Russia has always talked tough. Last week, the world got a double dose of invective, however. First, residents of the Chechen capital of Grozny were told to “get out or die” before the Russian military launched an assault. A few days later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin expressed his displeasure with U.S. policy by noting that “Russia is a great power that possesses a nuclear arsenal.” Both comments were later qualified and toned down, but they reveal Russia’s growing frustration with recent events. Unfortunately for Moscow, there is little that it can do about its place in the world. Escalating the violence in Grozny and lashing out at erstwhile partners will only make matters worse.

Western and Muslim nations have viewed Russia’s military campaign against the Chechens with growing repugnance. The level of outrage reached a crescendo over leaflets dropped from aircraft onto the besieged capital with an ultimatum that the Russian military later claimed was only a warning. After a storm of international condemnation, Moscow redefined its intentions, but not its goal. It extended the Dec. 11 deadline and opened a safe corridor for refugees to escape the city. It has also promised to provide village havens, which hopefully will not turn into internment camps.

Mr. Yeltsin’s comment came during a visit to China, during which he and his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Jiang Zemin, commiserated about U.S. unilateralism and international restraints on their freedom to do what they wished against minorities within their borders. Russian and American officials played down Mr. Yeltsin’s hyperbole; some attributed the comments to the Russian president’s ill health.

There are good reasons to discount Mr. Yeltsin’s outburst. He has been ill. He had been hospitalized until early last week and he looked shaky and pale, and needed physical assistance, when signing a treaty with Belarus before leaving for Beijing. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the remarks “do not mean a cooling of relations with the U.S.” And even while Russian officials complain about interference in their country’s internal affairs, they are not burning any bridges. Although the International Monetary Fund has suspended payment of its latest loan to the beleaguered country, Russia continues to pay down its debt to the organization. Figures released last week show that Russia repaid a net $3.14 billion to the IMF in the last 12 months, including $308 million in November.

Mr. Putin also acknowledged that U.S. criticism of Moscow’s military tactics “was motivated by the wish to save Russia additional problems.” That is half correct; the plight of the Chechen people is also a grave concern. Moscow’s policy toward the Islamic bogeyman — currently incarnated in the form of Chechen rebels — is equal parts pique and paranoia. The former is the product of having lost the first Chechen war and has resulted in seeming indifference to the scale of civilian casualties. A humanitarian disaster is in the making.

The latter is triggered by the genuine threat of Islamic revolt in Central Asia. Moscow may take the offensive, but it cannot extinguish the Muslim threat. The guerrillas can shift the battleground from the cities to the hills or embark on a terrorist campaign within Russia proper. In either environment, they have the advantage. As in the first Chechen conflict, Moscow risks getting sucked into a war of attrition that it cannot win.

But for now, apart from the international reaction, the war is going well. Perversely, that feeds anger in Russia. After a series of perceived humiliations by the West — IMF conditionality for aid, the Kosovo War — Russians have reasons to feel more confident. The view in Moscow is that Western criticism is merely intended to keep Russia down.

Cynicism about Western motives will grow as international politicking intensifies. There are signs that U.S. acquiescence may be bought with Russian support for Washington’s Iraq policy at the United Nations. Europe’s hard line is seen as a response to the continent’s inability to respond to Balkan crises. The IMF’s credibility has been damaged by European calls to link further assistance with policy toward Chechnya; the organization’s charter says such decisions can only be made in reference to economic conditions.

Frictions are likely to increase, but worries about a new Cold War are premature. Russia, like China, its erstwhile “strategic partner,” still needs the West and cannot afford to antagonize it. That does not mean that the West can afford to ignore Russian views; nor must they defer to them. Moscow needs to be convinced that criticism is intended to keep Russia from making mistakes. It is a difficult task, and one that requires a thick skin. There is more tough talk to come.

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