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Kremlin chafes at backseat role

Russia is upset that despite nuclear arsenal, it wields less and less power on world stage.

The Anglo-American bomb raids on Iraq earlier this month have created a new frostiness toward the West in Moscow, which feels affronted by not having been consulted as an equal power.

While Russian officials have stopped short of declaring a new cold war, they warn that the perceived snub may be a turning point in already deteriorating relations. They say they have been forced to look eastward for new allies, are rethinking cooperation with NATO, and - most seriously - have frozen ratification of the Start II nuclear arms treaty.

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While the US view is largely that Russia's policy hands are impotently tied by its dependence on Western economic aid, Russians say their anger is being underestimated by a Washington distracted by domestic impeachment affairs.

"A cloud hangs over our longterm relations," says one Russian government official, who asked not to be identified. "We cannot trust the US anymore. We have to take precautions and distance ourselves so that we don't find ourselves at the mercy of the West one day."

The root of the problem is Russia's world role since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. American officials say Russia has difficulty accepting its decline from an imperial superpower to essentially a Third World country taken seriously only for its nuclear missiles.

"Russia is a special case of course, because of its nukes," says one US official, who also requested anonymity. "But that doesn't mean it has the same influence as before."

The Americans note that Russia's economy is on the verge of collapse, held up only by foreign assistance including food aid. Russia has lost its influence in former cold war satellites in Africa and Central Europe and, most ignominiously, in its neighbors that used to make up the Soviet Union.

Adding to Russia's frustration is that it never formed the true equal partnership it hoped for with NATO after signing a 1997 cooperation agreement. To a large extent, Moscow has been treated as a junior protg of the US, which it accuses of condescension.

Such a secondary role does not come easy to Russia, which continues to view itself as a major power due to its status as the world's largest country (in terms of territory), huge arsenal of nuclear arms, and key membership with veto powers on the UN Security Council.

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A desire to reassert its influence on world events has deepened with the appointment in September of Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, who earlier as Foreign Minister made it his mission to restore Moscow's past glory.

The Kremlin was outraged when Washington and London bombed Baghdad without support from the UN Security Council, ignoring Russia's pleas to pursue diplomacy against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's resistance to UN weapons inspections.

The lack of consultation was particularly irritating to Primakov, an old Middle East hand proud of his good ties with Saddam.

The air raids, moreover, came at a time of acute Russian sensitivity about NATO plans for expansion eastward and a sense that the economy is being directed by outside forces such as International Monetary Fund creditors.

"We don't want to accept a humiliation whereby Russia is treated like a defeated power presented with the dictates of winners," says Sergei Rogov, director of the US-Canada Institute, a state-funded think tank based in Moscow.

Russia took the extreme step of recalling "for consultations" its ambassadors to London and Washington, although the US envoy was sent back on Wednesday.

Primakov further signalled his dissatisfaction last week by suggesting a triangular strategic alliance with India and China. The notion was coolly received by both Asian countries, although officials in Moscow officials say to expect more aloofness toward the West in coming months.

Leonid Ivashov, head of international military cooperation at the Defense Ministry, warned that future joint exercises with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization might be jeopardized.

"By attacking Iraq, the Americans have raised serious doubts over cooperation between US and Russian military forces in 1999," he said in a recent interview with the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.

Without doubt, the most damaging ramification of the airstrikes was the derailment of plans to ratify Start II.

The US Senate endorsed the treaty in 1996 but the initiative has been blocked by Communist opposition in the Duma, or lower house of parliament. Primakov, after savvy lobbying, had finally persuaded them to relent - but the Iraq attacks stopped all that.

Nuclear weapons are Russia's trump card, as the Communists and Americans know all too well. Russia watchers in Washington are keenly aware of the dangers of rising nationalistic, xenophobic sentiment in Russia what with the economic meltdown and uncertainty over who will be president following the 2000 elections.

"I would be lying if I said Russia didn't matter," said the American official. "We must be aware of the inherent dangers of an unstable situation."

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