Assault on the Serbs: Cossacks sign up to fight for fellow Slavs

Reaction in Russia
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The Independent Online
RUSSIA TRIED to walk a diplomatic tightrope yesterday bycondemning the assault on Yugoslavia while being careful not to break off ties with the West for fear of losing desperately needed new loans.

This ambivalent stance was not shared by angry protesters, who threw eggs and paint at the British embassy in Moscow amid a general wave of public outrage and frustration at Russia's diplomatic weakness on the world stage.

Hundreds of Russians also demonstrated outside the capital's American embassy, yelling anti-Western slogans and brandishing banners, while far right-wing organisations - including Cossacks - began recruiting young volunteers to go to Yugoslavia to defend their fellow Slavs, the Serbs.

The air strikes seems to have caused genuine anger among the population in a way that previous clashes with the West - over the bombing of Iraq, Nato expansion, and US sanctions over technology transfers to Iran - have not. That was reflected by the rhetoric of government ministers, which had a flavour reminiscent of the worst Cold War spats.

But - as Washington clearly calculated - Russia needs the West, and its money, and has enough reservations about Slobodan Milosevic to be reluctant to sacrifice too much in his name. Last night Yevgeny Primakov, the Prime Minister,called for an immediate end to the strikes - which were a "monumental mistake". But he has been at particular pains to separate Russia's moral outrage over Nato from on-going negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

The Kremlin responded to the bombings by withdrawing from Nato's Partnership for Peace, but the key issue is whether Moscow will choose to do something more concrete. "Russia has a number of extreme measures in store, but we decided not to use them so far," said Boris Yeltsin yesterday, although the US had made "a great mistake" which Moscow would "not forget".

Matters may not be within his control. Unconfirmed reports circulated yesterday that the military is planning to dispatch Soviet-made portable Igla surface-to-air missiles to Yugoslavia. It is doubtful that the Russian government would endorse such a move, but thegenerals are a different matter.

There are military hardliners who have long fumed over Moscow's increasing impotence, and continue to lament the death of the Soviet Union. The disarray and corruption in Russia is such that acquiring arms and arranging for their illegal shipment would not present an insurmountable hurdle to a determined army officer.

"The problem is there is so much stuff around," said a Western source, "It is hard to keep track of what's going where."

Phil Reeves