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Analysis Last Updated: Jan 24th, 2008 - 00:56:37

Russia flaunts its nuclear card
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 24, 2008, 00:54

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There's a new Cold War brewing between Russia and the West but if you get your news from the mainstream English-language media you'd be hard pressed to guess the real temperature -- a little above freezing.

But even the BBC couldn't ignore Moscow's latest rhetoric. On Sunday, under the headline "Russia warns of 'preventative' nuclear strike," the BBC quoted the Russian military's chief of staff.

"We do not intend to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary that all our partners in the international community clearly understand that for the defence of our sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, the armed forces will be employed, including preventively the use of nuclear weapons," said General Yuri Bauyevsky.

It's a pretty broad threat with the reference to Russia's "allies" open to interpretation. Does Moscow consider Iran in that category, for instance?

Certainly the statement's timing indicates this may be the case as also on Sunday Russia delivered an 11-tonne fuel consignment to Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, the fourth in a series of eight consignments to be completed by February.

Bauyevsky's warning comes on the heels of the US president's tour of the region during which he tried -- and failed -- to whip up anti-Iranian sentiment, while Israel cheered him on from the sidelines.

In truth, though, most commentators would say it was inconceivable that Russia would go that far even to protect its not insubstantial financial interests within Iran. But it's also true to say that Moscow has rarely been as bellicose in recent times.

Indeed, the Russian leadership has abandoned the softly-softly diplomatic approach to disagreements on a whole range of issues.

Last week, during a visit to Bulgaria, President Vladimir Putin warned the West that its support of Kosovo's independence from Serbia would be "illegal and immoral."

And while he was there, he sealed a gas pipeline deal as well as a $5.9 billion contract to build a nuclear power plant in Belene on the Danube; a plan described by its detractors as dangerous and unnecessary.

Russia's tough talking may be paying off as the Polish government is no longer as enthusiastic about playing host to a US missile defence system as it once was.

That's hardly surprising as both it and the Czech Republic were warned by the head of Russia's missile forces that if they go ahead, Russian missiles will be pointed in their direction.

The US has insisted the European-based system will counter threats from Iran and North Korea but the Russians aren't buying it. Moscow is also angered about Georgia's intentions to join NATO, which would see NATO encroaching on Russia's borders.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has proffered an olive branch to Moscow and expressed a desire for greater ties. For the time being, Russia is also extending the hand of friendship, probably in hopes it can steer Georgia away from the clutches of NATO.

As for Moscow's relationship with Britain, this is at an all time low. Cracks formed when Russia refused to extradite Andre Lugovoi, a suspect wanted by Britain in connection with the poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko. The UK responded to Russia's refusal by expelling four Russian diplomats.


Predictably Moscow did the same but later ratcheted up tensions by ordering the closure of British Council branches by January 1. When the deadline was ignored, Russia "initiated a campaign of intimidation," according to the British Council's chief executive, Martin Davidson.

This consisted of the council's Russian employees being called in for questioning by Russian security services and tax enforcers; moves that have provoked outrage from Britain and the EU.

"We saw similar actions during the Cold War but, frankly, we thought they had been put behind us," said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband while addressing Parliament.

The evidence is there for all to see. Russia is tired of playing second fiddle to the US and is in no mood to take orders from Britain or anyone else.

Putin has said he regrets the break-up of the former Soviet Union, and is doing all he can to expand his country's sphere of influence. His are no empty sentiments either.

Moscow's bark could well be a lot worse than its bite and perhaps we shouldn't rush to take threats of preemptive nuclear strikes too seriously. Nevertheless, when the pieces are fitted together there is this clear message. Move aside Uncle Sam. There's another fast gun in town.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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