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Russia's diplomatic playacting

A remarkable sideshow of the Kosovo tragedy is Russia's hectic diplomatic effort to broker a political solution that keeps Slobodan Milosevic and gets rid of NATO. The Kremlin appears on the world stage as though it were once again a great power.

The Russian Federation still stretches across the map from Scandinavia to Japan. It looks back on three centuries of conquest. Its people are dynamic and talented, but never have its fortunes been so low. Economically, it is crippled by corruption, dependent on foreign help to avert bankruptcy, able to collect only 10 percent of taxes due. Its military establishment, backbone of the nation since Peter the Great, is shrunken and decaying. Politically, it is more and more a headless hulk with power drifting away from the center. Playing at big-time diplomacy abroad, it cannot solve its problems at home.

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When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Moscow fostered a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It was a political affinity grouping of 12 former Soviet republics. Last month, its central strategic element, a collective security treaty highlighting Russian predominance, quietly expired, most of the members unwilling to renew it.

Moscow has tried to preserve its primacy through bilateral treaties. But it has cut in half its troops stationed in Tajikistan as protection against an Islamist threat from Afghanistan. It doesn't have the money to pay them. Central Asian and Caucasus republics increasingly go their own way as their fears of reprisal diminish.

No one has a sharper nose for power than Mr. Milosevic. He and Moscow know that Russia can give him no material help. But at one point their interests dramatically converge. Russia's presence in the United Nations is a trump card for them both. They are now calling for a compromise under the auspices of the UN. Milosevic says the UN "can have a huge presence in Kosovo if it wishes - as great as our guests." This is meant to sound inviting. In 1992, a UN force went into Croatia as Milosevic's patsy, in effect consolidating Serbian victory in the first phase of his Yugoslav war. It remained a fig leaf for Western indecision while he chewed up Bosnia - until the West woke up to what was happening and went to war to save what was left.

The Kremlin, too, is urging that the UN be brought into the Kosovo picture, summoning Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Moscow to underline its desire. The UN provides the last major forum where Russia is, by right, important, a stage on which it can strut.

It is understandable that the United States and its NATO allies play along. As democracies, they must reassure their people that they truly want peace. And Russia still has a capacity for different kinds of mischief - as well as ill-guarded nuclear warheads. But, it is one thing to pursue every possibility of ending the violence and another to be led by the nose into fruitless negotiation. Moscow, ignoring the mass murder and expulsion of Kosovar Albanians, backs Milosevic.

Not to see this makes NATO appear ignorant or spineless, which could only embolden Milosevic. He remembers that Josef Stalin broke his teeth on Tito's Yugoslavia. "You are not willing to sacrifice lives to achieve our surrender," he says, "but we are willing to die to defend our rights." These are the same contemptuous words that Iraq's Saddam Hussein flung at the US just before he invaded Kuwait.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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