Russia's Crisis, America's Complicity

Russia's Crisis, America's Complicity

Mini Teaser: The appointment of the Primakov government in September reflects profound changes in Russian politics, some of which have serious implications for the United States.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. Simes

Nevertheless, on the positive side, key members of Primakov's economic team, including Central Bank Chairman Victor Gerashchenko, First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov, and Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov, are all pragmatic and competent professionals. They are capable of heading off disaster or, at a minimum, of adjusting their policies if disastrous consequences become evident. Moreover, the government's relationship with the Duma may allow the passage of long overdue legislation on property rights, bankruptcy, tax reform, and other key issues. Like the Primakov cabinet itself, that legislation is bound to be imperfect, contradictory, and disappointing to many. But it would still be a modest step in the direction of rebuilding sagging investor confidence.

As the relatively mild demonstrations on October 7 suggest, the government's ties to the Duma will also be helpful in avoiding social upheaval. Given that one of the most essential - if not the most essential - U.S. interests in Russia is the avoidance of anarchy or civil war in a nation with thousands of nuclear warheads, whatever contribution the new government makes to reducing that likelihood should be welcome.

Relatedly, it is important to recognize that the Primakov government may smooth the transition to the post-Yeltsin era as well. Yevgeny Primakov has several advantages in this respect. First, he is on good terms with both Yeltsin and the opposition. Second, he is a master of political maneuver and a skillful survivor. Third, and perhaps most important, because he has no constituency of his own - and no known presidential ambitions - he is generally viewed as a caretaker. This perception helps significantly to calm tensions in a period when Yeltsin - while maintaining both his enormous constitutional powers and his strong attachment to them - is increasingly unable to exercise effective leadership.

Solutions to Russia's broader problems will have to await new elections to the State Duma in 1999 and for the presidency in 2000. But, for the first time, the Communists and their allies may be forced to bear some of the responsibility for the Russian government's policies. Should the government go too far in implementing retrograde policies under pressure from the Communists, pro-democracy and pro-reform parties in the parliament, such as Yabloko, may have an important opportunity to increase their electoral appeal and exercise greater influence on the government (or even join it).

Still, even assuming that Russia can muddle through until the post-Yeltsin era, the United States will have to accept that Moscow's willingness to walk in lock step with it on foreign policy matters is increasingly a thing of the past. Russia's limited resources and continuing dependence on the West will of course discourage any responsible government from confronting America over issues that are not vital to Russia, including Kosovo and Iraq. But if a perception of hostile American intentions begins to guide Russian foreign policy, attempts to counteract U.S. policy would likely follow even before Russia regains its feet economically.

It is not easy for Americans, particularly in our current triumphalist mood which has been only slightly dented by the impact of the global economic crisis - to appreciate the perceptions that U.S. conduct is generating in Russia. American actions such as NATO enlargement, resistance to Russian influence over pipeline routes out of the Caspian Basin, efforts to discourage Russia from sharing weapons and high-technology with those who do not play by the rules internationally, and the imposition of strict conditionality on international economic assistance to Russia make sense individually on their merits. But collectively these policies contribute to a widespread impression that the United States is deliberately exploiting Russia's historic vulnerability. These steps have been seen by some as the aggressive expansion of a hostile military alliance, an attempt to restrict Russian access to key oil resources and lucrative investments, an effort to monopolize the international arms and technology markets, the hypocritical use of military force against Russia's Serbian friends, and, through offering assistance on conditions that prevent economic growth in Russia, a policy intended to keep the country weak and dependent upon the West.
But that is beside the point. What matters is whether Russian public opinion sees U.S. policy as an effort to bring Russia to its knees - and increasingly it does. Also, while the administration cannot be accused of deliberately undermining Russian reform, it was not above taking advantage of Moscow's continuing weakness - to which its policies contributed - to marginalize it on a variety of international issues. With regard to NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, for example, Secretary Albright said, "If force is required, then we will not be deterred by the fact that the Russians do not agree with that." Such an attitude, and the behavior resulting from it, only contributes to the development of a "Weimar Russia" psychological syndrome, the avoidance of which must be a priority for U.S. policymakers.

That syndrome will only be enhanced if the administration opts for pre-emptive abandonment of Russia, out of a combination of fear and self-righteousness not dissimilar to that with which some of its members once advocated pre-emptive appeasement of the Soviet Union during the days of Moscow's imperial glory. Despite the rhetoric of continued engagement, Strobe Talbott suggested recently that Washington might wash its hands of Russia unless the Primakov government agrees to follow IMF guidance. Strikingly, Talbott's remarks lacked any reflection about the U.S. role - and his personal complicity - in Russia's predicament. Moreover, he knows that Primakov could not deliver on this demand without provoking a major conflict with the Duma; that a large part of a second IMF loan installment would be used to repay previous ill-conceived IMF loans (for which the administration cannot escape responsibility); and that the consequences of a collapse in Russia far surpass the danger of wasting $4.3 billion. Talbott's remarks appear to be either a reflection of indignation at Russia's refusal to follow his advice, an attempt to create an alibi in the event that the administration finds itself in a "Who lost Russia?" debate, or possibly both.

It may be difficult to focus on Russia's long-term potential to assume a major role in the international system when the country is seemingly trapped in an almost catastrophic economic crisis. Russia today is in a uniquely weak international position; its military is not ready for combat and its economic ordeal clearly reduces its options in foreign policy significantly, and Russians recognize this. A Russian proverb describes their understanding of the current situation: ne do zhiru, byt' by zhivu (do not worry about getting fat when you are struggling to stay alive).

But it would be a mistake for the United States to interpret Russia's current weakness as endorsement of America's effort to shape a new international system around itself. Russia is biding its time until it is able not only to express its preferences but also to do something about them. While it may be some time before Russia can significantly constrain American foreign policy, approaching the country realistically means recognizing that it may have a much more serious impact on the world a few years hence.

In this context, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger was wrong to claim that NATO air strikes against Serbia would not "affect [America's] fundamental relationship with Russia." At the present time, when Russia is exceptionally weak and is desperate for foreign assistance (ranging from the next tranche of the July 1998 IMF credit package to food aid from Europe and the United States), Moscow does have limited options in responding to whatever NATO does in Yugoslavia. But there will be a reaction sometime, somewhere - and perhaps on a matter of greater importance to America than events in Kosovo. Accumulated scar tissue on the Russian side from such perceived indignities will hardly add to the strength of what the administration has called one of America's most important bilateral relationships.

Nevertheless, it is true that under even the most optimistic scenarios for Russia's economic recovery, Moscow cannot regain its lost superpower status in the foreseeable future. And most serious presidential contenders - including Yavlinsky, Luzhkov, Lebed, and even Zyuganov - appreciate the unique role of the United States in today's world and understand that needlessly alienating Washington could have devastating consequences for their country. Thus, a great deal will depend on American policy toward Russia and, more generally, on U.S. global strategy in the twenty-first century. Russia alone is not likely to be able or willing to mount a serious challenge to American predominance. Likewise, there is no potential for Russia to become the focal point of a new coalition against the United States - although it could facilitate such an effort by others.

Thus, Russia could become a serious problem for the United States if the Clinton administration continues to try indiscriminately to run the world according to American preferences while still failing to take tough stands when it really counts. Such irritation without intimidation is very likely to generate a Russian backlash against U.S. global leadership, and this could be the case regardless of who replaces Boris Yeltsin.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Nixon Center. This article is based in part on his forthcoming book, After the Collapse: Russia Seeks Its Place as a Great Power, to be published by Simon & Schuster early in 1999.

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