10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 15


Mark Webster on the implications of the first

Balkan crisis since Mr Primakov became Prime Minister

Moscow THERE they were, all beaming smiles and bonhomie, the new Russian foreign minis- ter Igor Ivanov and the Serb leader Slobo- dan Milosevic for last-ditch talks in Belgrade. In a week which has brought the chance of Nato air strikes in Kosovo much closer, Russia was anxious to show it can still strut the international stage with the best of them. And Moscow was genuinely anxious to stop raids in an area it considers its own backyard — raids which would force it to take some retaliatory action.

Given the collapse of the Russian econ- omy, it might be tempting for Western planners to conclude that they can ride roughshod over Moscow's sensitivity about Kosovo. The gamble would, naturally enough, be that, preoccupied with its own internal problems, Moscow could do no more than bleat in the face of Nato bomb- ing raids. But from here that looks like a fundamental miscalculation with potential- ly appalling consequences.

It is that explosive mix of profound domestic unrest, a sick and largely side- lined President and a demoralised, often unpaid military which makes the option of ignoring Russia so dangerous. After all, just because someone in the street is hav- ing trouble paying the mortgage, you wouldn't kick them out of the Neighbour- hood Watch scheme, especially if they had a hotline to some of the area's most vicious criminals.

Nato must realise that angering and alienating Moscow at such a crucial junc- ture would put paid to the fragile interna- 'Would you like to sit on the right or the far right?' tional consensus which has been estab- lished since 1991. Still smarting from los- ing the Cold War, Russians also feel betrayed because their efforts to co-oper- ate in establishing a new world order have received scant return. Moscow hasn't used its veto on the United Nations Security Council throughout the Nineties, it has worked towards eliminating nuclear arse- nals and it has accepted the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact.

In return, the former superpower has found itself largely sidelined over decisions emanating from Washington and brokered by the Americans with some help from their Western allies. President Yeltsin expressed his fury that he hadn't been con- sulted at all over the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan. And even though his then spokesman tried to put some gloss on it later, the chances are that Mr Yeltsin's out- burst was a clear case of 'in vodka veritas'.

Now, therefore, there is an overwhelm- ing case for getting Russia to use as much leverage as possible on its old friends the Serbs, at the same time making it plain that it is not simply being co-opted into carrying out American policy. Russian efforts in June did wring some concessions from Mr Milosevic, though in the end they were not enough to meet the West's conditions. Russia and Serbia remain close. It is not just the long historical ties of pan-Slavism which link Moscow and Belgrade. Russia recently offered a £100 million line of cred- it to what's left of Yugoslavia. And at a time when its weapons sales have collapsed as ex-Warsaw Pact countries turn to the West for their weaponry, Belgrade has also expressed an interest in buying the latest Russian hardware.

It is also frighteningly clear from the aggressive noises coming from the Russian parliament, newly strengthened by its suc- cessful fight with President Yeltsin, that the Russians are getting sick of being pushed around, whether by the IMF or Nato. A strong stand on an issue which pits Russia and its Slavic brothers against the perfidi- ous and bullying Anglo-Saxons might be just the tonic a desperate government would go for.

That is borne out by the character of Russia's new Prime Minister, Yevgeny Pri- makov. A Soviet-era survivor and former spy chief, he earned his spurs as foreign minister by taking a stand against Nato expansion. Russians loved it and felt he would continue to fight the prospect of encirclement — a theme which has domi- nated Russian foreign policy for more than a century. There's also the ticklish problem of the legality of air strikes when there is no UN mandate. Russia ended up playing a constructive part in the post-Dayton set- tlement for Bosnia (even though it was bounced into that one too by Washington), but this is a different matter since, unlike Bosnia, Kosovo has never been recognised as a state and is still part of Yugoslavia. Russia has already said that bombing Kosovo would be a 'blatant breach' of the UN charter.

Western concern about recent massacres in Kosovo doesn't cut much ice here either. In a country which numbers its own massacres in hundreds, if not thousands, of victims, there is little sympathy for the plight of the ethnic Albanians. And there is a widespread conviction that, even with the active endorsement of Britain, this is in fact just another chapter in the Revenge of Monica's Dress, with America using an attack of global compassion to mask Presi- dent Clinton's domestic embarrassment.

In the end it will come down to what Russia would or could actually do in the event of bombing raids on Serb targets. Initially, military sources have already said, the country would pull out of the Russia- Nato Founding Act and stop all joint military manoeuvres aimed at confidence- building. Parliament is already making heavy weather over ratification of the Start II nuclear disarmament agreement, so it too would be a victim. Western leaders might consider that a price worth paying for giving the Serbs a bloody nose.

In the longer term, the consequences could be a great deal more serious. The main diplomatic casualty of raids would be a cooling of the relations between East and West at a time when Russia is in eco- nomic turmoil. Increasingly, Russians are listening to those like the communists who argue that the country has got nothing for its seven years of reform and constructive engagement with the West. It's time, they argue, to go forward to the past.

For a leadership running out of solu- tions and excuses for the pitiful state of Russia today, that could only benefit mili- tary hawks and the international arms industry. Why not give Russia a break and at least rename its arch-enemy, Nato? Maybe a Treaty Regulating Order, Under- standing and Guiding Humanity? With an organisation like Trough, Russia could hardly resist getting its snout in.

The author is Moscow correspondent for ITN.