Assault On The Serbs: Moscow aspires to peace role

Russian Reaction
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MOSCOW YESTERDAY moved to reclaim some of the global diplomatic authority lost by post-Soviet Russia by casting itself as a peacemaker.

The Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, announced that the Yugoslav leadership was open for negotiations after two days of bombing by Nato. "We can say this firmly," he said. But theSerbs are being told that Nato's attacks will stop only when they "throw out the white flag - and naturally Yugoslavia is not agreeing to this", he said.

The Milosevic government was ready to discuss a document, approved already by the six-nation Contact Group, that would give Kosovo autonomy, but not independence. "It is to fulfil the ultimatum [Belgrade] has refused, not to hold negotiations," Mr Ivanov added.

Russia is acutely aware of the benefits it could accrue if it can persuade Slobodan Milosevic to accept a negotiated settlement. It would allow Moscow to present itself as ending a global stand-off that was, in its view, brought to a head by the aggression of a US-led Atlantic alliance. "The Americans need someone to bail them out of this situation," said Alan Rousso, director of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow. "So if the Russians broker an agreement, it would be a win-win situation."

The issue would have dominated at a meeting yesterday between President Boris Yeltsin and his intelligence chiefs and senior ministers. His government has sought to strike a balance between its expressions of genuinely heart- felt fury over the bombings, and any action that would deepen Russia's isolation.

This has partly flowed from Moscow's anxiety to win another multi-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, whose head, Michel Camdessus, is expected to meet Mr Primakov this weekend. Russia's decision to moderate its initial howls of anger will stand it in good stead and it will hope to be rewarded. But there are still hard economic differences that must be resolved.

But there are also signs that Russia is being careful not to place itself so unequivocally on the side of Mr Milosevic - about whom it has, in reality, considerable reservations - that it would lose any credibility as peacemaker. The meeting of Russia's leadershipagreed to send aid to Belgrade but stopped short of doing anything more substantial.

The wild card - apart from the Serbs - is the military. For the past two days, there have been frequent leaks from the Russian General Staff which suggest pro-Serb and anti-Nato feelings are running high.

Fury at the Nato attacks has unified this deeply divided country, both at a political level and on the streets, which saw further demonstrations yesterday outside the US and British embassies in Moscow. There is a firming up of anti-Western feeling and nationalism at a time when there are both parliamentary and presidential elections within 15 months. The affair has also meant a general set-back in important areas of East-West cooperation, such as nuclear and chemical non-proliferation (notably the unsigned Start- 2).

Russia may have no money, but it has plenty of unsavoury expertise and weaponry which, in its current mood, it will feel even more inclined to channel to the West's traditional foes in the hope of ending America's overwhelming dominance.