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Western intervention in Arab Spring could end in 'very big war,' Russia warns

Russia’s foreign minister warned Wednesday that outside encouragement of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to “a very big war."
/ Source: The New York Times

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warned Wednesday that outside encouragement of antigovernment uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to “a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region, but also to states far beyond its boundaries.”

Mr. Lavrov’s annual news conference was largely devoted to a critique of Western policies in Iran and Syria, which he said could lead to a spiral of violence.

His remarks came on the heels of a report on state-controlled television that accused the American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who has been in Moscow for less than a week, of working to provoke a revolution here. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, at an impromptu meeting with prominent editors, also unleashed an attack on the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, which he said was serving American interests.

Mr. Lavrov said Russia would use its position on the United Nations Security Council to veto any United Nations authorization of military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The United Nations has repeatedly called for Syria end a crackdown on opposition demonstrators, which Arab League monitors say resulted in hundreds of deaths over the past month.

“If someone conceives the idea of using force at any cost — and I’ve already heard calls for sending some Arab troops to Syria — we are unlikely to be able to prevent this,” Mr. Lavrov said. “But this should be done on their own initiative and should remain on their conscience. They won’t get any authorization from the Security Council.”

Mr. Lavrov said foreign governments were arming “militants and extremists” in Syria, and he gave a bristling response to Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, who on Tuesday expressed concern about possible Russian arms shipments to Syria.

“We don’t find it necessary to explain or justify anything,” Mr. Lavrov said. “We are only trading goods with Syria that are not prohibited by international law.”

Mr. Lavrov offered a similarly grave message about the possibility of a military strike against Iran, which he said would be a “catastrophe.” He said sanctions now being proposed against Tehran were “intended to have a smothering effect on the Iranian economy and the Iranian population, probably in the hopes of provoking discontent.”

Relations between Moscow and Washington have worsened over the past year, as the cordial tone of the “reset” between President Obama and President Dmitri A. Medvedev has been replaced by a drumbeat of criticism. Mr. Lavrov said that Russia and the United States were not adversaries, and that “the cold war ended a long time ago.” By contrast, however, he was glowing about Russia’s cooperation with China, which he said was “the highest in the history of our bilateral relationship.”

'Promotion of democracy'
Late on Tuesday night, Russia’s Channel 1 broadcast a segment about Mr. McFaul, who is one of Mr. Obama’s top advisers on Russia and a primary architect of the relationship’s reset. The commentary emphasized Mr. McFaul’s relationship with opposition leaders and suggested that his intent was to lay the groundwork for revolution.

“McFaul is not a specialist on Russia,” said Mikhail V. Leontyev, a Channel 1 commentator. “He is a specialist solely in the promotion of democracy.” Singling out a book by Mr. McFaul, titled “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution,” Mr. Leontyev added: “Is it possible Mr. McFaul came to Russia to work in his specialty? That is, to finish the revolution?”

The segment delved into Mr. McFaul’s previous work in Russia, including a stint in the 1990s with the National Democratic Institute, an organization that Mr. Leontyev said was “known for its proximity to the American intelligence services and its work preparing the political leaders of the third world.” Mr. McFaul should have “no problems” forging relationships with the opposition, Mr. Leontyev said. “Cooperating with the government is another story.”

The commentary followed news coverage on Channel 1 showing opposition leaders who visited the American Embassy to meet with Mr. McFaul. In the video, which was uploaded to YouTube with the title “Receiving Instructions at the United States Embassy,” people accost the opposition leaders on the sidewalk and ask: “Why did you come to the embassy today? What are your reasons for coming?”

Mr. McFaul dismissed the criticism of his meeting with the opposition figures, noting that he had already met with several high-ranking Russian officials.

“U.S. officials visiting Russia make a point of meeting with both government officials and civil society leaders,” he wrote on his blog in Russian and English.

The theme of American interference emerged again during a rapidly convened meeting between top journalists and Mr. Putin, which ended in a confrontation between the prime minister and Aleksei A. Venediktov, the editor of the radio station Ekho Moskvy. The station is an important platform for the opposition, and Mr. Putin said he had been horrified when he happened to hear a broadcast that contended that a planned United States missile defense system posed no great threat to Russia.

“Listen, it was such bull, I just don’t know — where do they get this stuff?” Mr. Putin said. “I thought, This is not information — what they’re broadcasting, it’s serving the foreign policy interests of one country with respect to another, to Russia.”

“I do not take offense when you pour diarrhea on me day in and day out, and yet you have taken offense,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Venediktov as the meeting came to a close, according to an official transcript. “I just said two words, and you took offense.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.