Few propositions about today’s world can be stated with greater certainty: never in the four and a half centuries of the modern Russian state has there been a Russia less imperialist, less militarized, less threatening to its neighbors and the world, and more susceptible to the Western ideals and practices than the Russia we see today.
Although obvious even to a person with only a cursory acquaintance with Russian history, this state of affairs results from a long series of complex, often painful, and always fateful choices made by the first post-Communist regime. Some of the most critical decisions were made between 1991 and 1996, when Russia was reeling from economic depression, hyperinflation, pain of market reforms, and postimperial trauma. Many a nation, even in incomparably milder circumstances, succumbed to the temptation of making nationalism the linchpin of national unity and cohesion at the time of dislocation and disarray. From Argentina to China, Malaysia, and Indonesia, in various degrees of crudeness and militancy, countries have recently resorted to the palliative of nationalism to dull the pain of market reforms or reversals of economic fortune.
In Russia, too, retrenchment and truculence were urged by leftist nationalists inside and outside the Supreme Soviet and, since 1995, by the “national patriotic” plurality in the Duma (the lower house of the Russian Parliament), which early in 1996 “annulled” the 1991 Belavezhskie agreements formalizing the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This deafening chorus is led daily by the flagships of Communist and nationalist media—Pravda, Sovetskaya Rossia and Zavtra, with a combined daily press run of more than half a million—and by the nearly 300 local pro-Communist newspapers.
Yet even when the chance to propitiate the national patriots and to reap a political windfall by adopting a rigid and hostile stance was handed to President Boris Yeltsin on a silver platter, the Kremlin passed—as in the case of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion. After much blustering, Yeltsin chose to sign the NATO-Russia Founding Act and to accommodate the United States and its partners rather than to repeat (even if rhetorically) the cold war. “It already happened more than once that we, the East and the West, failed to find a chance to reconcile,” Yeltsin said in February 1997, when the final negotiations with NATO began. “This chance must not be missed.” The leader of the national-patriotic opposition and the chairman of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov called the founding act “unconditional surrender” and a “betrayal of Russia’s interests.”
A Historic Disarmament
This instance was emblematic of a broader strategy of post-Communist Russia. Between 1992 and 1995, Moscow implemented all Gorbachev’s commitments and completed contraction of the empire inherited from the Soviet Union—a contraction remarkable for being undertaken in peacetime and voluntarily. On September 1, 1994, when the last Russian units left Germany, most troops had already been removed from Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. In four years, Russia repatriated (frequently without homes for officers or jobs for their spouses) 800,000 troops, 400,000 civilian personnel, and 500,000 family members.
Even as Moscow publicly and loudly linked its retreat from Estonia to the granting of full civil and political rights to the ethnic Russians there, it quietly continued to withdraw. In two years, between the end of 1991 and the last months of 1993, the number of Russian troops in Estonia diminished from 35,000—50,000 to 3,000. The departure of the last Russian soldier from the Paldiski submarine training base in Estonia in September 1995 marked the end of Russian presence in East-Central Europe. The lands acquired and held during two and a half centuries of Russian and Soviet imperial conquests were restored to the former captive nations. Russia returned to its seventeenth-century borders.
Unfolding in parallel was demilitarization, historically unprecedented in speed and scope. Reduction is a ridiculous euphemism for the methodical starvation, depredation, and strangulation to which Yeltsin has subjected the Soviet armed forces and the military-industrial complex. In a few years, the Russian defense sector—the country’s omnipotent overlord, the source of national pride, the master of the country’s choicest resources and of the livelihoods of one-third of the Russian population—was reduced to a neglected and humiliated beggar.
Begun with an 80 percent decrease in defense procurement ordered by Yegor Gaidar in 1992, the decline in the share of the Russian gross domestic product spent on the military continued from at least 20 percent to 5 percent—7 percent today. Yeltsin promised to reduce it to 3 percent by the year 2000. According to Sergei Rogov, a leading Russian expert and the director of the USA and Canada Institute, the 1996 expenditures for organization and maintenance of Russian armed forces were at least 2.5 times lower than in 1990, for procurement and military construction 9 times, and for research and development 10 times. When, in May 1997, the government implemented an across-the-board spending cut (“sequestering”), defense was again hit the hardest: its already delayed funding was reduced by another 20 percent.
Along the way, the Russian army shrank from around 4 million in January 1992 to about 1.7 million by late 1996. In July 1997, Yeltsin signed several decrees mandating a reduction of the armed forces by 500,000 men, to 1.2 million. A week later, the minister of defense, General Igor Rodionov, referred to himself as the “minister of a disintegrating army and a dying fleet.”
At the same time, Yeltsin promised what surely will be the coup de grâce of Russian militarism: the ending of the draft and the institution of an all-volunteer armed force of 600,000 by the year 2000. Even though this plan almost certainly will take longer than three years to implement, a mere talk by the Russian leader about ending almost two centuries of conscription epitomized the distance that the new country put between herself and the traditional Russian (let alone Soviet) militarized state. In the meantime, following the Supreme Court’s October 1995 decision that allowed local judges to rule on constitutional matters, Russian judges have thrown out dozens of cases brought by the army against the “deserters” who exercised their constitutional right to alternative civil service.
The extent of the rout of the formerly invincible defense sector became evident in the twelve months following the 1996 presidential election. An often sick president fired two defense ministers, the head of the general staff, and the commanders of the paratroop and space forces, and he ordered the retirement of 500 generals from the immensely bloated Russian field officers corps.
No other Russian or Soviet leader, not even Stalin, attempted to remove at the same time as many pillars of the national defense establishment for the fear of destabilizing the regime (to say nothing of risking one’s neck). With the 40 million votes that he received on July 3, 1996, Yeltsin apparently felt no fear. Dictatorships and autocracies depend on the army’s good graces; democracies (even young and imperfect) can afford to be far less solicitous.
The Rationale of Disarmament
Russia’s historic disarmament results from political and economic democratization, not from a weak economy, as often suggested—as if national priorities are determined by economists and as if, throughout human history, economic rationale has not been invariably and completely overridden by fear, hatred, wounded national honor, messianic fervor, or a dictator’s will. In our own century, where was a “strong economy” and excess wealth in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and after World War II; in Vietnam between the 1950s and the 1980s; in Cuba since the 1960s; in Ethiopia under Comrade Mengistu; in an Armenia fighting for Nagorny-Karabakh; in a Pakistan developing a nuclear arsenal; or in an Iraq starving its people to produce the mother of all weapons?
No, the shrinking of the Russian military is due to the weakening of the Russian state’s grip on the economy and to the constraints imposed on imperialism, aggressiveness, and brutality by public opinion, the free mass media, and competitive politics, which have forced the Kremlin to end the war in Chechnya. Tardy in bestowing on Russia its other blessings, Russian democracy has already made high defense expenditures and violent imperial projects quite difficult to sustain.
Most fundamentally, Russian demilitarization is a consequence of rearranged national priorities, of a change in the criteria of greatness, and of society’s gradual liberation from the state. Russia has abandoned the tradition of the unchallenged preponderance of the state’s well-being and concerns, particularly in the matters of foreign policy and national security, over domestic economic and social progress. The vigilance against foreign aggression, the strength of the fortress-state, and the allegiance and sacrifice to it have been replaced in a new national consensus by the goals of societal and individual welfare, new civil and political liberties, and stabilization within a democratic framework.
In June 1997, in a television address to the nation on the seventh anniversary of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Russia, Yeltsin said: “A great power is not mountains of weapons and subjects with no rights. A great power is a self-reliant and talented people with initiative.... In the foundation of our approach to the building of the Russian state . . . is the understanding that the country begins with each of us. And the sole measure of the greatness of our Motherland is the extent to which each citizen of Russia is free, healthy, educated, and happy.”
Unless this new consensus is extinguished by an economic catastrophe and a return to a dictatorship, Russian militarism is not likely to recur. For that reason, as stated in one of Ronald Reagan’s magnificently vindicated theorems—nations mistrust one another not because they are armed; they are armed because they mistrust one another—Russia, while far from a model of openness and consistency, is easier to trust today than at any other time in its history.
The Chinese Angle
This connection between democratization and national security policies makes the Russian case so different from the Chinese. For the same reason, one should not expect any time soon a reversal in the enormous Chinese military buildup and modernization, helped by a burgeoning economy and fueled by resurgent nationalism, with which China, unlike Russia, chose to anchor and unite the nation during its dizzying economic transformation.
Historically, the key feature of a transition from a traditional to a modern society and from a village- to an urban-based economy was the “disposal” of surplus peasantry. Everywhere this process was attended with enormous societal convulsions, revolutions, violence, and cruelty (England showing the way.) For Russia, the problem was “resolved” by the terror of Stalin’s collectivization and industrialization. For China, with its 800,000,000 peasants, the resolution is still ahead. The justified fear of instability felt by the Chinese political class, already anxious about the migration of millions of destitute peasants into the cities, is the single biggest impediment to Chinese democratization—and to the prospects of a Chinese demilitarization.
China is relevant in another respect, as well. Of all the morbid fantasies about the innumerable facets of the alleged Russian menace, the prophecy of a coming Sino-Russian alliance directed against the United States is intellectually the most embarrassing one. What historical precedent is there to support such a forecast in the case of two giant nations that vie for regional superpowership, share nearly 3000 miles of border (much of it in dispute), and have for centuries competed for the huge underpopulated land mass to the east of the Urals? As with history’s other pair of perennial combatants, Germany and France, such an accord will have to wait until both countries are stable and prosperous democracies—not in our lifetime and, alas, perhaps not in our children’s, either. In any case, should it ever come to pass, an alliance of two democracies is unlikely to be anti-American.
To be sure, there will be periods of rapprochements when, as today, Russia will sell its submarines and MIGs, and Chinese migrant workers and entrepreneurs will flood the Far East and Siberia, setting up Chinese language schools for their children and opening the best restaurants in Ekaterinburg, Irkutsk, and Khabarovsk. Russia will attempt to play the Chinese card in its dealings with Washington—just as China, at the same time, will be using a Russian card in its relations with the United States, which will remain far more important to both than they will be to each other. Just as certainly a Sino-Russian truce will be followed by acrimonious and perhaps violent ruptures.
Along with finding its place and role in the post-cold war world, Russia also had to make some critical choices about the “post-Soviet political space,” as the territory of the former Soviet Union has been referred to in Moscow since 1992. At that time, everyone—from the national patriots on the Left to the radical free marketeers on the Right—agreed on four things. First, a stable and prosperous Russia was impossible without a modicum of stability in the “post-Soviet space,” which from Moldova to Tajikistan erupted in a dozen violent civil and ethnic wars. Second, some sort of mending of millions of ruptured economic, political, and human ties (“reintegration”) was imperative if the entire area was to survive the transition. Third, with the “new world order” buried in the hills around Sarajevo, Russia could count on no one but herself in securing peace and stability in the area. Finally, Russia’s preeminence as the regional superpower was not negotiable.
Beyond this agenda, which still stands, the consensus dissolved into two sharply divergent objectives and strategies. One was aimed at making the post-Soviet space resemble the USSR as closely as possible and as quickly as possible. The cost—in money, world opinion, or even blood—was no object. All means were acceptable, including the stirring of nationalist and irredentist tendencies among the 25-million-strong ethnic Russian diaspora in the newly independent states—just as Serbia did in Bosnia and Croatia. In this scenario, the regime in Moscow was urged at least to threaten recalcitrant states with the politicization of the ethnic Russian community and the “massive redrawing of borders” to join to the metropolis the areas heavily populated by ethnic Russians, especially northern Kazakhstan and eastern Ukraine. Advocated largely, but not exclusively, by the nationalist Left, this is an imperial, revanchist, and ideological agenda.
In the other model, which might be called postcolonial, reintegration was given a far less ambitious content. Its advocates relied on the incremental pull of a privatized Russian economy and its democratic stabilization to do the job. Its time frame stretched over decades.
Haltingly and inconsistently, Russia opted for the latter game plan. Even the April 1997 “union” with Belarus—which some American observers hastened to declare the beginning of Russia’s inexorable march to the West—has been quietly but substantially diluted and slowed to a crawl, despite the Kremlin’s rhetorical fanfare, the conjugal ardor of Belarussian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and the exuberance in the Duma. Already, five months later, in September, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov declared that “unity” between Russia and Belarus, with its Soviet-style economy and Lukashenka’s dictatorship, would be just as impossible as a union between North and South Korea. A week later, ostensibly in retaliation for the jailing of a Russian journalist in Belarus, Yeltsin refused to grant permission for Lukashenka’s plane to enter Russian air space.
Regarding the maintenance of regional dominance, however, there ought to be no illusions: Russia is likely to deploy much the same combination of roguery, bribery, and diplomatic pressure that great land powers have used for millennia to assert control over a self-declared sphere of influence. Heading the list are economic and military assistance to friendly regimes and the denial of aid to neighbors deemed insufficiently accommodating. In the case of especially recalcitrant countries, support for all manner of internal rebellions is always an option. Given the economic and political fragility of most post-Soviet states, their dependence on Russian resources (especially energy), and their susceptibility to ethnic and civil strife, Moscow’s stance could sometime make a difference between a young state’s life and death.
Relations with Neighbors
While relentlessly probing for weaknesses, exploiting their neighbors’ troubles, and taking advantage of openings to further its regional superiority, the postcolonial policy is constrained by a cost-benefit analysis. There is a wariness of open-ended, long-term, and expensive commitments in the “near abroad.” Such considerations were anathema both to Russian “messianic” (the Third Rome) and, especially, to Soviet “ideological” (world socialism) varieties of imperialism.
Most critically, Moscow has chosen not to cross the thickest lines in the sand: independence and sovereignty of the CIS nations. While “near,” the Confederation of Independent States is still “abroad.” In the end, this is the critical distinction between the imperial and the postcolonial modes of behavior in the region.
This difference is akin to the one between twisting someone’s arms and cutting them off. Much as observers may (and do) find both activities equally reprehensible, to the arms’ owner the actual choice makes a great deal of difference. Unlike some American journalists and columnists, whom they quickly learned to overwhelm with complaints about Russia, the leaders of neighboring nations from “near” and even “medium” abroad know only too well the alternative to the arm-twisting postcolonial choice.
Hence their wholehearted support for Yeltsin in his September–October 1993 confrontation with the Left-nationalist radical supporters of the Supreme Soviet. The Czech President Václav Havel said October 4 that the clashes in Moscow were not simply “a power struggle, but rather a fight between democracy and totalitarianism.” In a joint statement Presidents Lennart Meri of Estonia, Guntis Ulmanis of Latvia, and Algirdas Brazauskas of Lithuania called the struggle in Moscow “a contest between a democratically elected President and antidemocratic power structures.” Their Moldovan counterpart, Mircea Snegur, called the Supreme Soviet supporters “Communist, imperialist forces who want to turn Russia into a concentration camp.” “In my thoughts I am on the barricades with the defenders of Russian democracy, as I was next to them in August 1991,” Eduard Shevardnadze said in a message to the Kremlin on the late afternoon of October 3, 1993, when the outcome looked quite grim for Yeltsin. “Deeply concerned about the events in Moscow, I am again expressing my resolute support for President Yeltsin and his allies.”
Hence, with an almost audible sigh of relief, the neighboring countries welcomed Yeltsin’s victory over Zyuganov in 1996. The tone of the greetings sent to the victor by the leaders of the new states far exceeded protocol requirements. “The future development of Ukraine depended on the results of the Russian election,” President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma said on July 4, 1996. Yeltsin’s victory, he continued, was “a signal that Ukraine should press ahead with economic reform.”
For the proponents of the postcolonial choice, to which demilitarization of conflicts in the near abroad had always been central, 1997 was by far the most productive year. Following Yeltsin’s near-miraculous resurgence after heart bypass surgery, Moscow moved to settle all hostilities in the region. Only in Nagorny Karabakh, over which Armenia and Azerbaijan had fought to a standstill, did Russia fail to make some progress.
On May 12, Russia signed a peace accord with Chechnya, granting it all but an official recognition of independence. Within days, after two months of shuttle diplomacy by the Foreign Minister Evgeny Primakov, Moldova’s President Petru Lucinschi and Igor Smirnov, the leader of the self-proclaimed Transdniester Republic (a Russo-Ukrainian secessionist enclave on Moldova’s border with Ukraine), signed in the Kremlin a memorandum that effectively affirmed Moldova’s sovereignty over the area. The signing was attended by Presidents Yeltsin and Kuchma as “coguarantors” of the agreement.
In June, the Tajikistan regime, supported by Russia, and the Tajik Islamic opposition ended five years of a bloody civil war by signing in Moscow a Peace and National Reconciliation Accord. Primakov and his first deputy, Boris Pastukhov, reportedly continued mediation until the final agreement emerged two hours before the signing ceremony.
The same month Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba spent two weeks in Moscow with top mediators (Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev, Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin, and Defense Minister Igor Sergeev) to discuss an interim protocol, drafted by the Russian Foreign Ministery, for a settlement between Georgia and secessionist Abkhazia. In August, Ardzinba traveled to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for the first face-to-face meeting with Shevardnadze since the war began in 1992. In his weekly radio address at the end of August, Shevardnadze “expressed his appreciation” of Primakov’s effort in arranging Ardzinba’s visit.
On September 4, in the presence of Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin the presidents of North Ossetia and Ingushetia (autonomous republics inside Russia) signed in Moscow an agreement settling a conflict over North Ossetia’s Prigorodnyi Raion, which had festered since fighting broke out in November 1992. During the next two days, in the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, Chernomyrdin held bilateral meetings with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. At the end of the sessions, each of the presidents announced that his country would “soon” be able to sign border agreements with Moscow.
Accord with Ukraine
But by far the most momentous diplomatic coup of that busy year was the May 31 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Russia and Ukraine signed by Yeltsin and Kuchma in Kiev on May 31. An accord between Europe’s largest (Russia) and its sixth most populous (Ukraine) nations is just as central to the stability of the post–cold war European order as the French-German rapprochement engineered by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in 1958 was to the postÿWorld War II one. By the terms of the treaty, the two nations undertook to “respect each other’s territorial integrity, confirm[ed] the inviolability of the existing borders, ... mutual respect, sovereign equality, a peaceful settlement of disputes, non-use of force or its threat.”
The success of this settlement after five years of turbulent negotiations is more stunning because so much augured failure. First, the technical complexity of some issues bordered on intractability. One issue was the fate of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, on which both countries had legitimate claims. Another contentious point was the sovereignty over the beautiful and fecund island of Crimea, where ethnic Russians outnumbered Ukrainians by more than two to one. For almost two centuries a staple of Russian poetry and the most popular Russian resort, teeming with tsars’ summer palaces and dachas of the best Russian painters, musicians, and writers, it was “given” to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, when the end of the Soviet Union and an independent Ukraine seemed beyond the realm of the possible. Yet another political and emotional hurricane was touched off by the status of the port and naval base of Sevastopol, a symbol of Russian military valor. The defense of the city in the 1854–1855 Crimean War against the British and the French and in World War II against the Germans had earned Sevastopol an honorary designation of City-Hero.
And then there were precedents of similar postimperial divorces, all attended by horrific bloodshed: England and Ireland, India and Pakistan, Bosnia and Serbia. In 1992, many a Western expert confidently predicted a war between Russia and Ukraine, some even an exchange of nuclear strikes.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the recognition of Ukraine as a separate state was her unique place in Russia’s historic memory and national conscience. Kiev was the birthplace of the first Russian state and its first baptized city, from which Christianity spread throughout Russia. No other part of the non-Russian Soviet Union was so pivotal to Russian national identity as Ukraine. In no other instance was the tempering of Russia’s imperial tradition and instinct put to a harsher, more painful test than by an independent Ukraine.
In the end, Russia gave up Crimea and Sevastopol and ceded to Ukraine the entire Black Sea Fleet. Some of Sevastopol’s naval bays were to be leased, and half of the fleet rented by Russia from Ukraine, with the payments subtracted from Ukraine’s enormous debt to Russia for gas and oil deliveries, estimated at the time of the treaty signing at $3–3.5 billion—perhaps the most generous, and least publicized, bilateral foreign assistance program in the world today.
Revisionist or Not?
The most fundamental choice that Russia had to resolve both on the world scene and in the post-Soviet space was the one between nonrevisionist and revisionist policies. The former seek advantage within the constraints of an existing framework accepted by the majority of the international community. The latter are aimed at undermining and changing the framework itself. Russia has chosen nonrevisionism. She may bemoan the unfairness of the score (and does so often and loudly), but she does not try to change the rules of the game.
To be sure, the imperatives of history, geography, and domestic politics will cause Russia to be less than happy about much U.S. behavior in the world and to challenge it often. In poll after poll, a majority of Russians agree that the United States was “using Russia’s current weakness to reduce it to a second-rate power.” As de Gaulle said to Harry Hopkins, “America’s policy, whether it was right or not, could not but alienate the French.” Wherever the United States provides an opening by seeming either not to care much about an issue or, as in Iraq, to hesitate, Russia is likely to seize the opportunity to further its claim on being reckoned with as a major international player.
Yet, as with France, the tweaking, the shouting, and the occasional painful kick in the shins must not be confused with anti-Americanism of the kind professed by the Soviet Union, Iran in the 1980s, or Iraq, Cuba, and Libya today. Russian truculence is not informed by ideology. It is not dedicated to a consistent pursuit of strategic objectives inimical to the truly vital interests of the United States, and it is not part of a relentless, antagonistic struggle to the end. Rather, it is pragmatic and selective. And when America’s wishes are communicated at the highest level, forcefully, directly, and unambiguously, Moscow is likely to moderate opposition and even extend cooperation, as it did in Bosnia.
But just as Francis Fukuyama’s much misunderstood “end of history” was never meant to suggest the absence of lapses, reversals, lacunae, or lengthy and furious rear-guard battles, neither does the end of 75 years of relentless Soviet revisionism spell the end of our Russian problem. Indeed, it may become worse before it becomes better. The reason is the “underinstitutionalization” of Yeltsin’s foreign policy: the lack of organizational and personnel structures that could carry on the present policy in the absence of the impulse from the top. The new foreign and security policies of Russia have stemmed mostly from Yeltsin’s domestic political and economic revolution, not from implementation of some long-term strategy or a conscious effort at restructuring the policy-making process.
As every great and successful modern political leader, with a notable exception of de Gaulle, Yeltsin is a domestic leader. His interests, his instincts, and his passions, like Ronald Reagan’s (unlike Nixon’s, Carter’s, or Gorbachev’s), are engaged mostly (and most profitably) by his country’s domestic politics. For that reason, Yeltsin never cared to establish a foreign policy alter ego (a Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Shevardnadze): a strategic thinker and confidant endowed with a great deal of power and independence.
There have been only two exceptions, two areas of international relations that Yeltsin has firmly arrogated for himself. One is the relationship with the United States, which Yeltsin single-handedly salvaged by signing—against the advice and dire warning of virtually the entire political class—the Russia-NATO Founding Act.
The other domaine réservé is the settlement with Ukraine, into which Yeltsin put enormous personal effort and which he pushed along, ignoring or evading dozens of stern resolutions by the Supreme Soviet, the Duma, and the Council of Federation (the upper house of the Russian legislature) and pretending not to hear fiery statements of the country’s top political leaders, from his own ex–vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoy, to the perennial chairman of the Duma’s Committee on Foreign Relations, Vladimir Lukin, to the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. After the treaty was signed, Ukrainian officials told reporters that “only Yeltsin had the political will and strength to drop Russia’s residual claims on Ukraine” and that the Ukrainian leadership “prayed that Mr. Yeltsin would not die before doing so.”
Outside these two areas, Yeltsin considers foreign policy a distant second to his domestic agenda and is content to use it to accommodate the opposition rather than to expend his political capital. The choice of Primakov as foreign minister is characteristic: the man’s announced objective of a multipolar world—without American hegemony but also without a challenge to the key postulates of the established order or a slide into a new cold war—made him the only key minister in Yeltsin’s cabinet acceptable to all major political forces in the country.
In the next two years, the pitfalls of such a modus operandi will become especially apparent. Until now, Yeltsin’s unique place in Russian politics, his political weight, and the confidence that came from a landslide victory in 1996 kept the vector of Russian foreign policy pointed in the right direction. The president’s inevitable physical decline and lame-duck status change a great deal. Like an old bulldozer—once mighty and responsive but now more and more awkward, slow, hard to handle, and with the motor nearly worn out—Yeltsin today clears the boulders deposited by the receded Soviet glaciers one at a time, with much screeching, creaking, and even retreats.
Any worsening of Yeltsin’s physical condition would further increase the policy-making impact of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian diplomatic corps—perhaps the most authentic and recalcitrant relic of the Soviet past among Russian institutions, a class whose fall from the pinnacle of Soviet society in terms of material stature and prestige can be compared only with that of the military. Predictably, Russian diplomats’ zeal in defending the reformist regime often seems less than overwhelming.
An additional toughness and shrillness in the tone of Russian foreign policy rhetoric in the next two years will come about because of domestic politics, as the Foreign Ministry will more and more look to please the undeclared contenders in the 2000 presidential election, all of whom seem far less impervious to nationalist temptation than Yeltsin. Russian behavior in the latest Iraq crisis, with Yeltsin, clearly disengaged, mouthing a bizarre line about World War III, is a foretaste of things to come.
This must not take us by surprise. Seven years ago, an enormous and evil empire, which had deformed and poisoned everything and everyone it touched, broke to pieces. Yet its harmful rays, like light from a long-dead star, will continue to reach us for some time. The current Russian leaders came of political age and advanced under the empire. They cannot be counted on fully to fashion a world of which they know little. At best, in domestic politics, economy, and behavior in the world, they will forge a hybrid. If we are lucky (as we have been with Yeltsin), more than half the product will be new and benign, while the rest will be instilled with various degrees of malignancy. It is up to the next generation of leaders (with lots of good fortune) to turn the hybrid into a purebred.
U.S. policy makers must be prepared to encounter the Soviet legacy in Russian foreign policy—such as relentless and often senseless spying or the sale of technology and weapons to nations hostile to the United States—and to counter them with unflinching resolve. What will never serve American interests, however, is the wholesale imposition of old stereotypes on a different new reality, remarkably auspicious in some of its key ingredients.
Leon Aron is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Another version of this essay was published in the April 20 Weekly Standard. For more information on the subject, see Leon Aron, “The Foreign Policy Doctrine of Post-Communist Russia and Its Domestic Context,” in Michael Mandelbaum, ed., The New Russian Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, May 1998.