War in the Balkans: Analysis - Bear roars but it will not bite

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The Independent Online
THE BEAR has roared. These days however, even rumblings from the Kremlin about a generalised European war and a possible Third World War over Kosovo cause little more than a momentary tremor on Western financial markets, and wonderings about who, if anyone, truly runs Russia.

Yesterday's threats from President Boris Yeltsin followed a familiar erratic pattern: a dramatic assertion - that Moscow had re-targetted its nuclear missiles against Nato countries participating the bombing of Yugoslavia - followed by a retraction or "clarification" by senior aides; then a vague, apocalyptic, threat that if Nato launched a ground attack against Belgrade, it would drag Russia into what would become a global conflict.

Even if true, the missile re-targetting amounts to less than meets the eye; the operation can be carried out in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. As it was, within the hour Igor Ivanov, Russia's Foreign Minister, said he was unaware of any presidential order to that effect, a message later conveyed to the White House.

This must be set against statements by Mr Yeltsin and officials that Moscow would not allow itself to become dragged into the conflict - not least because it would forfeit any hope of brokering a Kosovo settlement, the one way in which Russia could emerge with its international prestige enhanced by the crisis. Nato diplomats say all the tough talk reflects Mr Yeltsin's desire to stave off impeachment proceedings against him in the Duma, at least as much as his anger at how the fallen superpower has been sidelined and ignored over Kosovo.

Behind the scenes Russia continues to discuss Kosovo amicably, if fruitlessly, with its Western partners. On Wednesday, senior officials of the Contact group, comprising Russia, the US, and the four main European members of the alliance, met. Yesterday, this time representing the G-8 group of major powers, they did the same in Dresden, Germany. The US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will meet Mr Ivanov in Oslo, Norway, next week. "If things were really bad, this just wouldn't be happening," one diplomat said.

Or put another way, the Kremlin needs help from the West to resolve its desperate financial crisis a lot more than an alliance with Belgrade, that would place even further strain on its stretched resources. For similar reasons, Russian officials were yesterday dismissing any talk of a "union" with Yugoslavia, along the lines of the similar, effectively meaningless, tie-up with Belarus agreed in 1997.

Even so, Kosovo has reduced relations between Russia and the West to their lowest level since the Cold War.

Although it is half-bankrupt, demoralised and with its armed forces in decay, Moscow still has considerable residual powers of mischief-making, partly thanks to the weakness of its government. That was one reason for the words of Robin Cook yesterday that Nato was not trying to challenge Moscow in the Balkans: "There is nothing we are doing in Yugoslavia or Kosovo that causes the remotest threat to Russia."

In barely a decade Russia has passed from having one of the strongest governments in the world to one whose writ barely runs beyond the Kremlin. The question is not whether it could organise a massive and swift transfer of weapons, fuel, or other supplies to Belgrade, but whether - assuming it wanted to - it could stop independent Milosevic sympathisers in Russia doing so.