Iraq Crisis: Apocalyptic vision expresses Russia's mood of resentment

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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin lashed out at American preparations for war in the Gulf yesterday. Later he spoke by telephone to Tony Blair. Anthony Bevins and Phil Reeves report.

Boris Yeltsin hammered another nail yesterday into his reputation for rough-hewn and impulsive diplomacy by warning that Bill Clinton could provoke a world war if he mishandles the Iraq crisis, and chastising him for being "too noisy" in his overall approach.

Apparently ad-libbing during one of his regular cameo television performances, the Russian leader stressed the need to make Mr Clinton feel the perils of his actions. "One must be more careful in this world, [which is] saturated with all sorts of weapons which are sometimes in terrorists' hands." It was "all very dangerous", he grumbled, and "not like Clinton at all."

Later in the day, Tony Blair made a 10-minute phone call to the Russian president in which they agreed on the need to bring the Iraqi leader to heel on UN arms curbs. The call had been arranged before Mr Yeltsin spoke; but it was clearly aimed at keeping the President informed of United States-British intentions.

During the conversation, the Prime Minister maintained his tough line that force could not be ruled out in the face of continuing defiance from Baghdad, while Mr Yeltsin - who also yesterday spoke by telephone to the French President, Jacques Chirac - continued to press for a diplomatic solution still being sought by the United Nations.

Mr Blair's spokesman said he and President Yeltsin agreed on the seriousness of the situation, and agreed that all diplomatic channels should be exploited to bring Saddam back into line. But Mr Blair said that in the event of failure, the threat was real and force would be used if necessary.

It is the fear that this might happen which sparked Mr Yeltsin's comments. Although his spontaneous remarks have caused havoc among his officials in the past, his latest utterances belong in a different category.

Though emotive, they were in line with Kremlin policy which has consistently opposed military force as a means of compelling Iraq to open up sites to UN weapons inspectors.

They were also in tune with the mood in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which is simmering with resentment and suspicion about the US role in the crisis.

"Yeltsin is clearly aware of the mood," said one Western source. "He is reacting to it emotionally, but without a shift in policy."

The President is clearly keen to serve a reminder that, despite its post- Soviet decline, Russia still has an influential role to play on the world stage.