Iraq crisis: Bellicose Russians ambush US defence chief

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ANY illusions the US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, may have entertained about leaving Moscow without a drubbing over the Iraq crisis evaporated under the heat of the television lights yesterday during an encounter with his Russian counterpart.

After waiting stealthily for a packed photo-opportunity, the Russian defence minister, Igor Sergeyev - ex-chief of the elite strategic missile forces - pounced on his American visitor with a warning that Washington's policy could badly damage US-Russian relations.

Mr Cohen, hot-foot from a six-nation Gulf tour which included pep talks to US troops on the USS George Washington aircraft-carrier, arrived here denying his mission was to win over the Russians - a sentiment about as plausible as a claim by Bill Clinton that he is uninterested in women. He also said he hoped the Iraq crisis would not dominate the agenda; they wanted to discuss nuclear safety and disarmament. But the Russian, his uniform gleaming with a marshal's decorations, was not in a peaceable mood.

Although his words were less emotive than the "conflagration" and "world war" predicted by his boss, Boris Yeltsin, they were a departure from the usual diplomatic niceties. Mr Cohen's aides listened in silence as the Russian lectured him about Moscow's "deep concern over the possible prospects for Russian-US relations in the military field, especially if military action occurs."

As the two sat across a table, the Russian continued: "Is America ready for all the possible consequences? Does the uncompromising and tough stand of the United States over Iraq help to strengthen stability and security in the world?"

Mr Cohen, a stiff, softly-spoken figure, seemed be taken aback by this blunt - and obviously stage-managed - public dressing-down (although his staff denied it). When it ended, he asked to respond. "President Clinton has exercised great caution in not making haste ... but rather proceeding cautiously and with great prudence," he said.

"You properly raised the question of what are the possible consequences of acting militarily. It is equally appropriate to ask the question `what if we fail to act and allow Saddam to continue to flout the UN resolutions, to continue to play hide-and-seek with the inspectors?' "

He also tried to lower the temperature, calling the US-Russian relationship one "of critical importance to our two countries" and describing Russia as "a great power". But the encounter only served to emphasise the gap that divides Washington and Moscow.

With US commanders in the Gulf saying their military machine will be ready to strike Iraq in a week, the crisis was inevitably going to overshadow Mr Cohen's trip. Sympathy for Baghdad has been running high for days in Russia, and is evident daily in the newspaper coverage. Yesterday Izvestia said an attack on Iraq's chemical weapons could cause disaster, endangering millions in neighbouring countries. The crisis was propelled further into centre stage by a report in yesterday's Washington Post that UN inspectors in Iraq last autumn found documents from 1995 referring to a Russian deal to sell an animal feed fermentation tank to Baghdad which could be used for making biological weapons. Six weeks ago the UN demanded an explanation from Moscow, the paper said, but received no reply.

Moscow's Foreign Ministry dismissed the story as a "crude invention". It claimed Russia's contribution to Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction was "practically nil", adding that most components came from western Europe - notably the Germans, Austrians and Swiss. Mr Cohen declined to confirm or deny the Washington Post report, saying it was an issue for the UN to investigate.

Mr Cohen's visit did help clarify another issue, though. For several years Washington and Nato's spin-doctors have justified the alliance's eastwards expansion by arguing that it is not an issue that matters to Russians. True, most of the 147 million population have more immediate worries. But with the uncoiling mood of anti-Americanism within the Russian elite, unlocked by US policy in the Gulf, the West might now have to rethink that argument.