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It was an unlaughing German who said, more than a century ago, that when history repeats itself, it returns the first time as tragedy; the second time as farce.

The Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov recently released his state-financed film about the Russian army between the defeat by the British and French in the Crimean War of 1854-56, and the defeat by the Japanese in the war of 1904-05. Mikhalkov’s lesson — if Russian officers acted more like American women, they would have been more victorious — might be the stuff for a tragedy. But the audience of The Barber of Siberia thinks it a farce.

When President Boris Yeltsin repeated this week a scene from the film, hosting a graduation ceremony for military cadets in the Kremlin — as had Mikhalkov playing Tsar Alexander III — Yeltsin turned the sentiments, and their military context, upside down.

What was missing from the latest Kremlin scene wasn’t the image of the tsar astride a horse, proclaiming
the strength of his army. It was the evidence from the army leadership that, in their response to Yeltsin’s toast, they don’t blame for the defeats he has presided over, from the new war of the Caucasus to the new war of the Balkans.

The reason the president’s advisors arranged this, and the next day another cinematic replay of the World War II ceremony of the victorious standards, is that the Kremlin is plainly nervous about the loyalties of Russia’s officer corps. And why not?

When the army’s strategists sit quietly down to assess the damage which an aggressive, expansionist Albania will do next in the Balkans, and which the United States plans on doing to Serbia, the magnitude of Russia’s vulnerability will be obvious. If Serbia and the Ukraine can be pressed into the NATO fold, and the borders of Albania, Serbia, Greece, and Turkey redrawn, Russia’s Caucasian provinces will be easy pickings.The terms of the Crimean defeat 150 years ago, denying Russia a naval fleet in the Black Sea, will be enlarged to include the airspace on the Black Sea borders.

A repeat of Russia’s losses in the Pacific of 95 years ago becomes more probable, although next time round, China could prove as capable, and probably more durable than Japan.

If this were idle dreaming, Mikhalkov’s little play about the cadet who fell in love with an American prostitute, hired to lobby the Russian General Staff into procuring an American-made machine, might be a harmless amusement.

But the generals haven’t been sitting in the cinema laughing. Their first gesture — the surprise deployment of forces to the Kosovo airport — produced a tactical gain, which they enjoyed briefly. But the strategic objective of establishing credible Russian protection of Serbia for the future, neutralizing the expected depredations of the Kosovo Liberation Army, was lost in the negotiations that followed.

Whether or not this week’s Russian bomber deployment in the Arctic, within missile range of the US, was intended as a strategic gesture cannot alter the expectation among Russian, and also American commanders, that something far from harmless has begun to develop in Moscow.

Yeltsin is acting as if he is directing this. But by borrowing Mikhalkov’s clumsy theatrics, he is convincing the audience this cannot be so.

Instead, the General Staff have rushed to the library to re-read the famous Crimean War lines of poet Fyodor Tyutchev: “What is beginning is not a war; not a policy. It is the birth pains of a new world. It is the decisive battle of the West and Russia.”

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