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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

At Odds, but U.S. Avoids Interfering in Near Abroad

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Russia are increasingly at odds over military intervention by Moscow in former Soviet republics on missions that Washington has come to fear are potential vehicles for Russian expansion. At issue is the destiny of the former domains of the Soviet Union. While the United States takes a hand in ensuring the full independence of selected countries -- especially the Baltic states -- Washington has been unwilling to block Russia from re-establishing strong influence to its west and south. The United States is particularly concerned about Russian troops in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan -- all small, neighboring states torn by ethnic conflicts. Washington is prodding Russia to obtain at least some endorsement from international organizations for these missions, and to give host governments greater control over the troops. But the U.S. demand carries relatively little weight, because Washington and its Western allies are unwilling to fund or take part in international missions in Russia's place. The U.S. dilemma was illustrated by an incident during a recent visit by Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev to NATO headquarters in Brussels. He answered complaints about Russian peacekeeping with an invitation for any country to join Russia in its missions. No alliance member replied. Russia's policies have prompted an unusually sharp public rebuke from the U.S. administration, which otherwise has treated Russia gingerly. "Although Russia desires stability, there have been troubling aspects to its policy towards the new republics," said UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright during a recent speech at Harvard University. "Russian military units in Georgia and Moldova have exacerbated local conflicts. Instead of cooperating fully with international bodies, Russia has often pursued a go-it-alone strategy in Nagorno-Karaback" in Azerbaijan, she said. Nevertheless, Washington's concern for the growth of democracy and free markets in Russia exceeds its interest in the fate of most of the new republics. U.S. officials make clear that Russia's cooperation is needed on a host of regional problems, notably Bosnia and North Korea. Washington is unlikely to risk a major row over questionable activity in what is known as Russia's near abroad, they say. Russia shows no sign of altering its approach along its frontiers. For Russia, frontier stability and establishment of close ties with former Soviet subjects is its highest foreign policy priority. Russia is trying to maintain the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, which would re-establish some of the economic and security ties of the old Soviet Union. On a recent visit to Moscow, U.S. special envoy Jim Collins was told by Dmitry Ryurikov, a top foreign policy adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, that multilateral discussion, debate and delay interferes with Moscow achieving its objectives, which is to stabilize ethnic conflicts. International endorsement is welcome, but not at the price of preempting Russia's influence along its frontiers, he said. U.S. officials predict that Russian troops will withdraw from the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia by Aug. 31. That would complete the pullout from the Baltics, occupied by the Soviets during World War II. The officials insist that Russia has no territorial designs on decaying Ukraine, despite pleas by ethnic Russians to break away. In the Caucasus, Russia intervenes aggressively. In Georgia, Russian troops took the side of insurgents last year, only later to back the government of president Eduard Shevardnadze. In return, Georgia had to join the CIS and grant three military bases to Russia. In the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, 20,000 Russian troops guard against infiltration of Afghan guerrillas to aid a revolt against the government. The Tajik rebels charge that the Russian-led mission is being used to put down their revolt. U.S. administration officials are wary of Russian pressure on Azerbaijan, which wants no Russian troops on its territories. Russia is undermining internationally sponsored negotiating efforts by launching its own initiatives, U.S. officials say. One senior American official described Russian meddling as "paternalistic rather than imperialistic," implying no new empire is in the works. "They feel that they can best ensure stability, which in turn ensures stability inside Russia and a bulwark against China, Turkey and Iran, which are traditional rivals," the official said. But he also said Russia seems intent on placing military bases within the former Soviet republics.