Geotherapy: Russia's Neuroses, and Ours

Geotherapy: Russia's Neuroses, and Ours

Mini Teaser: An ambition, inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions whichcould only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and couldonly find nourishment in the miseries of a whole nation, ferments inthe heart of the Russian people.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

The new Russian political and economic elites are oriented more
toward economic rather than military-political domination in the
territories of the former USSR (the latter is more troublesome and
more costly).

"Economic domination", it should be said, doesn't mean a readiness to
subsidize poor countries; Russia had its fill of "donorship" in the
old days. For the CFDP, the main way to make Russia a "magnet" for
the rest of the CIS is through "the successful development of Russia
itself, the continuation of democratic and market reforms, and the
beginning of an active policy of economic growth."

The CFDP prides itself on being hard-headed and unsentimental, just
like the "establishment" (a current Russian vogue word) that it
claims to represent. Accordingly, while it favors the goal of
"rapprochement and integration", it can't help pointing out the
emptiness and stupidity of many proposals for achieving this goal.
Russia's relations with therest of the former Soviet states, for
example, should not be over-institutionalized: grand designs are
silly. The CFDP "theses" propose instead

"to shift the center of gravity of activities in the space of the
former USSR away from the highest level--the establishment of
superstructures, the signing of treaties and agreements and the
like--to support for specific projects of interaction in the
cultural, social and above all economic spheres: the exchange of debt
for ownership, the creation of financial-industrial groups, the
facilitation of financial transactions, the establishment of joint
banks, and so forth."

When it comes to achieving "economic domination", what these
hard-headed, unsentimental folks say they want is "a common market
for goods and services", and their reasons have a distinctly
familiar, UN-imperial ring. "Openness of markets", they note, "helps
to create jobs in all states, alleviating the political and
psychological consequences of the disintegration of the USSR."

To be sure, there is also a strong military side to the program. The
CFDP definitely supports defense cooperation with CIS states. But it
opposes the reflexive broadening of Russia's ambitions and
commitments just because it sounds tough and because some neighboring
states (for reasons that may not serve Russian interests at all) are
willing to cooperate. The "theses" specifically object to creating "a
system of collective defense" for the CIS.

It is one thing to organize specific cooperation in several areas
(air defense, ABM defense, border service, training of officer
cadres, supply, etcetera), but it is another thing to create an
alliance costly for Russia that will be perceived by many neighbors
as a threat and not only not increase but rather decrease Russia's
defensive possibilities.

So, a multilateral alliance seems to be out. And even bilateral
ties--no matter how close the state's historic connection to Russia
is--may not make good strategic sense:

[U]nder present conditions a military alliance with Belarus may be
used by the adherents of a very rapid expansion of NATO, an alliance
with Armenia may harm Russia's interests in Azerbaijan, and an
alliance with Kazakhstan may cause a certain amount of concern in
China. For this reason it is advisable to build alliance relations
"from the bottom up" under conditions of maximum possible
transparency and in dialogue with neighboring countries.

The core judgment of the CFDP's report is that, over the long term,
closer relations between Russia and the former Soviet states are
probably inevitable. But its core recommendation is that Russia
should aspire to "leadership, instead of control." Trying to
accelerate the process will accomplish nothing, and may even slow
things down.

It used to be said of U.S. policy in the Western hemisphere that
Americans would do almost anything for Latin America except hear
about it. The Russian elite spends so much time talking about its
former Soviet neighbors--and the discussion is so full of cautions,
hesitations, and fine print--that one is tempted to ask: Is there
anything Russia will do for the "near abroad" except hear about it?

The Matter of Pride

Let us turn to the third element of Russia's allegedly neurotic
politics--the preoccupation of its leaders with their country's
international status. Brzezinski sees them as "obsessed by the notion
that Russia be hailed a great power." And Kissinger, in describing
the consequences of Russia's "almost paranoid sense of insecurity",
speaks of "adventurous" policies that he claims have no other purpose
than "prestige."

In ordinary Russian discourse on foreign policy, the question of
prestige does come up in a way that is, at first sight, quite
different from what one encounters in an American context. A
bureaucratic document produced for President Clinton by the staff of
the National Security Council, for example, would not ordinarily
speak of protecting the prestige of the United States as a major
national interest. Yet last spring Nezavisimaya Gazeta devoted three
full pages to the publicationof just such a document, "The National
Security Policy of the Russian Federation, 1996-2000", prepared by
the staff of Yeltsin's Security Council. It declared, among other
things, that securing and protecting Russia's "international status"
were right at the top of its foreign policy goals:

"Russia's most important national interest at a global level is its
active and full participation in building a system of international
relations in which Russia is assigned a place corresponding in the
highest degree to its potential political, economic and intellectual
significance and its military-political and foreign-economic
potential and needs. "[emphasis added]

This effort was said to be all the more important because other
countries are bent on taking Russia down a peg. For this reason,
"maximum efforts must be made to elaborate and use means of
effectively countering attempts to weaken [Russia's] international
positions and prestige."

How kooky is this? Brzezinski argues that it is extremely
destructive. These fits of self-glorification allow Russia to ignore
how far it has fallen behind economically. Worse, the inevitable
emphasis on past greatness, the nostalgia for a time when the Soviet
Union could compete on equal terms with the United States--all this
implicitly "legitimizes the Communist Party" and postpones "genuine

Perhaps. But it is worth looking more closely at the "National
Security" document just quoted, for taken as a whole it lends all
this talk of prestige a different, indeed opposite, meaning.
Brzezinski himself could not ask for a blunter description of Russian
reality than one finds here--in, of all places, a public document
released on the eve of the presidential election. Far from diverting
attention from economic backwardness, Yeltsin's national security
staff warns that "it will take several generations before we can
compare ourselves with the United States, Japan, Germany, Sweden,
France, and so forth." Far from pining for lost superpower equality,
the document explicitly "renounces the principle of
military-strategic parity with the United States." And far from
encouraging the confrontational outlook of old, it says something
that will surprise those who know of these matters only what the
geotherapists tell them: "Russian citizens must mobilize state
structures, the public, the family, and schools to mold a
non-aggressive type of individual and a secure society and state."
Given all the work that has to be done, Russia's foreign policy
bottom-line is a very simple one: It needs to be able to direct its
resources to the successful completion of massive internal tasks.

Russians have no trouble understanding the fix they're in,
because--unlike us--they're in it. They can barely think of anything
else. In these circumstances, a "policy of prestige" has the function
that Hans Morgenthau had in mind when he described it as the effort
to impress others with "the power one's own nation actually
possesses, or with the power it believes, or wants other nations to
believe, it possesses." Strictly speaking, wrote Morgenthau, when
your power is not in fact as great as you want others to think, it
should be called a "policy of bluff." But the purpose is the same--to
discourage them from taking advantage of you in the way that they
might if they knew how weak you really were.

Looked at in this light, concerns for prestige should actually seem
completely familiar to Americans--and not in the least neurotic.
Wasn't the Nixon administration's determination to keep the war in
Vietnam from damaging America's international role--the rejection of
"peace now" in favor of "peace with honor"--based on exactly the same
insight? Certainly anyone who says that the confusion of U.S. policy
after South Vietnam's collapse emboldened the Soviet Union is
describing the same phenomenon.

Russia's "obsession" with prestige is at bottom an admission of
weakness. Recall that Yeltsin's "National Security" document, quoted
earlier, speaks of the importance of winning an international role
based not on Russia's power, but on its potential. The determination
to protect the country's prestige is not a demand for "adventures"
that will show strength, but a hope to get by without being put to
the test. Prestige is not a means of dodging the necessary work of
democratization, but--if it works--of dodging unnecessary defeats
while this work goes on. (In this sense, the war in Chechnya
represents a conspicuous self-inflicted failure of the policy: the
Russians have called their own bluff.)

The way Russians talk about NATO expansion supports this view of what
they mean by prestige. What is most vexing to them about the Western
plan to bring the Atlantic Alliance into Eastern Europe is that it
dramatizes Russia's loss of standing. It shows Russia to be isolated,
without the ability to affect events, without "standing" in the
juridical sense--that is, without the right to have a grievance heard
in court. Two prominent Russian specialists on America, Aleksei
Bogaturov and Viktor Kremeniuk, wrote recently that NATO expansion
shows America's complete "disregard for [Russia's] opinion." Russians
may be pained by this, they said, but the truth is that Washington
"does not have even a shadow of fear over Moscow's possible reaction."

Essay Types: Essay