MOSCOW -- Western experts warn that Russia is among the countries that have done the least to prepare for the Y2K computer bug, but many Russians are decidedly nonchalant about the potential implications: severe failures in vital services.

"We will pass quietly through 2000 just like we have every other year," says Ilya Klebanov, Russia's deputy prime minister in charge of defense. "I think it's best not to scare the little children of Russia."No one really knows exactly what Y2K glitches -- the result of unfixed older computers and embedded circuits mistaking 2000 for 1900 and going haywire -- might do in this vast nation of 148 million people spread across 11 time zones.

At their worst, computer failures could plunge Russian cities into icy darkness while in the grip of bone-chilling winter, cutting off heat and power to millions.

Foreign analysts are reasonably certain that chances of a nuclear disaster are remote. But they are especially concerned about utilities, including the possible cut off of natural gas supplies to much of Europe.

The U.S. State Department is worried enough about former Soviet states that it is giving nonessential embassy employees in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus a free trip out over the New Year's holiday if they want. It has also warned Americans to reconsider traveling to those countries.

"Prolonged disruptions in energy supplies in Russia could put other systems dependent on electrical power at risk," the State

Department said. "In practical terms, this could mean disruption of basic human services such as heat, water, telephone and other vital services."

The U.S. Embassy plans to set up letterboxes in Moscow hotels and offices to help foreign citizens keep in touch with each other if Y2K problems should knock out communications systems, an American diplomat said in mid-November.

Nadezhda Senna, a member of a private Y2K awareness group, said Russia is not ready to deal with computer problems. "Our people haven't prepared for this at all," she said. "They need to know what could happen on that day, what's possible -- electricity and heat going out, not in one house or region, but a massive outage."

Even so, Senna and others agree the threat probably isn't as bad as some Westerners fear -- nor as small as Russia's government says.

Russians are used to living with disaster. In recent years alone, they've watched their society crumble amid unending political and economic crisis. And many take a typically Russian philosophical attitude toward the Y2K bug.

Still, Russia has worked with the West to make sure no problems occur with its nuclear weapons arsenals and nuclear power plants. Russian officials will camp out at a command center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado to head off any potential confusion.

While Western officials admit chances are slightly higher that Russian nuclear reactors could go awry, they say the government has mostly cornered the problem.

At the top of Russia's potential Y2K problems are Gazprom, the world's largest natural gas producer, which sells Europe about a third of its gas, and United Energy Systems, Russia's electricity monopoly.

Natural gas suppliers in Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland -- all of which buy gas from Gazprom -- say they have received assurances from the company that supplies will not be interrupted. They will keep extra gas reserves just in case.

"Our impression is that Gazprom is very well prepared for the year 2000," said Astrid Zimmerman, a spokeswoman at Germany's Ruhrgas.

Although the company doesn't detail its revenues, Gazprom's European sales are estimated at more than two-thirds of revenues, which were $6.6 billion in 1998.

Gazprom and United Energy have been working on the Y2K problem for far longer than the Russian government, since at least 1996, they say. "Overall readiness of automated systems at Gazprom is 96 percent," said Olga Moreva, a Gazprom spokeswoman.

But there are signs Gazprom and United Energy may not be ready.

Moreva acknowledged that Gazprom has 9,000 "problem" computers among 28,000 that could critically affects its computerized systems. She said 5,500 of those computers would be replaced and the rest modified by year's end.

In a press release, Gazprom said the most serious Y2K threat was in computers handling "information management." Moreva refused to detail those computers' function, saying only that they would be replaced on time.

At United Energy, which said it has spent $8 million on Y2K fixes since 1997, the huge electricity grid will be switched to manual control on Dec. 31, though what "manual control" is, no one exactly knows.

A Y2K expert at the company conceded problems were almost unavoidable.

"Obviously, no matter how much money is allotted, there won't be enough to prevent all kinds of failures in the work of UES," said Viktor Grunenkov.

Many systems connected to United Energy and Gazprom are so shoddy already that electricity and power outages are not uncommon outside Russia's major cities. Poor-quality phone lines are often the norm.

"Infrastructure in some areas isn't at all what it is in the United State or western Europe -- there's a certain level of expectation of unreliability," said Dale Vecchio, a research director at the U.S. technology consultants Gartner Group, which advises countries on dealing with the Y2K bug.

Vecchio said that in countries where Y2K awareness came late, governments have tended to exaggerate their level of readiness. "Russia is certainly in that category," he said.

The Moscow government claims it has almost fully dealt with the bug, though it has been more focused on severe economic troubles and the war in Chechnya.

Another major concern is small- and medium-size businesses, which analysts say have treated the Y2K glitch so nonchalantly it would send techies on the other side of the Atlantic into a frenzy.

"They generally feel that it will be all right and things will be worked out by themselves," said Steve O'Sullivan, head of research with the United Financial Group investment bank.