Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 229

A decade which opened with increasingly warm ties between Moscow and the West appears to be closing in an atmosphere more reminiscent of the preceding Cold War era. This, at least, was the impression generated yesterday by the confluence of three events which reflect the recent sharp upsurge of tensions between Russia and the West: President Boris Yeltsin’s denunciations of the United States during a trip to China, a worsening spy wrangle between Moscow and Washington, and preparations for an EU summit meeting in Helsinki–to begin today–at which Western criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya could dominate the proceedings.

Karl Marx postulated that history repeats itself–as comedy–and, even amid the devastation which he has wreaked upon the Chechen civilian population and his own country’s political system, Boris Yeltsin has done his best to live up to that adage. Yesterday, only one day after the Russian president stumbled and mumbled his way through a signing ceremony for the Russia-Belarus union, he delivered what can only be described as a juvenile warning to the United States and President Bill Clinton. Responding to criticism from Clinton a day earlier over Russia’s military crackdown in Chechnya, Yeltsin told reporters that “Bill Clinton permitted himself yesterday to pressure Russia. He evidently forgot–for a second, for a minute, for a half-minute–what Russia is and that Russia has a complete arsenal of nuclear weapons and decided to flex his muscles.” Yeltsin’s remarks were made to reporters prior to talks with Li Peng, China’s second-ranking leader. Yeltsin was also quoted as warning the U.S. president against trying to dictate how the rest of the world should live. “It is we (Russia and China) who will dictate,” he said. That last remark probably did not come out exactly as Yeltsin’s handlers would have wanted either (AP, Reuters, UPI and Russian agencies, December 9).

Silly remarks during important foreign visits have become a hallmark of the Yeltsin presidency, however, and Moscow jumped in with the usual speed yesterday at least to take the edge off of Yeltsin’s warnings to Washington. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is perhaps the man most responsible for the carnage in Chechnya but who also chooses his words carefully, assured reporters that Moscow has “very good relations with the United States… [and] with the leadership of the United States.” But perhaps more indicative of the mood in Moscow, and of the Kremlin’s reckless desire to play to it, was the fact that footage carrying Yeltsin’s Beijing remarks was broadcast repeatedly on Russian television (Reuters, December 9).