MOSCOW—NATO air strikes against Serbian military targets could have unexpected consequences, notably the rise of Slav nationalism, Russian analysts say.
Russia is a traditional ally of Orthodox Christian Serbia and the decision by the mainly Western military alliance to strike at Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic over his refusal to agree to a peace deal on Kosovo has outraged Moscow and other Orthodox Christian Slavic states of the former Soviet empire.
President Boris Yeltsin appeared on Russian television just hours before the first bombs fell in a fruitless appeal to U.S. President Bill Clinton to avoid “this tragic and dramatic step.” Earlier, Clinton had telephoned Yeltsin in an attempt to stave off the rift that has appeared in U.S.-Russian relations over U.S. policy on Yugoslavia and Kosovo.
Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who abruptly canceled a visit to Washington while flying over the Atlantic Tuesday, declared on his return to Moscow that the air strikes would not bring stability to Kosovo. “On the contrary, the situation will be destablized and our relations with the United States and stability in Europe will suffer.”
In an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov argued that the NATO strikes were “carried out in violation of the UN Charter and without Security Council authorization.” Moscow was “profoundly outraged” by them. “NATO members are not entitled to decide in the fate of other sovereign independent states,” Lavrov argued.
Chinese Ambassador Qin Huasun also condemned the NATO strikes. “This act amounts to blatant violation of the UN Charter as well as of international law,” he said. “China strongly opposes this act.”
In a surprise reaction to the NATO attack, Ukraine's parliament voted Wednesday to abandon the country's status of a nuclear free zone—opening way to bringing in nuclear weapons removed in the wake of the Soviet collapse in 1991.
Communist lawmakers who dominate the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) have made it clear that the decision was made because of “NATO's aggressive plan.” The parliament voted 278-32 to scrap Ukraine's non-nuclear status, though constitutional amendments are still needed to finalize the move.
The Slav Party of Ukraine supported Moscow's anti-NATO stance and called for an “anti-NATO alliance.” Furthermore, Ukraine's parliament also approved accords on the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based on the Crimean peninsula—previously a major divisive issue between Russia and Ukraine.
Last month, after nearly two years of delays, Russia's parliament overcame nationalist opposition to ratify a treaty defining Ukraine as a sovereign country and committing the two countries to peaceful relations. But Russian lawmakers hedged their bets by saying the treaty would only come into effect after the Ukrainian parliament ratified Black Sea Fleet agreements.
Earlier this month Ukraine's parliament also voted to join a legislative union of 12 former Soviet republics.
The surprise action by Ukraine's parliament signified possible rapprochement with Russia and Belarus and a possible setback for Western policy in Central Europe, which was understood to highlight divisions between Moscow and Kiev, analysts said.
Moscow's ally, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, shared Moscow's stance on the NATO strikes. The attack on a sovereign state was an act of aggression which would have grave consequences, Lukashenko told local television, adding that Belarus would grant Yugoslavia military aid, including shipments of arms, in the face of NATO's action.
Russian analysts said the Kremlin could now consider deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus. The return of nuclear missiles to the former Soviet republic, near the border with new NATO-member state Poland, would be widely viewed as an potentially explosive development in Russia's relations the West.
Lukashenko recently said that his country made a big mistake when it gave up Soviet nuclear missiles and hinted he would like a new nuclear arsenal.
Analysts noted, however, that despite Russia's outrage at NATO the country could hardly afford a major rupture in relations with the United States. This would make it more difficult for Russia to win new credits from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), desperately needed to avoid defaulting on its foreign debt.
Primakov was en route to Washington to try and secure $15 billion from the IMF when he cancelled his visit. Moscow, however, will continue negotiations with the IMF over further lending, said Russian Deputy Finance Minister Oleg Vyugin.
Russia's rouble reacted nervously to the crisis. Some exchange booths sold U.S. dollars for up to 27 roubles compared to the official rate of 24.2 to the dollar.
Russian analysts argue that NATO's decision to authorize air strikes against Yugoslavia without a UN mandate set a dangerous legal precedent. The move would also diminish the role of the UN, where Moscow still had a major say because of its right of veto as a permanent member of the Security Council.
“Air strikes are going to cause the burial of both the United Nations and the Security Council,” argued Russian political analyst Adronik Migranyan.
Oleg Ostroukhov, senior researcher of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow think tank, said: “Obviously, it is not about averting humanitarian catastrophe, it is about showing the whole world who's the boss. It's the law of the jungle in action.”
Analysts agreed that, despite its tough pronouncements, Russia had limited options. The government, they said, appeared to believe that the strikes showed that Washington had no intention of taking Moscow's opinion into account when resolving conflicts, because Russia is not the superpower that the Soviet Union once was, and is in no position to counter American might.
But, the analysts concluded, NATO's hardline stance would still give rise to unexpected repercussions—notably the rise of Slav nationalism.