russia may now argue that if Poland and other East European countries become part of Nato, their troops should count as part of the alliance, thus placing Nato in violation of the treaty. Such an attitude would be consistent with what one commentator last week called "a more bloody-minded approach".

Irina Issakova, an analyst at the London-based international Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), believes the Russians "can't afford to cut themselves off from the world community", and that whatever internal measures may be taken in the event of a Communist victory, they are not of great concern to the West.

The image of Russia being broke, and therefore compliant, is widespread. But Professor John Erickson of the University of Edinburgh, warned "Russia is not broke. It is an illusion that they are very poor - a fiction, which they are very keen to encourage. In spite of all the hype about privatisation, they have taken great care to protect core military industries."

Prof Erickson cited renewed Russian naval activity as evidence that strategic priorities were directed in two ways: to the sea, and to central Asia. Russia has also been concentrating on the development of small, rapid- reaction forces to preserve its ability for global intervention at a fraction of the former cost. The outcome of tomorrow's election is unlikely to affect these trends significantly.

Zyuganov profile, page 17