A world role for a great power: To be a global player Russia must accept new responsibilities. And we should offer our help, says Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary

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A DEBATE has been stirred up in Russia which closely affects British interests. Not a debate generated by the revanchist views of Vladimir Zhirinovsky - Russian soldiers washing their boots in the Indian Ocean, nuclear weapons dispatched with abandon. But a broader debate, about how a country which used to be locked in superpower confrontation should adapt to its changed circumstances, now that the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union has collapsed.

Dean Acheson's pithy one-liner on post-imperial Britain - losing an Empire without yet finding a role - has echoes in Moscow. It took Britain three decades to transform Empire into Commonwealth. The Russians lost their empire in three years.

William Hayter was and remains an acute observer of the scene. He was right when he wrote, in this paper some weeks ago, that 'Russia today is in the same position internationally as Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution, a Great Power like another, likely to play its part . . . in the concert of Europe'.

It is natural that Russia should want to act as the great power it is. But there are limits, too, to those actions. The government today is aware of popular constituencies which were less obvious before the December elections. There have been changes in the cabinet, and the government now is working to match those changes in political circumstances with its foreign policy priorities. For all of us in the West, that debate produces both problems and opportunities.

The Russian role in Bosnia has been valuable. A more vigorous and lateral- minded policy brought Russian troops from Croatia into Sarajevo. That buttressed the ultimatum which Nato had the previous week issued to Serb militia in the hills around the city. It reinforced the admirable efforts of General Sir Michael Rose to secure the ceasefire around Sarajevo. Three efforts - one by the UN commander, one by Nato members, one by the Russian government - together brought stability and a certain amount of sanity to Sarajevo. The Russians, together with the rest of us, could not achieve success at Gorazde. But, looking ahead in Bosnia, we can see that the Russians are now an essential part of the international effort.

There are other parts of Europe, however, where Russia's activity appears dubious or unacceptable. I recently visited Riga for talks with the three Baltic foreign ministers. Russian troops have already left Lithuania. Russia has undertaken to withdraw its troops from Latvia by the end of August, and was quick to correct its mistaken announcement recently which gave a different impression. The Russians are engaged in negotiations with Estonia to withdraw their remaining 2,600 troops, having also set a date for withdrawal: the end of August.

I recognise the importance to Moscow of the Russian communities in the Baltic states. It is important that their rights are respected. But there is a basic fact that overrides all others. These countries are sovereign. They have a right, as independent states, to ask any foreign troops to go. This is not something to which conditions can be attached. So the August withdrawal dates from Latvia and Estonia must be kept, since that is what both countries wish.

We accept that Russia has interests, both economic and political, in other parts of the former Soviet Union. But these countries, no less than the Baltic states, are sovereign and independent. They, too, are entitled to ask the Russians to withdraw their troops; Moldova has already asked. Equally, they are free to enter into bilateral agreements with Russia on the stationing of forces, and other issues, should they wish to do so. The key is freedom of choice. This is something the Russians must respect, and something we shall watch very carefully.

Conflicts in the former Soviet Union are a legitimate concern for Russia, but also for Britain and the international community as a whole. We welcome Russian participation in UN and CSCE efforts to bring about peace settlements to the conflicts in the Transcaucasus. There are no special 'spheres of influence'. We need to work together on this. But the British government will not underwrite any proposal to deploy Russian forces in the former Soviet Union unless we are sure that peacekeeping forces will not turn into occupiers. Andrei Kozyrev (the Russian foreign minister) and I have thought hard about and jointly described in public the kind of ground rules which should dictate our responses to this kind of situation. We agreed that respect for the sovereignty and wishes of these newly independent states is central to the whole issue. We agreed that any peace-keeping operation needs a parallel peace process, a clear mandate for the forces sent in, and a clear exit strategy once the mandate has been fulfilled.

Between now and the Russian presidential elections in 1996, Britain and Europe must find ways of accentuating the positive side of the new Russian engagement in international affairs, as in Bosnia. As part of that, we need to find ways of helping the Russian government to convince its own electorate that this is the wise and right approach.

Russia's participation in Nato's Partnership for Peace would make a big difference. We are keen that Russia should play a full and active part in this initiative. There is clearly a great deal it can contribute, not least in involvement in the peacekeeping-related activities envisaged under PFP. Working closely with Nato in this way could do a lot to build up understanding and co-operation, not only between Russia and Nato but across the whole of Europe.

The Russian leadership and the Russian people have come to a crucial point. They are debating among themselves what kind of foreign policy they should pursue. I have no doubt that they should be pursuing the policy of a great power - but a great power within the context of international law and norms. We must watch to ensure that Russian policy conforms to these criteria. There are plenty of voices in Russia urging, against powerful opposition, the kind of foreign policy which fits in well with our own and with the needs of their neighbours. We must help them.

(Photograph omitted)