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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin: Don't Push Russia Into War




President Boris Yeltsin warned NATO not to push Russia into a world war as parliamentary leaders spoke of Russian missiles pointed anew at NATO and mused on a union with Yugoslavia that would put Russian troops on Serbian territory.


"I have told NATO members, the Americans and the Germans: Do not push us into military action," Yeltsin said Friday at a meeting with the State Duma speaker, Gennady Seleznyov. "Otherwise there will be a war in Europe at a minimum, and perhaps a world war."


Seleznyov's statements later in parliament, however, made a world war look much nearer. He announced that Yeltsin had ordered Russia's strategic missile forces to retarget their nuclear weapons on NATO countries involved in the bombing of Yugoslavia.


As confused military leaders told reporters they had seen no such order and Seleznyov's own spokesman called the quote a "mistake." Yeltsin fiercely denied he had given the order.


Seleznyov then made another sensational statement that also was quickly shot down. He said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whom Seleznyov had met in Belgrade earlier this week, wanted to join Russia's loose union with Belarus, a former Soviet republic.


Milosevic "asked me to verbally pass on to Boris Yeltsin a request to review the issue of political - not military, political - problems of today's Yugoslavia by joining Yugoslavia with the union of Russia and Belarus," Seleznyov said as deputies broke into applause.


"If there will be a union, I think we will have our army there, and our navy in the sea accordingly," Seleznyov told reporters later. "We'll have a normal base there."


But Yeltsin expressed his doubts about a union with Yugoslavia, and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia would consider Yugoslavia for membership in the union - which so far involves limited military partnership - but an agreement would be signed too late to help Russia's embattled ally.


Yeltsin's spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin firmly told reporters that the president "gave no orders to change military tasks, battle-readiness of our military or other forces."


He said that Russia would receive "no military interference or aid," adding that, "Yugoslavia is a bit offended by this."


In the Duma, where advocates of military aid to Belgrade are in the vast majority, Seleznyov's comments raised the war talk to a pitch on Friday.


NATO has been bombing Yugoslavia since March 24 and continued the attacks Friday despite Belgrade's assertions that it was observing a cease-fire in honor of Orthodox Easter weekend, celebrated by both Russia and Serbia.


Seleznyov said the idea for a union among Russia, Belarus and Yugoslavia came up as an effort to stop NATO bombings. "We're talking not about going to war, we're talking about stopping war," Seleznyov told the lower house.


Seleznyov was the most recent in a line of Russian officials - including Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, as well as a host of lawmakers - to visit Belgrade in hopes of limiting NATO's ability to bomb and bringing Milosevic to the negotiating table. None has met with success.


The State Duma, where left leaning nationalists hold a vast majority, condemns NATO at nearly every session and agitates for countermeasures such as unilaterally breaking an arms embargo to deliver anti-aircraft weapons to Serbia and supplying volunteers to fight there.


Also Friday, deputies angrily slapped down a proposal by former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev to call for an end to Russian humanitarian aid to Yugoslavia.


Kozyrev railed at Russian leaders for handing out alms - Russian made medications, food and other provisions - to Yugoslavia when it was receiving humanitarian aid from Europe and the United States.


Kozyrev argued the aid deliveries were causing Russia's masses of poor to go without. "How do the deputies feel about their own voters?" Kozyrev asked. His proposal was voted down 12 to 225.


In addition to the aid convoy that is due to arrive in Belgrade on Sunday, Russia sent one small reconnaissance ship to the Mediterranean.


So far, Russia has managed only these token actions against the NATO strikes, a further sign of Russia's impotence in world affairs - a circumstance many Russian legislators blame on a pro-Western foreign policy led by Yeltsin and Kozyrev.


Yeltsin's support is at an all-time low, and the Duma is moving toward a vote of impeachment, hoping to lay at his feet the blame for the violent political upheavals and poverty in Russia.


The impeachment drive, which would have to pass through an ambivalent upper house of parliament and two Yeltsin appointed courts, is unlikely to succeed.


But Yeltsin, notoriously sensitive to any strike at his authority, is playing a delicate game: He must satisfy a nationalist, left-leaning parliament while maintaining Russia's dignity on the world arena, at all times refraining from any action that could be dangerous for Russia, militarily weak and dependent on Western loans and aid to fill out its meager budget.


"Boris Yeltsin is trying to shake Western leaders by saying, if you keep ignoring us, we will keep yelling louder and louder and louder until you hear," said Sergei Markov, director of the Center for Political Studies. "Western leaders view Yeltsin as a squeaking door in this conflict. They are ignoring him completely. This is the biggest offense of all to him."


Observers speculated the Seleznyov made his sensational statements in hopes of pacifying legislators into delaying the impeachment vote - a possibility they agreed to consider next week. The impeachment vote is tentatively scheduled for next Thursday.


When the NATO bombings began, Russian military officials immediately dropped hints to journalists that Russian forces were put on heightened alert and even hinted that Russia might move nuclear weapons back into Belarus, which is ruled by the unpredictable President Alexander Lukashenko. Both assertions have been written off as attempts to frighten NATO countries into backing down.


The idea of forming a union of Russia, Belarus and Yugoslavia is likely more of the same. Without confirmation from Belgrade, even the politicians who most actively supported the proposal said they would only begin to work on realizing it when Russia received an official written request from Milosevic.


The authoritarian Lukashenko and Milosevic are both feared by Russian liberals like Sergei Yushenkov, a former general and Duma deputy.


"In these conditions, you could appeal to the State Duma to form a union of dictatorships," Yushenkov told Seleznyov. "All we need to do now is bring in Baghdad."