Russia Reasserts Itself As a Regional Power

By doling out peacekeepers and fuel to former Soviet republics, Moscow retakes its dominant role

RUSSIA is flexing its muscles to rebuild a new sphere of influence on the rubble of the collapsed Soviet Union.

A broad discussion within and outside the government in recent months is leading to a new policy of more aggressively pursuing Russia's interests, both economic and military, among the former Soviet republics, Russian officials and analysts say.

The recent Russian threat to cut off energy supplies to Ukraine unless that former Soviet republic agrees to sell Russia its share of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet and nuclear weapons is seen as only one sign of that policy shift. The pattern also includes the formation on Sept. 7 of a new ``ruble zone'' in which five former Soviet republics agreed to let Russia essentially determine their basic economic policies.

``The area of the former Soviet Union is definitely an area of vital interest to Russia,'' says former Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, head of the Foreign Policy Association. ``Russia,'' he explains, ``is the most powerful nation of this area, is the richest nation of this area, and is the nation that can help more than anyone else.''

But Mr. Bessmertnykh and other Russian policymakers vigorously deny any intention to restore imperial domination. They say that economic necessity and common security concerns are driving the former Soviet republics together.

``Russia's interest is to foster the ties which are needed for the Russian economy,'' says Alexander Golts, columnist for the Russian Army daily Red Star. ``No one in Russia, except our ultranationalists, is dreaming about the old Soviet Union, the old Empire.''

Russia's ambassador to the United States, Vladimir Lukin, in a Sept. 3 article in the Segodnya newspaper, compares Russia's relationship with the former Soviet republics to that of the United States with Latin America. He defines this as ``a rather clear-cut system of mutual obligations between the big state and its smaller neighbors which get security guarantees in exchange for the recognition of the `big neighbor special interests and influence, proportionate to its geographical proximity, [and] strategic and economic weight.'' Russia's `Near Abroad'

From the moment the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, Russian policymakers separated the former republics from all other nations by referring to them as the ``Near Abroad.'' While desiring political independence, Russia and most other Soviet republics recognized that their economies were highly interdependent.

The formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which initially included 11 of the 15 former republics, was an attempt to respond to this need. But the CIS has been largely ineffectual. Now Russians argue that a cause of the economic collapse experienced by all former republics lies in the breaking of old trade and supply links. They blame Ukraine's economic woes, which are notably worse than those of Russia, on the disruption of ties to Russia, worsened by the decision to introduce a national currency.

Despite its own troubles, Russia still has economic weight, not least because it continues to issue the currency used by most former Soviet republics and because it is the primary energy supplier. Russian President Boris Yeltsin boldly used the latter to extract concessions from Ukraine, which agreed in principle to sell its share of the Black Sea Fleet and transfer its nuclear warheads to Russia, in exchange for oil, gas, and uranium fuel.

In the newly formed ruble zone, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Tajikistan are to coordinate their financial, budget, monetary, and customs policies with the Russian Central Bank, which acts as the only source of currency emission and control. A broader economic union is slated to be formed at a CIS meeting on Sept. 24 in Moscow. It envisions removal of customs and other barriers to the movement of capital, goods, and people.

In undisguised triumph, Mr. Yeltsin's chief spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, referred to the ``veritable parade'' of visiting leaders of former Soviet republics to Moscow. ``All that's needed is to uproot a few prickly nationalist weeds and the road will be clear for a `new deal' that will define the geopolitical contours and strategic parameters of a new commonwealth,'' he wrote in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda on Sept. 10.

Such talk worries some Russians who warn about stirring nationalist emotions by being too heavy-handed in pursuit of reintegration. ``We should be more attentive to the nuances of the situation in Ukraine,'' Bessmertnykh says. He argues against trying to go beyond economic cooperation in search of restored military ties. Military union

But that is already on the minds of Russian officials. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev talked after the Ukraine-Russia summit on Sept. 3 about moving to form a ``military union,'' remarks which drew the ire of Ukrainian officials.

The Russian military remains deployed in almost all former Soviet republics as a legacy of the earlier era. Russian troops continue to patrol the borders with Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran in the south, and are actively engaged in border battles with Islamic guerrillas in Tajikistan.

Short of union, the Russian military is now trying to reformalize its presence through a network of agreements to keep its troops in these republics. Red Star's Mr. Golts, citing the deal with Ukraine to lease the Sevastopol naval base as well as recent talks with Georgia and Armenia about stationing troops in those Caucasian republics, compares this to US bases in the Philippines, where money was paid for long-term rent of the base facilities.

Russian officials also assert their primacy as a peacekeeper in resolving the conflicts that have arisen among and within former Soviet republics. Russia is now poised, for example, to be the prime mediator of a ceasefire and peace talks between the warring Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the Caucasus. Bowing to Moscow as the only force capable of ending the war, former Azeri communist leader Gaidar Aliyev moved quickly after his recent return to power to reverse the decision of the previous nationalist government to leave the CIS.

Russian policymakers react negatively to reports of a new US policy to intervene in solving conflicts within the former Soviet Union, particularly if it would involve military forces. But they have agreed to an international peacekeeping presence, such as the agreement to dispatch United Nations observers to help enforce a Russian-mediated ceasefire in the Georgian civil war.

Russia has no basic quarrel with the West on this, Ambassador Lukin argues. ``The main thing we need today from the West is recognition of our lawful interests in the Near Abroad and the removal of obstacles to Russia's equal partnership in world trade and economic cooperation,'' he says.

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