Anyone might've fired at U.S. Embassy in Moscow

September 17, 1995|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- No one knows who fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the U.S. Embassy last week, but so many Russians are so mad at the United States these days that the possibilities are numerous.

The rocket attack, which caused no injuries, came just days after the lower house of the Russian Parliament, the Duma, held an extraordinary session -- it broke into a brawl at one point -- to denounce the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb targets.

Even the cooler-headed Duma members formed a delegation midweek to go to Bosnia to act as human shields against Western aggression.

Russian relations with the West seemed at their lowest point since the Cold War.

Russians are naturally tense because "NATO is killing people for the first time in its history," said Vyachelav Nikonov, a Duma deputy from the moderate Russian Party of Unity and Cooperation.

And more to the point, to Russians the people in NATO's bombsights are "people like us."

"Today Serbia. Tomorrow Russia," blared a Pravda headline Thursday.

The crisis that festered last week subsided with Thursday's agreement by NATO to stop the bombing after the Bosnian Serbs promised to lift the siege of Sarajevo.

But analysts say that the upwelling of anger here over Bosnia is more a symptom of a long-gestating resentment toward the West while the Russian superpower struggles to hold itself together domestically, let alone flex its muscles on the international scene.

Several factors militate against the poor relations turning into a genuine threat.

President Boris N. Yeltsin, for all his strong talk of the NATO bombing as "genocide" and threats to pull out of a partnership with the Western military alliance, is not inclined to push a confrontation.

On Thursday, he vetoed parliamentary legislation that would break the United Nations embargo against the Serbian-dominated former Yugoslavia.

Russia has few cards to play that would trump the West, though there are sensitive issues that could be problematic, said Alexander Konovalov, director of the Center for Military Policy and System Analyses.

Russian nuclear reactor sales to Iran are going forward, ratification of START II arms reduction agreement by Russia is now doubtful and Russia is not likely to comply with a 1990 treaty limiting conventional weapons in Europe, he said.

Mr. Konovalov said Russia cannot afford to risk its valuable economic ties to the West -- even if Russia has yet to turn those ties into full economic recovery.

Nonetheless, Russian leadership has some genuine fears. NATO, seen now as an aggressive force, is actively studying expansion of its membership to former Russian-dominated Warsaw Pact nations. And there is strong suspicion here that the West would like hostile relations with Russia in order to justify its NATO expansion.

Further fueling those suspicions was the circulation here of a purported secret memorandum between NATO and the United Nations. The five-page understanding allowed NATO to carry out air raids in response to a perceived "threat of an attack" by the Serbs. Russian leadership accused the U.N. Security Council -- of which it is a member -- of cutting it out of the decision-making process.

"The strongest argument for opposition to what NATO is doing is that when we were dangerous everyone considered our view," said Mr. Konovalov. "The West leaves less and less space for us when it behaves as if Russia is no longer important."

Said a Western diplomat here: "You can't imagine a bigger psychological blow than Russia, a former superpower, seeing its adversary . . . moving in with NATO [into former Warsaw Pact areas].

"That's a tangible, humiliating manifestation that says to Russia, 'You are not part of the game in Europe -- you don't have enough of a voice or power to prevent it.'

"To say we've ignored them is too strong," the diplomat said. "They've been listened to, but other considerations have won out.

4 "They haven't had much success in being heeded."

It is to the West's benefit to encourage a strong Russian democracy and economy, the diplomat said. "But do we want to see Russia strong on the international scene? That depends on what kind of role Russia plays . . . a strong constructive force or a spoiler."

Russia has tried to insert itself as a peace-making force in the former Yugoslavia. It opposed the NATO bombing to punish Bosnian Serbs, invoking nationalistic images of a Slavic brotherhood with the Serbs, who share a similar language and the Orthodox religion. The Russians and Serbs historically have been allies in wars against the Turks and Germans.

Though most Russians are aware of the ties, few Russians could detail what exactly is being disputed in the former Yugoslavia. And polls show Russians to be much more concerned about pocketbook issues than NATO aggressiveness.

But election fever affects Russia just as it does the United States.

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