UK warns Russia against bullying

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

Britain will send a strong signal to Russia today that any move to coerce the former Soviet republics back into Moscow's political orbit would cause serious concern in the West.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, will underline the Western alliance's preoccupation over the issue in his first meeting with Russia's new Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

The two men are expected to discuss a range of subjects, including Russian policy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Nato enlargement, at a private dinner in Strasbourg tonight.

Mr Primakov, a former senior KGB man, has recently conducted a high-profile round of diplomacy in the CIS, including a visit to the Kazakh capital, Alma Ata. Western diplomats believe Boris Yeltsin's government is seeking to strengthen its nationalist credentials ahead of presidential elections and some fear it may stake out positions that worry the West.

British officials said Mr Rifkind would emphasise that Britain sees no problem with closer voluntary links between the former Soviet republics and Moscow, but would be "very concerned" about any effort by Russia to tie the republics to Moscow against their will.

Mr Rifkind made his first visit as Foreign Secretary to Ukraine. He is known to the Russians as a strong supporter of the newly independent nation states born after the collapse of Soviet power.

The Foreign Secretary will extend an agreed incentive for good behaviour to the Russians by amplifying recent Nato statements that the alliance has no intention of making any decisions this year on what countries might be admitted to Nato and when.

President Yeltsin and Mr Primakov have loudly expressed themselves against Nato's enlargement to the east.