Leading Article: Do not feed the nationalist bear

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THERE was, as John Major must have realised after their talk in Moscow, a deep well of wounded pride in Boris Yeltsin's remark yesterday: 'Some people are trying to resolve the Bosnian question without the participation of Russia. We will not allow this.' And no doubt Mr Major, as he pondered it, felt a flicker of that old West European fear of Russia's latent strength.

Mr Yeltsin's complaint echoed with history. Have not the Russians, with the aid of General Winter, seen off invasions by the Swedes under Charles XII, the French under Napoleon, and the Germans under Hitler? From those epic struggles the Russian people emerged with an atavistic fear of invasion that did much to shape Stalin's strategic creation of a buffer of subservient states between the Soviet Union and the capitalist enemy in the West.

That shield disappeared in 1989. The Russians' sense of vulnerability was subsequently much inflamed when all those peripheral countries that had been dragooned into the USSR achieved independence. At a personal level, the sense of living in reduced circumstances as well as in a reduced country was heightened by a plunge in spending power resulting from botched economic reforms.

It was on the strength of such feelings of humiliation that Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalists did so well in last December's parliamentary elections. How best to cope with that potentially dangerous phenomenon has aroused almost as much uncertainty in the West as the question of how best to end the conflict in Bosnia. The two dilemmas have come together in Mr Major's visit to Moscow. Some nationalist Russians see in Yugoslavia's disintegration a microcosm of their own fate, and regard Nato's threatened air strikes against their fellow Slavs, the Serbs, as a threat to Russia itself.

Before any action is taken against Serbian positions around Sarajevo, the Russians want a UN Security Council vote, in which they could exercise their veto. Mr Major responded to Mr Yeltsin by emphasising his own preference for a negotiated end to the conflict.

The most likely outcome is that the Serbs will not pull back their guns to the stipulated 20 kilometres, but they will not break the ceasefire, at least for several weeks or months. If no Serbian guns have fired, it is unlikely that Nato planes will be ordered to strike. But if military action is deemed necessary, it would be wrong to hold back simply to propitiate the forces of Russian nationalism. That would be a victory for Mr Zhirinovsky.

The fate of the Serbs does not bulk large in most Russian minds, and the Russians have far more to gain from the West than from being seen as the Serbs' protectors. If the West seems to be placating Russian nationalism now, it will feed the very forces it fears.