MOSCOW — RUSSIAN paratroopers and armored cars now patrol the streets and valleys of two regions of the Caucasus nation of Georgia, enforcing a shaky peace between the Georgian Army and rebel separatists. To the west, in Moldova, the Russian 14th Army patrols the banks of a river separating the Moldovan Army from the gun-toting militia of the Trans-Dniester region, which is populated by Russians and Ukrainians.
In Central Asia, Russian troops battle Tajik guerrillas from neighboring Afghanistan who are trying to cross the border to aide their Islamic brethren in a deepening civil war in Tajikistan.
With a mixture of diplomacy and force, the Russian government of President Boris Yeltsin has emerged in a new role among the many states of what once constituted the Soviet Union - as a peacekeeper. Russian-mediated cease-fires have brought a temporary peace to Georgia's battles with its Ossetian and Abkhazian minorities, as well as in Moldova.
But the idea of Russia as a peacekeeper is hard for many to swallow, coming so soon after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Many are suspicious of Russia as a "neutral" force, fearful that its peacekeeping is an attempt to reassume an old Russian role - that of an imperial arbiter of the fate of the many nationalities that lie along and even within its vast borders.
But Russian officials insist they are only doing what the world wants them to do - preventing the disintegration of the Soviet Union from leading to an endless and dangerous chain of ethnic conflicts similar to those taking place in Yugoslavia.
"Our new neighbors in the independent states of the former Soviet Union belong to our sphere of responsibility," says Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Fyodor Shelov-Kovedayev, the senior official in charge of relations with the former Soviet states.
"The fact is - and this is no secret - following the disintegration of the Soviet Union many countries of the world feared that this would destabilize the situation on its territory," he said in a Monitor interview. "In some measure, this is what actually happened, especially if we talk about our immediate neighbors. In order to prevent this destabilizing situation from escalating into a catastrophe, we must face this responsibility."
The Russian official contends that mediation efforts are not an attempt to interfere in internal conflicts. Moreover the use of military force is a last resort, with diplomacy and political negotiation taking priority, he says.
But critics warn that the Russian Army increasingly acts on its own in such conflicts, often under the influence of the growing radical nationalist movement in Russia.
"I am very much concerned by the Army's participation in all these conflicts as an independent political force," says human rights activist Yelena Bonner, widow of dissident Andrei Sakharov. "I am deeply convinced that peacekeeping forces cannot be peacekeepers for they will inevitably be forced to join either this or that warring side."
Ms. Bonner points as an example to the role of the 14th Army in Trans-Dniester, where there was widespread evidence that the Army actively supported the Russian separatists against the Moldovan government at an earlier stage in the fighting there. She also charges that the Army has escalated conflicts by distributing the weapons of former Soviet forces based in those republics, as they have done in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Russian policy toward these conflicts is unclear, Bonner says, accusing President Yeltsin of failing to support consistently the right of ethnic minorities to self-determination. This is a difficult issue for Russia itself, which has within its borders some 20 national entities as part of the broader Russian federation.
Russian officials say they are ready to act as peacekeepers in concert with international organizations or with other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose confederation that groups 11 of the 15 former Soviet republics. But an agreement to create a commonwealth peacekeeping force has yet to come into practical effect.
"Following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, Russia is the only state that has a smoothly running military structure," says Mr. Shelov-Kovedayev. "Therefore, whenever there are conflicts, the only place to look to is Russia."
That is precisely what has happened following the recent turmoil in Tajikistan, where a months-long battle led last week to the ouster of the elected president by a coalition of forces led by an Islamic political movement. Neighboring Central Asian states, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, fearful of the spread of turmoil across their borders, immediately called for Russian help. They particularly express concern about the flow of arms and narcotics across the Afghan-Tajik border.
The three Central Asian states and Russia issued a joint statement on Sept. 4 warning that "the southern borders of the commonwealth must not be violated and that the escalation of the civil war in the republic, which is threatening the security of our nations and upsetting political stability in the region, must not be permitted."
Russian troops who still patrol the Tajik-Afghan border were reinforced last week by units sent from Russia and the Central Asian neighbors. But the Russian official pledges that the troops will play no role in internal peacekeeping unless all parties to the conflict request it. "We must make sure that we do not take any impulsive action so that we avoid any exacerbation of the situation in Tajikistan," says Shelov-Kovedayev.