Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 70

Russia’s worsening domestic political turmoil appeared to spill over more definitively into its diplomatic dealings with the West when, on April 9, Moscow emitted a series of signals suggesting that it would harden its opposition to NATO military strikes on Yugoslavia. Various media quoted President Boris Yeltsin as warning that the introduction of NATO ground forces into the campaign against Yugoslavia could bring Russia into the conflict. More ominously still, State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev said publicly that Yeltsin had ordered the retargeting of Russian nuclear missiles at those NATO countries involved in the air campaign against Belgrade.

That last claim in particular set off alarm bells in the West and an urgent series of consultations between Russian officials and their Western counterparts. There was some confusion in Moscow, moreover, as both the Foreign Ministry and the command of the country’s strategic rocket forces denied that the Kremlin had ordered any such retargeting of Russia’s missiles. In the end, there appeared to be some question as to exactly what Yeltsin had told Seleznev. A spokesman for Seleznev was quoted as saying that Yeltsin had said simply that such a move was possible, but only if the crisis in the Balkans worsened. He also described missile re-targeting reports as a “major information mistake.” (Russian and Western agencies, April 9). In Washington, senior Clinton administration officials said that the Kremlin had assured them that Yeltsin would not retarget Russia’s missiles (Washington Post, April 10).

There was, however, little question that Yeltsin chose to harden his rhetoric with regard to the conflict over Kosovo. In remarks broadcast by Russian television during his meeting with Seleznev, Yeltsin warned “NATO, the Americans and the Germans” not to push Russian toward military action in Yugoslavia. “Otherwise,” he said,” there will be a European war for sure and possibly a world war” (Reuters, April 9).

Although Yeltsin has repeatedly denounced NATO in the strongest terms for its actions in the Balkans, his April 9 comments appeared to contradict what has become the Kremlin’s standard line on the issue: that, despite its unhappiness over NATO strikes, Moscow will not let itself be drawn into the conflict. Yeltsin has also resisted calls from his political opponents to begin dispatching Russian military hardware to Belgrade. It was unclear whether Yeltsin’s April 9 saber-rattling reflected a substantive change in the Kremlin’s policy toward Yugoslavia–one in which Moscow might back up its anti-NATO declarations with some sort of tangible support for Belgrade. It also seemed possible that Yeltsin’s remarks were intended more for his domestic political audience and were aimed at warding off criticism from his more hardline, pro-Serb political opponents. In a meeting today with parliamentary speaker Gennady Seleznev, Yeltsin–according to the presidential press service–said that the impeachment charges pending against him in the Duma should be debated now or dropped altogether (AP, April 12).