For decades Soviet diplomats objected when their country was called "Russia," which is only one, even if it is the largest, of the 15 republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Today those times are remembered in the Kremlin with nostalgia.

Suddenly Russia is beginning to speak with its own voice. So too are the Ukraine, the second largest republic, the Baltic states and the other parts of what was the "evil empire."This is obviously annoying to those who are used to speaking with one voice in the name of a unitary superpower.

Somewhat surprisingly, it also seems to upset many people in Washington who learned how to deal with "the center" and want to continue to do so. They see the new independence of the republics as an unwelcome side effect of the end of the Cold War.

The assertion of Russia's identity is no sinister plot against Soviet stability. Last spring this republic of 150 million people, richest of all the republics but reduced to abject poverty within the existing union, held its first contested elections.

A legitimately elected multiparty Russian Parliament chose Boris Yeltsin as its leader and issued a proclamation of sovereignty, stating its commitment to a democratic, law-abiding government within a newly reconstructed union.

The most important thing is to avoid territorial conflicts between republics, keep the borders open and guarantee the political and civil rights of all the different nationalities and ethnic groups.

Building a foreign policy based on equal relations between Russia and other countries outside of the Soviet Union will not be easy either. The final form will depend on the union treaty concluded with the republics that choose to sign the treaty.

But it is already obvious that the republics will not delegate all foreign policy matters to the "central" Foreign Ministry of the Soviet Union. Doing so will only jeopardize the stability of international relations and agreements.

Put bluntly, the sovereign republics will not take responsibility for actions taken without their participation and consent.

The Russian Republic bears the lion's share of Soviet military spending. While maintaining strong and modern armed forces, it will hardly want to continue a pointless arms race just so it can be called a global superpower.

Nor will it want to provide military assistance to its former ideological allies abroad.

It is far more important that Russia devote its resources to improving living standards and the quality of the environment. Much more important is to provide decent living conditions on Russian soil for its soldiers and officers, including those returning from abroad.

Since the Ukraine, Byelorussia and several other republics now want to be non-nuclear and neutral, it is only logical to assume that the armed forces - and, within the very near future, all nuclear weapons - will be in Russia proper.

It is impossible to be too careful when it comes to controlling nuclear weapons in regions of potential instability or to risk 15 nuclear weapons states taking the place of one. Nuclear forces must be kept within a strictly defined territory and jurisdiction and under a single central command.

Just as virtually no one could have foretold a year ago that a united Germany would be a reality today, no one can tell for sure what kind of country the Soviet Union will be in a few years.

But Russia assuredly has assumed its place on the political map and is a factor to be reckoned with.