Beware: A Threat Abroad

IN THE UPCOMING RUSSIAN ELECTION, ATTENTION HAS inevitably focused on the competition between President Boris Yeltsin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. But whatever the outcome, America's Russia policy requires an urgent reappraisal. If Zyuganov wins, such a reassessment is inevitable. But a Yeltsin victory, too, would impose a new approach. For even under Yeltsin, Russia is pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign policy, which already opposes American notions of world order in many parts of the world.

The administration will have no choice but to disenthrall itself from the flawed premises of its Russia policy: the conceptual misapprehension of the nature of the Cold War and its overemphasis on personalities. Many policymakers of Clinton's generation hold the view that the United States has its own heavy responsibility for the Cold War, which they believe could have been avoided had the United States pursued a policy of reassurance rather than of confrontation toward the Soviet Union. As a result, Clinton's Russia policy has emphasized domestic reform and psychological engineering. It has concentrated on promoting internal change and on reassuring the Russian leadership rather than seeking to influence Russia's actions outside its borders.

Because Yeltsin is viewed as the guarantor of market economics, democracy and peaceful international conduct, Clinton has attended more summits with him than he has with any other foreign leader and with a far greater show of personal warmth. Though the president has never visited Beijing or invited a Chinese leader to the White House, he has been to Moscow three times and has met with Yeltsin on American soil twice (in addition to meetings at the annual economic summits of industrialized nations). Yet despite these efforts, Yeltsin has embarked on foreign policies which differ only in degree from those urged by Zyuganov, perhaps to stave off the Communists -- which have become the largest political party in Russia -- or perhaps acting on the basis of his own convictions.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MARKET ECONOMICS and democracy -- and between democracy and a peaceful foreign policy -- is not nearly so automatic as Washington has postulated. In Western Europe, the process of democratization took centuries and did not prevent a series of catastrophic wars. In Russia, which has no tradition of capitalism and participated neither in the Reformation, the Enlightenment nor the Age of Discovery, this evolution is likely to be particularly ragged. Indeed, the early stages of the process may provide incentives for leaders to mobilize domestic support by appeals to nationalism.

Yeltsin himself is hardly cast in a Jeffersonian mold. Nearly his entire adult life has been devoted to serving the Communist Party -- a career to which the gentle-hearted have rarely gravitated. In his rise through its ranks, Yeltsin surely had little exposure to pluralistic principles. And while he was courageous in concluding that the moribund and inefficient Communist Party was doomed, Yeltsin has shown few signs since that democratic values, including acceptance of dissent, are a central part of his value system. In short, equating foreign policy with Russian domestic politics has unnecessarily identified America in the minds of too many Russians with the weird Russian hybrid of black markets, reckless speculation, outright criminal activity and a state capitalism in which big industrial combines are run by their erstwhile Communist managers in the guise of privatization.

This has enabled Russian nationalists and Communists to claim that the entire system is a fraud perpetrated by the West to keep Russia weak. Failure to recognize these realities has caused the administration to emphasize objectives that require a long period of time to evolve, and to neglect matters that need to be shaped in the present.

Our reliance on Yeltsin has lured us into endorsing, if not actually encouraging, such high-handed actions as the military assault on the Russian Parliament and the dismissal of the Russian Constitutional Court -- acts difficult to reconcile with democratic pretensions, whatever the provocation. The assumption that Yeltsin must be coddled explains why American high officials, including the president, justified Russian pressures on the newly independent states of the Caucasus as being comparable to American actions in the Caribbean. It is presumably also why they felt it reasonable to compare the Russian military campaign in Chechnya to the American Civil War.

The obsession with participating in Russian domestic politics undermines our ability to conduct a foreign policy geared to the external conduct of the Russian state. Yet it is precisely the external actions of Russia that present the greatest challenge to international stability. And, paradoxically, the very domestic drama of which we have made ourselves too much a party provides some of the incentive for Russian adventurism.

Foreign policy has emerged as the deus ex machina for Russia's elite to escape present-day frustrations by evoking visions of a glorious past. Russia has always displayed a unique set of characteristics -- especially when compared to its European neighbors. Extending over 11 time zones, Russia (even in its present, post-Soviet form) contains the largest land-mass of any contemporary state. St. Petersburg is closer to New York than it is to Vladivostok, which is in turn closer to Seattle than it is to Moscow. A country of that size ought not to suffer from claustrophobia. Yet creeping expansionism has been the recurring theme of Russian history. For four centuries, Russia has subordinated the well-being of its own population to this relentless outward thrust and threatened all its neighbors with it. In the Russian mind, the centuries of sacrifice have been transmuted into a mission, partly on behalf of security, partly in the service of an alleged Russian superior morality.

In the 19th century, the Russian nationalist writer Mikhail Katkov defined the difference between Western and Russian values as follows: ""... everything there is based on contractual relations and everything here on faith. A basic dual au- thority exists there; a single authority here.'' Similarly, Zyuganov describes Russia as a ""special type of civilization'' based on ""collectivism, unity, statehood'' -- as compared to the West, infected with ""extreme individualism, militant soullessness, religious indifference, adherence to mass culture.''

Russia and America have both historically asserted a global vocation for their societies. But while America's idealism derives from the concept of liberty, Russia's sprang from shared suffering and common submission to authority. Everyone is eligible to share in America's values; Russia's have been reserved for the Russian nation, excluding even the subject nationalities of the empire. American idealism tempts iso- lationism; Russia's has historically prompted adventurist domination.

IN PURSUIT OF SECURITY, RUSSIA HAS PRODUCED insecurity for all its neighbors. Russia has generally excluded Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia from the operation of the balance of power, insisting on dealing with them unilaterally and often by force: in the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi in 1833, in the prelude to the Crimean War in 1853, in the Balkan crisis of 1885 and in the period following the second World War. In Manchuria and Korea, prior to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, it followed a similar strategy. Even when it participated in European alliances, Russia tended to endow them with a missionary quality that justified permanent military intervention in the domestic affairs of other states -- from the Holy Alliance of the early 19th century to the Brezhnev Doctrine of the late 20th century.

Thus Yeltsin's ""reformist'' foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev (since dismissed for being too liberal), put forward a Russian right of military intervention in all the countries containing Russian minorities. At a minimum, that includes 14 states of the former Soviet Union (including the Baltic states) -- all of them recognized by the United Nations. Two Russian divisions are being maintained on the territory of Georgia, where Russian intervention in a civil war made that country ungovernable until Russian conditions were met. Russia's encouragement of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has given Moscow a voice in both countries and blackmail potential over Azerbaijan's vast oil reserves. Russian troops participate in the civil war in Tajikistan. Russia refuses to demarcate the borders with Ukraine, a country with a population close to 60 million whose independence Russians seem particularly loath to accept. And Russia is pressuring the oil-producing nations in Central Asia to export their oil only through pipelines running through Russia -- claiming for Moscow a stranglehold on one of the largest oil reserves in the world. All this has happened under Yeltsin and at a moment of Russia's maximum weakness.

RUSSIA'S simultaneous thrust in all directions runs the risk of repeating the underlying tragedy of its history. No people has sacrificed more for its vision of security and its sense of mission; none has received fewer tangible benefits from it, or has so often turned its fears into self-fulfilling prophecies. Both the czarist and Communist empires collapsed, materially and spiritually exhausted by their overextension. The almost paranoid sense of insecurity is all the less appropriate in the present world, where Russia possesses 20,000 nuclear weapons, making a land attack on it almost inconceivable.

The long-term stakes are high. If Ukraine were to share the fate of Belarus and return to Russian satellite status, tremors would be felt all over Europe. A militarization of diplomacy would be nearly inevitable. A Russian stranglehold on Central Asian oil would provide dangerous blackmail potential during the predictable energy crises of the next century. Beyond the geopolitical challenges, Russia, in its attempt to regain what it perceives as ancient glories, appears inclined to challenge the U.S. position in the Middle East and to conduct adventurous policies in Asia for no other purpose than to augment its prestige.

Yeltsin has seemed to feel a necessity to balance every high-level American visit with a move in a more nationalist direction. Within days of Clinton's visit to Moscow in 1993, Yeltsin dismissed Yegor Gaidar, the reformer on whom many American hopes had been based. The Chechnya war started shortly after a visit by Vice President Gore. And Clinton had barely left Moscow in April when Yeltsin betook himself to Beijing and Shanghai, where he signed what had all the appearance of a strategic partnership with China -- a maneuver facilitated by the lack of direction in Washington's China policy.

The United States has been far too slow to recognize these challenges. It is only in the last year that Ukraine has received attention commensurate with its political and strategic importance. In Central Asia, American policy seems unable to balance human-rights concerns with a concept worthy of the geopolitical importance of that region. In the Caucasus, flagrant Soviet military or near-military intervention has been met with American silence or by American statements seemingly legitimizing ancient Russian imperial drives.

The most serious lack has been of omission. During the Cold War, America's Atlantic relations were built from West to East, on the basis of a strong Atlantic Alliance and an emerging European Community. Clinton's post-Cold War policy, influenced by the dogmas of the protest movement in which NATO was regarded as a cause of international tensions, seeks to build from East to West. Focused on Russia, it has failed to adapt the Atlantic Alliance to the post-Cold War circumstances. It has offered no vision of a political or economic partnership in the North Atlantic region, or else has consigned such prospects to bureaucratic studies that never seem to have a deadline. This is even more true of NATO expansion -- a subject on which administration ambivalence threatens to create a gray zone in Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia, potentially tempting historic Russian drives to create political and strategic vacuums around its periphery.

Despite mounting evidence in the daily conduct of Russian diplomacy, Washington treats Yeltsin as if he were some tender shoot incapable of withstanding the gusts of a realistic foreign policy. This only encourages Russian leaders to compensate for frustrations at home by appeals to Russian nationalism. If we seek genuine reform in Russia, its leaders must be brought to understand that a return to historic drives will replicate the debacles of the past. For the strategic domination of its neighbors can be achieved only at the cost of permanent tensions with the United States and the West.

Such a policy should be based on a rededication to strengthening the Atlantic relationship. NATO expansion requires a decision, not a study; its absence will tempt an even further thrust to expand Russia's strategic frontiers. (This is certainly the view of literally all the leaders of Eastern Europe.) Even more important, the Atlantic Alliance must deepen its political dimension and extend it to heretofore excluded subjects -- Islamic fundamentalism, global energy supplies and other threats to world stability. Finally, the time has come to move the project of a North Atlantic Free Trade area from study committees to the action phase.

As part of such an architecture, Russia could be given an important role in the creation of the new international system. But this presupposes a Russian readiness to stay within its borders. The challenge for America is whether it can assemble a proper balance of incentives and penalties conducive to maintaining such a world order. And this challenge exists whoever wins the Russian election, though it will be more complex after a Zyuganov victory. That is the kind of reform America can -- and should -- hope to contribute to in the immediate future.