Kosovo crisis: Air strikes risk Russian conflict with West

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MILITARY ACTION by Nato against President Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo would risk the biggest crisis in relations so far between post-Soviet Russia and the West, with possibly far reaching security implications for Europe as a whole.

Yesterday, even as an apparently re-invigorated President Boris Yeltsin continued his telephone diplomacy with Tony Blair, the Russian Defence Minister spelt out again Moscow's refusal to countenance a United Nations resolution authorising the use of force against Yugoslavia. Military strikes, Marshal Igor Sergeyev said, would not be a punishment of an isolated country but "almost a real war" that would lead only to further bloodshed in Kosovo.

If the Kremlin is to be believed, the Russian President went even further in his exchanges with Mr Blair, warning that air strikes would be "disastrous for global peace and drastically change the situation in the region."

The calculation of most Western countries - quite apart from their fear the Nato alliance's credibility would be irreversibly damaged if after so much sabre-rattling it did not carry out its threats - is that the tough words from Moscow are largely for public consumption at home. If push comes to shove, the belief is that an enfeebled Russia would have little choice but to swallow its pride and do nothing.

Russia's top priority, this reasoning runs, is to keep up relations with the Western countries who would provide the financial aid essential if it is to overcome its present crisis. Nato diplomats point out that for all its objections, Russia has signed up to every condemnation thus far of President Milosevic by the Contact Group and the UN.

But this overlooks several new ingredients in the equation, extending well beyond Moscow's traditional solidarity with fellow Slavs, and the Orthodox Christianity it shares with the Serbs. Not least of them is the installation as Prime Minister of Yevgeny Primakov, a prickly nationalist trained to see the West as an adversary, and determined to show that at the very least Russia remains a major power whose views cannot be ignored.

Moreover, as an unremitting foe of Nato expansion to the east, Mr Primakov will be alarmed by a threatened use of force by the alliance on what is internationally recognised internal territory of a sovereign country. If Kosovo today, then why not any Russian republic where nationalist insurrection could erupt?

For the Russians and the Chinese who have similar concerns over Tibet and its Islamic central Asian territories, Kosovo sets the worst of precedents. Russia could advance it as a precedent to justify action of its own, in the Baltic states say, on the grounds it is protecting ethnic Russian minorities from oppression.

Thus Nato attacks would almost certainly end Moscow's uneasy co-operation with the alliance. A country already disillusioned with capitalism would be tempted to re-erect old barriers against the West.