Moscow's imperial memories linger: Jonathan Eyal urges Western leaders to open their eyes and curb Russia's ambitions

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE leaders of the Group of Seven industrialised nations gather this evening in Tokyo for their yearly summit they may bicker about trade relations, but they will agree on one point: policy towards Russia. Despite the fact that President Bill Clinton's promise of a dollars 4bn (pounds 2.7bn) aid fund for Russia is likely to be whittled down to no more than dollars 500m, the honeymoon with Russia, and Russia alone, will continue unabated.

In fact, a grave danger is looming, precisely in the one area where matters have supposedly been resolved: that of the West's security relations with the former Soviet empire.

The wars that now engulf many former Soviet republics have similar characteristics: rebel movements suddenly spring up, either to effect a change of government, or to defend an ethnic minority and gain 'autonomy' for it. Miraculously, the rebels are often better armed than the governments they confront; and, as if by magic, Moscow steps in, either to protect minorities or to act as a benevolent arbiter.

In Moldova, Moscow's generals are refusing to withdraw, claiming to defend the Russians of the Transdnester, who form no more than a quarter of the local population in a tiny corner of this republic; in the Caucasus, Russian aircraft attacked Georgian government positions supposedly in support of the Abkhaz minority, while Russian weapons feed the Armenian offensive against Azerbaijan. In Tajikistan, Russian troops support a pro- Moscow regime; and in the Baltics, Moscow refuses to withdraw its soldiers until the rights of local Russians are safeguarded.

The Kremlin claims that it is dragged into these conflicts against its will. In fact, as Western intelligence services know, Russia itself is fuelling many of them, and Moscow's claim is nothing but a reworking of Britain's 'White Man's Burden', a justification for creating a new sphere of influence in the old empire. Yet Western governments persist in ignoring these signs. The West is wrong and will pay dearly for its mistakes.

Given Russia's troubles, some argue, nobody could seriously consider recreating the Soviet empire. Yet Lenin did it shortly after a civil war through not dissimilar tactics, and Britain continued to fight in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden more than a decade after relinquishing control of India. An imperial habit does not disappear overnight. It is foolish to assume that Russian generals would happily resign themselves to their empire's collapse.

Furthermore, reconstructing the empire is not actually necessary. A network of military bases in other republics, coupled with permanent economic dependency, is enough: Russian academics who spent decades writing about Western 'neocolonialism' know what is required.

Western governments continue to pretend that imperial dreams are the purview of 'hardliners', rather than Boris Yeltsin's government. In fact, the only difference between the military and the civilians in Moscow is one of degree. The Russian generals talk about the strategic need for bases outside Russia, while sharp-suited men at the Foreign Ministry tell everyone that the republics are 'condemned to live together', a nicer way of putting forward the same message.

Moscow Enow justifies intervening in other states by claiming that its aTHER write errorctions are just peace-keeping operations, designed to protect its people in other states. This argument is a lie within a lie. Ethnic Russians are not the problem in either Moldova or the Caucasian republics, but Mr Yeltsin is still determined to keep his forces there. Furthermore, the Kremlin claims to defend 'Russian- speakers', a considerably wider category of people that also includes many other ethnic groups.

Yet Western governments are encouraging Moscow's aspirations. The North Atlantic Co- operation Council, an organisation bringing together Western and Eastern countries to discuss security matters, has spent months trying to define the scope of such peace-keeping operations. But when the Georgian delegate tried to suggest at its last meeting that his republic could not consider Russian troops as impartial, the Western chairman of the council told him to shut up. The message is clear: all republics are at Moscow's mercy.

Since no Western government is willing to police the old empire, the argument goes, better leave it to the Russians who are both willing and able to do so. Yet the issue now is not one of morality at all, but of practical security considerations.

Ukraine's leaders, having observed the West's actions in Yugoslavia, know that if they have to cope with a secessionist, Russian-led movement inside their country (and one is building up in the Donbass region), all they could expect from the West is the dispatch of a retired politician who, after some more fighting, would come up with a plan for the 'cantonisation' of their republic. Why, therefore, should Ukraine give up its nuclear weapons? Furthermore, if the principle that Russia could defend its minorities in other states is accepted, why should Hungary not do the same in Romania, or indeed Serbia in the other former Yugoslav republics? Finally, if the West is now resigned to a Pax Russica, it should also be prepared for its consequences.

The Scandinavian states cannot ignore turmoil in the Baltics, and the countries of Eastern Europe would not be able to remain in suspended animation, as they are today. Strife in Ukraine directly affects Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland and nothing would alarm these countries more than the reimposition of Russian influence at their border. The old certainties cannot return, whether the West likes it or not. Pax Russica is not the least of all evils; it is a disaster that must be avoided at all costs.

So, what could the leaders of the G7 countries do in order to avert this looming danger? They could start by reaffirming the connection between aid and a clear timetable for the withdrawal of Russian troops from those republics that do not want them.

Furthermore, they could remind Moscow that the protection of ethnic minorities is an international matter: if Estonia and Latvia have problems with their Russians, these should be turned over to the newly established High Commissioner on National Minorities, not left to threats from the Kremlin. The leaders of the G7 should also launch a realistic policy towards Ukraine. Formal security guarantees are not required but a stable, strong Ukraine now serves the interests of the entire continent. Finally, they may also like to ask Mr Yeltsin: what is the purpose of the build-up of Russian troops in the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic?

The chances of this happening in Tokyo are nil, for Western policy towards Russia is still governed by the instincts of the Cold War. Instead of a demon in the Kremlin, the West now has a darling there. Instead of threatening a Soviet leader with nuclear weapons it had no intention of firing, the West is now promising billions of dollars in aid, with no intention of paying.

Relations with a great power cannot be based on wishful thinking. Mr Yeltsin still deserves Western support, but only if he could be persuaded to follow policies that contribute to both his and his neighbours' stability.

(Photograph omitted)