A Flawed Pragmatism

In the West, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is often described as "wily," "pragmatic," and "a realist" who seeks to carve out a place for Russia as a major player in the global game of balance-of-power politics. Usually these descriptions point to the turn in Russian foreign policy away from the "naive," Western-oriented approach taken by his predecessor in the Foreign Ministry, Andrei Kozyrev. Expressed support for Serbia in the most recent NATO showdown with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo is presumably yet further evidence of these so-called clever foreign policy maneuvers.

Clever? Pragmatic? Hardly. Russian support for Milosevic is just plain stupid and has nothing to do with furthering Russian national interests from a realist point of view or reasserting Russia as a global power. On the contrary, the Russian defense of Milosevic represents an attempt by Yeltsin, Primakov and other leaders in Russia to find a foreign policy diversion to deflect attention away from Russia's more serious economic problems at home.

In the end, standing tough in the Balkans does little to advance Russia's reputation abroad and does much to damage the well being of Russian citizens at home.

Russian leaders and foreign policy elites have asserted that Russian resistance to planned NATO military actions in Serbia is a "test" of Russia's great power status in the international arena. If Russia acquiesces to U.S. desires regarding the Kosovo crisis, this argument contends, then Russia will no longer be respected as a serious political actor on the international stage.

From our vantage point, the exact opposite is true. By defending a pariah state, Russia demonstrates to the rest of the world that the only way Russia can get attention internationally is to cause trouble, not resolve it. This is no way to establish an international reputation as a great power.

As for U.S.-Russian relations in particular, Russian stances regarding Kosovo only reaffirm the belief of many, especially within the Republican Party, that Russia itself is a pariah state whose influence in international affairs must be contained.

Finally, the assumption commonly heard in Moscow that standing against "American imperialism" in the former Yugoslavia will re-establish Russia as the leader of the nonaligned movement, the developing world or a growing anti-U.S. coalition that stretches from Paris to Beijing is sure folly. Russia could become a leader of an anti-Western coalition, but its allies will be Iraq, Serbia and North Korea, not France, India or China. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

The damage done to the welfare of Russians within Russia by these ill-conceived foreign policy forays, however, is even more tragic and detrimental to Russian national interests. At a time when the Russian economy is in a free fall with the bottom still not in sight, can Russia afford to be playing balance-of-power politics in the Balkans? One can hardly believe that "bonding" with "Serbian brothers" has any resonance for the masses in Russia, who have more important things to worry about.

In addition, at a time when Russia is seeking Western assistance to help survive its latest economic crisis, why feed Western complaints that Russia remains at heart an adversary? Only the most naive in Russia should continue to believe the refrain that "Russia is too big to fail" and therefore the West will always bail Russia out no matter what. Russia already has failed economically and there is little sentiment in the West today to provide additional funds to Russia. This sentiment for aiding Russia will disappear altogether if Russia continues to exacerbate tensions in the Balkans.

Historically, great powers feed their citizens, stimulate growth in their economy, and pay their foreign debt. If Russia wants to restore its reputation as a great power, it will only come through focusing on these issues, not empty threats to defend rogue states.

Standing up for Milosevic is damaging both to Russian national interest abroad and at home. While the policy may play well in a State Duma seeking to vent its rage against perceived Western injustices, it neither helps with Russia's near-term problems nor makes or breaks Russia as a great power.

Finally, if Primakov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov do believe that Russia can only take its place in the pantheon of major powers by choosing policies independent of and antithetical to Western policies, they should pick their spots carefully.

If NATO wants to act, it will act no matter what the Russians say. And if NATO does not act, it will choose not to do so with little reference to Russia's embrace of Milosevic in Belgrade. On this issue, siding with the bully of the Balkans is evidence of the bankruptcy of Russian foreign policy, not of its cleverness.

James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul are professors of political science at George Washington University and Stanford University respectively. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.