America and the Post-Soviet Republics

Dimitri K Simes. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 3. Summer 1992.


For the second time since World War II the United States must make historic choices about dealing with the Soviet/Russian challenge. This time the issue arises from the collapse of the former enemy, and the new geopolitical situation is a mix of enormous opportunity and tremendous danger. As before Russia may well be central to the future of world politics and, as before, in this realm there is no substitute for American leadership.

Only fatalists would dare to predict the shape this vast area of Eurasia will take by the beginning of the 21st century. While a devastating earthquake is in progress—with the possibility of multiple aftershocks compounding the damage—forecasting becomes highly unreliable. Three aspects, however, are already fairly clear. First, there is a wide range of possible outcomes: the restoration of the Russian empire under an authoritarian, xenophobic, anti-Western regime; the splintering of the region into different groupings with widely divergent foreign policies and cultures; instability and possibly even civil war; or the emergence of truly independent democratic nations united by some form of a common market and collective security framework.

Second, when the region’s size, its strategic location, the wealth of its natural and human resources and, finally, the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons are taken into account, events there will inevitably have a profound effect on the outside world. The United States, as the only remaining global superpower, has great stakes in the outcome. It is useless to think of a benign new world order if America has to preoccupy itself with a post-Soviet civil war or a resurgent Russian empire. Conversely the integration of the bulk of the former Soviet land mass into Western civilization would greatly change the global correlation of forces—to use an old Marxist-Leninist cliche—in a way favorable to U.S. interests and values.

Finally, Western and particularly American action or inaction will be a crucial factor during the transition to new political, economic and security arrangements in this area reaching from the Baltic to the Pacific. During ordinary times the politics of nations—particularly such great nations as Russia—can be only marginally affected from the outside. During periods of great transformation, however, with all their concomitant volatility and turmoil, input from abroad can make an enormous difference.

The contrast between Germany’s evolution following its defeat in the two world wars demonstrates how considerable the impact of foreign influence can be. That argument is even more valid for the former Soviet Union, where the collapse of empire has almost overnight turned what used to be domestic politics and economics into international relations. The manner in which the newly independent states interact, whether they are at each other’s throats or find new formulas for working together, will determine the success of their experiments with democracy, market-oriented reforms and, indeed, their own existence. This international dimension of post-Soviet change gives the West a much wider opening for a constructive role than if it were only a matter of strictly domestic political processes in preestablished nations.


In developing American approaches to the former Soviet republics, it is important to understand that these states, rather than their umbrella organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, will be the principal interlocutors with Washington in coming years. Regardless of whether one shares Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk’s pessimism about the CIS’s chances for survival or Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s optimistic hope that the CIS will prove to be more than a formula for a “civilized divorce,” it is already apparent that this body is not and never will be a successor state to the U.S.S.R. The Commonwealth does not have a government, a parliament, a constitution, a central bank or any enforcement mechanism to implement its decisions. Its armed forces are in disarray, and the commander in chief, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, operates under the auspices of the CIS Council of Heads of State, which is, at best, an ad hoc coordinating committee. Some of the states, including Russia, are moving in the direction of creating their own military units. Furthermore, with Ukraine and some of the other post-Soviet states advancing plans to introduce their own currencies, the CIS will no longer have a common monetary system.

When the CIS was originally created last December it was likened to a blend of the European Community and NATO. This comparison has proven to be a mistake. In fact the CIS is almost the exact opposite of these two Western organizations. Unlike the EC its members are not looking for greater integration but rather for devolution with minimal losses. And, in contrast to NATO, instead of having a common external enemy, the Commonwealth’s member states are concerned almost exclusively with internal threats—threats from one another.

Nor is there much likelihood that the CIS will move in the direction of closer cooperation any time soon. With Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan determined to achieve complete independence, the lowest common denominator in the consensus-run CIS is very low indeed. Other states—Belarus, for instance—would prefer a tighter alliance. However, as the political dynamics clearly favor the disintegration of the old union, these republics seem to be opting to go along with the tide. Ukraine is uniquely positioned to be a counterweight to Russia in the CIS because of its large population (54 million) and, more importantly, because of Russia’s willingness to pay the high price necessary to avoid a break with its sister nation. Without the Ukrainian partnership, moreover, Russian domination of the CIS becomes almost inevitable, and that is more than the other members are prepared to tolerate.

Chances are that eventually new transnational structures will emerge on the territory of the former Soviet Union. But that will happen only after the new states have tasted freedom and voluntarily concluded that some form of integration is in their mutual interest. These structures will be designed to advance new forms of cooperation rather than preserve the old discredited ties that the assertive nationalist movements view as holdovers from the imperial, totalitarian past.

Although American policy should be oriented toward the individual post-Soviet states, differentiation among them is a necessity. The fact that all of them once belonged to the same now defunct communist superpower is surely not reason enough to pretend that they are of equal importance to the United States, or that they have similar commitments to political and economic reforms, identically agreeable foreign policies or comparable human rights standards.

There is no escape from acknowledging the centrality of Russia to American interests. Russia will be the only major nuclear power in the region. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has stated that, although he is willing to transfer tactical nuclear weapons to Russia for destruction, strategic missiles should be eliminated only in the context of a comprehensive disarmament package involving Russia and the other nuclear states. Yet it is likely that his primary motive is to use nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to draw more attention to his country and to obtain political and economic concessions from Moscow and Washington alike. In the end his record of pragmatism suggests that he will find some face-saving formula and give up nuclear weapons deployed in Kazakhstan rather than risk alienating both Russia and the West.

The Ukrainian situation is more complex. Unlike Nazarbaev, who is exposed to relatively few internal pressures to take an uncompromising stand against Moscow, President Kravchuk has to cope with the radical, nationalist Rukh movement. Because of the Ukrainian leader’s background as a Communist Party functionary and his current lack of economic accomplishments, standing tall against Russia is his main claim to legitimacy. That, coupled with the hope that nuclear status can bring Ukraine additional prestige and benefits from the West, explains Kravchuk’s zigzagging on the issue of delivering Ukrainian tactical nuclear weapons for destruction in Russia. Still Kiev is eager to build bridges to the West and does not want its interests to be neglected in favor of Russia’s. This desire for a Western connection puts pressure on the Ukrainian leadership not to overplay its nuclear card.

Neither Ukraine nor Kazakhstan is known to have operational control over the nuclear weapons on its territory—this control apparently remains in Moscow’s hands. Moreover, without Russian know-how, technicians and spare parts, neither Ukraine nor Kazakhstan is in a position to maintain a major nuclear capability. Of course if North Korea or Iraq can develop nuclear weapons, so can Ukraine. Yet the United States and the West in general have considerable leverage to prevent this from happening. Any possible Ukrainian or Kazakh nuclear arsenal, however, would pale dramatically in comparison with Russian nuclear forces.

Moreover, among all 15 former Soviet republics, Russia is the only state capable of being more than a regional power. Its territory is twice as large as that of all the other republics combined. More than half the former Soviet population, about 150 million people, lives there. There are also 25 million Russians living outside Russia’s borders, many of whom maintain strong ties, if not outright loyalty, to Russia. A large number of them are likely to move back if the CIS disintegrates or if they are subjected to discrimination in their states of present residence. Even more important, Russia is far ahead in terms of the two factors that give the post-Soviet states the best chance for rapid development: abundant natural resources and a cheap but highly skilled labor force. Russia controls 90 percent of the oil, nearly 80 percent of the natural gas, 70 percent of gold production and 62 percent of electricity output of the former Soviet Union.

The highly centralized nature of the Soviet Union assured that the best universities, research centers and think tanks were located disproportionately in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk and a few other major Russian cities. It was common practice for the most able and dynamic representatives of the other republics to come to Russia for their education and settle there for life. Due to Russia’s multiethnic composition and the imperial tradition of welcoming minorities into the elite, they are less likely to encounter discrimination there than in the other republics. Chances are that the majority of these people will not go back to their native lands, where they would encounter housing shortages, difficulties in finding new professional jobs and in many cases a more primitive and parochial way of life than that to which they have grown accustomed.

The last and most crucial point is that if democracy fails in Russia the chances are slim that it will survive in the other post-Soviet states. Success of the Russian experiment with political pluralism and a market economy does not guarantee that all other republics will automatically follow suit. But if a nationalist, revanchist and authoritarian regime comes to power in Moscow—one that starts to destabilize and bully its neighbors—it is hard to imagine how, with the possible exception of the Baltic states, the fragile democracies in the region could survive. Even if they managed to maintain their independence with Western security assistance, neo-imperialist Russian pressures would trigger strong nationalist backlash and demands for emergency rule incompatible with the patient introduction of freedom and tolerance.

After all, if it had not been for actions taken by Russia the Soviet communist empire would still be in place. Its collapse was not the result of a military defeat, as was the case with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Nor did Russia reluctantly abandon a costly struggle against pro-independence resistance movements, unlike the colonial empires of Britain, France, Portugal and Spain. Mikhail Gorbachev’s government would have had little difficulty keeping the Baltic republics under control if Yeltsin, then chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, had not come to their defense: first through expressions of solidarity, then in January 1991 by appealing to Russian soldiers and officers not to take part in a military crackdown and ultimately in February 1991 by calling for Gorbachev’s resignation because of his embrace of reactionary policies.

Similarly, during the fateful days of the failed August putsch, it was the Russian government and parliament that organized the defeat of the conspiracy. With the notable exception of the Baltic states and Armenia, which despite their courage were hardly in a position to influence the coup’s outcome, the leaders of the other republics either endorsed the junta or failed to resist it.

In sum Russia was the central force in the destruction of the Soviet totalitarian state, and Russia’s continuing commitment to democracy and to a non-imperial foreign policy is a precondition for the freedom and prosperity of the other Commonwealth members.


Russia has paid an enormous price, not just in terms of loss of its superpower status and its essential economic ties with the other republics, but also in its sense of identity and purpose. Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia has had no experience of living as anything other than an empire. The need to maintain and strengthen the empire, the pride of being a great power, the multiethnic composition of the ruling elite united by devotion to the vast and mighty state became key components of Russian political culture.

Moreover Yeltsin and his associates hardly anticipated the consequences of the Soviet state’s demise. In this sense they were similar to Gorbachev, who, while systematically undermining the foundations of the Soviet regime, honestly believed that he was laboring to improve it. In contrast to Gorbachev, however, Yeltsin has operated under no illusion that the empire could be successfully reformed without fundamental change.

By early 1990 Yeltsin had come to the conclusion that the old communist central government was too discredited and that nationalist tendencies in the republics were too strong for the Kremlin to maintain its control over the empire just by placing the republics on a longer leash. It was the notion of the leash itself, not just its length, that the increasingly assertive nationalist movements were resolutely rejecting. The fact that Yeltsin, as chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, had a vested interest in wresting power from the central government could only add to his sympathy for the separatist movements in the other republics.

But did Yeltsin and his supporters realize on June 12, 1990, when the Russian parliament adopted a declaration of sovereignty, that they were leading the union toward a complete and perhaps irreversible dissolution? The abundance of evidence suggests that this was not the Russian leader’s intention at all. True, on several occasions, Yeltsin had talked as if he wanted to put an end to the Soviet Union altogether. His speeches included references to Russia becoming “an independent republic,” joining the United Nations and dealing “as an equal with Britain, France, Germany and America.” But a careful reading of Yeltsin’s statements suggests that, for him, independence did not mean a complete break with the Soviet Union, but rather a drastic redistribution of power between the Kremlin and the republics, which would “no longer be automatically associated with the central authorities.”

In the struggle with the Gorbachev government many of Yeltsin’s decisions were ad hoc. Yet there was a central theme: to replace a union based on diktat from the center—even if a relatively benign diktat—with a confederation based on voluntary cooperation among the republics. Like most people in the Soviet Union, excepting the Baltic states, Yeltsin operated on the assumption that the links among the republics were too deep to allow the death of the union. Also there was the belief that, as Yeltsin and Russia were in the driver’s seat in destroying the old union, they would have a determining influence in shaping and running the new confederation of independent republics.

Little thought was given to why the republics would submit on their own to an arrangement in which Russia would again have a dominant voice. The whole Russian democratic opposition—preoccupied by the struggle with the Gorbachev government (which in the fall of 1990 had taken a reactionary turn) and sympathetic to nationalist movements—had failed to anticipate that its triumph against the communist imperial center would shift power to the republics (quite often to their turncoat neo-communist leaders) and eventually fracture the country along the often artificially established republican borders.

Probably the only way such a turn of events could have been avoided would have been the survival of the Gorbachev regime in weakened form. Then Yeltsin would have been needed by leaders of the other republics as a counterweight to the central government. He could have relied on whatever remained of the government’s armed forces, security services, Communist Party apparatus and central planning mechanisms to prevent secessionist trends from going completely out of control.

The union treaty, which had been negotiated by Gorbachev with republican leaders and was ready for signature in late August 1991, was perhaps the last chance to stop the secessionist bandwagon. By totally destroying what was left of the central government’s credibility, the putsch badly derailed the treaty. In the process it also delivered a heavy blow to Yeltsin’s vision of a new Russian-centered confederation built from the bottom up. Almost overnight the Yeltsin government’s role changed radically in the eyes of other republican leaders, from that of an indispensable ally against the imperial center to a principal threat to their drives for independence.

In the aftermath of the putsch Yeltsin and his associates aggravated the situation by taking over many central ministries and unilaterally positioning Russia as heir to the Soviet Union. These actions were explained partly by the need to block the remnants of the conspiracy from running the U.S.S.R.’s government and partly by an insensitivity to the new status and aspirations of the other republics. The Yeltsin team erroneously thought that since it (and the Russian republic in general) had been instrumental in defeating the junta, collecting the spoils of victory would be the natural thing to do. Instead its grandstanding generated anger and envy on the part of the ruling groups in the other republics. Moreover the less these groups had moved to stand up to the junta, the more they were eager to reestablish their legitimacy by appealing to anti-Russian, nationalist sentiments.

Ironically by prevailing against both the junta and the Gorbachev regime, the Russian leadership lost support in the rest of the country. That caught Yeltsin—and most of his allies among pro-democracy politicians and the majority of the Russian public—almost completely by surprise.

Yeltsin’s December 1991 attempt to use the newly created Commonwealth of Independent States to generate a modicum of cooperation among the republics and to buy time for a cooling-off period failed to arrest centrifugal trends. Russia then had to confront the implications of the Soviet Union’s demise. It was left with borders that were established by the communist regime reflecting neither the historical legacy nor the current demographic realities. The most serious problem was with Ukraine.

In addition to being home to more than 11 million Russians, under communist rule Ukraine had acquired territory on the Black Sea that had been part of Russia for centuries and, prior to the revolution, had never been identified either administratively or culturally as a part of Ukraine. The Crimean peninsula has become a particularly contentious issue. Its population is about two-thirds Russian, it was conquered by Russia from the Ottoman empire in the eighteenth century, and it has served as a base for the Black Sea fleet and remains a popular resort area. Ukrainian President Kravchuk broke his earlier promises to seek negotiated solutions to the division of the Soviet armed forces. He demanded a pledge of allegiance from all units on Ukrainian territory—including the Black Sea fleet, which Russia, on the basis of Commonwealth agreements, wanted included as a component of the strategic forces under joint command. These actions only contributed to the Russian sense of humiliation.

To put the matter into perspective, consider the agony caused by France’s disengagement from Algeria, home to less than half a million Frenchmen. Algeria was much less central to French history than Ukraine is to Russia’s. France has a much richer democratic tradition and was not suffering, as Russia is, from a terrible economic crisis magnified by the collapse of the union. Nor was France exposed to the danger Russia faces today of coping with further disintegration if the so-called autonomies (the 31 republics, regions and provinces inside the Russian federation itself) insist on going their own way.

Finally one should not forget that Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was the birthplace of the Russian nation. It was there a thousand years ago that the Russians adopted Christianity. And anyone familiar with Russian literature and culture knows what an integral role Ukraine has played in the entire Russian experience. Probably the greatest Ukrainian writer is Nikolai Gogol, who wrote about his land with great affection, but did so in the Russian language and is as much a part of Russian literary tradition as the southern writer William Faulkner is of the American.

Under the circumstances it is not surprising that a great many Russians feel nostalgic for their past as a unified and mighty state. But statesmen should be judged by their actions rather than their feelings. By this criterion Yeltsin’s response to the collapse of the Soviet Union was probably as restrained as was politically feasible. He accepted the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the other republics within their current borders as long as they remained in the Commonwealth. Although the Russian president and his ministers and advisers have made it clear that some territorial issues may be raised if Ukraine or any other newly independent states decide to withdraw, they have pointedly excluded reliance on force. There is no evidence of any attempt by the Yeltsin government to destabilize its new neighbors by exploiting the resident Russian population. The Russian president and his moderate minister of foreign affairs, Andrei Kozyrev, have raised questions regarding the discrimination that Russian-speaking minorities are being subjected to in some CIS nations, but they have been careful to do so in a restrained way, primarily at forums such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, without surrendering to the temptation to engage in what Kozyrev calls “megaphone diplomacy.”

Yeltsin’s record on relations with the other Commonwealth members is not entirely consistent. In addition to unilaterally taking over the U.S.S.R.’s assets abroad and sometimes acting as if he has the authority to speak for the whole Commonwealth, Yeltsin has failed to restrain some members of his government—most notably Russian Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoy—from making statements that appear provocative or even threatening to other CIS members.

Still Yeltsin’s overall approach to the end of the empire has been fairly flexible, benign and pragmatic. Russian politicians such as Andrei Sakharov’s widow Yelena Bonner and radical historian Yuri Afanasiev, who would go even further in accommodating the new states, have been increasingly marginalized. It is not surprising that as Russia gradually accepts its non-union, non-imperial status, even its democratic reform leaders are beginning to acknowledge that their state also has legitimate national interests. Those who, as a matter of principle, oppose the assertive defense of these interests on the grounds that this signifies a return to communist/imperial practices are on the sidelines of the Russian search for identity.

This does not necessarily mean that Russia is bound to surrender once again to the old imperial impulse. German and Japanese conduct after World War II demonstrates that while history influences the present it does not always determine the outcome. Years of costly and unproductive global expansion abroad and repression at home have turned Russian public opinion against the empire, and most people now consider it the relic of an unhappy and unsavory past. The Yeltsin government seems firmly convinced that the imperial burden was too much for Russia to bear. Furthermore it understands that a Serbian-type mistreatment of neighbors would, at a minimum, destroy chances for receiving much-needed foreign assistance and could also block Russia’s entry into Western civilization.


With Western aid the Russian democratic experiment has a reasonable chance to succeed. Working in its favor is the Russian public’s disgust with the old regime and everything it represented. This disgust significantly reduces the opportunities for a coalition of neo-Stalinists and xenophobic nationalists to win public support. The Red and the Brown—as Yeltsin calls them—have neither a serious program going beyond nostalgic sloganeering nor charismatic leaders of national stature. According to recent public opinion polls, a considerable majority of Russians, while unhappy with the way economic reforms are being implemented, see no alternative to them and endorse Yeltsin’s commitment to change.

But there are three conditions necessary for the success of Russian democracy. First, there must be substantial foreign assistance to provide shock absorbers along the rocky road from a centrally planned to a market economy. Second, Russia must avoid any military confrontation or trade war with other CIS members. Third, it must control centrifugal trends to prevent the disintegration of the Russian federation itself into separate regions that would pursue their own agendas and act with hostility toward one another. This will not be easy.

One pressing challenge to the survival of Russian democracy is the defiant stand of some autonomies, like Tatarstan, which are demanding almost total authority over their political and economic affairs without any meaningful federal control, or others, like the Chechen Republic, which are demanding outright independence. The 31 autonomies (most have already proclaimed their sovereignty) include less than 20 percent of the Russian federation’s population, but occupy more than 40 percent of its territory. To date, with the exception of Tatarstan and the Chechen Republic, all the autonomies have initialed Yeltsin’s proposed new federal treaty. Yet during the ratification hearings in their legislatures, many want to introduce amendments that would drastically reduce the federal government’s prerogatives. There is a striking similarity between the current travails of the Russian federal treaty and the demise of the union treaty promoted by Gorbachev last fall.

There are serious differences as well. Most, but not all, of the autonomies, in contrast to the union republics, do not have borders with outside nations, and many, such as Tatarstan, are completely surrounded by Russian territory. If Russians represent only 20 percent of the population of union republics, the percentage in the autonomies amounts to almost 50 percent. In some autonomies they are a plurality or even a majority of all residents. Also, both the administrative structures and the level of national consciousness are weaker in most autonomies than they were in the union republics.

Still the Russian federal government, like Gorbachev’s central government before it, has little to offer in terms of economic inducements and little to threaten in terms of law enforcement mechanisms. Assuming full control of one’s own fiefdom, proclaiming sovereignty and taking a defiant stand against a big though pitiful ‘Russian bear seems to be the political trend of the moment. The Yeltsin government is trying to counter this trend through a mix of patience, gentle persuasion, economic reforms—which should both improve general welfare and give the autonomies more control over their affairs—and by building more reliable police and armed forces. But it takes time for these measures to bear fruit. Confrontations with Ukraine over Crimea or further economic failures could accelerate secessionist tendencies among the autonomies. For example in Tatarstan there is considerable support for President Kravchuk’s policy favoring the Tatars over the Russian majority, particularly as it relates to their return to the peninsula after decades of exile.

Since some of the autonomies—including the most defiant, like Tatarstan—are located in the center of Russia and have critical natural resources on their territory, their separation from the Russian federation simply could not work as smoothly as the secession of union republics from the Soviet Union. Russia might allow autonomies located on its periphery, like the Chechen and Tuva republics, to secede. However, any de jure or de facto secession of autonomies that are more centrally located or more crucial economically would threaten the complete dismemberment of Russia. In that case even ethnic Russian regions, such as Siberia and the Don basin, would be likely to proclaim their independence.

Such a total disintegration of Russia is likely to be only a temporary phenomenon. It would probably lead to chaos, bloodshed, a new civil war and the emergence of a new regime coming to power at gunpoint, as happened during the Time of Troubles in the seventeenth century and the Russian civil war in 1917-1920. Even if one were to disregard the possible use of nuclear weapons and the ecological disasters associated with such a calamity, the prospect of a strong, militaristic and, probably, authoritarian government in Russia cannot be in the interest of its newly independent neighbors or the world at large.

The success of the emerging—if still imperfect and fragile—Russian democracy is in the vital national interest of the United States. The pressures of democratic politics should encourage any Russian government to give priority to domestic reconstruction over foreign expansion, including any expansion against other CIS members. The federal structure (actually bordering on a confederation) of the state should provide additional safeguards against a rapid military buildup.

A difficult readjustment will be required for yesterday’s superpower to become accustomed to a situation where its principal foreign partners are yesterday’s dependents. Yeltsin and his foreign policy advisers, however, seem to be aware that the empire is over and that nostalgia is no substitute for policy. Not only has Yeltsin broken with the Soviet tradition of global struggle with the West much more decisively than Gorbachev, but the securing of “Russia’s entry into the civilized world community” is a key goal of his foreign policy.

The Russian leadership is actually changing its definition of greatness. There is growing appreciation that the greatness associated with imperial conduct is an obstacle to the greatness that Russia will gain by rejoining (or perhaps for the first time fully joining) Western civilization and becoming, initially, one of its beneficiaries and, eventually, one of its pillars. Surely it is in the American interest to encourage this kind of thinking in the second-largest nuclear power.

To be effective such support cannot be delivered piecemeal or sporadically: a little bit of economic assistance here to help Yeltsin with his parliament, a little bit of diplomatic action there to mediate the conflict with Ukraine over the Crimea. A comprehensive approach to the Russian problem is needed—a realistic one that incorporates clear priorities, rather than just a laundry list of U.S. officials’ wishes.

The American focus on Russia, of course, should not mean neglect of the other newly independent states or license for Russia to get away with aggressive behavior in its policies toward them or any other country. Instead the American approach should reflect an appreciation that Russian developments are central to shaping the entire region’s political character. Any sensible U.S. policy would use this as its point of departure.

This comprehensive approach should include security, economic and moral dimensions. It must be based on the realization that the newly independent states are unusually receptive to the new geopolitical context in which they find themselves—a context with new opportunities and dangers generated by the collapse of their predecessor, the Soviet Union. Redefining their security relationships, while they simultaneously divide the Soviet inheritance and deal with explosive minority issues and border disputes, is an extremely important and delicate task. The United States has an interest in making sure the newly independent states are stable and secure, if for no other reason than to eliminate any neo-imperial temptation on Russia’s part to meddle in their affairs. At the same time America should be careful not to give the impression that it is siding with these states against Russia in order to create a new cordon sanitaire to exclude Russia from Europe. That approach would only provide ammunition to those in Russia who charge that the West is inherently hostile to their country.

The United States cannot create a new security framework for the former Soviet Union. But it can facilitate, in an anticipatory fashion, the creation of new international security mechanisms designed to prevent (if possible) and to control (if necessary) any Yugoslav-style disasters. During the Yugoslav crisis the United Nations, the European Community and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe arrived on the scene too late, and their efforts were not properly coordinated, sometimes even working at cross purposes. These lessons should be kept in mind when dealing with the CIS.

Washington can also quietly discourage the formation of regional groupings, such as the one proposed by Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis for his country, Belarus and Ukraine, that have an almost overt anti-Russian bias and that could trigger a reaction from Moscow. Moreover, considering how much is at stake in maintaining peace and a good neighborly relationship between Russia and Ukraine, the United States could play a mediating role. To be effective American diplomacy should avoid taking sides publicly. However this should not be an obstacle to making U.S. policy preferences clear to both parties. More generally the United States in cooperation with its European allies should use its considerable clout to urge Commonwealth members to avoid an uncontrolled arms race and to seek both individual and collective security arrangements with one another. Yet it should avoid extending—either unilaterally or collectively—any security guarantees to Ukraine and the other newly independent states that would exclude Russia. Such guarantees would considerably increase U.S. military commitment and put America unnecessarily at odds with Russia.

Also taking into account the artificial nature of the borders between the post-Soviet states, the United States should avoid taking a position on their territorial disputes. In contrast to the fragmentation of postcolonial Africa, one state, Russia, dominates the area. Yet millions of Russians and other Russian-speakers (in excess of 50 million people, according to some estimates) have suddenly found themselves residents of foreign nations, and some of these new nations may gravitate toward different regional structures and different cultures. If the CIS collapses, some territorial adjustments—and not all of them would necessarily be to Russia’s advantage—may become inevitable. However the United States can play a significant role in emphasizing the importance of orderly procedures and peaceful solutions. This may be particularly applicable to the growing disput over Crimea. Both Moscow and Kiev should be cautioned against unilateral and violent actions.

In the economic sphere the $24 billion aid package for the Russian federation by the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, which was announced by President Bush and Chancellor Kohl on April 1, represents a good beginning. But it would be a mistake for Washington to let the international monetary organizations and a variety of bureaucracies administer such a colossal effort without a proper coordinating mechanism. The campaign to help Russia and the other independent states should be treated as the functional equivalent of war. One person should have the responsibility, with broad coordinating powers.

Because the objectives of aid are not just economic but ultimately—and predominantly—political, policy considerations must be placed above narrowly defined economic requirements. In addition aid should be allotted on a conditional basis. It should not become another entitlement going equally to every member of CIS simply because they used to belong to the Soviet Union. Rather it should be carefully directed to help private enterprise, promote reforms, strengthen democratic institutions and reward the benign treatment of neighbors. And it should be contingent on the recipients’ commitment to refrain from disruptive protectionist measures against one another.

Finally, there is no substitute for demonstrating an understanding of Russia’s predicament and respect for Russian pride. When the International Monetary Fund and some Western economists pressure the Russian government to proceed with economic “shock therapy,” they forget that the only good reform is reform that is politically sustainable. The Russian move toward a free-market system is taking place in the context of economic conditions that are much worse than those in eastern Europe and of tensions between the central government and many of the ethnic autonomies. With 50 million people (one-third of the population) already living below the poverty level, shock therapy could trigger unpredictable consequences. It is difficult to envision the West providing massive assistance to Russia if the Yeltsin government were to lose control of parts of the country or if Moscow must rely heavily on force to keep them under control.

Similarly the United States will have to accept that, even under optimum circumstances, the road to post-imperial, democratic capitalism is going to be rough with some detours, and possibly temporary set-backs, that may look disheartening indeed. While America, of course, should not give Russia blanket approval, it would be unwise to overreact every time there is some bad news from Moscow.

Of course the ultimate outcome of the historical drama unfolding in the former Soviet Union will not be determined by foreigners. There is the real possibility that, no matter what the West does, democracy in these lands will prove only a brief interlude. But there is the virtual certainty that without a major constructive engagement by the West—and, realistically, this can only be arranged by the United States—the Russian democratic experiment will go up in smoke, taking the rest of the region with it.

On the one hand is the prospect that Russia will reestablish itself as a great power. If it does so without abandoning its commitment to democracy—due to the fact that its economy is relatively underdeveloped and its exports are mainly commodities—then it would have less reason than Germany or Japan to be at odds with the United States. Russia’s revival thus has the potential of making a positive contribution to the global economic and geopolitical equilibrium that is beginning to drift against U.S. interests.

On the other hand one does not need excessive imagination to conjure up disasters of an apocalyptic magnitude if the Russian empire is reborn and attempts to strike back. The stakes are high for the United States, and they require an immediate, purposeful and comprehensive effort.