Russia is striking an increasingly confrontational stance
toward the West. President Boris Yeltsins abrupt departure from the Istanbul summit
on Nov. 18 is only the most visible part of a foreign policy that is overtly building
tension. The Russian military is playing a dominant role: openly criticizing the West,
defying it in Chechnya and carrying out high-profile nuclear tests. This is the Russian
card the West fears most, played to force the world to deal with Moscow on Moscows
19 November 1999
Russia is striking an increasingly confrontational stance toward the West. President Boris Yeltsins abrupt departure from the Istanbul summit on Nov. 18 is only the most visible part of a foreign policy that is overtly building tension. The Russian military is playing a dominant role: openly criticizing the West, defying it in Chechnya and carrying out high-profile nuclear tests. This is the Russian card the West fears most, played to force the world to deal with Moscow on Moscows terms.
Russia adopted a decidedly confrontational stance toward the West on Nov. 18 when President Boris Yeltsin abruptly left the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit. Led by the militarys influence, Russias foreign policy is increasingly shaped by conventional and nuclear belligerence. Conventional threats make neighbors and Europe nervous. The nuclear threat gets the attention of the United States.
Russia took advantage of the symbolic significance attached to the international summit to publicly spite the West. Even before the summit, Russia had made it clear that it would not halt the war in Chechnya, despite Western pressure. With the world watching, Yeltsin withstood a barrage of criticism. After spending an hour with U.S. President Bill Clinton talking about Chechnya, Yeltsin began a meeting with the presidents of Germany and France, only to walk out five minutes later and fly home to Moscow.
The Russian government, however, has not yet closed the door on the West. In an effort to downplay Yeltsins dramatic exit, both Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Prime Minister Valdimir Putin made efforts to prevent a complete shut down of relations. Ivanov reportedly gave U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a note hinting that Russia would be willing to support U.S. goals in Iraq if the Chechen war is not brought before the United Nations Security Council. Also in Moscow on Nov. 18, Putin met with Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who has proposed a plan to end the fighting in Chechnya. Both gestures are uncharacteristic of the Russian administration, and are likely calculated to mitigate the effects of Russias strong anti-Western policy. Russia still has an economic interest in the West and cannot afford to risk complete isolation.
Beyond the Istanbul summit, Russia is increasingly talking in a hostile language. Russia is also flexing its military muscles. In addition to the Chechen conflict, Russia has recently conducted three high-profile launches of nuclear-capable missiles as a reminder that it is a power to be reckoned with. In the latest test, on Nov. 17, two missiles were launched from a submarine in the Barents Sea and hit their target on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the eastern Russia, more than 3,000 miles away.
In both Chechnya and the nuclear tests, Putin and the Russian administration are learning that it pays to confront the West. Putins popularity has skyrocketed in the last three months -- in correlation to the campaign in Chechnya and his own staunch indifference to Western criticism. Russian officials are beginning to claim that NATO is setting the stage to intervene in Chechnya. These tactics paint the West as a potential aggressor and give the government the domestic legitimacy to tighten security and dust of the nuclear missiles.
The change in Russias outward stance is being driven by a series of internal changes. Alone, none of these would alter the countrys foreign policy. But taken together, they are fomenting hostility.
First, the military has gained significant influence over the civilians running Russias foreign policy. Recent events indicate that the Russian military commanders have a significant amount of power in the Kremlin and the priority is victory over the Chechen rebels. By pushing for a political solution the West is threatening victory; the generals are now pushing back.
Second, a significant shift in domestic politics helps explain Russias emerging foreign policy. As Russia gears up for the December parliamentary election and the presidential election next summer candidates are making bold anti-Western promises. They are capitalizing on a new brand of nationalism. In the 1996 elections, Russian nationalism was downtrodden, bruised by the economy and battered by defeat in Chechnya. Todays nationalism has cheered the war and is, at a popular level, increasingly anti-Western.
At a strategic level, Russia considers the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe its sphere of influence and is irritated by U.S. overtures toward the region. Russia is trying to reassert its influence because it has significant economic and security interdependence upon these states. Poverty has threatened Russias own unity. A loosely bonded group of 89 separate regions is living in such poor conditions that some of the regions have already threatened to break off. Russia needs an external enemy to unify its people. The Chechens are playing the role, and Moscow is putting the West in the role of understudy.
But Russia is most driven by a need for a miracle: economic stability. Russias real growth rate for 1998 was negative 5 percent, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Russias external debt is 46 percent of its GDP, according to Europe Review World of Information. If the Russian leadership is at all worried about the countrys economic future, it will need to reshape the economic relationship with the West. Simply asking is not working; Russia is still in the process of begging for forgiveness of $12 billion of Soviet era debt from London creditors.
This situation is tailor-made for Russia to scare the United States into economic negotiations. Threatening neighbors and bridling at limits on conventional forces gets the attention of Europe. Reminding the United States of its almost 6,000 operational nuclear warheads gets the attention of Washington. Russias remaining military is its only source of strength, and therefore its only source of bargaining power. Recent shows of nuclear ability are meant to convince the West that Russia needs to be treated like a world power, not like a banana republic.
An ostensible world power can insist that the next tranche of
International Monetary Fund loans, worth $640 million, be delivered on time. By demanding
the attention of Western capitals, Russia may also finally take hold of the flow of
remaining Western capital. The new Russian tactic of strong-arming the West is creating a
tense, hostile and uncomfortable relationship with the West. That is the point. The United
States, in particular, cannot afford for Russia to continue showing off its might.
Eventually, The West may have to decide that it must do something to calm Russia.
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