Russia behaves, but for how long?: The withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltics is a signal the West must act on, says Jonathan Eyal

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RUSSIA'S troops slipped out of Germany and the Baltic republics this week without fanfare and almost unnoticed. They had pushed to the heart of Europe to defeat Nazism but overstayed their welcome by four decades.

Although not quite all the consequences of the 1939 pact between Hitler and Stalin have now been erased (Russian troops are still on the territory of Moldova), at least the ghosts of the Cold War that followed the defeat of Hitler have finally been laid to rest.

Those who have argued that, despite all its prevarications, Moscow would ultimately respect international agreements and withdraw from its European domains have been vindicated. Yet it is premature to suggest that, with the withdrawal now almost complete, the West and Russia have no fundamental differences any more. The elimination of these historical difficulties means only that the serious problems about Europe's future security arrangements can no longer be avoided.

President Boris Yeltsin knew all along that the Baltic states were irretrievably lost; he merely bargained for the best deal he could get in return for pulling out his troops. Two years ago, when negotiations between Russia and Lithuania began, Moscow demanded the right to keep no less than 24 'strategic installations' on Lithuanian territory; by the end of the negotiations, there were none.

In both Latvia and Estonia, Russia advanced a host of arguments against any withdrawal this century. When the negotiations were concluded, all that remains of their presence is a nuclear reactor in Estonia and a radar station in Latvia that will be manned by Russian forces for the next five years. Western pressure on Moscow and judicious intervention when necessary made the difference.

The Baltic republics are still not entirely satisfied, and they are right to remind Europe that Moscow can reoccupy their small republics whenever it likes, without great numbers of forces. None the less, in securing the withdrawal of Russian forces, the West has successfully upheld some important principles.

The first is that it is up to a sovereign state to decide whether foreign troops are stationed on its soil. The negotiations between Moscow and the Baltic republics were not about whether a withdrawal was necessary but by when this should be accomplished. Further, just as the West rejected Moscow's initial demands that a united Germany should be neutral, so the Baltic republics retain their legal right to join any military alliance in future.

Nor were humanitarian issues neglected. While Western governments rightly rejected all Russia's attempts to link the presence of its forces in the Baltics to the status of ethnic Russians in those republics, they also rejected the Balts' demands that all Russian military pensioners should be repatriated to Russia. In all, the outcome of the negotiations shows that, if the will exists, the West can successfully implement a coherent policy towards Russia. The problem is that what has been achieved in the Baltics may not be a reliable pointer to Russia's future behaviour.

The West has invested great efforts in trying to lock Moscow into a durable framework of co-operation. But although all the anachronistic aspects of the Cold War have been eliminated, it has proved almost impossible to drum this into the minds of Russian colonels, the backbone of the country's armed forces. The Russian military has executed the withdrawals in a mood of sullen resignation, apparently convinced that the whole exercise was unnecessary.

Western governments were right to play down the final days of the withdrawal. Persuading the Russians to divest themselves of their European colonies, then shielding them from the psychological trauma entailed, was the right approach. But this policy has a downside. Because the Soviet Union disintegrated without a shot being fired in anger, many Russians tend to believe that the demise of their empire was a mistake. The myths that the Soviet Union was 'stabbed in the back' by a few politicians and that most of Russia's current ills stem from this 'betrayal' remain potent. So does the fear, shared by all East Europeans, that the Russians are not only upholders but also potential challengers of the status quo.

From the West's perspective, accepting Russia's claim to be the heir to the Soviet empire was a matter of cold strategic calculation: it avoided discussion about who should take the Soviet seat at the UN Security Council, who should be responsible for the USSR's nuclear arsenal, and who should service the defunct country's overseas debt. Yet the unforeseen consequence was that Russia's leaders pocketed the former empire's advantages, while ignoring its darker legacy.

Nowhere has this been clearer than in the celebrations marking the withdrawal of Russian forces from Germany. When planning for this event in April, Mr Yeltsin was furious that his troops would not be given the rousing send-off reserved for the British, French and American forces in Berlin. He pointed out that, quite apart from its sacrifices in the fight against Nazism, Moscow was just as muchmidwife to the united Germany as was the West. This was true, but it was hardly the whole story: while the Western allies helped to guarantee Germany's freedom and prosperity over 40 years, Soviet troops perpetuated the country's division and propped up a dictatorship in the east. No amount of ceremony can blur this basic distinction.

Nor is the issue of purely historic interest; it goes to the heart of Russia's international behaviour today. Many of those who originally supported Mr Yeltsin's assumption of power saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a healing experience. At long last, they thought, Russia would be able to define its identity as something other than an empire. Yet the opposite seems to be happening: Russia's elite now seems to accept that a sphere of influence over most of the Soviet Union's former republics is inevitable.

The result is a curious mixture: a sense of superiority vis-a-vis the Asian and Caucasian republics, coupled with a sense of inferiority vis-a-vis the West. Moscow still seems not to have a foreign policy; only a series of responses driven by Russia's demand to be accorded 'great power' status.

It is for the Russians to define what Russia's interests are. But in the end the West will be doing Moscow a favour if it insists that this week's troop withdrawals are only the beginning of a wider process. In particular, the withdrawal of Russian forces from the heart of the continent must not be taken as an excuse for delaying the reform of existing European institutions or the expansion of Nato.

After almost half a century, the division of the continent agreed at Yalta is over; the next and bigger task is to ensure that the new Europe can also be a non-Yalta Europe.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Cruise O'Brien returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)

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