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Russia: Leaders Unite In Anger Over Air Strikes On Iraq

Moscow, 18 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- These days, very few issues can unite Russia's bitterly divided political leadership. However, U.S.-led air strikes against Iraq have.

President Boris Yeltsin has called operations against Iraq by U.S. and British forces a violation of the UN charter. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has called them "outrageous". Similar views have also been voiced by leaders of both houses of parliament.

The State Duma yesterday overwhelmingly backed a resolution accusing the United States and Britain of "international terrorism" for launching the strikes. The resolution called for an increase in defense spending and said the events "are a basis for a serious re-evaluation of the state and future of Russia's relations with the U.S., Britain and NATO."

At government level, Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov said the attacks will worsen the Iraq crisis and will also have "serious international consequences."

Ivanov seemed to sum up the humiliated mood of the Russian leadership when he said, referring to the United States, that no nation has the right to "claim to be the judge of the whole world."

Today, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said the air strikes have forced Moscow to rethink its strategy of cooperation with NATO.

Sergeyev issued a statement saying "cooperation and partnership with NATO are now out of the question because Russia's opinion is being openly ignored."

Russian leaders also seem to agree that the air strikes have derailed chances for ratification of the START Two nuclear arms reduction treaty with the U.S.

Kremlin foreign affairs advisor Sergei Prikhodko summed up the current mood in Moscow when he said that "we may as well forget about a Duma vote on Start Two."

Russia's communist and nationalist-dominated State Duma has repeatedly delayed ratification of the treaty, signed in 1993. But there had been signs that deputies would finally back it, in part to improve Moscow's chances of obtaining much-needed Western financial support.

The Duma Council was scheduled to discuss a possible date for the next discussion on the ratification of Start Two yesterday, but the news of the air strikes removed the issue from the agenda. Duma foreign affairs committee chairman Vladimir Lukin, a member of the moderate "Yabloko" faction and a former ambassador to the U.S., said the decision had been taken "demonstratively."

Future plans remain unclear. Lukin said that "the nearest real prospects of Start Two are not seen anymore." Similar comments came from Aleksandr Shokhin, leader of the "Our Home Is Russia" faction. He said the issue could be raised again in January, but added that prospects for the treaty's ratification are "obscure."

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who led a near unanimous call for an increase in military spending in the 1999 budget that is soon to be discussed by the Duma, said yesterday there would be no point in discussing Start Two now. Zyuganov said defense spending should be stepped up regardless of Russia's economic problems.

The communists were the most vocal in pointing out Moscow's inability to prevent the U.S. decision to carry out air strikes on Iraq. Zyuganov said that "if the Soviet Union still existed, this would not have happened."

His words were echoed by other deputies and also by Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, on a visit to Moscow for talks with Yeltsin. While politicians were condemning the U.S. over the air strikes in Iraq, some observers were warning against delaying ratification of Start Two and increasing defense spending.

One was Sergei Karaganov, a political analyst who heads the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a body that once advised the Russian president. He noted in comments to Interfax that Start Two "largely serves Russia's interests." The treaty, already approved by the U.S., would halve Russian and American nuclear arsenals to about 3,000 to 3,500 warheads each.

Karaganov said that "if Russia rejects ratification of the treaty to punish the U.S., (it) would be acting like someone who wanted to annoy his neighbor by hanging himself from his roof."

The daily "Izvestia" said today that ratification of Start Two is one of the "necessary conditions" for the continuation of economic cooperation between Russia and the West. In the words of the daily, "despite the clear difference in views with Washington on Iraq, despite the bitter resentment at the fact that the Americans did not warn the Kremlin ahead of the attack, we are not in the position to slam the door and blow relations with the U.S., Western Europe and the International Monetary Fund." The paper concluded that "the economic situation is too bad and our dependence on Western financial institutions is just too great."