Russia's tough talk unsettles West

Under fire at home, President Yeltsin hints at world war if NATO troops

Russia's resolve to stay out of the Kosovo conflict may weaken if a political crisis at home continues to spin out of control.

Observers say Russia could be the victim of its own escalating rhetoric if NATO ground troops are deployed in Kosovo, forcing Moscow to act on threats it doesn't really want to carry out.

The hard-line opposition has made repeated calls for military aid to Slav ally Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in what is clearly electioneering for parliamentary and presidential polls due in the next 15 months. This puts pressure on President Boris Yeltsin, whose leadership has never been weaker amid a looming impeachment vote, illness, and a corruption probe.

Past experience has shown that when the impulsive Mr. Yeltsin feels cornered he lashes out, and Kremlin watchers say he is not above firing a few Cabinet officials - which would contribute to the political turmoil - or making bellicose remarks that could pull Russia closer to the war.

"Russia is like a tinderbox now. Anything could happen," says one Western diplomat. "The Russians may find themselves in a position where they say something and have to act on it. Ground troops would certainly tip the balance."

The power of Russian rhetoric became apparent Friday, when for a few scary hours Western leaders worried Moscow might become involved militarily, triggering World War III.

Yeltsin, in an address to a gathering of regional governors, warned that if NATO sent in ground troops, it would force a change in Russia's approach in Kosovo. He said the Balkans crisis could lead to another world war, and suggested Yugoslavia could join Russia and Belarus in a Slavic political union.

Tensions rose even higher when Russia's parliamentary speaker claimed Yeltsin had ordered nuclear missiles to be aimed at NATO countries.

Rapid response from West

After a flurry of frantic telephone calls across Western capitals, the Kremlin backpedaled, declaring it wanted to remain outside the conflict.

President Clinton has said repeatedly that NATO has no intention of sending a ground force to Kosovo. But many military experts say such a deployment may be essential to return tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees driven out by Serbian forces.

Most local observers believe Yeltsin's rhetoric was a maneuver to stymie an impeachment vote against him Thursday in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

But Moscow newspapers unanimously expressed concern that political battles at home could widen Yugoslavia's international conflict.

"The whole action was a symbol of total irresponsibility, stupidity, and senility," wrote Moskovsky Komsomolets. "That situation pushes the great state of Russia to the brink of real and senseless war."

Yeltsin is widely expected to remain in office - but a successful impeachment vote would spell political chaos, particularly at a time when the economy has all but collapsed.

Primakov factor

The Moscow rumor mills speculate the capricious leader could declare a state of emergency, dissolve parliament, or fire Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, whose high profile Yeltsin reportedly envies.

The premier is the main stabilizing factor in Russian politics right now.

Mr. Primakov helped save the country from complete chaos when he took the helm at the height of the economic crisis in September. He has managed to forge cooperation with Yeltsin's Communist and nationalist opposition.

Primakov is also the West's best hope to rope in Russia as a go-between, with his good relations with both Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Mr. Milosevic.

Primakov seemed to take media speculation about his possible departure - the grave consequence of impeachment - seriously enough to make a rare televised address Saturday night.

Primakov insisted he had no desire to usurp his boss and appealed to the Duma not to impeach Yeltsin.

More instability ahead?

Even if Yeltsin and Primakov emerge with their jobs intact, the political intrigue in Moscow will continue to heat up, insiders predict.

Yeltsin is waging a political battle against Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov, who is investigating high-level corruption. Mr. Skuratov's office has issued arrest warrants for two prominent oligarchs, including Boris Berezovsky, a onetime confidant of the Yeltsin inner circle.

Even the security services have jumped into the fray, hinting darkly of a use of force if things don't go to their liking. The Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, made the unusual move of warning that impeachment was unconstitutional.

"What's left of political stability in this country will be thrown out the window if there is a successful impeachment vote," concludes Boris Trenin, an analyst with the think tank Carnegie Moscow Center.

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