World Reaction: Moscow fury sparks off threat of new cold war

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S RELATIONS with the West were yesterday gripped by one of the sharpest frosts since the end of the Cold War after Moscow withdrew its ambassador to Britain "for consultations" in a protest over the air strikes against Iraq.

The move, which followed the recall of Russia's envoy to Washington, came amid a second day of angry and indignant declarations from Moscow, including a threat to reassess its entire security strategy.

The Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, declared that the bombardment of Iraq "violates the entire world order established after the Second World War".

Western diplomats were yesterday gloomily surveying the political damage done by Operation Desert Fox to the arms- reduction process - Start-2 is now dead in the water - and to their efforts to end the distrust that surrounds Moscow's relations with Nato. Russia's ascendant Communists, the largest force in parliament, confirmed they had no intention of considering the ratification of Start-2.

"Unfortunately, things will now stagnate," said one diplomat.

However, the Kremlin needs the West, and it knows it. It tacitly acknowledged the weakness of its position by emphasising that there was no question of severing relations with the United States and Britain.

The row over Iraq must not be allowed to "slide into confrontation," said a spokesman.

The Foreign Office yesterday sought to play down Russia's outrage, saying that Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, had a "friendly" conversation with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov.

Both the British and the Americans expressed confidence that the relationship with Russia, already chilled by the new government of Mr Primakov and the economic melt-down, would survive.

To the apparent puzzlement of Washington, the Russians have also responded to the Iraq crisis by moving troops. The Kremlin explained the moves as a routine response to heightened international tensions.

In reality, Russia is in a bind. It feels aggrieved by the US and Britain's decision to bypass the UN Security Council - one of the few forums in which Moscow feels it has a measure of the diplomatic weight it enjoyed in Soviet times.

It also has plenty of reasons to speak up for Saddam Hussein. Moscow has signed dozens of lucrative contracts, including weapons sales, with Baghdad which will kick in once UN sanctions are lifted. Iraq also owes it about $8bn in Soviet-era debts, which the impoverished Russians would dearly love to bank.

For the same reason, Moscow hopes that its current loyalty will be repaid with some fat deals, notably in the oil and construction sector, when a sanctions-free Baghdad begins to rebuild.

Yet Russia - as the Pentagon well knows - is acutely aware that it needs the US and the West. Telling evidence of that came yesterday when an aide for Yuri Maslyukov, First Deputy Prime Minister, said the Iraq crisis should not affect Russia's current talks with the International Monetary Fund, from which Moscow needs funds if it is to avoid a gaping hole in next year's budget. Officials also said that negotiations with Washington over a $850m food-aid deal were proceeding as planned.

Russia was not the only country to come out against the strikes. China was furious andFrance again signalled its disapproval; Italy demanded an end to the raids.

But overall in Europe, where limited demonstrations against the bombing took place outside US embassies in Denmark and the Netherlands, the most telling reaction was the sheer lack of it.

The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, simply declared tersely - and in defiance of the evidence - that he saw "no danger of a split" in the alliance over the attacks.

Seeking support, Tony Blair mounted a diplomatic offensive. In a 1,000- word article for papers in several European countries, he argued that London and Washington had acted as they had "to counter a real and present danger from a tyrant who has never hesitated to use whatever weapons come to hand".

He also spoke by phone with the leaders of France, Germany and Italy and with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

France, however, is plainly not convinced, and made clear yesterday both its unhappiness with the report by the chief UN inspector, Richard Butler, which triggered this week's strikes, and its view that the West had to define an entire new Iraq policy.

As the paper France-Soir demanded "Stop Him" in a banner front-page headline above a picture of President Bill Clinton, both President Jacques Chirac and his Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, warned the bombardment would solve nothing but merely increase the hardships of ordinary Iraqis. It also, they believe, risks increasing support for President Saddam throughout the Arab world - something that is already happening if demonstrations in several Arab capitals yesterday were anything to go by.

And from across the Arab world yesterday, British diplomats were sending reports back to London which contradicted what the Foreign Secretary has been telling the British people. Mr Cook maintains that whilereaction is "muted", most Arab regimes support the bombardment. But in Cairo, the ambassador will have told his masters of demonstrations at the al- Azhar mosque where the imam told his people to support Iraq or "be struck by God's damnation" and where hundreds demanded a holy war.

The official spokesman of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, referred to the "terrible operation" as "beyond comprehension and ... unacceptable".

Abdul-Kader Qaddoura,speaker of the Syrian parliament, said: "We condemn and denounce this attack." In Qatar, the daily Asharq said US missiles were "targeting unarmed Iraqi civilians, showing that human conscience is dead".

In Beirut, the editorial in the daily as-Safir suggested that British and American talk about "respect for the sensitivities of Muslims" at Ramadan was a pretext to trample upon Muslim land. Ghassan Tueni, the joint owner of an-Nahar newspaper in Beirut, lamented the weakness of the Arab world in confronting the bombardment of Iraq. "If we want to dream," he wrote, "there's nothing to prevent Syria and Jordan declaring their desire to enter a pact or alliance with Iraq."

Only in Kuwait could one hear the sort of anger Mr Cook would have us believe represents the Arab world.

Fouad al-Hashem, a columnist for the Kuwaiti daily al-Watan, wrote that he wished to see the bodies of Saddam Hussein, his wife and sons "hanging naked from street lamps all over Baghdad".