The Bear licks its territorial wounds: Russia may be grudgingly withdrawing its troops, but it still has designs on Eastern Europe

The day Russians pull out of a Europe conquered by the blood of millions of their compatriots will be a day of national shame. But let people in Europe remember: one day, we will be back.

THIS chilling statement in the Russian nationalist newspaper Zavtra served as a warning last week that all is not sweetness and light in Europe just because Russian troops have pulled out of Germany and the Baltic states.

Zavtra may speak for only a minority of Russians, but many millions more regret the passing of the Soviet Union and are confused about Russia's world role now that its control of half of Europe has ended.

How Moscow reacts to its loss of empire will be the fundamental question of European politics for years to come. Many Europeans doubt that Russia truly accepts the independence of its fellow former Soviet republics. And will it permit the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe to blend into the Western world, as they so fervently desire? Given Russia's historical experience of vulnerable frontiers, invasions and a compulsion to annex territory for security, can the reborn Russian state rest satisfied with the order taking shape in Europe?

The early signs are that it cannot. While Russia no longer seeks to dominate Eastern Europe, neither is it willing to see that region become part of a Western 'camp'. As for the former Soviet republics, Russia has sent signals for the past two years that it regards these states as part of a legitimate Russian sphere of influence.

The three Baltic republics are possible exceptions, but the sulky manner in which Russia withdrew its troops from Estonia and Latvia last Wednesday suggested that it still bears a huge grudge. Protracted trouble in the Baltic region is expected over border disputes and ethnic Russian minorities.

Russia's imperial retreat is on a scale almost without parallel. Britain and France were able to give up their empires without jeopardising the age- old British and French heartlands, but Russia's case is different. The Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 gave birth to states in places that had been colonised and controlled by Russia for centuries. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe had stripped Russia of a buffer zone in place since the mid-1940s.

On its western flank, Russia is confined to frontiers last observed in 1654, the year in which Russia began its absorption of Ukraine. In the Baltic region, first annexed by Peter the Great in 1721 and then by Stalin in 1940, little is in Russian hands except the area north of the Tsar's capital, St Petersburg, and Kaliningrad, an enclave between Poland and Lithuania.

To the south, Russia is back where it was at the start of the 19th century, before it annexed Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and part of what is now Moldova. In Central Asia, mid-19th- century expansion has been reversed. Only in Siberia and the Far East has Russia held on to frontiers achieved through conquest and colonisation.

Yet the tide has almost certainly receded as far as it can, and the principal aim of Russia's foreign policy is to ensure that, up to an as yet undetermined point, it flows back. 'We should not leave regions that for centuries have been spheres of Russian interests,' said the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, last January.

'The paramount task of Russia's foreign policy is the organisation of the post-Soviet area,' said one of Mr Kozyrev's deputies, Anatoly Adamishin, in May.

Russia's objectives in Europe and the former Soviet Union have become clear in a series of initiatives taken since 1992. First, Russia has tried to turn the Commonwealth of Independent States (the former Soviet Union minus the Baltic states) into an institution with international legal status and Moscow as its power centre.

Military interventions in such republics as Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan have shown that Moscow sees the CIS as a region where Russian influence should be supreme.

The West has done little to discourage Russia, though it expresses the rather pious hope that Moscow will not wield its military strength in these republics without their governments' consent. An important factor in Russia's behaviour towards the former Soviet republics is the presence of 25 million ethnic Russians on their soil.

Secondly, Russia has devoted much effort to preventing Nato from admitting former Soviet- aligned countries, such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, into its ranks. Western governments say Moscow has no veto on Nato's expansion, but it seems certain that Russia will try to use its membership of Nato's Partnership for Peace programme to block the alliance's enlargement.

In effect, the Kremlin is asking that Eastern Europe be treated as a region of equal influence for Nato and Russia. This is unacceptable for the Poles and others, and it means a question mark will continue to hang over the security of Eastern Europe.

Thirdly, Russia stunned the West last February by sending troops to Sarajevo as a way of preventing Nato air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs. This caused Boris Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, to remark: 'Russia has firmly marked out the parameters of its influence in Europe and the world . . . The illusory nature of the notion that any major problem can be solved behind Russia's back has become apparent.'

Russia reaped the reward of its move into Sarajevo by becoming a member of the five- nation group that has devised a plan for Bosnia's de facto partition. The co-ordinated Western and Russian policies in the former Yugoslavia recall the 50-50 deal that Churchill and Stalin struck in 1944 to determine the respective Western and Russian degrees of influence in the country.

Russia's grand design for Europe and the former Soviet Union contains four elements. It starts with the recognition that Nato and the Western European Union, the European Union's defence component, have the dominant voice in Europe up to Germany's eastern frontier. It then assumes that Russia has an equally dominant voice in the CIS. Areas in between, from Poland to the former Yugoslavia, are to be treated as 'a level playing field' for the West and Russia.

Finally, Russia wants this arrangement to be sanctioned by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which would become the main guarantee of the continent's security.

The problem with this vision is that almost nobody except Russia likes it. It suggests that the country yearns for influence over the security, and hence the sovereignty, of all states east of a line stretching from Szczecin down to Trieste. To some Europeans it smells like a 'second Yalta', albeit without communism or a Russian military presence.

The mid-1940s were by no means the first time that Russia stamped its authority on large parts of Europe. Russian soldiers captured Berlin in 1760, Tsar Alexander I entered Paris in 1814 after defeating Napoleon, and the Russians suppressed the Hungarian patriotic revolution of 1848-49.

Russia's retreat from Europe may therefore prove to be only a temporary phase. Even stripped of its European dominions, it remains a huge, militarily powerful state.

Whether Russians will exercise their influence for good or in Europe depends partly on whether, or in what form, democracy survives in Russia. A democratic Russia ought to be good for everyone; we already know about an imperial Russia. But one way or another, the Russians will be back.

(Photograph omitted)

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