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Temptations for Moscow to intervene on Kosovo

Russia's crumbling military sends ships to Mediterranean. More than amuscle flex?

As the Balkans crisis threatens to pull in more countries, Russia has signaled to NATO that Moscow's passive stance on Yugoslavia may have limits.

Officials say President Boris Yeltsin is still committed to finding a peaceful solution and to avoiding being sucked in to the conflict. Yesterday he called for an emergency meeting of the Group of Eight industrial countries to try to avert disaster. But the failed peace mission of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov this week has increased hawkish pressure on the Kremlin.

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By sending warships to the Mediterranean - the first is due to set sail today with a half-dozen more expected to follow soon, ostensibly for reconnaissance - Russia is going beyond merely condemning NATO strikes.

The United States has called the move unhelpful and Russian news agencies report Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov late Wednesday to express concern about the deployment.

The last thing the Russian government wants is a confrontation with the West, but it is bolstering its military preparedness just in case, senior officials say.

"Every day of airstrikes shortens the list of measures that are not painful," says one government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Soon Russia will find itself in a position where the list will disappear."

Although it could be dismissed as mere saber-rattling, Russia's naval presence raises tension in the Mediterranean, where NATO ships are deployed for strikes against Yugoslavia. The warships are meant simply to shadow NATO movements, but a dangerous mishap could occur.

THE Kremlin does not want a new cold war, especially after negotiating an agreement in principle this week with the International Monetary Fund. But a weak President Yeltsin faces loud calls from the streets, many of his generals, and the nationalist opposition to help traditional ally Belgrade.

The Communist-controlled parliament is pressing to lift the United Nations arms embargo against Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, the Russian armed forces have been testing their readiness.

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Russia's weakened military is incapable of taking on NATO, aside from its 30,000 nuclear warheads, which are unlikely to be used, military analysts say. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev recently conceded to a sorry decline in military capacity since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

One-third of its weapons are not combat-ready, he said, and only 28 percent are state-of-the-art. Some 60 percent of strategic-missiles systems have been around for twice their intended service life. More than 70 percent of Navy ships require repair and two-thirds of Air Force aircraft cannot fly. This is on top of a fighting force that has dwindled from 5 million in the 1980s to 2 million today and has been told to fish and gather mushrooms to survive.

But Moscow has equipment and technical know-how the Serbs desperately need, should Russia abandon the arms embargo. Analysts say the first step of any involvement would likely entail sending in military advisers, particularly those versed in antiaircraft defense. There are unconfirmed reports that Russian defense contractors and mercenaries are already there.

The biggest help would be giving Yugoslavia the latest Russian models, particularly S-300 PMU antiaircraft missile systems. "The Serbs could do a lot with the latest Russian antiaircraft missiles, jet fighters, and teams to go with them," says Makmut Gareyev, President of the Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow.

It would be hard to smuggle in large weaponry, especially by air, due to the NATO blockade. But clandestine shipments of hand-held antiaircraft missiles or guns could come through Greece or Cyprus, say analysts.

"Just one planeload of portable antiaircraft missiles could create a lot of havoc," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading military commentator in Moscow. Mr. Felgenhauer adds that the military establishment is itching to revive Russia's war machine. "The Rus-sian General Staff must be having a 24-hour party now that they have an enemy again. The military hopes to increase its profits."

Arms are Russia's leading manufactured export. Even before NATO's Balkans campaign began, the government had stated that it wanted to increase sales by 20 percent this year. It could go even higher by relaxing arms sales to pariah states such as Libya, Iran, and Iraq. And Russia could make quick money by selling its technical military expertise for research and development in China and India. India is eager for Russian nuclear submarines, while China wants assistance on developing submarine and ballistic missiles.

"The question is financial restraints, not capacity. If the money were made available, production of some arms could be increased very quickly," says Alexander Bikayev, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

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