Thu, 25 Mar 1999

U.S. risks with Russia seen in Kosovo moves

By Christopher Boian

WASHINGTON (AFP): In its determination to use the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to impose a Kosovo peace settlement on Serbia, the United States is jeopardizing its own larger strategic goals and the cooperation from Russia needed to fulfill many of them, experts here warn.

U.S. and Russian efforts to limit the spread of sensitive military technologies and weapons of mass destruction, along with Washington's desire for long-term political stability in Moscow, are among the bilateral priorities put at risk by the move on Kosovo, they say.

While there has so far been no rupture in ties between the United States and Russia serious enough to halt cooperation in these key areas, a protracted military campaign by the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization against Serbia could result in such a break.

"The U.S. administration really treated Russia with a kind of contempt on this whole issue of Kosovo," said Dmitri Simes, a noted authority on Russia and president of the Washington-based Nixon Center for Peace and Justice, a foreign policy think thank.

Simes said that the abrupt, mid-air cancellation of a scheduled visit to Washington by Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov -- due to U.S. and Russian disagreement over Kosovo -- probably marked a low point for their relations not seen since the early 1980s.

"The assumption here is that there is little that Russia can do" about NATO air strikes in Serbia, ordered over Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's rejection of an international peace accord for Kosovo, Simes said.

"I think that is a mistake."

To prove his point, and in retaliation for the upcoming NATO action, the Russian ministries of defense and foreign affairs announced a series of punitive measures Tuesday.

Under the proposals, which have yet to be put to President Boris Yeltsin, Moscow could review its cooperation with Iran, arm Belgrade and replace nuclear weapons in Belarus, ITAR-TASS reported.

Russia "seriously envisages" the possibility of abandoning its accords with the United States on deliveries of arms and military materiel to Iran in the case of NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia, the agency said.

Analysts warn that Russia could default on international debt, blame the United States for an ensuing economic collapse, become more nationalistic and inward-looking and, through lack of viable alternatives, relax control over advanced weapons and technologies.

"You are dealing with a situation where, by June or July, if nothing is done, Russia will be facing another default," Simes explained, noting the main purpose of Primakov's visit had been to unlock badly-needed fresh credit from the International Monetary Fund.

"This would not necessarily have a terrible impact on world financial markets, but would certainly do serious damage to an already shaky Russian domestic situation and could produce destabilization of a country with thousands of nuclear weapons.

"If something like that starts going out of control on Russian territory, it is going to be much more ominous than anything we can visualize in Kosovo."

The United States has, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, steadily voiced concern about Russia's control over materials used in the manufacture of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission, a bilateral structure headed currently by Primakov and Vice President Al Gore, has put a premium on boosting control of these weapons and Washington has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into various programs with this aim.

But despite its reliance on cooperative relations with Moscow to achieve these and other objectives, the United States has opted at present to ignore Russia's ancient alliance with Serbia and its profound opposition to Western military attacks on fellow Slavs there.

"While we've worked very closely together to try to get a peaceful resolution to this conflict ... when it came to the use of force there was disagreement" between Washington and Moscow, a White House official said after Primakov canceled his visit.

"We clearly disagree on how to carry out this operation in Serbia," U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN Tuesday.

But "we have been completely transparent with the Russians in telling them what the options are here," she added.

Why might the United States be prepared to see some of its strategic goals compromised in exchange for taking a hard line against Milosevic and Russia on how to resolve the Kosovo conflict?

"Because Russia can't afford to fight us on this one," explained one U.S. official.

"Their financial situation is of much more concern to them than anything that is happening down there in Serbia," said the official who spoke on condition she not be named.

Simes and other experts agree with that view and say that, for now at least, the political elite in Washington is pressuring the Clinton administration, for a range of reasons, to "do something about Kosovo" and the White House is complying.

While Russia has opposed NATO plans to attack in Kosovo, it has supported the U.S. portrayal of the situation there and agreed Milosevic is to blame for it.

But the Russian position could change quickly if NATO strikes are not quickly wrapped up.

"If three weeks from now Milosevic is still defiant, you will quickly see that the dynamics of this debate will change," Simes said.

"It is very important for this administration to prevail over Milosevic and to prevail quickly. Otherwise, it may become feasible for Russian military 'volunteers' to start appearing in Serbia."