RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin returned home yesterday from a highly successful visit to the United States and Canada, armed with the confidence of an acknowledged statesman and with promises that a crucial Western aid package will go through shortly.
But President Yeltsin will need all those weapons and more to deal with an arc of crises that has erupted across the southern regions of the former Soviet Union.
In Yeltsin's absence, Russian troops have become directly involved in ethnic conflicts in Moldova in the west and Georgia in the Caucasus to the south. In a television address on Saturday, Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi assailed the governments of those two former Soviet republics for "genocide." Clearly threatening Russian intervention, Mr. Rutskoi vowed that "we are going to resolutely put an end to the massive extermination of the civilian population."
The speech followed a meeting earlier Saturday of the Russian government and the leadership of the parliament. In a statement, the government authorized commanders of Russian military units that are stationed in former Soviet republics to open fire in "self-defense." Rift with Georgia
In recent days, the long-simmering ethnic conflict between Georgia and its Ossetian minority has escalated, threatening to widen into a war between Russia and Georgia. The region of South Ossetia has long been under siege by Georgian militants, as Ossetians seek to break with Georgia and unite with the Ossetian-populated region of North Ossetia within Russia. Russian parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov issued a statement June 15 threatening intervention to protect Russian citizens and troops still sta tioned in South Ossetia.
That threat took more direct form last Wednesday when Russian helicopter gunships fired on Georgian tanks, a move Russians say was in retaliation for an attack during a visit by the Russian deputy defense minister. Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, condemned the Russian "aggression."
"It is now evident the internal conflict in Georgia is used as a cause for a far-reaching imperial adventure aimed at the annexation of part of Georgian territory and frightening of the Georgian people," Mr. Shevardnadze said. He expressed hope that this was done without Yeltsin's knowledge and that "the president will stop the insanity upon his return to Moscow."
The strongest voice for Russian intervention is coming from Vice President Rutskoi, a former Afghan War hero and a critic of some of the Yeltsin reform policies. In a tough-worded television interview on June 28, Rutskoi called for Russian citizens living in other former Soviet republics to be protected by "decisive actions" of the government.
"One must not permit anyone to wipe one's feet on Russia and its citizens," he said. Rutskoi is scheduled to lead a mission to Ossetia today, a move likely only to raise tensions.
The Russian government statement issued on Saturday reflected that attitude, saying that the Ossetian conflict is "doing direct harm to Russian security." Rejecting charges of aggression, it called for an immediate cease-fire, withdrawal of armed forces from the front lines, and talks with representatives of Georgia, Russia, and North and South Ossetia.
If these proposals are ignored, "the Russian federation will take all necessary measures to protect the human rights, life, and dignity of the regional population and restore peace and legal order." Attack in Moldova
The government session also issued a statement condemning the Moldovan government in response to an attack by Moldovan Army units on the town of Bendery, a stronghold of the Russian-populated Dniester region, which seeks to separate itself from Romanian-populated Moldova. According to reports, three tanks of the Russian 14th Army were destroyed by Moldovan units. Moldovan authorities have accused the 14th Army of backing the Russian separatists, a charge the Russian government denies.
In fierce fighting around Bendery Saturday night, Moldovan forces took control of the city only to be driven out hours later by Russian separatists, officials on both sides said. An estimated 100 people were killed in the clash. Calls for restraint
The Russian statement accuses the Moldovan government of trying "to solve the complicated political conflict exclusively by means of force." But it does not threaten Russian intervention, calling instead for a resumption of negotiations and for restraint.
Moldovan President Mircea Snegur rejected the Russian accusations, adding that any offensive maneuvers taken by the 14th Army would start a war between Russia and Moldova.
"There are no grounds for such actions," Mr. Snegur said. "It is the separatist leaders that are provoking them to take ill-considered actions." Yeltsin, meanwhile, upon his arrival back in Moscow yesterday, endorsed Rutskoi's tough stance.
"We cannot remain indifferent to it," Yeltsin said of the problem in Moldova. "We are obliged to respond, in order to protect people and stop bloodshed. We have the resources needed for it, and Snegur should be aware of it."
The specter of a Russia aggressively defending its "citizens" and interests darkened the outlook for tomorrow's summit scheduled in the Black Sea resort of Dagomys between Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk.
The summit is expected to focus on economic relations between the two Slavic states. But attention is sure to focus on the division of the Black Sea Fleet, which has become the symbol of a host of problems including the status of the majority Russian-populated Crimean peninsula, home to the fleet.