With two US aircraft-carriers and HMS Invincible lurking in the Gulf, President Boris Yeltsin dispatched an envoy to Baghdad in the hope of averting a military show-down in the dispute over UN arms inspectors.
The mission centres on an attempt to forge a compromise between President Saddam Hussein and the UN Security Council on the inspection of 60 palaces.
The Russian envoy, deputy foreign minister Viktor Posuvalyuk, is expected to suggest that Iraq open up 10 to 20 of them to UN arms inspectors, accompanied by observers from the UN Security Council.
With the US looking increasingly eager to conduct bombing raids, Russia spelled out its overall stance with a declaration from its Foreign Ministry that all steps "should be taken strictly in accordance with decisions by the UN Security Council and be of a political and diplomatic nature." In sending his special envoy, Mr Yeltsin is hoping to pull off a coup to match the Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov's performance in November, when he emerged - albeit fleetingly - as a heroic peacemaker after persuading President Saddam to re-admit arms inspectors.
Mr Yeltsin's strategy is part of Russia's general effort to elbow its way back to global influence, after seeing its sinews wither in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, by creating a counterweight to the US by forging closer ties with Iraq, China and elsewhere. But it also has more specific aims in mind - not least, banking Iraq's $10bn Soviet-era debts to Moscow, and some fat contracts in the Iraqi oil sector.
A senior Russian official has told the Arab daily al-Hayat that the US had officially notified Russia that it is likely to make air attacks on Iraq. It said the targets will be military units and sites. Russia is determined to use its veto in the Security Council but is increasingly doubtful about being joined by France and China.
- Phil Reeves in Moscow,
and Patrick Cockburn