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Spot the difference between Yeltsin and Milosevic

'Where have all the liberal bombers gone? And where is the clamour for action?'
THE NEXT time Boris Yeltsin is asked why he's bombing Chechnya, he should answer: "I've no idea, but it's a bloody good way of confusing everyone who supported the bombing of Serbia."

For example, it's bamboozled the Clinton aide who was asked on Newsnight, why Yeltsin's atrocities were different to those of Milosevic. His answer was that the Russian government was "rational", whereas the Serbs' had been "irrational". So if you want to wipe out a region without incurring the wrath of Nato, divide the area you're attacking into a neat grid, and destroy one square at a time. And make sure your generals are rational. George Robertson might set them one of those tests, where you lay out 15 matchsticks, and it says "now remove three to leave four". If they can't do it in 10 minutes, they get a cruise missile on their television centre. The other difference, he went on to explain, was that the Russians were dealing with "terrorists". But every ruler who starts a war claims it's a response to terrorists. Even irrational rulers don't announce that they're invading somewhere because they've woken up in one of those foul moods and nothing's gone right all morning. By that system, the only wars you could condemn would be those started by huge, bald blokes with eye- patches, who lived underground and said "now, my poor fools, to drown America with my deadly custard so that I can take over the universe ha ha".

In seven weeks, the Russians have created 200,000 refugees and killed 4,000 civilians: as many as, if not more than, Milosevic. So where have all the liberal bombers gone? Where is the clamour for action and the catch-all catch-phrase, "well, you have to do something"?

Where are the endless accounts of atrocities? Where are the warmongering front pages of earlier this year, such as those by Jonathon Steele of The Guardian, who wrote that "Pristina is now deserted except for tough- looking Serbs"? Not just any Serbs, you understand, only tough-looking ones.

Maybe some are embarrassed that the something they begged for made things even worse.

Far from preventing "ethnic cleansing", Kosovo is now free of Serbs, who before the war numbered 45,000 and now 200. Romanies have been forced to flee, and a local interpreter told a journalist from the London Evening Standard: "we paid $20bn to save these people from racism. Now they are the most racist people I've ever met."

And, as Robert Fisk reported in this paper yesterday, the Americans are admitting that they have "lost count" of the amount of depleted uranium they've slung into the area, and don't know where it is. I can see how this happens with a tea-strainer, but not with depleted uranium. Are Nato generals so absent-minded that they stop beside a mountain, then frown to themselves, saying: "I'm sure I put it down here somewhere"? Perhaps the next stage will be George Robertson climbing into the cockpit of a plane, looking puzzled and saying "now, what did I come in here for?"

Those who fell for the charms of Jamie Shea must wonder why the West's attitude to a similar crisis in Chechnya is slightly less forthright. For example, at the OSCE summit, the declaration that Yeltsin ended up agreeing to begins: "We agree that a political solution is essential."

That's the sort of thing people say to avoid an argument. They might as well have announced a joint declaration from Clinton and Yeltsin that went: "Tut, oh dear, isn't it terrible? Well you know what I say; there's good and bad in every race."

The number Nato claimed had been killed is now accepted as an absurd exaggeration, as is the number of Serb tanks destroyed. But, at the time, most of the Western media gullibly lapped it up. In any case, given the West's record in the Balkans, it's easy for Yeltsin to brush off as hypocrisy the rebukes he receives from the West. Clinton may as well shout that the one thing that would make him impose sanctions on Russia, is if Yeltsin were caught in a back room of the Kremlin ruining some poor girl's evening- wear.

It may be old-fashioned, but it seems to me that the mass of Chechens, Russians, Serbs, Kosovars, English and Americans have far more in common with each other than with their own rulers. And those rulers have far more in common with each other than the majority of people they rule.

And in the meantime, the ideal replacement for Jamie Shea is the available Jeffrey Archer. On day one of the next war he could stand up at a press conference, say, "They were planning to blow up the whole galaxy, but instead we've given all the civilians a Barratt home. Here, I'm the world 10-pin bowling champion. And my brother's the King of Greenland, straight up." And half of the British press would shake their heads and mutter, "The whole galaxy? We have to do something."