Leading Article: Cuddling the Russian bear

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The Independent Online
If Nato expands eastwards too quickly, Russia will take "counter measures", Russia's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, warned darkly yesterday. In retaliation, he threatened to renege on the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and to create new armed formations in areas where the Russians feel vulnerable - such as the North Caucasus, and facing the Baltic states.

This is tough talking. The treaty, implemented in 1992, has led to the destruction of thousands of heavy armoured vehicles, aircraft and helicopters. Signed by members of Nato and the former Warsaw Pact, it has helped European security immeasurably, thanks to contacts between the military on both sides which have established how many weapons each side holds and that agreed reductions have in fact taken place. In the course of such inspections, British soldiers swilled beer in Czech breweries and Russian soldiers prised barn doors open with crowbars to prove there was nothing hidden inside.

Given the goodwill that has been developed, the West would be wise to feel concerned about Russia's fit of pique. British officials are probably right to suspect a measure of bluster and posturing. The agreed weapons reductions are due to be completed in November, so pulling out of the treaty would be mainly symbolic. In any case, the material destroyed is old: its removal will enable the Russians to develop smaller, better quality forces. Yet Moscow is serious about checking the eastward march of Nato, which threatens to isolate the Russians. The Kremlin may realise that Nato has no predatory ambitions. Indeed, talk of "Nato expansion" is a bit misleading: the countries of Eastern Europe want to join Nato. But the Russians have their pride and legitimate security concerns.

They are also prepared to act on their fears. Nobody who witnessed the awesome destruction of Grozny, a city once home to 400,000 people, blown to bits by Russian artillery and air power, can doubt that Russia is still capable of accepting - and inflicting - unbelievable suffering. Wave after wave of 18-year-olds were thrown into the inferno. This was the Russia we recognise from history. Its anger is terrible, and it will even inflict suffering on itself to prove a point. The conflict was wasteful and brutal. But the Russians won.

General Grachev was held responsible for the Grozny carnage. But he is still Defence Minister. It is also worth remembering that although the Russian military played an inglorious role in the Grozny episode, it has otherwise proved itself less opposed to reform than might have been expected. In 1991 and 1993, the military did not intervene on behalf of the forces of reaction: President Yeltsin is in its debt, and so, perhaps, is the West.

So recent history dictates that we should treat Russian security concerns with respect. That way we may not only preserve the remarkable disarmament and confidence-building achievements of the past few years. We may also enable the process of reform, however imperfect, however halting, to continue.