The major carriers in the Russian market - Sea-Land, Maersk and P&O Nedlloyd - are telling exporters and shippers in the United States not to exaggerate the risks their cargoes face in Russia, but generally agree that proper security measures have to be enforced to take away the opportunity for stealing goods.

''It isn't as hostile as has been portrayed,'' says John Ward, international sales manager for Russia and the Baltic states for P&O Nedlloyd. He reports a steady increase in security and a decrease in cargo losses, since his company started close tracking of containers as they cross Russian borders. P&O Nedlloyd now operates a round-the-clock shift of monitors who escort the containers through border clearance.

''As a result of this procedure, petty pilferage and extortion is on the decline,'' Mr Ward says. ''We know where the containers are at all times.''

He said P&O Nedlloyd has had only two cases of truck hijacking within the past few years - one in early 1996 on the transit corridor through Belarus, and one a year ago just outside Moscow. In both incidents, truck drivers were forced at gunpoint to give up heir cargoes.

''If customers require it, we can provide armed guards,'' Mr Ward says, ''but the incidence is so small, and the cost is high, most customers decline to pay.'' One guard armed with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle will cost the shipper $600 per day.


Vladimir Denisenko, a Moscow manager for Allied Van Lines, says his firm has had only one case of attempted hijacking, and that tighter security procedures for truck drivers and company monitors at customs clearance points have helped reduce risk.

Two years ago, said Mr. Denisenko, ''a gang with false documents, claiming to be from our company, intercepted the driver as he approached Moscow customs. The driver believed them, but Allied Van Lines personnel showed up just in time to stop the attempt.''

''If the drivers follow the security procedures, then the cargo is pretty secure,'' Mr. Denisenko claims.

The most commonly targeted cargoes in Russia, industry experts say, are imported electronics and alcohol.

The Russian trucking association, ASMAP, has proposed changes to tighten supervision of these cargoes, cut down on interception and stop document fraud. The Russian association currently claims 1,000 members, roughly half the number of domestic truckers operating at present.


Yegor Vishnevsky of Ingosstrakh, Russia's largest cargo insurer, said ''in our investigations, we found insiders at the import companies tipped gangs off, and gave them false documentation, so that drivers could be fooled into unloading consumer goods at the wrong destination.''

To help cope with organized larceny and fraud, Ingosstrakh, has built an investigations division that is known for its toughness. ''We have a reputation on the market,'' Mr. Vishnevsky warned. ''It's dangerous to try to defraud us.''

The company is also careful about accepting clients it doesn't know well, and even with them, it insists shippers implement special safeguard measures in contracts.

Proper documentation is also helping to stop fraudulent claims for insurance on cargoes that are reported stolen, but actually never existed.

Asked to advise foreign shippers on cargo security in Russia, Vasily Fedoschenko, deputy head of the Criminal Investigation Department at the Ministry of Interior, said that last year attacks on foreign trucks and drivers fell 200 percent, compared with 1996.

He said that only 50 attacks were reported, and each was followed by notes of protest from the foreign embassies representing the freight forwarding firms. The embassies warned the Police Ministry that their companies would refuse to transport goods to Russia unless security improved.


Mr. Fedoschenko claimed that the Russian traffic police ''managed to restore relative order on the roads about a year and a half ago.'' He added that ''if the drivers have problems, it's due to their own fault.''

While hijacking of road-borne cargo is declining, Mr. Fedoschenko conceded that theft using fraudulent documentation has increased. He confirmed there have been cases when truck drivers, both Russian and foreign, collaborate in the fraud, and then claim they were robbed. Greater vigilance by companies and tough investigative measures by insurers are the antidote to this, Mr. Vishnevsky of Ingosstrakh argues.

According to Victor Robilko, head of security at Soyuztransavto, one of the leading Russian freight carriers, ''It's too early to talk about improvements in security on the roads.''

He said his company has a countermeasures program for truck drivers, asking them to pay more attention to how and where they park the cars (paid parking lots are recommended), how and where they sleep. Driving in convoys with not less than two or three trucks is recommended. Soyuztransavto will shortly install radio communication for its drivers, though this measure is too costly for many domestic Russian trucking companies.