Boris Yeltsin's warning that U.S. actions in Iraq could lead to a world war has left analysts groping for an explanation for the Russian president's astounding comment.
It's not easy understanding Yeltsin. Some of his public statements are baffling. Remember his shocking declaration in Stockholm, when he promised arms reductions that were not part of any agreement or even a topic for negotiation? The next day, the president's press secretary said that Yeltsin didn't really mean that or that his words had been misinterpreted. It was never explained, however, just what the president did mean and how his words were supposed to be interpreted. Later it was explained that Yeltsin simply wanted to show his own power and to present his own very radical agenda.
The comment Wednesday about the U.S. and Iraq is merely the latest example of irresponsible behavior on the part of the Russian president. What did he mean? Russians or not, we all wonder. And as usual, when asked, he has not been able to explain. Again we are told that he really didn't mean it.
Russians are simply not careful with words. In their history, they have never needed to be--a czar's word was enough not just to express his will, but also to make it happen, to start or to end the war, to forgive and to punish, to destroy and to create. Yeltsin, although a democrat, is also a czar. All his unexpected declarations are meant to prove that he has power beyond one's imagination, that he is in control and he still rules the largest country in the world. And for a czar, power equates with size.
This attitude is damaging, both for the president and for the country. He cannot back up his words by actions. Russia is no longer a superpower, and Yeltsin has to pretend that he never said certain things or gave certain promises.
Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov keeps insisting that Russia will eventually convince Saddam Hussein to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction and open sites for U.N. inspection. The longer this takes, the less reliable and trustworthy Russia appears. Instead of backing up the United States in its plan to launch a military strike, trying to persuade Saddam that Americans are serious in their readiness for the action and promising the Iraqi leader that if he cooperates, Russia would become a mediator between the U.S. and Iraq, Russia acts almost as irresponsibly as Saddam himself.
This is not because Russia is behaving like Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" but because the main component of the former Soviet Union still wants to be a superpower--or at least be perceived as one.
Russia still feels the pain of Cold War defeat and weeps over its lost strength. Explaining the situation in Iraq, Moscow newspapers point out that the United States, now the only superpower left in the world, feels it has the right to use excessive methods to defeat the enemy. Press accounts take note of nuclear attacks, citing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and invoke the Cuban missile crisis, where the threat of nuclear war was avoided because John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev solved the crisis politically. Facetiously, Russians thank President Clinton for at least warning the world about his plans for Yeltsin's imagined doomsday scenario, recalling that previously such action has been secretly planned and undertaken.
Americans who can't understand why Russia doesn't support the U.S. position on Iraq forget that Russia has been an irresponsible, autocratic and authoritarian country for many more years than it has been democratic. For Americans, nothing less than total accession by Saddam Hussein is enough; for Russians, used to looking at things differently, more than nothing is already good enough.
Yeltsin claims that his opinion about Iraq is based on the Russian knowledge of what Saddam's country is capable of militarily and says that he wants to protect America from the unwise decision to unleash Iraq's evil powers. He also claims that other countries, such as France, Italy and possibly Britain, share his concerns.
Perhaps this is all true. But what troubles me is that while Russia has a great opportunity to strengthen its international position by using responsible and strategically well thought-through diplomacy, the country, under Yeltsin's leadership, still behaves as though it were operating under the old superpower rules.