Leading Article: Strength in his weakness

Click to follow
JOHN MAJOR will not have an easy time in Moscow this week. As leader of a weak and divided government, his voice lacks authority abroad. Semi-detached from Europe, he cannot speak convincingly for the European Union. On coolish terms with Bill Clinton, he cannot present himself as the President's proxy or offer his services as intermediary, even if one were needed. He may therefore puzzle the Russians, who are always anxious to assess the precise status and political weight of their guests.

He certainly cannot expect to impinge on Russia's internal debates. Even President Clinton, with far more influence, had to suffer seeing the reformers with whom he spoke so optimistically in Moscow leave office within days of his departure. The tide of reform is still ebbing, and Mr Major cannot stem it.

Nevertheless, he could turn weakness to strength. The Russians feel humiliated by the power of the United States, ambivalent about Germany and confused by Brussels. With Britain, fewer feelings intrude. There are no specific conflicts of interest or historical memories to overcome, and no threat is involved. The Russians also know that Britain has been dragged unwillingly into supporting Nato's ultimatum to Serbia, so there is little point in haranguing Mr Major on the subject.

The Prime Minister may therefore have a chance to deploy his calm rationality and sincerity to good effect. He wants to persuade the Russians not to sabotage Western efforts in Bosnia. He will tell them that the Nato ultimatum is not a declaration of war against Serbia but an attempt to bring peace to a dangerous region under the auspices of the United Nations. He would like them to understand that it would not be in their interest to support Serbia because it would prolong the conflict and damage their relations with the West.

This message will not easily penetrate the confused and overheated atmosphere of Moscow. Support for Serbia is an emotional issue, resonant with history, whipped up by nationalists and not countered by the nervous men around President Boris Yeltsin who have been issuing mixed signals during the absence of their chief. Mr Major may now be able to find out what Mr Yeltsin himself thinks.

With luck and good management, Moscow's response to the ultimatum will not go beyond rhetoric. Otherwise the conflict could become extremely dangerous. Either way, Western relations with Russia are entering an extremely fragile period. Russia's more rational politicians now need help in presenting the ultimatum and any subsequent air strikes as part of a UN peace-keeping effort in which they are offered an honourable role. If they are made to appear sidelined by an operation in the hands of their old adversary Nato, their influence will crumble. Mr Major must therefore bend his mind to finding a formula that will help Mr Yeltsin face down the nationalists. That could be his best hope of making a contribution out of proportion to his real diplomatic weight.