Small World / Global Affairs
April 6, 1998 / 10 Nisan, 5758

Take my alliance, please

How do you handle a sleeping bear? With a sharp stick? Or nail trimmers? JWR's Josh Pollack argues that the United States needs a coherent Russia strategy, one that looks first to Central Asia.

NO MAJOR STATE TODAYRussian President Boris Yeltsin exceeds Russia in sheer disorganization of government. An infirm and unpredictable Boris Yeltsin rises from his sickbed to initiate yet another purge. Reformist figures Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov are out the door. An unproven and unconfirmed new appointee replaces the solid if uninspiring Viktor Chernomyrdin in the Prime Minister's seat. The recalcitrant Communist Duma voices opposition to any reformist who might assume the post permanently; the far right snarls about the "nationality" (read: one or more Jewish parents) of past cabinet appointees. Publicly befuddled, Yeltsin toasts the emergence of "a new axis" of Russia, France, and Germany — in which German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, at least, seems quite uninterested.

The potential for disaster seems nowhere greater. The stunning humiliation of the armed forces in Chechnya and the inability of the government to pay the salaries of either enlisted men or officers, showcase the collapse of both the military and the treasury. Taxes are seemingly paid less often to the state than to organized crime. In the absence of any strong central oversight, freebooting companies, state agencies, and individuals conduct their own independent foreign policies. Perhaps Indonesia is in worse shape than Russia today, but Indonesia lacks a continental empire, a Security Council seat, ties in the Persian Gulf, and a massive nuclear, biological, and chemical arsenal and research base.

But the fate of Russia may depend as much on the actions of outsiders as on the come and go of domestic politics. Having won the Cold War, America might be expected to redirect its energies towards remaking its former enemy in a more congenial image. Yet American foreign aid to Russia is dwarfed by the donations of a single man, currency speculator-cum-philanthropist George Soros, a Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor and billionaire.

Instead of seeking to rebuild the foundations of Russo-American relations, President Clinton, who remains as oblivious to foreign policy as events will permit, pandered to Catholic voters in 1996 with a new policy: the expansion of NATO into the countries that once constituted the Warsaw Pact, perhaps even the Soviet Union. The equally lackluster Senate, whose attitudes toward foreign policy range from indifferent to reactionary, may soon approve the entry of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the transatlantic mutual defense organization after minimal debate and with the vaguest of justifications.

At their most honest and articulate, backers of NATO expansion offer Russophobia, stressing the need to secure territory against the eventual return of an authoritarian-expansionist Eternal Russia. Such is the persistence of Cold War logic in the absence of any new vision.

Russia may indeed be eternal, but nothing is inevitable about Russian politics — except perhaps futility. What once looked like a steady trend from a pro-American to anti-American stance since 1991, a process best symbolized by the replacement of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev by Saddam ally Yevgeny Primakov in January 1996, now looks like random wobbling to and fro. Sparring reformists, nationalists, capitalists, and the downright unclassifiable episodically flit in and out of the Yeltsin cabinet. Yeltsin himself, who once appeared to be politically dead, achieved reelection in 1996, but paired with an opposition-dominated legislature. Throughout these whirling changes, a level of day-to-day engagement and cooperation have been maintained through a commission chaired by US Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, whom President Yeltsin recently sacked.

At this sensitive moment, NATO expansion may lend Russia's anti-American factions a focus and energy they lacked before. At precisely the moment that the Russian legislature is reluctantly considering the ratification of the Start II treaty and the negotiation of the Start III treaty, crucial nuclear disarmament measures that have lagged inexcusably since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States is pointlessly antagonizing the Russians with an eastward push across the center of the old European chessboard.

This self-fulfilling prophecy, moreover, provides ammunition and inspiration to precisely those Russians who envision their country again under a firm hand and with troops on the move, once more to thwart a threat from the west. Boris Yeltsin has already contemplated a reunion with Belarus, much desired by the ambitious Belarussian dictator, Alexsandr Lukashenko. Reactivating this popular proposal in reaction to Poland's new military alliance would put Russian forces on the border of NATO yet again. The tiny but relatively prosperous Baltic Republics, which already feature prominently in their former master's new-old imperial fantasies, would find themselves caught in the middle.

WERE AMERICAN LEADERS MORE ENGAGED and thoughtful, they would be doing their utmost not to surround Russia with a ring of arms, as in the days of old, but a ring of prosperity. This approach would not only bolster the crumbling giant's efforts to rebuild itself, but would go a long way towards defusing irredentist Russian ambitions in the former Soviet Republics by rendering Russia's dinosaurian regional trade monopolies extinct.

The basis of Russia's living-dead hold on these "Near Abroad" lands are the pipelines that carry oil and natural gas out of the Central Asian and Caucasian Republics into Russia. No competing routes yet exist, so these states depend entirely on Russia for their business. Russia in turn supplies these and its own resources at a discount to the European Near Abroad, assuming a middleman position that renders both ends of the energy equation dependent on the center. In recent years, the Russians have fought two wars — in Georgia and Chechnya — with the security of these pipelines in mind.

The United States has belatedly come to support the construction of a pipeline that passes out of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, through Russian-occupied Georgia and into Turkey, over hundreds of miles of mountain ridges. This route is long, expensive, and subject to potentially fatal political complications. It remains a vital project nonetheless, since the level of income it would bring to landlocked former Soviet regions would boost development there, something that could have only positive effects in Russia itself — although the Russians hardly seem eager to yield up the special advantages that the current arrangement offers them in the short term.

Being able to maintain their own stability and security on the basis of new prosperity, moreover, will innoculate the Central Asian Republics against Russian moves to return there in force, as the civil war in Tajikistan has already enabled them to do. Possible justifications for further moves of this sort include the defense of their borders against real or imagined threats, such as the radical Islamic Taliban forces of neighboring Afghanistan.

If the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey route fails or is delayed excessively, American leaders will have to starting thinking much harder about normalizing relations with Iran, whose own pipeline plans, undercapitalized thanks to the partly effective US embargo, would much more neatly break the Russian transit monopoly on Central Asia's vast and underutilized energy resources. The Iranian prospect offers considerable attractions of its own, if the equally considerable difficulties can be overcome. The United States government should be trying harder, but currently is barely capable of engaging with the issues at hand, falling back instead on a tough-it-out strategy of containment around which the world will not rally. Our current window of opportunity, embodied in moderate Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, should not be ignored.

If the Senate finds the wisdom or even the inertia to reject NATO expansion, some variation on this Central Asian strategy might succeed in fundamentally altering the terms in which Russia engages with the world, placing the world's physically largest country and one of its natural great powers in a situation where its interests are best served by its commercial, not military, relations with its neighbors. A parallel approach exists in Europe, where the eastward expansion of the European Union's free-trade zone could convey far greater benefits to the future of the continent than the expansion of a security apparatus that excludes Russia.

America's best efforts might not be adequate to rescue Russia from the alternatives of a floundering Yeltsin administration or something much worse. But under Yeltsin, a measure of coordination has been possible. Less in the way of antagonistic maneuverings might improve prospects for safe disarmament and better coordination of policy on an array of issues from Iraq to Cyprus to Armenia.

Russo-American relations may sooner or later turn more antagonistic. We must act now to channel our differences more into stable forms of competition and less into escalatable confrontations. Effecting a soft landing rules out an unprovoked expansion of NATO, a project essentially conceived without considering its effects on Russia or on American interests. It is not too much to ask the Senate to give more thought to the consequences of such action than the Administration has.

It may be too much to ask for actually constructive policies, of course. But those policies, too, are there for the making.

2/22/98: Some thoughts on the eve of war
1/21/98: The dance of symbols: Bibi and Yasser in Washington
1/7/98: Iran's new opening to America
12/28/97: Arabic lessons are no substitute for Poli Sci: the dangers of the territorial fixation

Josh Pollack is a contributing editor at JWR.


© 1998, Jewish World Review