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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Return of the Bear?

Russia's invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, its recent veto on Bosnia at the United Nations Security Council and its tough stand on the expansion of NATO are just the latest manifestations of a new assertiveness. And new developments inside Russia, as well as in Moscow's relations with other nations of the former Soviet Union, raise the serious possibility that the encouraging events following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire were not so much the beginning of Russia's long-term integration into the Western community as an interlude borne out of temporary confusion and weakness.


America's relationship with President Boris Yeltsin's government should be among the foreign-policy issues to be reviewed by the new Republican-controlled Congress. The Clinton administration's Russia policy is based on four flawed assumptions: (1) that President Boris Yeltsin's government is an agent of positive change in Russia and in the world; (2) that radical economic reforms have led and will continue to lead to the democratic transformation of Russian political life; (3) that Russian treatment of other newly independent states is basically benign; and (4) that, outside the so-called near abroad (the former non-Russian Soviet republics), Moscow is generally prepared to play second fiddle to Washington.


Although Yeltsin has made an indispensable contribution to the destruction of the Soviet empire and the dismantling of the country's centralized economy, there is an ever growing consensus among Russians that their president has exhausted his potential as a reformer and is now preoccupied primarily with staying on top. As a result, Yeltsin -- who really has no substantive agenda, who has no political party or organized political structure supporting him, and who faces declining popularity (his job approval rating in November was just 12 percent) -- is becoming increasingly reliant upon the military and his security services. Consequently, he is becoming both more authoritarian at home and more belligerently nationalistic abroad.


Paradoxically, Yeltsin's radical economic reforms -- conducted without the necessary concern for public support -- only contributed to this authoritarian trend. Whatever the long-term economic effects of Yeltsin's policies, his unpopular reforms could not be implemented without the shortcuts from democracy Yeltsin took with the Clinton administration's blessing, most notably the shelling of the Supreme Soviet in October 1993. While yesterday checks and balances were ignored in the name of reform, today they are disregarded to conduct military operations such as what we are seeing now in Chechnya.


The Yeltsin administration is far too preoccupied with its own economic difficulties to seek additional burdens by attempting to recreate the old Soviet Union. However the Russian government has been openly seeking to dominate the newly independent states of the post-Soviet space, while at the same time being careful to avoid all responsibility for their economic predicaments. From Moldova to Abkhazia to Tajikistan, Moscow has fueled brush fires on Russia's periphery -- and then demands to be recognized and subsidized by the West as a fire brigade. Furthermore, Moscow is pushing its weaker neighbors to give Russia the right to police their borders and to grant their Russian residents the right of dual citizenship. Meanwhile, Russia ominously declares that the protection of ethnic Russians, including those in neighboring countries, is a legitimate mission for its own armed forces.


Moscow's conduct outside the "near abroad" demonstrates a new tendency to distance itself from Washington on many key issues, such as Bosnia, the embargo of Iraq, arms exports and NATO's expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. Until now, Russia has regularly yielded at the last moment on issues such as these after loudly airing its differences with the United States. Now, however, the Russian leadership wants to conduct genuinely independent policies while continuing to receive billions in Western subsidies.


The point is not that we should create an artificial confrontation with Russia simply because it is not living up to our unrealistic evaluations. But we must clearly communicate to Moscow that attempts to bully NATO in a fashion reminiscent of the style of Cold War Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko can only generate an anti-Russian backlash in Western governments. The Yeltsin government should be told that the nations of Central Europe, in contrast to Russia, do not claim to be great powers and will be put on the fast track toward NATO membership.


What is negotiable, and where legitimate Russian interests should be taken into account, is the strategic arrangement Moscow will be offered with the new NATO. Russia's relationship with the West would benefit greatly from shifting the discussion from the issue of NATO expansion to NATO security guarantees for Russia.


Regarding the "near abroad," it is important to make clear that a Western focus on Ukraine and the Baltics does not mean that Moscow has carte blanche to police the rest of the post-Soviet region. Americans may be unwilling to get involved in Moldova, Central Asia and the Transcaucasus, but it is doubtful that Congress would allow the administration to continue indirectly subsidizing Russian mischief there.


Finally, Congress should review all economic assistance programs to Russia. Most are inefficient and generate too many misunderstandings. Taxpayer dollars should instead be used to enable the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to help American businesses move into the promising Russian market. The time has come to start treating Russia as a normal country with a normal divergence of interests from our own, rather than as a beloved but troubled dependency.


Dimitri Simes is president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom and a special correspondent for Newsday, to which he contributed this comment.