A 'Yeltsin Doctrine'?

When Boris Yeltsin's plane landed in Shannon last week on its way back to Moscow, the Irish prime minister was waiting on the tarmac to give him lunch. He waited and waited, but Yeltsin never got off the plane. Eventually the Russians sent out a deputy prime minister to eat with the Irish. "He is extremely tired," the stand-in said, explaining his president's unseemly absence. Some who knew him thought Yeltsin might have been celebrating the success of his summit with Bill Clinton. Indeed, for the leader of a crisis-ridden former superpower, Yeltsin had a lot to drink to.

The meeting with Clinton was perhaps the least eventful in the history of Russian-American summits. The two leaders agreed to speed up previously negotiated cuts in nuclear weapons. They signed a "partnership for economic progress" to promote trade. And they reveled in each other's jocular company--two beefy showmen who love to talk. Yet behind his good-natured grin, Yeltsin got across a veiled but serious message to his host: stay out of my back-yard, and I'll stay out of yours.

Washington is worried about Moscow's meddling in what Russians call the near abroad, the other republics of the defunct Soviet Union. Russian troops have intervened in Tajikistan and Moldova and on both sides, at different times, in the struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Economic pressure from the Kremlin helped persuade Ukraine and Belarus to elect pro-Russian leaders. And last month Moscow tried to block an $8 billion off deal between Azerbaijan and a consortium of Western companies. Fomenting trouble in the near abroad has become a Russian trademark. After abetting a rebellion in Georgia, the Russians sent in peacekeeping troops--and snapped the Georgian government back into line with Moscow.

In a speech .at the United Nations, Russia's president proclaimed what might be called a Yeltsin Doctrine. "The main peace- keeping burden in the territory of the former Soviet Union lies upon the Russian Federation "he said. Many Russians think they to lead the other republics, and to protect the ethnic Russians who live in them. "It's not a right," says Andrei Kortunov, a Russian foreign-policy expert. "It's a dirty job that someone has to do." And if Washington can have its sphere of influence, so can Moscow. Yeltsin aide Andranik Migranyan says Russia supported U.S. action in Haiti in order to obtain some leverage in its own "backyard." He adds: "We'd be complete idiots not to use it."

Although Washington frets about Moscow's interventions, it does not believe Yeltsin is trying to rebuild the Russian Empire. "There's no one in the Kremlin with a master plan to bring all the republics back under Russian rule," says a White House official. The administration has no objection to Moscow's making itself useful: there are so many conflicts around the world and so few policemen. The United Nations, widely viewed as ineffective, has become a way station where individual countries "seek a blessing," as one U.S. official puts it, to intervene where they see fit. Last summer the Security Council endorsed a French move into Rwanda, the Russian mission in Georgia and the U.S.-led operation in Haiti. "This is how the system is evolving in the real world," says Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali laments the trend but admits he can't stop it. "Because we have not been able to obtain either troops, equipment or money, I prefer to give the mandate to one country . . . than do nothing," he said.

"Spheres of influence are a fact of life," says Yeltsin foreign-policy adviser Sergei Karaganov. But not all spheres are alike. U.S. officials have noticed that the Russians behave most aggressively in areas where Moscow senses a strategic threat from countries like Iran, Turkey or China. Elsewhere, the Russians are more reasonable. In Bosnia, on the outer fringe of the near abroad, Russia has been "a constructive player," says a White House official. Still, if Russian influence continues to spread, the next summit may be more substantive-and a little less jolly.