The danger from Russia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 April, 1999, 12:00am

A DECADE ago, the news that the president in the Kremlin had ordered nuclear missiles to be re-targeted against Nato countries involved in the bombing of Yugoslavia and had spoken of the danger of a World War III would have set major alarm bells ringing round the world. Now the noises from Russia, particularly when the targeting news was 'clarified', are seen as just another sign of how the one-time superpower is stumbling through the shadows of its own decline.

Clearly, Russia would like to play a role in settling the Yugoslav crisis. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who dramatically turned back from a visit to the US when the bombing started, has been trying to translate his country's friendship with Belgrade into a peace formula. But his initiative seems to be going nowhere while the unpredictable rumblings from President Boris Yeltsin only contribute to the image of his nation as a sick power.

So erratic has Mr Yeltsin's behaviour become that nobody can welcome him as a serious player on the world scene. His government's concern is with getting Western money to avoid fresh economic collapse. However beguiling Mr Primakov may find it to launch diplomatic initiatives, that finding is far more important than any link with President Slobodan Milosevic.

That said, it is dangerous to exclude Moscow completely from the picture if only because Russia is both unstable and a considerable nuclear power. Relations with the Kremlin are at such a low ebb that the West can exert less and less influence to help keep Russia on a democratic, open path rather than seeing it retreat into defiant nationalism. If the economy and the authority of Mr Yeltsin's government both continue to deteriorate at the rate seen in the past few years, the danger must be that some of their countrymen may, in fact, come to play a positively dangerous role in a drawn-out Yugoslav conflict.

This would not be in the shape of Mr Primakov's attempts at peace-making, but rather in the form of ultra-nationalists in Russia lining up to help the Serbs. With access to military arsenals, they could help Belgrade with arms, fuel, vehicles and other supplies. Given the kind of weaponry still available in Russia, that would open up a frightening dimension to the conflict - and provides a very serious reason why the West should not rejoice too much at the humbling and fumbling of Mr Yeltsin.


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The danger from Russia

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