Dealing with a Russia in Turmoil

Jack F Matlock Junior. Foreign Affairs. Volume 75, Issue 3. May/June 1996.

The Future of Partnership

Observing Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, assault on human rights in Chechnya, unfinished democracy and market economy, and endemic crime and corruption, some in the West have ridiculed the notion of partnership and recommended policies that smack of a quarantine, if not outright reversion to Cold War confrontation. The Russian State Duma’s March 15 resolution challenging the legality of the agreement to replace the Soviet Union with the Commonwealth of Independent States, coming on the heels of the Communist Party’s strong showing in the December parliamentary elections, has fueled skepticism about the prospects for Russian democracy and responsible international behavior.

Other recent developments test the optimism of even the most enthusiastic supporters of cooperation with Russia. Instead of challenging the dangerous xenophobia mouthed by opposition politicians, President Boris Yeltsin has at times catered to it, apparently believing that will shore up his flagging popularity. Having failed to support those dedicated to building the institutions necessary for democracy and a healthy market economy, Yeltsin has removed virtually all reformers from key positions in his government while retaining many officials widely suspected of corruption. He joined in the opposition’s verbal abuse of a foreign minister who was convinced that Russia’s interests are consistent with those of the West and ultimately appointed in his place one who has long argued that Russia must take a more confrontational approach to the outside world. The war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya drags on despite periodic promises to end it.

Such developments cannot and should not be ignored, but they are only part of the story. Russian foreign policy remains generally consistent with U.S. interests despite occasional outbursts of hostile rhetoric. The Duma’s declaration that agreements to end the U.S.S.R. are invalid has met not only protests but derision, and has become an embarrassment. Russia as yet has not significantly backtracked on the road to a market economy, and on March i6 Yeltsin issued a landmark decree that, if implemented, will finally establish citizens’ right to own land. Nevertheless, the campaign for the presidential election scheduled for June creates fresh uncertainties. As it contemplates the possibility that the Russians could elect a communist president, now might be an opportune time for the United States to review its stake in Russia.

Closer Than It Seems

The cold war conditioned the United States and Russia to consider each other enemies, and the image is hard to erase. But the Cold War was about ideology, not Russian national interests. Before the communists took power, U.S.-Russian relations were usually cordial. Now that ideology no longer divides Washington and Moscow, the two countries’ basic interests are compatible.

Among its most important interests in Russia, the United States counts the maintenance of responsible control over the arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, a rapid and substantial reduction in nuclear warheads and delivery systems, and the elimination of chemical and biological weapons. It would like to see Russia participate in a European or Eurasian security system that included the United States as well as western Europe. It wants Russia integrated into the world economy as a full-fledged member. Finally, it would like Russian cooperation in resolving regional disputes, and a working partnership in addressing global problems such as international terrorism, crime, and damage to the environment.

Every one of these aims is fully consistent with Russia’s national interests; indeed, Russians have a larger stake in most of them than Americans. Other interests are not shared to the same degree. A revival of Russian industry would bring much more competition for markets, as has already occurred in the sale of arms and construction of nuclear power plants. Russia, like the United States and every other country, will always be more sensitive to events in its neighborhood than to those that take place farther away. Furthermore, a large segment of the population desperately wants Russia to be seen as a great power, which can drive attention-getting behavior on the Gaullist pattern.

Some public attitudes have the potential for more serious mischief if they lead Russian leaders to threaten their neighbors. Most Russians feel their government should act as the protector of ethnic Russians living in foreign countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, while countries like Kazakhstan and Ukraine view this attitude as a symptom of an imperial mentality. Many Russians go even further, viewing the breakup of the Soviet Union as a national catastrophe and yearning to reassemble at least its major parts. Few would be willing to fight a war to gain this end, but most will resent and oppose any activity by outside powers that they believe undermines Russia’s hegemony over the areas it once ruled. It is these emotional issues, which have great appeal among a disgruntled electorate, and not the true national interests of Russia, that could put Russian policy on a collision course with the West.

Even when basic interests are in accord, disputes can arise over the best means of reaching a common goal, clashing primary and secondary interests, or a misreading of interests. Moscow and Washington had their tense periods over Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, although they share an interest in a peace settlement that will bring the area stability and eventual ethnic reconciliation. Neither is seeking military bases, exclusive concessions, or hegemony. For various reasons, mainly historical, the Russians consistently opposed the use of military force by NATO, siding with the alliance’s European members more often than with the United States. But as the current Russian cooperation with the Dayton accords makes clear, this behavior did not signal a conflict of basic interests.

Similarly, the dispute over Russia’s contract to build a nuclear power plant in Iran does not stem from a conflict of strategic interests, as an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would pose a much greater threat to Russia than to the United States. This is an instance in which the Russian assessment of the consequences differs from the American. Russian officials say they are convinced that sufficient safeguards can be put in place to prevent diversion of nuclear material from the power plant to a weapons program. They may be wrong, and their conclusion may be driven more by pressure from a Ministry of Atomic Energy eager for the sale than a dispassionate weighing of the risks, but the dispute is not unlike those that erupt periodically between the United States and its allies over exports to regimes Washington does not like.

Although these sorts of disagreements are not always resolved to the complete satisfaction of both parties, they are manageable within a framework of cooperation on larger issues. With careful diplomacy, most are amenable to resolutions in which both sides gain something. Thus they are not likely to eclipse Russia’s prospects for assuming a constructive role in world politics and the world economy

What could genuinely threaten cooperation between Russia and the rest of the world would be a Russian government that failed to understand how compatible the country’s interests are with those of the West and, in particular, the United States.

Myths of Origin

One of the more portentous developments on the Russian political scene has been the alliance of communist and nationalist forces, which began in the last years of the Soviet Union and has reached near-fusion on the eve of the presidential campaign. Traditionally the nationalists were considered of the right and the communists of the left, but that distinction has lost its meaning. What unites the two today is an allegiance to the Russian imperial state. The communists, although they espouse socialist economics, hardly mention Marxism-Leninism anymore and have made concerted efforts to win the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. Very little now distinguishes nationalists from communists, although not all nationalists are members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

Russian nationalists, including communists, often describe themselves as derzhavniki, or proponents of a strong state. In so doing, they adopt one of the most persistent and erroneous myths in the Russian political tradition-namely, that the security and well-being of the Russian people depend on a strong state. The usual justification for a strong, authoritarian state is that it is necessary for protection against foreign invasion. Throughout history, however, Russians have suffered more from an overly powerful state than from invaders.

It was in the obvious interest of the czars to promote the myth, and in Stalin’s to revive it. To perpetuate the tradition, today’s Russian nationalists need a foreign enemy. Probably at no other time has the rest of the world been as favorably disposed toward Russia as it has been since the end of the Cold War. But that unprecedented goodwill has not deterred the would-be autocrats from creating a pseudo-world to fit their fantasies, misrepresenting recent events and drawing on the nineteenth-century Slavophile and pan-Slavic tradition for arguments at best half true and often completely false.

The chauvinists claim that a hostile West or, more often, the United States brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Current social and economic dislocation, they declare, are the result of that collapse, Russia’s consequent loss of great power status, and a West determined to keep the country weak and subservient.

Rarely does one find an argument so demonstrably wrong in all its elements. The Soviet Union was not destroyed by the West; it collapsed because of its inherent defects and the ineptitude of its leaders. Once the Cold War ended, the major Western countries supported Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to create a voluntary union and were distinctly uncomfortable with the quick disintegration of the Soviet state. Economic prosperity has no correlation with great power status-if it did, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Sweden, and Singapore would be among the world’s poorest countries. The Soviet economy was in a nosedive months before the union fell apart, and would have collapsed even more painfully had the economic reforms of January 1992 not been undertaken. Far from attempting to keep Russia weak, the West has made substantial efforts, including International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans of billions of dollars, to assist it in its difficult transition.

Facts, of course, rarely deter politicians intent on gaining power, but they can limit politicians’ ability to carry out crazy ideas. Should the communists win the Russian presidency in June, they will face a dilemma. If they proceed in accordance with their 1995 party platform, which pledges renationalization of banking and key industries, the expansion of social services, and a departure from IMF-approved fiscal policies, they will precipitate a major political confrontation with Russia’s new capitalists (who are now better funded than the communists) and simultaneously kick off another round of inflation without any hope of a Western rescue. If they also attempt to impose protectionist measures, shelves in stores will once again stand bare and lines of people waiting to buy will again become common in the cities. If they attempt to recentralize control over industry, many provinces will simply ignore them.

Being plodding functionaries rather than revolutionary zealots, the communists would have a strong incentive to downplay their campaign rhetoric and confine their changes to the cosmetic. Whatever damage they managed to do would primarily hurt Russia, not other countries. If the Russian people are so forgetful of the past and so credulous as to entrust their fate to bureaucratic demagogues purveying a demonstrably false doctrine, they will deserve the discomfort that ensues.

Misguided Geopolitics

Other people, however, should not have to suffer for the Russian electorate’s misjudgments-particularly the people in the other successor states of the Soviet Union. That the platform of the Russian Communist Party calls for the reintegration of the Soviet Union is ominous, and the proviso that it be accomplished by peaceful means is not terribly reassuring, considering the Orwellian twist that communists give words like “peaceful.” But before concluding that the Duma has embarked on a concerted effort to force some of the other former republics back into a revived Soviet Union, one should ask whether that is likely to happen and whether it would serve Russian interests if it did.

Russia unquestionably has an interest in close economic and human ties with the former Soviet republics. Their economies are mutually dependent in many respects, personal and family links abound, and there are many elements of shared culture. Russia has excellent reasons for wanting open borders and a minimum of impediments to commerce and investment. Most members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIs) would benefit from a larger economic community, provided it is based on free enterprise, free trade, and reciprocal obligations. Many could also benefit from collective defense arrangements with a democratic and nonimperialistic Russia.

None of that will materialize, however, unless the governments of the cIs countries perceive closer relations to be in their interest, and they will not see them that way if Russia tries to achieve integration by force or threats. Such tactics, along with the obvious yearning of Russian nationalists to reconstruct the empire, undermine Russia’s ability to achieve what is really in its interest: a close, friendly, nonthreatening relationship with each of its neighbors.

The reactionary thinking of Russian chauvinists is also laced with crude geopolitical assumptions that territorial expansion equals power and prestige, that power and prestige bring prosperity, and that a great power need not deal with smaller neighbors as equals. Such thinking runs counter to Russia’s real interests in the contemporary world, yet some Western observers also seem to accept it, at least in part. Their talk of power vacuums around Russia’s borders that must be filled or left to Moscow’s mercy also nourishes Russian chauvinist fantasies.

In truth, nothing can weaken a state more than an attempt to rule people who do not wish to be part of that state. A strong imperial power can enforce its will for long periods if it is willing to pay a high price in blood and treasure, but a weak imperial power cannot. And Russia, for all its fearsome weapons, is pitifully weak both militarily and administratively, unable even to quell a rebellion in one of its smallest provinces. (It can, of course, destroy the province, but military power is of limited political use if it can only destroy.) If Russia is to achieve the close relations with its neighbors that it needs, it must base them on mutual advantage, not threats and tantrums.

Another fallacious geopolitical argument dear to Russian nationalists holds that Russia is not a Western but a Eurasian power. At its most benign, this contention implies that Russia’s role is to serve as a bridge between East and West. At its most pernicious, it suggests that the West is inherently Russia’s enemy and thus Russia must ally itself with the East-whether the Islamic world, China, or both-in a cosmic East-West struggle.

Both variants approach the absurd. Russia is a Eurasian power in the geographic sense, just as the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power. But Russia is primarily a European power, and no amount of wishful thinking can enable it to play off the “East” against the “West.” Historically, it has had more conflicts with Islamic peoples than with Europeans, and it extorted much of its Asian territory from China; understandably, the Chinese and Islamic peoples of Central Asia have regarded Russians not as fellow Asians but as colonialists. The Japanese have viewed Russia as an imperial rival-one that even today occupies territories they consider rightfully theirs, notably the Kuril Islands. What can Russia offer any of these countries that they cannot obtain in greater abundance directly from the West? Russia will only doom itself to backwardness, stagnation, and worse if it distances itself from Europe in pursuit of some never-never alliance in the East.

To Yearn for Return

Irrational arguments that stir the emotions often have greater appeal than rational ones, particularly among estranged voters and ambitious politicians. Nevertheless, it is important that the West, blessed with more stable political and economic structures than Russia, make a special effort to deal rationally with the irrationalities it observes. The United States would harm itself in responding as if Russian rhetoric were reality, for that would seem to substantiate the premise on which the chauvinist case is based. An escalation of emotional responses on each side could eventually create the very condition the chauvinists seem to crave: a hostile West that forces Russia to turn inward.

Given the crude geopolitical view of the world that many Russians still hold, their country’s relations with other Soviet successor states are matters of particular delicacy. American officials should be very clear, in their own minds as well as in their responses to Russian words and actions, where U.S. interests lie. Some Americans have proposed that Ukraine and Kazakhstan be bolstered as counterweights to Russia. That is putting it the wrong way. It is of no particular concern to the United States what political arrangements exist between Ukraine and Russia or Kazakhstan and Russia so long as they are based on mutual consent and are not directed against other countries. Few policies could be more dangerous and self-defeating than attempts to use Ukraine or Kazakhstan against Russia. It is, however, of prime importance to the United States, Europe, and Russia itself that solemn commitments regarding the independence and territorial integrity of states be respected unless and until they are changed by mutual consent, following the principles embodied in the Helsinki Final Act, to which all are parties.

At the moment, Belarus is the only Soviet successor state to have expressed a serious interest in confederation with Russia, and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is scheduled to sign a treaty providing for greater integration when Yeltsin visits April 2. Details are not available at this writing, but the official announcements suggest that the agreement stops short of confederation. Both countries will retain their statehood and their sovereign identity. Even the apparently limited treaty that has been announced has evoked large protest demonstrations in Minsk and criticism from Russian politicians such as presidential candidate Grigori Yavlinsky, who consider it too costly for Russia. Reintegration is unlikely to be easy, since a Belarusan dependency would be an expensive proposition for Moscow, particularly if, as seems to be the case, Belarus’ motive is to obtain subsidies for its failing statecontrolled economy. A confederation or even a federation, should one be concluded, will probably drain rather than augment Russian strength and would have little or no effect on Western interests. If both countries choose such a step by their constitutional processes, the United States and the West at large would have no cause for concern or protest.

Voluntary unions are one thing, duress another. The Duma should be publicly warned that its March i5 vote is not only a legal absurdity but potentially threatening to Russia. After all, the agreement with Ukraine for the transfer of nuclear weapons to Russia was conditioned on a reiteration of Russia’s commitment to respect Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity, and it is also a commitment to the United States, which provided security and financial guarantees to seal the accord. If the legality of the agreements to create the CIS which were ratified by overwhelming majorities in the parliaments of the Soviet republics that joined-is ever seriously called into question, it would open up embarrassing questions for Russia, such as its basis for occupying the seat in the U.N. Security Council formerly held by the Soviet Union, not to mention its membership in other international organizations as an independent country and the legality of its own borders. No sensible Russian government would tamper with the December 199i agreements, and it is no wonder that Yeltsin immediately denounced the Duma vote as nonsense.

Despite occasional antic behavior in its parliaments, the Russian government has steadfastly repeated its pledge to respect the independence and territorial integrity of its neighbors. It gave no comfort to separatists in the Crimea and has not questioned Kazakhstan’s right to retain its northern provinces, populated predominantly by Slavs, despite public appeals to create a Slavic commonwealth. It withdrew its troops from Estonia and Latvia even though it was dissatisfied with the status ethnic Russians had been granted in those countries. But it has permitted Russian officials’ support of separatists in some former republics, notably Moldova and Georgia, and often attempts to assert a droit de regard over issues in the rest of the former Soviet Union that it considers to be of strategic importance.

Each of these instances has unique features, and it is difficult to generalize beyond saying that Russia has not always been scrupulous in avoiding interference in its fellow former republics. Even so, official actions have stopped far short of an organized campaign to reassemble the Soviet empire. Just how popular the nationalist slogans are with the Russian people is impossible to determine right now. Nationalist candidates without a heavy dose of populism in their programs have generally fared poorly, and this suggests that much of the vote for communist and other nationalist candidates is more a protest against economic conditions than a surge of imperial jingoism. One thing does seem clear: the overwhelming majority of Russians would decisively reject risking a civil war to reimpose control over neighboring countries.

Most of the successor states have proved proficient at resisting Russian pressure to compromise their sovereignty. The Russian nationalist claim that many former republics would return to a reconstituted Soviet Union if they had the chance is a delusion.

Rationality in an Irrational Time

American policymakers must bear in mind that Russia is going through an agonizing period of national redefinition under the most trying circumstances. Having discarded communist ideology, the nation is groping to understand its new place in the world while a third or more of the population is suffering great privation. Assuming that Russia’s loudmouth nationalists are the wave of the future would be a mistake; quieter and more responsible forces are on the scene and may yet carry the day.

Since any sudden radical change in Russian policy, foreign or domestic, is unlikely, the United States can afford to be patient. The task for now is to encourage the Russian leadership to understand its real interests, and persuade it to do a better job of explaining them to the Russian public. For this approach to work, Washington must make it clear that the door is open to cooperation, and even partnership, so that it will be difficult for Russian nationalists to claim credibly that America is hostile.

While it should constantly stress the benefits of cooperation, the United States does Russia and itself no favor if it ignores or condones destructive Russian policies and actions. It must explain why such actions damage Russia’s own interests and must have a comprehensive strategy for penalizing backsliding. If the Russian government should begin to adopt the policies its chauvinist opponents are now urging, it should be required to pay a tangible price in its relations with the United States and other Western countries.

Security questions invariably loom large in America’s relationship with Russia, and the principal ones must be resolved if the momentum of weapons destruction is to be maintained. Much of recent Russian recalcitrance can be traced to a feeling that their country is being left out of the European security club. As a loner, Russia will always be a problem. Washington must assure Moscow that it places a high priority on creating a European security structure to which Russia is a party. Whether that is done through a treaty relationship between Russia and NATO, an augmentation of the authority of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or some other mechanism is less important than the commitment to include Russia. NATO expansion to the east should be deferred while these arrangements are under active negotiation, provided Russia does not threaten other countries or seriously violate its OSCE obligations. To speed up the Duma’s ratification of the START II pact on nuclear arms reduction, the United States should make it clearer that it is willing to negotiate substantially lower limits in a START III agreement.

The United States should engage the Russian military in as many cooperative efforts as are feasible. The joint peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, if successful, can have great symbolic meaning, and Washington should support a vigorous program of joint training and consultation under NATO’S Partnership for Peace initiative for Warsaw Pact nations. A revival of proposals for joint research on ballistic missile defense would also be helpful.

Economic and technical assistance programs will be sharply reduced in budget squeezes, and in any event the time for large numbers of American and other foreign specialists roaming the country and sharing their skills is probably over. The greatest long-term payoff from limited funds will come from educational and cultural exchanges. Russians still need more exposure to the outside world if they are to understand how democratic societies and market systems work. Meanwhile Washington must continue to stress to the Russian government the importance of better legal and administrative protection for commercial rights and a more rational tax system if Russia is to attract the private capital it needs. At present, neither Russians nor foreigners are investing much money in the country, and that has contributed to the deterioration in living standards, which encourages extremism.

Russia should be more prominently engaged in the Middle East peace process, so long as its contribution is constructive. It is much more likely to cooperate if it is a participant, and those who feel Russia has nothing to contribute should be reminded that, even in its weakened condition, Moscow has the means to complicate or even block some settlements if it chooses. Its support in the U.N. Security Council is also necessary for decisions requiring that body’s approval.

As for Russia’s relations with the other former Soviet republics, Washington should signal that it does not object to more CIS integration as such, but only to attempts by Russia to impose its will on the others or to seek imperial rights on their territory. The United States should encourage Russia to make maximum use of OSCE instruments in resolving conflicts in the area, not only because the OSCE is likely to be the most effective vehicle for peacemaking but also because it is in Russia’s interest to increase that organizations authority.

Chechnya is a particularly delicate issue for foreign governments. Russia’s 1994 declaration of war on the province is clearly incompatible with its obligations to respect human rights, but the Russian government was confronted with an armed rebellion, and all governments reserve the right to put down rebellions by force if necessary. While Washington must work, publicly and privately, to urge Moscow to end the carnage and find a negotiated solution, it must do so without appearing to condone the actions of the Chechen leaders who seized power by force, intervened outside their republic (by supporting the Abkhazian separatists in Georgia), and periodically resort to terrorism. To treat the Chechen rebellion as if it were the peaceful exercise of the right to self-determination would be a grave mistake, since it would suggest to many Russians that America is determined to support the dismemberment of their country.

Ultimately Russia will decide its orientation. If it chooses isolation and hostility, let that be its own decision, not one forced on it by premature Western rejection. An isolated, sullen, impoverished Russia would present a greater challenge to a stable world order than a healthy, competitive Russia that is part of the order. But the United States, the West, and even Russia’s immediate neighbors would have the means to protect themselves from the worst effects. The real loser would be Russia.