Russians React to NATO Airstrikes

THE shock waves from the airstrikes carried out by NATO warplanes over Bosnia earlier this week are still being felt here in the Russian capital.

From the rostrums of the Russian parliament to the pages of Russian newspapers, a broad consensus of condemnation has formed on the bombing raids. Beyond the events in Bosnia, many Russians see the first use of force by the NATO alliance as yet another signal of an aggressive Western posture toward Russia itself.

In Russian government circles, there is visible irritation, even anger, over perceived slights to Russia's status as a ``great power.'' Even more so, officials say, because Russian diplomats and Russian peacekeeping troops are deeply involved in the attempt to bring a settlement to the Bosnian war.

In a typical commentary, the liberal daily Sevodnya on April 13 linked the events in Bosnia to clashes this past week between Ukrainian and Russian military forces over possession of facilities and equipment of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet. It accused the United States of ``provoking the hapless Ukrainian leadership into making irresponsible anti-Russian moves.''

The most visible impact of the Bosnian bombings are signs that Moscow is backing away, at least for now, from immediately joining NATO's Partnership for Peace, a program for cooperation between the Western military alliance and the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

``NATO's airstrike in Gorazde has raised the question of Partnership for Peace to a new plane,'' senior foreign ministry official Yuri Ushakov told a Duma [parliament] hearing on the program yesterday. ``It's clear to everybody that there is no real partnership. The interests of Russia are not being taken into account.''

Echoing President Boris Yeltsin, who earlier this week said Russia was in ``no hurry'' to sign onto the program, the official denied earlier reports that Russia would officially join on April 21. He said the government is still discussing preparations for this step among various ministries and agencies.

Foreign and Defense Ministry officials faced a barrage of criticism at the hearings from Communist, nationalist, and other deputies as well as from representatives of other government agencies, the defense industry, and the border troop command. Critics charged that NATO remains an ``aggressive military bloc'' whose aim is to weaken Russia and its ties to the former Soviet republics.

The opponents of Partnership proposed the alternative of first forming a tight ``collective security'' pact among the 12 former Soviet republics that are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Lt. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, representing the military coordination staff of the CIS, suggested such a unified group could then cooperate with NATO.

The Russian government officials offered at best a back-handed defense of joining the NATO program. Foreign Ministry official Ushakov argued that Russia would face ``isolation'' if it backed out of Partnership. ``If we walk out of this process, NATO will be strengthened,'' he warned, pointing out that already three former Soviet republics - Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova - have joined, with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan ready to sign.

``Russia will be faced with a situation where a European security system would be formed without its participation,'' Maj. Gen. Pavel Zolotaryov of the Defense Ministry told the hearing. ``The events in Yugoslavia show just how the situation might evolve in this direction. Then we would really have NATO standing right on our borders.''

Foreign Ministry officials claim privately they have lost considerable ground as a result of the events in Bosnia. ``We were making some headway in preparing public opinion for joining Partnership,'' an official says. ``Unfortunately the bombing in Gorazde has spoiled all this.''

The State Duma on Wednesday adopted a resolution that ``denounces NATO's unilateral coercive actions in Bosnia-Herzegovina,'' though it voted down amendments to lift economic sanctions against Yugoslavia and to halt participation in Partnership.

The Russian government issued a tough statement as well on April 13 charging that the NATO strikes on April 10 and 11 ``have substantially aggravated the military and political situation.'' They warn against new Western plans to rely on the use of force ``in Bosnia as well as in world affairs.''

Russian objections to the airstrikes are two-fold - the failure to consult Russia beforehand and the use of force in a ``one-sided'' manner. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov specifically refutes American claims that Russian officials on the United Nations staff in Sarajevo were informed in advance. ``We were informed post-factum,'' he says, adding that ``this is in violation of the procedures established last July by the United Nations secretary-general himself.''

Western governments have argued against that interpretation of the procedure, insisting that UN officials are able to call in air support as they see fit based on resolutions already approved.

``Our Western colleagues were telling us privately, `Why are you complaining? Imagine if we had consulted you, you would have said no.' I don't accept this approach. We don't want to be consulted only when they expect a yes from us,'' Mr. Lavrov says.

Foreign Ministry officials say they might have been able to persuade the Serbs to halt their offensive. And they accuse the West of ignoring alleged provocations from Bosnian Muslim forces that triggered the fighting in Gorazde.``I don't perceive any ill intentions here,'' Lavrov says, ``but rather an absolutely new situation when we all have to learn not in words, but in deeds, how to be partners, and at that, to do this in very complex and concrete circumstances.''

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