Moscow blames the West for conflict in Chechnya

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IN SOME of its harshest rhetoric since the depths of the Cold War, Russia yesterday accused Washington of deliberately stoking the Chechnya conflict to drive Moscow from the Caucasus and the oil-rich Caspian region. It also vowed to increase spending on defence, including its still massive nuclear arsenal.

The verbal broadsides came as Russian forces claimed to have captured Gudermes, the rebel province's second-largest city, and served notice they would reject all outside mediation in the crisis until total surrender by the insurgents.

Speaking on national television, Igor Sergeyev, the Defence Minister, blamed the crises in Kosovo and now in Chechnya on the new post-Cold War strategy of the Western alliance, and of the US in particular. The West's policy was "a challenge to Russia with the aim of weakening its international position", he said. Washington wanted to "oust it from strategically important regions of the world, above all the Caspian region, the trans-Caucasus and Central Asia".

The Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, told top military commanders that the upcoming Russian budget would mobilise "all available resources" to strengthen the armed forces. His pledge is in line with the new, more belligerent, military doctrine being finalised in Moscow - permitting the use of nuclear weapons to defend even against conventional attack. Given the dismal condition of Russia's military machine, Mr Putin's words have an element of bluster. They are also calculated to line up nationalist feeling ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections.

But they reflect deep public resentment at the country's lost global clout, and at how its views - most lately its opposition to Washington's plans to develop an anti-missile defence system - are simply ignored by the US. As a result, relations between Russia and the West are worse than at any time since the collapse of Communism.