The West is confused over Russia's role in Kosovo. Just when NATO was celebrating victory, Col. Gen. Viktor Zavarzin unexpectedly and without any warning led a column of 200 Russian paratroopers into Pristina last Friday.
But there is nothing to be confused about. The former superpower, just like its failing president, reasserts its crucial self-importance in any way it can.
Fragile health--physical, economic, political--is a very sad reality for both Boris N. Yeltsin and Russia. Meanwhile the world wakes up every morning in fear, wondering what new eccentricities Russia would use to assert itself on the international stage.
Forgive me for this suggestion: This is, at least in part, the West's fault. Instead of firmly defining Russia's status in the world and its relationship to the West, the United States, England, et al play an image game with Yeltsin's country.
As soon as Russia insists on recognition, the West accommodates readily. The NATO expansion crisis was fixed by inviting Russia to participate in the G-7 plus one summit in 1997. When the Kosovo bombing started in March, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Michel Camdessus flew to Moscow to continue talks about the IMF's $4.5-billion loan. In fact, the West, in order to secure goodwill, went even further: All of a sudden, G-7 plus 1 became G-8 (the seven major industrialized nations plus Russia).
Overnight, Russia--a country with a bankrupt economy--became an industrial power. As a result, Russians volunteered to cooperate on Kosovo.
The problem, however, is that this kind of commiserating policy will not solve the problem that defines Russian behavior: its loss of greatness. The Kremlin threats that were made in March--"We will send our own troops to help Serb brothers, etc."--had no practical ground whatsoever. Russia simply has no resources and strength to fight any war, domestic or international.
An impotent power with no power, it at least wants to be noticed and thus takes a familiar Cold War-type path of constantly creating trouble.
When the Kosovo crisis started, Russians were more upset that they were not informed than by the bombing itself. "We want to be involved too," they insisted in anguish. This was a horrible cry of someone who suspects that the world can easily go on without him and is very afraid to be left behind. Then, they were heard, and got involved; Viktor S. Chernomyrdin became a special envoy.
But did the West really need Chernomyrdin's help? Symbolically maybe, to show that the old days of the Cold War (at least for the West) are gone, and we all can work together despite certain disagreements. Practically, most likely not. In fact, it was reported Tuesday that when Chernomyrdin "was not making headway," a London investment banker was used as a "back channel." Moreover, Chernomyrdin's involvement caused a new dilemma: how to share responsibility for the peacekeeping in Kosovo, when Russians are refusing to be under NATO's command. All sorts of arrangements have been offered--U.N. auspices for all troops, a special zone under Russia's supervision. And all that trouble because the West, in its compassion, recognizes Russia's wish to fit in.
What it doesn't recognize is that Russia has a great case of wishful thinking. It believes in its legitimacy as a G-8 member, in its indispensability as a peacekeeper. It also thinks it can bring troops unexpectedly into Kosovo without any warning; if NATO started bombing without telling us, we'll start peacekeeping without telling them.
Frankly, I admire the West for its generosity for allowing its former nemesis to save face. But given Russia's increased state of disarray, this craving for visibility is becoming dangerously uncontrollable.
Before it was only Yeltsin who allowed himself to make threatening statements to reassert the importance of the former empire. Now colonel-generals are assuming power to do so. Observing the confused reaction of the Russian foreign ministry, it is obvious that Zavarzin moved his troops to Kosovo without any consultation. Although military officials seemed to be better informed of this move, taking into consideration Zavarzin's grudge against the Western alliance, he most likely designed the action himself.
The alarming significance of this event is that random decisions nowadays can be made by anyone who has a slightest chance to make them. With the amount of nuclear warheads Russia has, it doesn't need Yeltsin to push the attack button. It could be anyone.
And if the West continues to play along with Russia's desire for greatness and recognition, it can only wonder what will come next. The latest incident at the Pristina airport has been a warning for the West to reconsider its policy of commiseration and to firmly insist that Russia play according to the international rules. Because if it doesn't, another round of containment might help.