Richard Pipes. Foreign Affairs. Volume 76, Issue 5. September/October 1997.
It is official: Russia no longer considers the Western democracies antagonists. The military doctrine that the government of the Russian Federation adopted in 1993 declares that Russia “does not regard any state to be its adversary.” The May 1997 NATO-Russia agreement reaffirmed the premise. Although not admitted to NATO, Russia has been given a seat on the alliance’s Permanent Joint Council, which assures it, if not of a veto, then of a voice, in NATO deliberations. Given that in last year’s presidential election Russian voters rejected the communist candidate for one committed to democracy and capitalism, it is not unreasonable to assume that in time Russia will become a fullfledged member of the international community.
Yet doubts linger because so much about post-communist Russia is unfinished and unsettled. Fledgling democracy contends with ancient authoritarian traditions; private enterprise struggles against a collectivist culture; frustrated nationalist and imperialist ambitions impede the enormous task of internal reconstruction. Russians, bewildered by the suddenness and the scope of the changes they have experienced, do not know in which direction to proceed. A veritable battle for Russia’s soul is in progress.
Its outcome is of considerable concern to the rest of the world, if only because Russia’s geopolitical situation in the heartland of Eurasia enables it, weakened as it is, to influence global stability. Whether it indeed joins the world community or once again withdraws into its shell and assumes an adversarial posture will be decided by an unpredictable interplay of domestic and external factors.
From Well-Wisher to Cold Warrior
Over the past three centuries, Russia has had its share of conflicts with what are now NATO countries-notably Turkey, Britain, and Germany-but Russian relations with the United States before the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power were exceptionally friendly. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the two countries had some differences over the northwestern territories of the North American continent, but these they peacefully resolved by treaty in 1824. The czarist government permanently eliminated that source of friction in 1867 when, unwilling to bear the costs of administering and defending Alaska, it persuaded a reluctant U.S. Congress to take the territory off Russia’s hands for a nominal payment. During the American Civil War, Russia boosted the morale of the Northern states by dispatching naval units to New York and San Francisco. Secretary of State William Henry Seward declared at the time that Americans preferred Russia over any other European country because “she always wishes us well.”
Relations deteriorated to some extent toward the end of the nineteenth century because of the wave of pogroms against Jews that broke out after the assassination of Czar Alexander II and persistent discrimination against American Jews visiting Russia. Another irritant was Russia’s expansion in the Far East: in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, U.S. opinion openly favored the Japanese. But all was forgotten when Russia joined the Allied cause on the outbreak of World War I. The United States was the first country to recognize the Provisional Government that took over after the czar’s abdication in March 1917.
The seven decades of U.S.-Russian hostility that followed the Bolshevik coup d’etat were the result not of a conflict of interests but of the peculiar needs of Russia’s conquerors, the Soviet ruling elite. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia not to reform their country but to secure a base from which to launch a worldwide revolution. They never thought it possible to establish a socialist society in a single country, least of all their own, where four-fifths of the inhabitants were peasants rather than Marx’s industrial workers. To remain in power, they needed revolutions to break out in the industrialized countries of the West, by which they meant in the interwar years principally Germany and Britain, and after World War II, the United States. The Cold War was an artificial conflict initiated and aggressively pursued by a dictatorship that invoked to its people phantom threats to justify its illegitimately acquired and lawlessly enforced authority. No concessions to the communist regime could attenuate its hostility because its very survival depended on it: as in the case of Nazi Germany, belligerency and expansionism were built into the system.
Indeed, as soon as the Communist Party fell from power, the government that succeeded it abandoned all pretense that the country faced threats from without. If the Soviet regime required international tension, its democratic successor needs peaceful relations with other countries so that it can cut military spending and attract foreign capital. It is clearly in Russia’s interests to be on the best of terms with the rest of the world, especially the United States.
Fighting the Culture
Yet self-interest has to contend with a political culture based in traditions of empire-building and reliance on military power for stature rather than security. For, unfortunately, Russia has not made a clean break with its Soviet past.
The bloodless revolution of 1991 that outlawed the Communist Party, oversaw the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, and installed democracy is in many respects incomplete. The new coexists with the old in an uneasy symbiosis. No fresh elites have emerged: the country’s political, economic, military, and cultural institutions are run by ex-communists who cannot shed old mental habits. The Duma, the lower house of parliament, is dominated by communists and nationalists equally suspicious of the West and equally determined to reclaim for Russia superpower status.1 Unlike the Bolsheviks, who on coming to power promptly obliterated all the symbols of the overthrown czarist regime, Russia’s democrats have left in place the myriad memorials glorifying their predecessors without substituting pervasive symbols of their own.
Russia is torn by contradictory pulls, one oriented inward, hence isolationist, the other imperialist. The population at large, preoccupied with physical survival, displays little interest in foreign policy, taking in stride the loss of empire and the world influence that went with it. People pine for normality, which they associate with life in the West as depicted in foreign films and television programs. Depoliticized, they are unresponsive to ideological appeals, although not averse to blaming all their troubles on foreigners. But for the ruling elite and much of the intelligentsia, accustomed to being regarded as citizens of a great power, the country’s decline to Third World status has been traumatic. They are less concerned with low living standards than the loss of power and influence, perhaps because inwardly they doubt whether Russia can ever equal the West in anything else. Power and influence for them take the form of imperial splendor and military might second to none.
In contrast to the Western states, which acquired empires after forming nation-states, in Russia nation-building and empire-building proceeded concurrently. Since the seventeenth century, when Russia was already the world’s largest state, the immensity of their domain has served Russians as psychological compensation for their relative backwardness and poverty. Thus the loss of empire has been for the politically engaged among them a much more bewildering experience than for the British, French, or Dutch. Unable to reconcile themselves to the loss, they connive in various ways to reassert control over the separated borderlands and regain superpower status for the motherland.
The situation in today’s Russia is highly volatile. There are really two Russias. One is led by the younger, better-educated, mostly urban population that is eager to break with the past and take the Western route; the new deputy prime minister, Boris Zemtsov, is a representative spokesman for this constituency. The other Russia is made up of older, often unskilled, preponderantly rural or small-town citizens, suspicious of the West and Western ways and nostalgic for the more secure Soviet past; their principal mouthpiece is the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennadi Zyuganov At present the pro-Western contingent runs the country, but it is by no means firmly in the saddle. In the first round of the June 1996 presidential election, incumbent Boris Yeltsin received the most votes (35 percent), but had the anti-liberal opposition combined forces it would have decisively defeated him: Zyuganov won 32 percent of the vote, the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky nearly 6 percent, and the authoritarian Aleksandr Lebed over 14 percent, to produce a theoretically absolute majority of 52 percent. Three years ago, when asked what they thought of communism, 51 percent of Russians polled said they had a positive image of it and 36 percent a negative one. (It is, however, indicative of the prevailing confused mood that fewer than half those who expressed a positive attitude toward communism wanted to see it restored.) The popular base of democracy in the country is thus thin and brittle; the political climate can change overnight. Countries like Russia, lacking in strong party organizations and loyalties, are capable of swinging wildly from one extreme to another, often in response to a demagogue who promises quick and easy solutions.
For Russians, the road to a civil society is long and arduous because they have to overcome not only the communist legacy but also that of the czars and their partner, the Orthodox Church, which for centuries collaborated in instilling in their subjects disrespect for law, submission to strong and willful authority, and hostility to the West. Russia bears a heavy burden of history which has taught its people better how to survive than how to succeed.
Their present striving for what they conceive of as normality is further hampered by a mindset formed in a harsh rural environment that bred suspicion of anyone who did not belong to the community and demanded social leveling within it. (Although the majority of the Russian population lives in cities, the bulk of city dwellers are first- or second-generation peasants who have never been truly urbanized.) As anthropologists have noted, peasants, dependent on a fluctuating but unchanging Nature, tend to believe that the good things in life, such as hunting grounds or farmland, are available only in finite quantities. Having had no opportunity to learn that an economic milieu that enables some to profit more than others can, in the end, benefit all, numerous Russians, like others of the same background, resent anyone more affluent or distinguished than themselves because they believe that such affluence and distinction are purchased at their expense. This attitude impedes both the evolution of market institutions and friendly relations with foreigners. It will come as a surprise to Americans that many Russians, possibly the majority, believe that U.S. aid and investments are a ploy to acquire their country’s resources at liquidation prices.
An Empire Reclaimed
Moscow acknowledged the sovereign status of the former Soviet republics, but it is a recognition that comes from the head, not the heart. The patrimonial mentality embedded in the Russian psyche, which holds that everything inherited from one’s forefathers is inalienable property, works against accepting the separation of the borderlands as a fait accompli. It prompts Moscow to strive for their gradual economic, political, and military “reintegration” with Russia-which, given the disparity in their respective size and population, can only mean reducing the former republics once again to the status of clients. In this endeavor the government is abetted by the Orthodox Church, which claims authority over all Orthodox Christians of what was once the Soviet Union.
In December 1991, immediately after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., Moscow created the Commonwealth of Independent States, ostensibly to enable the former Soviet republics to resolve common problems by common consent. In time, ten of the 15 republics joined the CIS, some enrolling of their own free will, others under duress. In 1992, at Moscow’s insistence, CIS members signed a mutual security treaty, which in effect entrusted the defense of their territories to the only military force on hand, the Russian army.
Despite the declared objectives of the CIS covenant and its security treaty, Moscow has used the documents, especially the latter, as excuses to meddle in the affairs of the borderlands. At first the preferred technique was economic pressure, which Russia had at its disposal because it owns the bulk of the industries of the defunct Soviet Union as well as the principal developed energy resources. Such pressure became less effective when foreigners began to pour capital investment into the other former republics. The fledgling states have further enhanced their economic independence by signing commercial treaties with each other and friendly neighbors like Poland and Turkey.
The main instrument of “reintegration” today is the Russian army, and this is worrisome because its formidable officer corps is society’s most embittered and vindictive group. Anyone who spends an hour with Russian generals cannot but feel the intensity of their resentment against the West as well as against their own democratic government for reducing to the status of a negligible force the army that defeated Nazi Germany and was acknowledged by the U.S. military as a peer. The dethroned Communist Party nomenklatura has adapted to the new era by appropriating some of the state’s wealth and continuing to manage much of the rest. But the generals, dependent on government allocations, have had no such opportunity, and they seethe with humiliation both personal and professional. Most analogies between contemporary Russia and Weimar Germany fall wide of the mark, but parallels between the general officers of the two are striking: one sees the same sense of degradation and thirst for revenge. As in Weimar Germany, civilian authorities in Russia exert only nominal control over the military; the Ministry of Defense has a single civilian executive.
Although Russia’s armed forces are demoralized and starved for money, their command structure remains largely intact and extends over most of what was once the Soviet Union. With the exception of the three Baltic states and Azerbaijan, Russian troops are deployed in every one of the ex-Soviet republics: 24,000 in Tajikistan, 15,000 in Turkmenistan, 5,000 in Uzbekistan, and so on. In Armenia, which has traditionally relied on Russia for protection from Turkey and other Muslim neighbors, Moscow has secured a 25-year basing right for its troops, in return for which it sent Armenia $1 billion worth of military equipment. The ostensible mission of these Russian expeditionary forces is to defend the former republics’ borders and protect their ethnic Russian residents. In reality, they also serve as the vanguard of Russia’s imperial drive. Moscow interprets the terms of the mutual security treaty as giving it license to intervene militarily in any CIS country where, in its judgment, the commonwealth’s security is threatened. Russian troops guarding the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan have engaged in desultory clashes with Muslim fundamentalist forces. A Russian general stationed in Central Asia declared recently that if hard-line Islamist Taliban units from Afghanistan menaced Tajikistan, his troops would intervene. Thus a modified Brezhnev Doctrine is still in force: Moscow regards any country that was once part of the Soviet Union as falling within the sphere of its security interests. Decolonization has been quite halfhearted.
Georgia is a classic case of Moscow’s use of military power for imperial objectives. Moscow overcame Georgia’s reluctance to join the CIS by inciting a 1992 rebellion of the Abkhaz minority inhabiting the northwestern region of the country. With Russian political and military backing, the Abkhazians expelled 200,000 ethnic Georgians and declared independence. Unable to quell the rebellion, Tbilisi was forced to request aid from Moscow, which consented to provide it so long as Georgia joined the CIS and acquiesced to 15,000 Russian troops on its territory, along with a Russian “peacekeeping” force in Abkhazia. As soon as Tbilisi met these conditions, the Abkhaz rebellion abated. President Eduard Shevardnadze’s efforts to rid his country of the putative Russian peacekeepers have so far proved unavailing. Russian forces guard Georgia’s land and sea borders with Turkey; since other troops are stationed on Armenia’s western border, Russia has direct access to Turkey along the old Soviet frontier.
Moscow’s encroachments on the sovereignty of its onetime dependencies present a serious potential threat to East-West relations. The situation is not entirely clear-cut, since the West tacitly recognizes all lands that were once part of the Soviet Union as Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence while insisting that Russia respect the sovereignty of the separated republics. If the past is any guide, in the event of an overt conflict between Russia and another of the former republics, the European allies are unlikely to go beyond expressions of regret. The United States, however, is almost certain to react more harshly, especially if the victim of Russian intimidation is Ukraine or one of the countries adjoining the Caspian Sea-the former because of its geopolitical importance, the latter because of those oil-rich states’ potential contribution to the world economy.
The existence of petroleum in the Caspian region has been known since antiquity; in late czarist Russia Baku was the center of the empire’s oil production. Since 1991 Western companies have engaged in intensive exploration around the Caspian, which has led to the discovery in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakstan of oil reserves estimated to be at least as large as those of Iraq and perhaps equal to those of Saudi Arabia. International consortia are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the three former republics to extract the oil and natural gas and ship them to world markets. Direct foreign investment in the three countries nearly equals that in Russia.
Having lost these assets, Russia for the time being contents itself with pressing its claim to their transport, demanding that all oil from the Caspian region be sent by pipeline across Russian territory to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. This damaged pipeline runs through Chechnya, which for years has been torn by ethnic strife. For security reasons, as well as to prevent Moscow from using the pipeline for political or economic blackmail, the oil-producing republics and their foreign backers prefer an alternate route running across Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Black Sea and from there to the Mediterranean coast of eastern Turkey. The issue is a matter of keen competition between Russia and foreign oil firms, in which the other republics concerned, for both economic and political reasons, lean toward the latter.
Dreams of the Generals
Many influential persons in Russia want to regain not only the empire but the status of superpower. Russia cannot attain the latter objective by economic means, which in the modern world confer such rank; its partial inclusion in the Group of Seven is little more than a public relations ploy to compensate it for its forced acquiescence to the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. Russia’s claim to be a world power has traditionally rested on military prowess, and the temptation is to resort to this expedient once again.
It is common knowledge that Russia’s armed forces are destitute and demoralized. Officers drive taxis; soldiers engage in crime for the money. There is so much draft-dodging that officers are believed to constitute half of military personnel. While some generals find the situation intolerable and virtually threaten mutiny, the more far-sighted view it as a temporary setback that they can exploit to revamp the armed forces. Their ambition is to lay the groundwork for a military establishment so effective that its mere presence will guarantee Russia what they deem its rightful place among nations.
That projected force differs greatly from Russia’s traditional army, which relied on masses of foot soldiers storming enemy positions without regard to casualties. For one thing, Russia no longer commands unlimited manpower. The death rate exceeds the birthrate; the percentage of babies with genetic defects is well above normal. Nor is there money to rebuild and maintain a large standing force, let alone switch to an all-volunteer army, which President Yeltsin mentions from time to time. Apart from these constraints, Russia’s strategists have absorbed the lessons of the Persian Gulf War, which conclusively demonstrated the superiority of modern weapons technology over conventional forces. They were awed by the Americans’ ability, before the battle was even joined, to disable Iraq’s large and wellequipped army through the electronic suppression of its military communications network, cutting off forces in the field from the command. They were no less impressed by precision missiles’ ability to strike and destroy key enemy installations. Those lessons have persuaded them to abandon Russian canon and adopt what American military theorists have designated the revolution in military affairs.
Russia’s new military doctrine, approved by the Yeltsin government in 1993, following U.S. practice calls for a shift in defense allocations from procurement to research and development. Hoover Institution Fellow Richard F. Staar estimates that 1997 expenditures on high-technology R&D will account for 40 percent of the defense budget. Drawing on Russia’s excellent scientific talent in the field of military technology, the new doctrine projects designing, with the help of supercomputers imported from the United States, prototypes of directed-energy weapons, electronic warfare equipment, and stealth aviation. Naval weaponry is to be emphasized as well. Russia recently established an Academy of Military Sciences to study “military futurology” so as to anticipate developments among potential enemy nations and thus insure itself against shocks like Operation Desert Storm. Such a program can be carried out with the limited funds currently allocated the armed forces. First Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshkin boasts that it will enable Russia to produce weapons “that have no equivalent in the world.”
Until they have designed the new military hardware and secured sufficient funds to procure it-a period of between ten and 20 years, in their estimation-Russian generals intend to rely on the nuclear deterrent. They have revoked Brezhnev’s 1982 “no-first-use” pledge and, in view of the superiority of NATO’s conventional forces, adopted NATO ‘s own flexible response strategy, formulated when Soviet conventional forces enjoyed the upper hand.
Of what use will such a modernized force be to Russia? The new military doctrine speaks of protecting Russia’s “vital interests,” but these are nowhere defined, an omission that reflects widespread confusion in the country about its place in the world. Certainly, apart from restoring to Russia the prestige of a great power, the new force will enable it to insist on a sphere of influence in adjacent regions, thereby again becoming a leading player on the global stage.
Even in its present reduced state, Russia still has the world’s longest frontier, bordering Europe and East Asia, neighboring on the Middle East, and even touching North America. Its capacity for exploiting instabilities along its borders is therefore undiminished. Historically, whenever it has suffered setbacks in one sector of its frontier, Russia has shifted attention to the others. The pattern seems to be repeating itself feeling rebuffed by Europe, Moscow is turning to the Middle East and East Asia. Yeltsin declared in May that to counter the “Western alliance’s expansion plans” his administration has designated the integration of the CIS and the strengthening of ties with China its principal foreign policy goals. Moscow is also cultivating Iran and the other fundamentalist Muslim states. Given the interest of Western powers in Caspian oil and the desire of former Soviet republics in that region to escape Russian pressures for dissolution in the CIS by drawing closer to Turkey, a new political alignment appears to be emerging along Russia’s southern frontier. With it, a new East-West geopolitical fault line, running somewhere across Central Asia and the Caucasus, seems to be opening up.
It is impossible at this time to foresee which path Russia will choose, pro-Western or anti-Western. The country’s political structures are too fragile and the mood of its people too volatile for predictions. Russia’s true national interests demand a pro-Western alignment and integration into the world economy. The ambitions and emotional needs of Russia’s elite, however, pull in the opposite direction: away from the global economic order dominated by the industrial democracies and toward reliance on military power as well as rapprochement with countries that for one reason or another are hostile to the West. The latter course is alluring because catching up with the West militarily would be much easier for Russia than catching up economically.
Yet it would be an error of historic proportions if Russia threw away the chance of becoming a genuine world power to pursue the illusion of power based on the capacity to threaten and coerce. Russia was acknowledged as a superpower during the Cold War not by virtue of economic might, technological leadership, or cultural achievement, but solely because it possessed weapons capable of wreaking universal destruction-in other words, because of its ability to blackmail the world. The hollowness of Russian claims to superpower status became apparent immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union: having abandoned its adversarial posture in order to carry out long overdue internal reforms, Russia stood revealed as a second-class power, dependent on foreign loans and exports of raw materials.
The next few years will confront Russia with a supreme test. Can the nation realize its aspirations through internal reconstruction and international cooperation, or will it once again seek to make its mark by resorting to military force and exploitation of international tensions? Each year that Russia continues as a partner of the West strengthens the forces that favor development over expansionism. A younger generation aspiring to be Western gradually replaces the older one mired in nostalgia for the Soviet past. A business class emerges that has little use for militarism, along with a new breed of politicians who cater to an electorate more concerned with living standards than imperial grandeur.
The choice will be made by the Russians themselves; the West can influence the decision only marginally. The situation calls for a subtle policy that mixes toughness with understanding of Russian sensitivities. No special favors should be granted. They only whet the appetites of nationalists who interpret undeserved concessions to mean that the world is so anxious to bring Russia into the international community that it is prepared to show boundless tolerance for its behavior.
Moscow should not be allowed to increase its forces in the country’s southern regions in violation of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, or to bully its erstwhile republics and ex-satellites. The world must not acquiesce to a new Brezhnev Doctrine.
At the same time, Western leaders should consider ways of avoiding actions that, without any real bearing on their countries’ security, humiliate Russians by making them keenly aware how impotent they have become under democracy. These leaders should consider whether extending NATO to Eastern Europe to forestall a putative military threat to the region is worth alienating the majority of politically active Russians, who see the move as permanently excluding their country from Europe and giving it no alternative but to seek allies in the east. The ambiguity of a “gray zone” between Russia and the present members of NATO would actually help assure Russia that even if it is not politically and militarily part of Europe, it is also not categorically excluded. Projected joint military exercises of forces from the United States and the Central Asian nations scheduled for September in Kazakstan and Uzbekistan are certain to be perceived in Moscow as a deliberate provocation: what purpose do they serve? Assistance of any kind, no matter how well-meaning, must take into account Russian people’s suspicions of the motives behind it, irrational as these may be. Immense patience and empathy are required in dealing with Russia’s halting progress toward democracy; failure to display them only helps anti-Western forces.
Is Russia then still an enemy? It is not and it ought not to be. But it might become one if those who guide its destiny, exploiting the political inexperience and deep-seated prejudices of its people, once again aspire to a glory to which they are not yet entitled save by the immensity of their territory, meaningless in itself, vast mineral resources that they cannot exploit on their own, and a huge nuclear arsenal that they cannot use. Russia could again become an adversary if, instead of building their country from the ground up after seven decades of destruction such as no nation in history has ever inflicted on itself, its leaders once again were to seek to escape the difficulties facing them through self-isolation and grandstanding. I fear that if it fails to confront reality and tries to make up for internal shortcomings by posturing on the global stage, Russia may not be given another chance.