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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dangers of Isolationism

Less than a month after the State Duma elections, the long-awaited changes in the Russian Foreign Ministry have begun. The resignation of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev was hardly a surprise to anyone, but the appointment of Yevgeny Primakov is quite an unusual move for President Boris Yeltsin, revealing once more his political skills. Although Primakov was among the potential candidates to head the Foreign Ministry, he has never been cited by analysts as the most likely choice. It is quite clear that Russian foreign policy will be no less professional, and that is already quite an achievement. As for the factors that will determine Russian foreign policy, the most important is the presidential campaign and the second is the outcome of the parliamentary elections of December 1995, which can be viewed as a kind of primaries for the presidential campaign.


At the same time, objective domestic and international factors that have determined Russian foreign policy have begun to emerge. The main tendencies of Russia's foreign policy are already more or less clear, and it is now possible to try predict Russia's course in international affairs.


By the end of 1993, Russia's field of activity abroad shrank to its current size. That was preceded by a whole series of lavish and aimless declarations of friendship between Russia and the West. Russia lost everything without getting anything in return and developed a strong "post-imperial" syndrome. But could it be otherwise? Could a weak state in crisis retain its "superpower facade?"


The West gained a significant superiority, which it does not quite know how to use. The responsibility it took for NATO expansion is becoming more and more of a burden. The last in the series of "peaceful aggressions" was the declared intention of the United States not to allow the return of Ukraine to the post-Soviet zone. The West was pragmatic enough, though, not to push too far when it came to conflicts within Russia's borders. By the end of 1993, Russia's sphere of influence had been determined.


In 1994, Russia ended its foreign policy retreat. The first indication was Yeltsin's letter to the Western leaders on NATO's expansion and a report on its consequences, which was prepared by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, headed at the time by Primakov. It was against the background of great power ideology that Russia decided to start the war in Chechnya, which received a relatively mild reaction from the West, because it took place within Russia's sphere. And in 1995 Russia suggested a new game to the West. It made several attempts to renew its relations with its former allies and partners -- China, Cuba, Vietnam and India. The chairman of the State Duma's foreign relations committee, Vladimir Lukin, gave a very precise description of this policy: "Before we sent missiles to Cuba, and now we send Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets there." Russia was pushed into returning to a policy it had pursued for many years. The visit of the Chinese foreign minister to Moscow provoked much speculation about the possible formation of an anti-Western alliance between Russia and China in the UN Security Council.


In early autumn 1995, the Russian news media were full of horror stories about the re-aiming of missiles. Wild plans for strategic alliances were drafted, including a possible alliance with Iran. There was also much talk about forming a defense union within the framework of the CIS as a possible counterweight to NATO. And indeed, Russia considerably increased the scope of its contacts with some CIS countries on security issues.


The term "presidential foreign policy" became widespread. Both Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and Foreign Minister Kozyrev stressed the fact that they were fulfilling the president's orders while traveling abroad. After the NATO air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, the president took the political initiative from the Duma and outdid it in his tough foreign policy rhetoric. Taking into account the lack of coordination among various ministries, he decided to concentrate foreign policy matters in his own hands. In order to do so, the Foreign Policy Council was established in December.


The tough negotiations on Russian participation in the NATO mission in the former Yugoslavia also reveal Russia's attempt to leave the limits of its immediate sphere of influence and become a player on international scene, but in a new role as a member of the community of civilized nations. Right now Russia and the West face a choice. Russia can either stay within the limits of its zone and desperately try to find weak points in its boundries, thus keeping the West in a condition of permanent alert. Or both Russia and the West can find civilized ways of co-operating. This will help secure the development of Russia as a democratic power.


The period before presidential elections will hardly be marked by sharp turns in Russian foreign policy, but it can be crucial in the formation of a civilized Russian foreign policy. The signing of the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe could be of great significance. The collaboration of Russia with NATO in Bosnia could help to form a new partnership between NATO and Russia and solve some of the conflicts that have arisen over NATO expansion. The establishment of permanent consultation mechanism between Russia and the United States, as former supreme allied commander of Europe, General Andrew Goodpaster, has suggested, will help to establish and maintain co-operation and good relations.


The main danger now is the anti-Western inertia in Russia and the anti-Russian inertia in the West. The worst thing that could happen in Russia would be for the country to be isolated or, even worse, to find itself in a position of self-isolation within its immediate sphere.





Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Endowment for Peace and the USA and Canada Institute. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.