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Soviet Foreign Policy Now Divided by 12 : Transformation: Republics pursue their own agendas, with Russia dominant.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barely one month ago, a 40-year-old Russian with a shy, boyish smile was ushered quietly into the Washington offices of Secretary of State James A. Baker III for a deliberately low-key meeting.

The visitor was Andrei V. Kozyrev, foreign minister of the Russian Federation, largest of the 15 republics that then constituted the Soviet Union. Baker worried that if he embraced Kozyrev too warmly, he might offend the man he felt pulled the real foreign policy strings in Moscow--Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh.

How times have changed.

Bessmertnykh is out, fired in the wake of last month’s failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The Soviet Union’s decades-old system of highly centralized power is crumbling. And men such as Kozyrev are in the ascendancy as the conduct of foreign affairs flows to the union’s constituent republics.

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Imagine the U.S. government yielding its role in foreign affairs to the likes of California and New York and Florida--that is roughly equivalent to what is happening in the Soviet Union.

By virtue of its size, Russia’s place in the new pantheon is paramount. That was evident in Baker’s hourlong meeting with Kozyrev in Moscow on Thursday--a meeting that this time drew plentiful press attention.

That session followed Baker’s three-hour meeting a day earlier with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, during which they discussed such global issues as the Middle East, Afghanistan and nuclear weapons control.

Symbolic of the Russian Federation’s new foreign policy ambitions, Kozyrev has raided the Soviet Foreign Ministry for bright, young talent and moved his ministry out of its cramped quarters in the Russian government offices to a sprawling five-story office building in central Moscow.

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As one more sign of how great are the changes sweeping the Soviet Union, the tenants he booted out were none other than the international department of the Soviet Communist Party.

The central Soviet government is likely to remain a player in international affairs, especially if it manages to keep control over the nation’s massive nuclear arsenal.

But with the three Baltic states already independent and eight of the union’s remaining 12 republics having unilaterally declared their freedom from central control, the flow of power outward from the center is likely to continue, with the republics pursuing narrower, more disparate interests.

“The bulk of foreign policy will go to the republics,” predicted Sergei M. Plekhanov, deputy director of the U.S.A. Institute. “They will be in the United Nations, have embassies and sign treaties.”

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Added Boris Pyadyshev, editor of the authoritative Soviet monthly International Affairs, “My impression now is that the central Foreign Ministry cannot remain in its present form (because) it’s huge. It will deal with common interests and maintain links between the republics.”

Other nations are taking notice.

After a series of meetings with Russian and Soviet leaders last week, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and his German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, both underscored their desire to forge close working relationships with individual republics.

And Baker, in addition to visiting Moscow and the three Baltic capitals, flies today for the first time to Alma Ata, capital of the sprawling Asian republic of Kazakhstan.

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For the United States and especially for Europe, the implications of the devolution of power to the Soviet republics are considerable.

For example, Yeltsin’s Russia is likely to supplant the old Soviet Union as the region’s most powerful voice, pushing its own, narrower list of priorities.

With more than three-quarters of the old Soviet Union’s land, 51% of its population and a history of nearly a millennium of imperial power, Russia’s dominance among the republics is a foregone conclusion and its challenge to central rule a reality.

On the decades-old dispute with Japan over four of the Kuril Islands, for example, it is Russia, not the Soviet government, that now speaks from Moscow.

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The dispute over the islands occupied by Soviet forces in the fading days of World War II has blocked billions of dollars in potential Japanese aid for the Soviet Union, as well as a formal end to World War II hostilities between the two countries.

Analysts believe Russia is likely to work closely with the central government on wider issues such as arms control and the search for a Middle East peace settlement. However, it would be an unlikely partner in global affairs as once envisioned by President Bush and Gorbachev.

Instead, these sources believe Russia will be forced to focus on problems closer to its own borders--a deepening economic crisis and the traumas that accompany the wrenching adjustment of losing access to vast holdings.

“What we are watching is not just the end of a 70-year-old union but a centuries-old empire,” noted Plekhanov.

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Amid the debris of this empire, Russia is desperate for the finance, the technology, the free markets and the democratic values of Western Europe and the United States.

“Gorbachev’s idea of a ‘common European home’ is vague, but there is a need to invite Europe into Russia, much as Peter the Great once did,” said Sergei Karagonov, deputy director of the Institute for Europe.

Many expect the Baltic states to act as a valuable bridge. They are geographically well-placed, technically advanced enough to re-establish historic links with Scandinavia and Germany, but not strong enough economically to turn completely away from Russia and the less-demanding Eastern markets.

For Russia, the loss of empire will be a far more difficult adjustment than it was for Britain or France. Unlike the far-flung French and British conquests, which were driven by confidence and the desire for political power and economic expansion, the czars saw their imperial possessions mainly as a protective barrier against a threatening world that had repeatedly moved against the motherland.

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Russia has already lost the protective buffer of the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellite countries and its Baltic republics. Now its immediate neighbors on the west, the Ukraine and Byelorussia, are pursuing independence.

Diplomats and Russian political analysts believe a key priority will be stabilizing a new buffer that includes at least Byelorussia and the Ukraine as a kind of Slavic protective alliance.

These observers interpret a recent comment by Yeltsin’s spokesman, Pavel Voshchanov, reserving the right to challenge the borders of any republic that secedes from the union, more as a reflection of age-old Russian insecurity than as a deliberate statement of policy.

“It was instinctive, an expression of the belief that Russian is not just Russian but also something around it,” commented a seasoned European diplomat. “The sense of imperial attitude dies pretty hard.”

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There is another important factor that is expected to keep Russian foreign policy focused on its former empire: the 37 million ethnic Russians living in the Soviet Union outside the Russian Federation’s borders.

The prospect that the majority of these will suddenly become unprotected minorities in foreign countries has generated a complete reversal in Soviet human rights policy, turning Moscow into a cheerleader for tough measures to guard the rights of minorities.

One of Russia’s preoccupations is likely to be the Ukraine, which will be Europe’s fifth-most-populous nation if its independence is confirmed as expected in a Dec. 1 referendum.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk declared that the Ukraine would be politically nonaligned, militarily neutral and non-nuclear. He has already won preliminary positive responses from Germany and Britain for direct economic assistance.

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The Ukraine’s new foreign minister, Anatoly Zlenko, said the Ukraine would probably forge separate accords with Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland and seek aid from Canada, the United States and Australia, where many of the 5 million people of a Ukrainian diaspora reside.

Some analysts wonder whether the Ukraine will rethink its call for the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear missiles from its soil.

“Those statements were made in the euphoria of the independence declaration,” noted one Western diplomat. “They may have second thoughts about living next to a nuclear Russia with border claims.”

While the quality of many of those in charge of foreign policy in the newly independent Soviet republics remains largely untested, initial signs warrant optimism.

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Foreign Minister Kozyrev of Russia, for example, was one of several talented young diplomats picked out of the bureaucracy by former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and marked for accelerated advancement. He jumped to the Russian Federation, becoming foreign minister last October, and rallied to Yeltsin’s side in the earliest hours of the failed coup.


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