Russia as West's 'friend in need'

Easing of relations after Kosovo highlights link between Moscow's

Like a couple reconciled after a spat, Russia and the Western powers made up at a summit yesterday with pledges of renewed partnership after the Kosovo episode.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin bear-hugged his counterparts from the G-7 industrialized powers, who spoke glowingly of mutual gain and respect.

If there is one thing NATO's war in the Balkans shows, analysts say, it is that Russia and the West feel they need each other. And more important - that Russia needs the West more.

Russia played an important brokering role in securing the end of the bomb attacks on Yugoslavia. And the West wants Russia's inclusion in any European security arrangement.

"We can't create or guarantee peace in Europe without Russia," German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder said at a news conference yesterday in Cologne.

But observers point out that Moscow backtracked on every major principle it had insisted on during the 11-week bombardment, because it needs Western aid to stave off economic collapse.

"It was clear Russia would relent," says Sergei Chugrov, deputy editor of the journal International Relations, published in Moscow. "The government needs that money."

He spoke just after Moscow abandoned in Helsinki on Friday its demands for a separate peacekeeping zone in Kosovo - and Western powers pledged yesterday to reward it by relieving its debt burden.

The climbdown in Helsinki on Friday was the latest of a series of capitulations. Indeed, Moscow's outrage during the airstrikes themselves was little more than symbolic. Mr. Yeltsin's warnings of World War III when NATO airstrikes began back in March failed to materialize. Moscow froze relations with NATO but continued to work with it. Russia then endorsed a peace deal whose terms it earlier said were unacceptable.

And a mad dash by 200 paratroopers to secure Pristina airport before NATO became farcical when the men had to beg British soldiers for water.

There are two major lessons to be learned from Russia's climbdowns. First, many analysts say, Moscow has no coherent foreign policy. And second, it can shout all it wants, but is critically dependent on Western financial aid.

Russian officials deny there is linkage between the country's $150 billion foreign debt and its reluctance to defy the West in foreign and military affairs.

In what was clearly a payback to Russia for cooperating over Kosovo, the G-7 pledged yesterday to reschedule billions of dollars of debt left over from Soviet times as soon as Moscow fulfills economic criteria demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Officials also expected the IMF to move on disbursing $4.5 billion in loans frozen since an economic crisis last year.

On the surface, it appears to be a neat fix that benefits everyone. The West emerges victorious over Kosovo, saying its airstrikes brought Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to his knees. Russia staves off default.

But a worrying undercurrent is Russia's seemingly muddled foreign policy, which often appears dictated by Yeltsin's whims. Nowhere was this disjointed approach more evident than over Kosovo. Moscow's "line" began with rhetorical hostility to NATO. Yeltsin then appointed a new pro-Western envoy who served as docile messenger between the Alliance and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

But then the Pristina airport grab awakened fears of Russian military defiance. Yeltsin ended the episode making the rare foreign trip to Cologne.

"They so desperately want to be treated as equals. But it's hard to take them seriously when they stamp their feet petulantly and then give in," says one Western military source.

Such foot-stamping may increase as politicians play to domestic audiences with parliamentary elections looming in December and a presidential vote six months later. A new government may be care somewhat less about winning the West's favors for foreign aid.

"There are many who believe economic default is not so terrible," says Pavel Ivanov, an analyst at the Institute of National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "They believe that moderating Russia's position will have a serious effect on domestic affairs."

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