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Stay Engaged With Moscow

The angry voices from Moscow blasting the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia can't be ignored. The Russians, as we recently noted, are frustrated over their powerlessness in a region where they have historic interests. But good NATO-Russia relations are a paramount interest of both sides.

Thus the Oslo meeting planned for today between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is encouraging. While the two have talked by phone since the beginning of the NATO campaign, as have Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, a face-to-face session will be even more useful.

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Secretary Albright will likely reiterate, as have US and NATO spokesmen on several occasions, that NATO's action is in no way directed at Russia. Nor is it a model for any future action against Russia. NATO wants Russia as a partner, not an enemy.

Several points should be kept in mind regarding the Russian rhetoric:

*The issue is a domestic political football in Moscow.

Leading the anti-NATO barrage is the Communist Party, which dominates parliament and is whipping up emotions in advance of next year's elections. The Communists and their fellow-travelers, neo-fascist nationalists, are playing the foreign-devils card. They want to convince voters that the blame for their economic plight lies in a Western plot to weaken Russia rather than with those same Communists and nationalists, who have blocked profoundly important reform legislation.

*President Boris Yeltsin is fighting for his political life.

Oligarchs once close to him are under investigation. Communist Duma deputies have set an impeachment vote for Thursday; it will probably fail. Yeltsin's need to look tough vis--vis the West may explain at least some of his remarks.

*Russia is not going to intervene militarily, as its government has repeatedly stated.

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Most interventionist talk comes from opposition politicians or generals who clearly haven't visited the troops lately. Russian forces aren't in any condition to intervene anywhere.

*The Primakov government won't endanger international loans to curry favor with the Serbs.

Moscow desperately needs loans from the International Monetary Fund. Without them, its economy will sink even further into chaos.

The US should work to keep Russia engaged in solving the Balkans crisis. Moscow can still play a role in communicating with Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. Russian forces could participate in a peacekeeping operation in Kosovo as they do in Bosnia.

The disagreement over Kosovo is bound to affect Russia's relations with NATO. Western leaders must do all they can to repair the damage.

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