Major feels the chill in Moscow: Russia combines opposition to Bosnian air strikes with warning to Eastern Europe

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA warned yesterday that Western air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets could throw East-West relations into a deep chill and stop the new democracies of Eastern Europe from joining the Western camp. President Boris Yeltsin rebuffed attempts by John Major to rally Russia behind Nato's plan for military action in Bosnia, and said bluntly that Moscow would not tolerate being ignored.

'We shall not allow this to happen. Some people are trying to resolve the Bosnian question without the participation of Russia,' complained Mr Yeltsin, who faces strong political pressure to reassert Russian power in Eastern Europe. With Nato poised for its first aggressive action in 40 years, Mr Yeltsin said Moscow could support air strikes in retaliation for attacks on UN forces. But he declined to endorse Nato's ultimatum threatening Serbian artillery around Sarajevo if the guns are not withdrawn or handed to UN control by midnight on Sunday.

The Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, raised the stakes yesterday by saying his forces had no intention of removing artillery to points 20km (12 miles) from Sarajevo. 'Nothing can force us to leave our people at the mercy of fanatical Muslim units.'

UN officers in Sarajevo said the Bosnian Serbs were handing over weapons, but refused to say how many. However, it is clear that very few have been surrendered and that Nato's bluff is being called.

While Mr Yeltsin avoided a confrontational tone during a press conference in the Kremlin with Mr Major, his spokesman suggested that any Western military action not sanctioned by Moscow would seriously damage East-West relations. 'Bombing Serb positions with Nato planes would inevitably be associated by the world and by Russia with the United States and the recently launched Partnership for Peace,' Interfax news agency quoted Vyacheslav Kostikov as saying. 'I think it could deal a psychological blow to this diplomatic initiative.'

The remarks suggested Moscow might try to stop countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic from becoming Nato 'partners' - a halfway house that involves no mutual security pact but which many Russians view with deep suspicion as a Trojan horse carrying the West into the former Warsaw Pact and up to Russia's borders.

Further evidence of Russian hostility to Western air strikes came with the release of an opinion poll showing that 66 per cent of Russians believed that a Nato attack on the Bosnian Serbs should be viewed as an attack on Russia. The poll, by the Centre for International Sociological Research, was taken after Nato issued its ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs last week.

With Sunday's deadline approaching, British officials said Russia's response to air attacks was difficult to predict. 'It is fairly obvious they have not yet made up their minds. If and when it comes to air strikes, they, like most people, hope it won't come to that. It is pretty clear they have not yet taken a policy decision on what they want to do,' said one official.

Mr Yeltsin and Mr Major had a tete-a- tete lasting 85 minutes before a plenary session attended by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary; Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Prime Minister; and Andrei Kozyrev, the Foreign Minister, who is keeping in close touch with Mr Hurd. Interviewed on Channel 4 television, Mr Major said: 'We don't wish to proceed to a settlement without Russia . . . Everyone must use influence to try to get the combatants to come to a settlement. We certainly want Russia involved in that.'

The British officials said Mr Hurd and Mr Major had sought to emphasise that Britain supported the Nato action and had not been pushed into it by the US and France. They pointed out that the Western idea was to have heavy weaponry around Sarajevo surrendered to UN, not Nato, control.

Mr Major said that before air strikes could take place there would have to be reference back to the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, but not to the Security Council, which the Russians are believed to want. The British team were keenly aware of the domestic difficulties facing Mr Yeltsin if he supported air strikes. They agreed confidence-building measures, including an agreement to 'de- target' by May all British and Russian nuclear weapons away from each other's country, and joint military exercises in Russia and the UK from 1995. These were partly designed, British officials confirmed, to undermine support for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian nationalist whose success in December's elections shocked the West.

As part of the trade-off for accepting the Nato action, Mr Major confirmed his support for Russia's political membership of the G7. Answering Western concern about the loosening of the economy, and last month's doubling of inflation to 24 per cent, Mr Yeltsin said there would be 'no turning back' on the economic reforms.

UN chain of command, page 8

Leading article, page 17

Masters of their future, page 19