Russia: Indispensable Thorn in U.S. Side

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Michael McFaul is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor of political science at Stanford University

Like no other international crisis of the last decade, NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia threatens to undermine support for Western-oriented reforms in Russia and isolate Moscow from the West internationally. Siding with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and thwarting liberal reforms at home do not serve the long-term interests of Russia as a world power or Russians as a people. In the passion of the moment, however, Russian leaders may be tempted, or feel compelled to take drastic measures to assist Serbia, which, in turn, could precipitate a passionate anti-Russian response in the West. The resulting strain in U.S.-Russia relations would give new meaning to the term “collateral damage.”

Well before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s campaign against Yugoslavia began, Russia was rapidly declining as an economy, a coherent state and an international player. Since 1991, the Russian economy has contracted faster and longer than any previous major power’s in modern history. With economic decline has come state weakness. The Russian government struggles to provide the most elementary of public goods, such as a single currency, a common market, security, welfare and education. This domestic feebleness has played havoc with Russia’s international clout, turning the once-proud actor into a mere observer with mostly symbolic roles to perform.

To Russians, the bombing of Yugoslavia has brought their country’s impotence into painfully sharp focus. In reaction, strident anti-Western sentiment is spreading throughout Russian society. Conveniently forgetting the Soviet invasions of Hungary, in 1956, and of Czechoslovakia, in 1968, Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov has called the NATO bombing the worst aggression in Europe since World War II. No one in Russia is prepared to disagree publicly with him. Nationalists and Communists long have rallied to the anti-American battle cry. Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov has compared “NATO ideology” to “Hitlerism,” while several members of his party are calling for a military response. Although Russian weapons have yet to be delivered to Serbia, Russian warships are moving into the Adriatic Sea reputedly to provide intelligence to the Serbian government. Russian liberal leaders, many of whom privately detest Milosevic, have joined the anti-American chorus.


All this comes at a time when the Clinton administration is in no mood to tolerate criticism from Russia. President Bill Clinton and his foreign-policy team are focused on fighting a war in Yugoslavia and a public-opinion battle at home. They regard Russia’s support for Milosevic as morally abhorrent and strategically shortsighted. Placating Russian concerns or paying attention to Moscow’s peace proposals are far down on the list of U.S. priorities. If the Russians aid Milosevic militarily, anti-Russian sentiment in the United States, especially in Congress, will doubtlessly reach the same passionate pitch that anti-American sentiment in Russia has already attained.

The administration may well be right in largely ignoring Russia’s carping and threats. In the short run, Russia desperately needs Western financial assistance. In the longer run, it can only benefit from greater integration with the West. Yet, the combination of anti-Western hysteria at home and growing anti-Russian sentiment in the West may compel Russian leaders and citizens to behave irrationally. Russia’s extreme nationalists and Communists live for such a time. Should it come, the possibility of a U.S.-Russian confrontation would grow exponentially.

Ironically, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov may be the one Russian politician capable of denying the radicals their anti-American brew and maintaining the possibility of continued Russian cooperation with the West. Primakov is neither a liberal reformer nor a friend of the West. But under present conditions, he may represent the best bet for both more reform in Russia and continued U.S.-Russian engagement.

Domestically, Primakov is now stronger than before the NATO operation began, a dramatic reversal of his stature on the eve of his planned visit to Washington. The Russian press had portrayed that trip as a make or break mission: If Primakov succeeded in securing new money from the International Monetary Fund, his government would survive; if not, a gaggle of deputy prime ministers would have been fired, with even Primakov himself at some risk of dismissal.

Primakov never made it to Washington, turning his plane around once NATO bombs and missiles began falling in Yugoslavia. But his change of direction fortified his standing among Russian nationalist and communists. A week later, he secured his IMF money, too. The combination of these two successes makes Primakov untouchable today. President Boris N. Yeltsin continues to criticize his prime minister, but he doesn’t have the political clout to remove him. Indeed, if elections for president were held tomorrow, Primakov would win in a landslide.

Primakov’s standing on the international stage does not reflect his newfound support at home. His first attempt to broker a cease-fire between Yugoslavia and NATO was not a serious one. Much like his “peace mission” to Iraq in February 1991, Primakov did not try to mediate between two sides, but rather represent the interests of one side, Serbia, to the other side, NATO. In undertaking his mission to Belgrade, Primakov may have hoped to drive a wedge between NATO allies. If he did, he grossly miscalculated. But by traveling to the Yugoslav capital, Primakov reminded the world and supporters at home that Russia is no longer content to remain just an observer of international affairs, but plans to be an actor once again, especially in a place, the Balkans, where Russia has been a major player for hundreds of years. Expect him back in Belgrade soon if the fighting continues.


However morally distasteful it may be, the administration needs Primakov for the role he can play in Russia and abroad. Within Russia, Primakov is a force for stability. As Russian citizens prepare to elect a new president next year or sooner, should something happen to Yeltsin, Primakov represents the most moderate and viable of candidates in the field. If he falters, radicals, either on the right or left, have a real chance of coming to power in Russia.

The West’s need for Primakov as an international partner is more complicated. The NATO alliance was right to reject, immediately and categorically, his initial peace proposal. If the opportunity arises again to negotiate a settlement, however, Russia is the one country in the world that can exert leverage over Serbia. After the atrocities committed by Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo, Western officials will have difficulty negotiating directly with the Serbian leader. Primakov could act as a valuable intermediary.

It is tragic testament to the state of Russian reform at home and Russia’s relations with the West that Primakov is in a position to play such a pivotal role. Frequently identified in Western reports as “a wily spymaster,” he has genuinely anti-American instincts. At home, he has still not developed a coherent economic reform plan after six months in office as prime minister. Perhaps most alarmingly, he has floated blatantly antidemocratic proposals for “reforming” Russia’s political system, like appointing, rather than electing, governors. Yet, when compared with the other options on Russia’s political landscape, Primakov looks pretty good. It is time the administration took notice and negotiated this delicate moment by realizing that each side needs the other now and after the war in Yugoslavia is over.

Any other course of action seems too costly. Should Kosovo reignite old U.S.-Russia tensions, the administration will have lost one of its primary foreign-policy objectives: integrating Russia into the West. The United States would be facing a new strategic challenge: an authoritarian, antimarket and anti-Western regime armed with nuclear weapons. Sound familiar?*