Support for Yeltsin shapes U.S. policies Clinton advisers consider effects of Balkans actions

April 03, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The drive to shore up Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is having a subtle but decisive effect on how the United States and its allies approach crucial foreign policy decisions, especially now in the Balkans.

Collapse of Russian reform could doom the strong international consensus that the United States has been increasingly relying on to bolster its policies requiring military participation in the confrontation with Iraq, in Somalia and in former Yugoslavia.

Already, Mr. Yeltsin and his reformist foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, have weathered relentless attacks from parliamentary opponents for siding with the West and getting little to show for it.

This weekend's meeting between Mr. Yeltsin and President Clinton in Vancouver, British Columbia, will be watched carefully by Mr. Yeltsin's supporters and enemies at home.

If Russia's president fails to gain strength in the current constitutional struggle, the kind of cooperation shown by Russia in Iraq and Bosnia "is going to be increasingly difficult to come by," says Michael Mandelbaum, director of an East-West relations project at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser on Russia to President Clinton.

In framing the Clinton administration's policy on Bosnia that Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher announced Feb. 10, the president's top advisers weighed carefully "the impact of any course of action for Yeltsin's position, and what he might or might not support," a senior administration official said.

Partly as a result of this, President Clinton abandoned the expectations he had raised during the campaign of selected military strikes to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid and a halt to Serbian "ethnic cleansing."

More recently, the United States, Britain and France bowed to a Russian appeal for a seven-day waiting period before getting approval from the United Nations Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia.

And before the Security Council voted this week, the three Western powers bowed to Russian demands to weaken the resolution to exclude the possibility that warplanes of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could attack targets on the ground.

The United States and its NATO allies formally approved yesterday an operation that could begin as early as next week and might involve 50 to 100 jet fighters with authority to fire on violators if necessary.

It will be the first such airborne operation by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since it was formed in 1949 to contain communism. NATO warships have been sent to the Adriatic Sea to watch for violations of a U.N. trade embargo on Serbia and Montenegro, the remaining Yugoslav republics.

The alliance said it planned to enforce the no-fly zone by flying alongside planes violating the edict and ordering them to return to their bases, by escorting them out of the zone and, at last resort, by firing on violators.

Now, as the Security Council prepares to tighten sanctions against Serbia, Russia is registering objections to two of the toughest provisions under consideration: one freezing Serbian financial assets worldwide and another blocking transshipment of goods.

The effort to gauge the effect of Western moves on Mr. Yeltsin's political standing at home reflects President Clinton's overriding preoccupation with the progress of Russia's reform movement, which he has called "the greatest security challenge for our generation."

If the drive succeeds, he said in his speech Thursday in Annapolis, "it could mean a state of peace not only with [Russia] itself but with the world."

Failure, administration officials fear, could mean a revival of Russia's centuries-old imperialist tendencies and a new arms race.

The allied effort marks a revolution since the Cold War, when the superpowers engaged in moves and countermoves worldwide to check each other's influence.

Besides Russian nationalism, Mr. Yeltsin's difficulty stems from stresses within Russia's divided military, reeling from the demise of the Warsaw Pact, desperate money problems that require thousands of soldiers and officers to live in tents through the winter and an acute sense of falling behind the West technologically.

Aware of Mr. Yeltsin's need not to antagonize his military establishment, the United States has done no more than protest Russian arms sales to adversaries of U.S. interests, such as Iran.

Russia has justified the sales partly as a way to provide hard currency for military housing. But Mary FitzGerald, a Hudson Institute research fellow who studies the Russian military, says the Russian military's "stated objective" is to put the money into research and development.

Bosnia is a particularly sensitive problem for Mr. Yeltsin because of Russia's long-standing Slavic and political ties to Serbia, echoed in parliamentary statements by conservatives and strong nationalists.

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