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The Gentle Warning

WESTERN diplomats were shocked on Monday when Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev gave a militaristic speech at an international gathering. Russians were prepared to use force to take back the former Soviet republics, Mr. Kozyrev said, and were siding with aggressor Serbia in the current Yugoslav conflict.

Having phoned the four corners of the earth, diplomats were then flustered to find out that Kozyrev's speech was a ruse - designed to show the stakes if Russian President Boris Yeltsin did not survive the nationalist challenge in parliament.

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Actually, the speech came at an appropriate time, and in an appropriate way. If one wants to deal with a serious, dangerous, yet poorly understood subject, doing it in an unexpected fashiion can make sense. If the Russian foreign minister had issued to his counterparts in Europe and the West yet another grave warning, another somber analysis of nationalism, another plea for help with Russia's social strains, everyone would have nodded -"yes, yes" - and immediately forgotten it. Why not be creatively real istic about the facts that the whole world - not just Mr. Yeltsin - now faces?

Kozyrev is gently warning the West that the hour may be later than it seems. Powerful new brews of nationalism are forming in Moscow and elsewhere. Who is blocking a hostile takeover of the Kremlin by anti-Western politicians not especially interested in cooperation and civil relations, save the democratic reformers in Moscow headed by Yeltsin?

An adverse mentality developing in the East won't be countered simply by high-level talks. Yeltsin needs more support. He can't now say to Russians that if they don't follow him, they won't get help from the West - since for the most part there hasn't been much real help from the West.

The United States may slowly be waking up to the new world disorder Kozyrev warns of. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said this week, "We cannot call the new Europe either civilized or secure until we develop" ways of dealing with the "barbarity" existing in Yugoslavia. President Bush's recent speech in Texas was tougher than usual about holding nationalism in check. The Clinton administration inherits here a real hot potato.

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