Iraq Under Fire: Russian 'weakness' attacked: Moscow dilemma

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The Independent Online
IONA ANDRONOV, war correspondent, fan of Kipling and vice chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme Soviet, stands before a map of the world hanging on the wall of his office in the Russian parliament building. The United States has just raided Iraq and Mr Andronov, along with many others in the conservative legislature, is worried.

'I'm not a sympathiser of crazy Saddam Hussein. One day, though, they might say - let's send a few bombers to teach those bloody Russians a lesson too.'

He turns to the map to illustrate what he and a growing number of fellow legislators see as their country's vulnerability. First he points at the Baltics: 'We have lost our eyes and ears here.' Next he sweeps his hand across the Indian Ocean: 'We have nothing. American submarines can do what they want.' Then he chops a line across the Caucasus and jabs a finger at Central Asia: 'We lost here too. Chaos.' He stretches to reach the Pacific: 'We are open here. If we give up the Kurile Islands they can sail right in.'

Finally, he pats Russia's northern coast: 'We patrol here but, if you read the papers, you'll know our submarines keep colliding.'

Alarm over Russian weakness and US might is not new. From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, Communists and crypto-fascists - united in a so-called 'red brown' alliance - lamented the loss of empire and demanded that something be done to get it back.

Today, though, it is not only truculent nationalists who fret about Russia's place in and policy towards the outside world. Last month, during the Congress of People's Deputies, legislators focused their fire on President Boris Yeltsin's economic policies, savaging free-market reform and forcing him to dump his acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar.

Their next target is foreign policy, previously seen as the preserve of the executive. Genuine concern about the Kremlin's pro-Western tilt is magnified by a determination among legislators, all of them elected under Communism, to seize any club they can to beat the President.

For Mr Yeltsin, the timing of US-led military action against Iraq could hardly have been worse. It highlights Washington's global military reach at a time when he and his liberal Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, are already on the defensive over two other important foreign policy issues - the war in former Yugoslavia and the Start 2 treaty.

Among the most determined foes of Moscow's current foreign policy is Sergei Baburin, 33, a former law professor who leads the nationalist 'Russia' faction in the Supreme Soviet, a smaller, standing parliament. He has visited Iraq and Serbia to show solidarity and travels to combat zones inside the former Soviet Union.

'Every attack on Iraq automatically undermines the international prestige of Western countries,' says Mr Baburin. 'Even those who condemn Saddam and his regime understand perfectly well that tomorrow they may be treated in the same way.' Another bitter foe of the West is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who yesterday announced plans to recruit volunteers to help Iraq.

Few legislators share such zealous sympathy for Iraq but many do share deep unease about the pro-Western tilt of Russian foreign policy and seem determined to oust Mr Kozyrev.

'Mr Kozyrev is a traitor,' says Mr Andronov. Russia, he insists, must use its veto in the UN to block any use of military force against both Iraq and Serbia.

And, last month, the Supreme Soviet passed a resolution to this effect with regard to Serbia. The Foreign Ministry, unaccustomed to parliamentary interference, took note of the move but said it was too 'vague'.

Iraq was one of the Soviet Union's closest allies in the Middle East but stirs little emotion or concern. None the less, the spectacle of unfettered US military power, even against a leader Russians find distastful, plays into the hands of hardline nationalists.

After the first attack last week, the Kremlin voiced support for the action but also announced that Russian warships were pulling out of the Gulf region.

Mr Yeltsin already faces an uphill struggle in the Supreme Soviet over ratification of the Start 2 treaty, which cuts the number of Russian and US warheads by nearly two-thirds. 'This treaty,' says Mr Andronov, 'was written by Americans to rule not just Russia but the world.'