War in Europe: How Russia moved from the sidelines to centre stage

THE BALANCE OF POWER
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Already it seems long ago. The Russian warship, steaming indignantly to the Adriatic. The attempted rocket grenade attack on the US embassy in Moscow. The TV pictures of Russian shop workers mopping filthy floors with the Stars and Stripes.

The start of the Balkans war was seen as concrete proof of what Russians had long known at heart: that their voice was no longer heard, that Nato called the shots in Europe, bypassing even the United Nations. They were angry and offended, but powerless.

Less than three months on, the picture has somewhat altered. General doubts in Europe about Nato's capacity for successful unilateral action will also add sinew to Russia's long-term campaign to stop it from expanding further, for example into the Baltics. We will hear more of the argument from Moscow that the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe is the proper instrument for organising European security, and that Nato's role should be diminished.

"Nato's unwillingness to send ground troops to Kosovo has already sent a powerful message," wrote Robert Hunter, former US ambassador to Nato, in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. "A Russia asked to rescue Nato from its own limitations is also a Russia better able to challenge Nato's ambition to be the key arbiter of European security for the 21st century."

It may not be a blazing victory, but it is no small achievement. It has come at a turbulent time, when Russia is weak on every front. It has a crippled economy and a sick president who owes his political survival chiefly to the venality and incompetence of his opponents. Curiously, the only people oblivious of this success are the Russians themselves: a weary Viktor Chernomyrdin returned to Moscow this week to a chorus of angry allegations that he had capitulated.

In the end, Nato and Moscow needed one another in equal measure. No matter how much anti-Nato rhetoric they spouted, the Russians knew they had eventually to get involved or lose out. Boris Yeltsin's advisers know the economic penalties of further isolation from the international community. And they had some serious political issues to consider, tapering into the biggest question of all: the next occupant of the Kremlin.

They will have been acutely aware that a worsening economy and rising anti-Nato sentiment delivers more dividends to the communists and nationalists than anyone else. Although they tried hard to join the massed voices of outrage, Russia's "democratic" pro-market groups have been struggling to recover lost ground since last August's economic crisis. Given their generally pro-western stance, their protests over Nato's air campaign had an unconvincing air.

For the elite, installing a new president who will protect their interests (and turn a blind eye to their sins) is hard enough in a society which regards the ruling classes with profound resentment. With parliamentary elections approaching in December and the presidency coming up next year, they could ill afford to do anything that would further favour their opponents.

Among ordinary Russians anti-Nato sentiment will linger for years, hampering Moscow's ability to rebuild its relations with the alliance. But, as relations with the West slowly settle down, Moscow will demand more say, more respect for its interests and for the authority of the UN. Its position is, as ever, weakened by its need for Western dollars. But, for now, Russia will hope to be heard.

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