Angry Yeltsin berates Nato

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

President Boris Yeltsin of Russia warned Nato yesterday that its military attacks on the Bosnian Serbs could destroy the post-Cold War relationship between Moscow and the West. In a sign that the Kremlin's patience with Western policy on Bosnia is snapping, Mr Yeltsin said that if Nato were to continue aerial bombardment of the Bosnian Serbs, "we will have to consider thoroughly our strategy, including our relations with the North Atlantic alliance".

Mr Yeltsin issued a statement in Moscow that denounced Nato for setting itself up as "judge and court officer" in Bosnia. Speaking later after talks with Spain's Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, Mr Yeltsin extended his criticism of the West and said: "There is definite discrimination in relations with Russia."

Almost all Russian politicians, whether liberal, centrist, nationalist or Communist, combine sympathy for the Serb cause in the Yugoslav wars with a strongly held view that Nato should not be allowed to drop bombs at will in the Balkans. Moscow has consistently expressed disapproval of Western military involvement in former Yugoslavia since Nato's first attacks on the Bosnian Serbs in February 1994.

However, Mr Yeltsin's statement went further than mere huffing and puffing. It appeared to represent the first time Russia has explicitly warned that Western behaviour in former Yugoslavia could affect the entire scope of Western-Russian relations. Mr Yeltsin offered few clues to the form of possible Russian retaliation, but made clear the Kremlin has many options. One response might be assistance for the Serbs that would extend beyond humanitarian aid for Serb refugees.

Another possibility is that Russia will withdraw co-operation from Nato's "Partnership for Peace" programme and refuse to sign a treaty governing relations with Nato. Moscow could also redouble its insistence that former Communist countries should not join the Atlantic alliance.

Other cards that Russia could play include a refusal to sign an agreement that recognises Ukraine as an independent country in its present borders, and a demand to rewrite the 1990 East-West treaty on conventional forces in Europe. Taken together, such moves might not immediately wreck the West's relations with Russia, but would create the basis for confrontation in the future.

Clinton administration officials, questioned yesterday about Mr Yeltsin's remarks, tried to play down the danger of a split between the West and the Russians over Bosnia.

"They are a very important factor in the search for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Bosnia," said the White House spokesman, Mike McCurry.

However, officials in Moscow make no secret of their annoyance that Nato effectively brushed Russia to one side when deciding last week to initiate air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. "It is not that we like the Bosnian Serbs, because we don't really. It is just that the West should not take us for granted," said one Russian foreign-policy maker.