Russian Bark Fades as Debts Bite

Moscow tries to halt possible NATO hits on Serbia while it's also begging for billions.

The rhetoric is defiant, with chilling threats of a new cold war. But Moscow's tough talk over Kosovo may be just that -talk - because the country desperately needs foreign financial help.

After yesterday's meeting of the six-nation Contact Group, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "We will not be deterred," by Russian objections to NATO airstrikes against Belgrade. Moscow may huff and puff about freezing cooperation with NATO if the attacks go forward, but behind the scenes, President Boris Yeltsin's ministers have been frenetically lobbying the International Monetary Fund for more money - and trying to stave off an armed confrontation.

Over the past week, as Russian ministers were threatening dire consequences of a use of force against Belgrade, finance officials were in Washington begging for another $4.3 billion to cope with the economic crisis.

"The country needs to push itself forward in international affairs to compensate for being so fragile economically," says Artyom Rudnitsky, head of the foreign policy department at the Foreign Ministry's diplomatic academy. "I'm not sure that Russia can take any steps now."

Serbia is Russia's ally in the Balkans. Before becoming prime minister last month, Yevgeny Primakov headed the Foreign Ministry with the main plank of reviving Russia's position and independence from the West. He played a crucial role in defusing tensions with Iraq last year.

Moscow warns it will veto use of force against Belgrade if the issue is put to the United Nations Security Council. And Russia threatened to freeze a May 1997 cooperation pact with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if it went ahead with airstrikes.

"Russia does not want a local conflict or a lack of patience or political will to provoke an adventure which will throw all of us back to the cold war," Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said recently in an interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. "Before doing something one must meticulously calculate the consequences."

Various Russian analysts believe that his doomsday rhetoric would not be backed by harsh actions, however. "Russia can't pursue a strong policy while it needs financial support from the IMF and other lenders," says Boris Shmelyov, an analyst with the Institute of International Economic and Political Studies, a state-run research center in Moscow. "Russia is not ready to participate in a new cold war."

There are reports, however, that Russia may have recently upgraded surface-to-air missiles used by the Yugoslav Army - equipment that would theoretically be used against NATO during a confrontation.

Still, Moscow seems intent upon avoiding a standoff with NATO if possible. Over the past week, Mr. Yeltsin has spoken on the telephone with various world leaders and on Sunday sent a message to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic urging him to listen to reason. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Yeltsin advised Mr. Milosevic to comply with UN resolutions to withdraw special Serb security units and take urgent steps to resolve the humanitarian crisis arising from the seven-month conflict in Kosovo, where the majority ethnic-Albanian population is seeking independence. Moscow fears that establishing an ethnic-Albanian state in Kosovo would set a dangerous precedent for Chechen separatists at home.

Russia's trump card is its large nuclear arsenal, which Washington frets over when Moscow hints darkly of new tensions.

"Nuclear weapons maintain Russia as a serious international player," says Yevgeny Kozhokin, head of the Russian Institute of Strategic Research in Moscow.

Air raids on Belgrade behind Russia's back could undo Mr. Ivanov's resolve until now to push the Communist-dominated Duma, the lower house of parliament, to finally ratify the 1993 START II treaty reducing US and Russian nuclear arsenals. However, most analysts believe that Moscow will not want to be drawn into a new arms race. Nearly bankrupt and in the process of reducing its huge Army, Russia would find getting heavily involved militarily in Yugoslavia a disaster.

If NATO proceeds with airstrikes, there is a risk Russia may become more isolationist and draw closer to China and nearby Islamic states.

Mr. Primakov is an old Middle East hand who came to diplomacy as a scholar and journalist specializing in the region. He boasts good contacts with so-called pariah states such as Syria, Libya, Iran, and Iraq. Desperate for cash and irked by the West, Russia could easily provide technology or arms to such states, analysts say.

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