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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Voices
Vivienne Westwood and her son Joe Corré deliver an anti-fracking letter to No 10 last week
voicesThe great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick