WASHINGTON -- Russia and China stepped up criticism of air attacks against Iraq yesterday, casting a diplomatic cloud over the U.S.-led campaign that could have implications beyond the immediate crisis.
Russia's foreign minister warned Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright by telephone that "if this action is not stopped, Russian-American relations can seriously suffer," according to an account put out by the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
Albright's spokesman, James P. Rubin, offered a much more upbeat account, saying the secretary was "quite pleased by the phone call." Albright will work to repair relations in a January trip to Moscow, officials said.
In addition, President Clinton sent a letter to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to explain the airstrikes, reminding him of the U.S. aim to prevent Iraq from threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction.
"The Russians understand the importance of maintaining a broad-based relationship with the United States. They are going to continue working with us on a wide variety of issues," Rubin said.
But an anti-American tone was evident elsewhere in Moscow yesterday, a day after Russia summoned its ambassadors home from the United States and Britain.
The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, passed a resolution calling the United States and Britain "international terrorists," and called on Yeltsin to stop its participation in the United Nations economic sanctions enforced against Iraq for the past eight years.
An aide to Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, Gen. Leonid Ivashov, said, "If Russia's opinion continues to be ignored, Moscow will be forced to change its military-political priorities and may become the leader of that part of world society which disagrees with diktat."
Russia's reaction was widely interpreted here as a reflection of anger over not being consulted beforehand and frustration at its inability to influence the United States or its erstwhile Middle East ally, Iraq.
There was also a bit of saber rattling. The Kremlin announced that some Russian military units had been put on heightened alert, though a spokesman later said that was normal in times of international tension.
A radar station in Azerbaijan, which had been operating at half-capacity because it hadn't paid its electric bills to the local power company, has been upgraded to full capacity, reportedly scanning the southern skies for U.S. missiles.
In Beijing, the People's Daily, the organ of the Communist Party, said in a commentary: "The unilateral move by the United States has set a dangerous and odious precedent and shocked the entire world."
Russia and China's opposition to military action against Iraq is not new. But in this case, it may mark a deterioration in America's relationships within the U.N. Security Council, which was not consulted before the United States and Britain launched the airstrikes.
"The ultimate consequence could be a lessening in the useful role of the U.N. that would force the United States, in future, either to go it alone or do nothing," said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, which monitors and backs the United Nations.
Although China's role in the Middle East is limited, it may expand as its energy demands increase and it imports more oil from the Persian Gulf. Already, China has become more active in Central Asia, according to Sherman Garnett of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In a briefing yesterday, Rubin, the State Department spokesman, played down foreign opposition to the U.S.-British action, saying some leaders privately supported it and that U.S. allies were supportive.
"Allies, friends and many others are all squarely blaming Iraq," Rubin said.
Having warned Iraq that military action could come without warning and without advance diplomacy, the United States acted swiftly Wednesday, a day after completion of a report by the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Richard Butler, that said Iraq had failed to cooperate.
France, a U.S. ally and member of NATO, opposed military action, although it blamed Iraq for the crisis.
Staking out his ground in the crisis, French President Jacques Chirac called a number of other world leaders yesterday to sound them out on plans for dealing with Iraq once the U.S. airstrikes end. Baghdad is likely to continue refusing to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, "so we have to think about something," a French official said yesterday.
The French opposition meant that NATO couldn't unite behind the U.S. action. And experts who pay close attention to the alliance warned of trouble ahead in U.S. efforts to persuade NATO to assume a broader role against terrorism and weapons proliferation. The alliance is preparing a "strategic concept" for approval in Washington this spring.
"It's not a good environment in which to sell your argument," said David Acheson, president of the Atlantic Council of the United States, giving a personal view.
Pub Date: 12/19/98