This affair will end in tears: Infatuation with Boris Yeltsin is setting the West on a course of appeasement, says Jonathan Eyal

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NATO, argued Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, this week, is not ready to expand into Eastern Europe, for to do so would entail excluding Russia and moving the dividing line of the continent to the river Vistula. And the Vistula, as Mr Hurd reminded his audience, is both a Polish and a Russian river. This argument shows how outdated is the Foreign Secretary's knowledge of East European geography: the last time the Vistula crossed Russian territory was before the First World War.

Yet there is a sense in which Mr Hurd is correct. The Soviet empire may have followed its Russian predecessor into oblivion, but it lives on in the minds of most Western leaders. And, as Bill Clinton starts his summit in Moscow, the West's policy towards Russia remains nonsense, wrapped in hope, inside a great deal of pious talk.

This policy may not yet amount to outright appeasement of Russia: after all, appeasement in the Thirties was applied to existing dictators, while Western governments today are sustaining Boris Yeltsin precisely in order to prevent a dictator assuming power in the Kremlin. Nevertheless, in pursuing its love affair with the Russian president at all costs, the West has put in place all the elements for future appeasement. As in the Thirties, military preparedness is being reduced as the security risks are mounting. As then, a series of self-serving justifications shroud unpleasant realities.

'A constitutional democracy governs Russia,' Mr Clinton declared on arriving in Brussels this week. Far from it: the West's hope today is that a strong constitution, hastily drafted by a cabal of Kremlin advisers and forced down the throats of ordinary Russians, will enable Mr Yeltsin to ignore the results of the parliamentary elections. This is a curious understanding of what democracy is all about, even if there is a good case for saying that, given the country's history, nothing better could have been expected. The aim at the moment, Western politicians argue, is to isolate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist rabble-rouser, and this entails more, not less, support for Mr Yeltsin.

In an effort to deflect accusations that he is obsessed with supporting Yeltsin alone, Mr Clinton is meeting most of Russia's other political leaders in Moscow, including the Communists and the Agrarian party, their closest allies. Yet Mr Zhirinovsky, leader of the biggest opposition party in the Russian parliament, is not on Mr Clinton's guest list. There is something strange about a 'constitutional democracy' in which one of the biggest players is considered ineligible for dialogue with the West.

The West dismisses Mr Zhirinovsky as an accident rather than a product of Russia's democracy. In the cliches so dear to the present US administration, he is merely a 'wake-up' call to Russia's democrats. Far from it: the feeling of national humiliation on which Mr Zhirinovsky feeds is unlikely to disappear soon, almost regardless of what the West does. This is largely because the Soviet empire was not defeated in battle; it simply disintegrated, in circumstances that remain inexplicable to most ordinary Russians.

To isolate Mr Zhirinovsky, Mr Yeltsin must redefine Russian nationalism, while steering clear of its most chauvinist manifestations. This was never going to be easy, but Mr Yeltsin shows no inclination even to understand the problem, and the West has no interest in helping either.

Every Western government knows that Russia has been involved in fomenting many of the conflicts in former Soviet republics. Instead of confronting the problem, though, the West has pretended that nothing has happened. With a particularly bad sense of timing, Mr Hurd and Andrei Kozyrev, his Russian counterpart, published a joint article in British and Russian newspapers, ostensibly seeking to place Russian 'peace-keeping' operations in the former empire within strict legal limits. Stripped of its niceties, the article carried two important messages: that there is a need for Russian intervention in neighbouring republics, and that the West is in no mood to do anything about it. The former empire has effectively been surrendered to Moscow without a whimper.

The West deludes itself if it believes that this will help Russian democracy. Allowing Russia to recreate its empire will doom any chance of economic reform. The recently concluded merger between the Russian and Belarus economies, for instance, makes a mockery of attempts to control inflation: at a stroke, the Russian budget deficit will increase by an amount similar to that of the immediate aid the Kremlin is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund.

Accepting Moscow's right to 'defend' ethnic Russians everywhere is dangerous for all Europe. The Kremlin has never referred just to 'ethnic Russians', but has always used the term 'Russian speakers', a considerably larger category of people. More important, this 'right' has wider implications. If Russia can defend its kinsmen everywhere, why should Hungary, for instance, be denied the right to defend Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia? Is Serbia's policy of uniting all Serbs under one state any different?

In practice, Mr Yeltsin is now competing with Mr Zhirinovsky to see who is the better Russian nationalist, a competition from which the West has nothing to gain. But the very same Western governments that continue to claim that Mr Yeltsin is strong enough to push through economic reform, also assert that he is too weak to resist nationalist pressure at home. Logic, it seems, has drowned somewhere in the Vistula.

The contradictions go much deeper even than this. The West is keen to handle Russia as a equal partner, a surviving superpower. But the only claim Russia has to superpower status now is its military might - precisely what the West wants to see reduced. And, far from treating Mr Yeltsin as a partner, the West has often subjected the Russian leader to petty pressures when its interests were perceived to be at stake.

While continuing to sell weapons all over the world, the West has forced Russia to slim down its arms exports, cancel a deal with India and accept a UN package of sanctions on Libya that was carefully designed to protect only Western economic interests. The result is a partnership that is perceived as servitude by the Russian military and large sections of the population.

In postponing Nato's eastward expansion, the West argues that it is accommodating Russia's historic fear of encirclement. This is nonsense on a grand scale. Apart from a sliver of land on the Baltic, Russia does not have borders with any East European state. Accepting Mr Yeltsin's protests assumes that the Russian president can speak for Ukraine and Belarus as well. It is also a disservice to Russia's future security needs. If the East Europeans are rebuffed in their efforts to join Nato, they will most probably seek to form local security alliances by drawing in Ukraine as well.

Such an inherently unstable situation is bound to implicate both Germany and Russia. Indeed, in a recent interview with a German newspaper, Mr Kozyrev hinted heavily that Moscow was considering precisely such a tie with Bonn with a view to handling Eastern Europe's future problems. Germany has not yet been tempted by such an offer, but if Nato cannot expand, the pressures on Bonn will grow. Dreams about a Russian-German axis are Europe's way to perdition.

The West tends to assume that if Russia turns nasty, it will be able to reverse policies forthwith and include Eastern Europe in its security structures. But if the argument against the expansion of Nato is its potential to annoy Russia, this surely will be more compelling if Moscow becomes more assertive. And, given that the West has ignored all the current threats from Moscow - the refusal to withdraw from other republics, the unilateral cancellation of proposed military cuts and the admonitions to Eastern Europe - at what point does it decide that Russia has turned 'nasty' enough to warrant a response?

A policy based on the belief that nothing should be done to rattle Russia can lead only to appeasement: in political terms, the time to confront an aggressive Russia will come only when more of the independent countries fall into Moscow's sphere of influence. But it is the awareness of this that fuels instability in Eastern Europe. Instead of offering the media more photo-opportunities in Moscow, Bill Clinton would be well advised to take Douglas Hurd and other Western ministers on a cruise down the Vistula.

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

(Photograph omitted)