WE ARE blase when it comes to our borders. Blessed with two generally friendly nations as neighbors and protected by two oceans, we have been conditioned to shrug off intrusions into our country.

From its inception, the Soviet state has been surrounded by a dozen nations of varying degrees of hostility, fearful of communism and willing to contribute to its downfall. Soviet borders for years were poorly marked, poorly guarded, and frequently violated. If caught, violators were severely punished. Soviet citizens attempting to escape were treated as traitors to the Motherland. Those who entered were presumed to be spies and saboteurs. Who else, in his right mind, would try to come surreptitiously into the Soviet Union?

Stalin may have been a paranoid, but it was also true that the Germans had collected enough intelligence data -- much of it by aerial photography -- to be able to destroy half the Soviet air force in the first day of the German invasion of Russia. Their ultimate victory turned Russians into patriots and gave them a sense of power, but it could not erase the memory of the enemy hordes at the gates of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. "Never again" has become the motto of the Soviet military establishment. Guarding the borders has become a much-glorified task of the much-pampered elite forces of the Soviet state.

The Cold War made this task difficult. By the late 1940s, the United States was supporting all kinds of anti-Soviet causes. Among other projects, it parachuted into Russia hundreds of anticommunists recruited in refugee camps in Germany and Austria, to provide early warning of the then-expected Red Army attack on Western Europe.

American air reconnaissance of Soviet territory was routine, at least until the hapless Francis Gary Powers was shot down with his U-2 plane on May Day 1960. All the while, reluctant to admit that they lacked the means to stop this humiliating penetration of their air space by enemy aircraft, the Soviets seethed with impotent fury.

The border with China became a major concern in the 1960s. Border violations, following an action-reaction cycle, numbered in the thousands. In 1962 alone, over 50,000 people crossed into the Soviet Union from Sinkiang, apparently prodded by the Chinese, manifesting again the vulnerability of the Soviet border and creating a first-rate internal security headache for the KGB. It took massive reinforcements of the border guard and deployment of a huge army menacing China before Moscow could consider the border safe -- and then only after a bloody shootout in the Damansky Island incident in March 1969.

The enormous military buildup in later years and the expansion of Soviet power and international influence have not reduced the obsession with the physical security of their country or their determination to assert sovereignty over every square foot of their territory. To the Soviets, the ability to defend their country against all enemies, to defend it in the most direct sense, is the first test of power, superseding all other considerations.

To prove that they mean it, they feel compelled to establish the credibility of their determination; otherwise their assorted enemies will be encouraged to test their "sacred and inviolable borders," to search for weak spots in Soviet defense in preparation for future wars.

Like us, the Soviets seek to project their power to foreign lands. Unlike us, their concept of national security allows for no compromise in the question of total security of the border. Being called "evil," "ruthless," or "paranoid" only proves to the Soviets that they are hated, the more reason to redouble their vigilance.