The Russia in Europe’s Future: Engagement, not Containment
HE The Hon Thomas R Pickering.
Ambassador of the United States of America to the Russian Federation. Ambassador to Jordan (1974-78), to Nigeria (1981-83), to El Salvador (1983-85), to Israel (1986-88) and to India (1992-93), and Ambassador and US Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1989-92).
In this third year after the end of the Cold War. Russia remains at the center of our concern, as it did for the forty and even seventy previous years. Most past gatherings of this body were dominated by the reality of a Europe sharply divided between a group of democratic countries closely allied with the United States and a vast imperial system based on an authoritarian Soviet state.
The ideological - even quasi-religious - character of the Leninist state certainly colored post-war rivalry on this continent as it did around the globe. Nonetheless, the geopolitical problems facing the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance during the Cold War were not inherently dissimilar to the dilemmas of statesmen in previous centuries. The European state system has often been threatened with domination by a single European or (in the case of Ottoman Turkey or Tsarist Russia) Eurasian power.
Spain and Austria under the Hapsburgs, France under the Sun King and Napoleon, and the Germany of the Hohenzollerns and Hitler each in their turn attempted to enforce hegemony on the continent. In doing so they inspired defensive alliances of states (often themselves otherwise incompatible) to contain the expansionist tendencies of whichever power played the lead role in what A J P Taylor termed “the struggle for mastery in Europe”.
The challenges facing our diplomacy today are quite different. The European state system is not, at least right now, endangered by the imperial ambitions of any power nor by the threat of major armed conflict. Russia today seeks membership in Europe rather than dominance.
This is a most welcome change, but new in its impact and perplexing in its ramifications after so many years of the fearful clarity of the Cold War. Many in the West still doubt that Europe will not again fall prey to Great Power rivalry but, in doing so, fail to see the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge of the nuclear age: to integrate Russia, a former implacable foe, into the European and world communities.
Our perceptions of Russia today are - at least in part - a conditioned reflex of the years of containing the very real danger of Soviet imperialism and of responding to the challenge of Soviet Communism. This experience - an unusually successful one in world history - can cloud our vision as we deal with an altogether different set of problems in the post-Soviet environment.
During the Cold War the dominant Western perception of the Communist Soviet Union was as the culmination of Russian history, and perhaps even as the logical or inevitable culmination of that history. This perception produced an expectation of indefinite and immutable rivalry between the Soviet East and the democratic West - a rivalry based on fundamentally different conceptions of human values and of individual and state ethics. Indeed, the spokesmen and theoreticians of Soviet Communism often openly proclaimed as much.
There was, however, always a minority view among our commentators on Soviet Russian affairs: a perception of the Soviet Union as a phase of Russian history - a phase which, however long and however painful, would at some point give way to a Russian state drawing on other traditions of that country’s millennial experience.
In the United States, men such as George Kennan and James Billington patiently argued that we should look back beyond 1917 as we sought to understand our Cold War adversary. Equally astutely, they urged us to look forward beyond the Cold War itself as we sought to define our future relationship with Russia.
The debate between these competing schools of thought has now, I fear, concluded with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. Voices - many of them very responsible - ask whether the Soviet threat has passed. These voices now profess to see in Russia’s relations with its neighbors the onset of a new Moscow-centered imperialism.
These voices argue that the West should revert to the policies which served so well during the Cold War: policies of containment of Russian expansionist tendencies and of military alliance aimed at the exclusion of Russia from the affairs of the West. in short, of keeping our barricades manned and our drawbridge up.
For Europeans as for Americans the choice of policy towards Russia depends upon a key basic judgement: Is Russia today progressing beyond the authoritarianism of the Soviet state or is it resuming a threatening and hostile stance towards its near neighbors and the world beyond? To find the answers, the West must attempt to understand Russia’s own aspirations and assess to what extent those aspirations are compatible with and conducive to our own. The Russia we see today is in large measure the product both of Russia’s quest to be accepted as part of Europe and of its previous inability to do so while remaining an authoritarian empire.
The Europeanization of Russia has been a slow process, approaching fruition only in our time. By geography, history, ethnicity and inclination, Russia is a Eurasian country, with a self-defined identity both consciously European and consciously extra-European. In this regard, Russia resembles perhaps Ottoman Turkey in its spanning of continents and cultures and in the difficulty of its ties with the West.
Russia also resembled the other European great powers in its imperial ambitions and in its expansion to the east and south. In contrast to Europe’s far-flung maritime empires, however, the means employed by Russia were primarily overland rather than sea-borne and in a territorially compact and contiguous state.
Nevertheless, just as imperial Spain, Portugal, Italy. France, Britain, Holland, Belgium, Germany and even Denmark filled the power vacuums of the Western hemisphere and of Africa and Asia with their technologies and populations, so too did Russia find an outlet for its ambitions and demographic expansion in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia, and the Far East.
However, while Russian power pushed steadily to the east, the Russian mind looked increasingly to the west. A basic aspiration of Russian society - although not without debate and controversy - was and is to be a part of Europe and to be accepted as part of Europe.
This search for a European identity was closely juxtaposed to Russia’s limited success in extending its hegemony into Europe. Unlike the power vacuums in Siberia and Central Asia, on its western borders Russia encountered resistance from cultures equal or superior to its own.
Historically, in Russian eyes, the West repeatedly presented Russia with dangers to its security. Although Russia managed, often at great cost and loss, to prevail against invasions from Europe, the nature of Russian society and of the Russian state was altered by each successive encounter.
Russians admired, envied and feared what they saw in Western European civilization. They sought to import and adapt the technological and military achievements of the West into a political and social structure patterned on medieval Byzantium and on the Central Asian khanates. The incongruities and incompatibilities of this mixture fuelled the internal tensions of Russian society for generations; ultimately, however, Europe became the model of choice.
Russia’s acceptance by Europe requires that it emulate other European states in two key ways: abandonment of empire and democratization. European history in this century has been the story of the breakdown of empires and of the replacement of authoritarian government with representative democracy.
Russia was the last of the European empires to fall, in part because it was territorially contiguous rather than far- flung and maritime and in part due to the ruthless energy of Lenin and his successors. The collapse of the Romanov dynasty late in the First World War did break up the empire for a time, just as did the Ottoman, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern systems. It required two decades of ruthless and determined effort by the new Bolshevik dynasty to restore most of the previous imperial frontiers, in every case very much against the will of those “liberated” by the “revolution”.
Russia has knocked on Europe’s door many times - often with a mailed fist - only to find the gates ever more securely closed. Even when the danger of German fascism threatened to overrun the continent, fear of Russian domination proved stronger for many statesmen and ordinary people. There was a popular saymg in Poland just before the Second World War: “With Hitler we lose our lives; with Stalin we lose our souls.”
It required such a staunch anti-Communist as Winston Churchill to recognize that the gambler Hitler was a greater danger to the peace of the world than the more cautious Stalin. Churchill also suspected that what he called the “scientific new Dark Age” of European fascism could inflict more lasting damage on Western civilization than could the undiscriminating semi-barbarism of Stalin’s terror. Churchill was wise enough (and wry enough) to differentiate the two tyrannies with his famous remark that “if Hitler invaded Hell. I could at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons”.
With Hitler’s defeat. Stalin made a decision which, in the long run, may have been fatal for Soviet Communism. He extended his empire deep into Central Europe, creating an outer domain far beyond any held by the Romanovs.
We now know that the imposed Soviet-style regimes in this external empire failed to win hearts or minds or to penetrate much below the surface of local traditions. As a result, today the Baltic states. Poland. Hungary, the Czech Republic and other countries have resumed their national lives and national identities.
What may be less obvious is the profound influence the occupied countries had on their conquerors. The internal security of the Soviet system critically depended on maintaining hermetically-sealed barriers between its people and the outside world. Stalin himself understood this very well and punished foreign travel as disloyal and subversive.
In May 1945, George Kennan sent a memorandum to my predecessor in Moscow, Averell Harriman, which addressed the implications of Soviet expansion into Europe. Kennan noted that Tsarist occupation of much of Poland and of the Baltic states had provided the fuel for the later Bolshevik revolution, as most of Lenin’s associates came from these areas. Kennan predicted that, as Russia could not rule these areas in the Nineteenth Century without introducing fundamentally subversive tendencies at home, so Stalin’s seizure of much of Central and Eastern Europe would have a similar impact on Soviet Communism.
Kennan. I am happy to say, was right. Stalin’s territorial acquisitions brought traditions of Western thought inside the imperial glacis and began the slow erosion of the habits of blind faith and obedience essential to the preservation of totalitarian authority. Post-war Russians might still be prohibited travel to Paris, London or New York, but they could nonetheless taste a good deal of some forbidden fruit in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest.
When resistance to Soviet Communism gathered momentum in the Eighties, it was no surprise that it did so in Central Europe. It is still astonishing, even in retrospect, that the failure of authoritarian willpower spread so rapidly from the edge of the empire to its very heart. Only two years separated the peaceful breaching of the Berlin Wall from the lowering of the hammer-and-sickle flag from the Moscow Kremlin. The explanation for this rapid imperial collapse lies in the fact that the citizens of Moscow and St Petersburg had reached the very same conclusions as the inhabitants of Leipzig, Gdansk and Timisoara: Marxism-Leninism had failed to fulfil its promises and had failed to understand the potential of democratic societies to provide liberty, prosperity and security to their citizens.
In Leipzig, the crowds chanted, loud enough for the bosses to hear, “We are the people”. In Moscow, the handmade banners damned the experience of “scientific socialism” with simple eloquence: “Seventy-four years on the road to nowhere”. The aspirations of the Russian people were expressed in a simple, oft-repeated demand: “We want to live like normal people” - in other words, like European people, with the security, freedoms and prosperity most Europeans take for granted.
How well are the Russians now doing in fulfilment of this agenda and the criteria for their acceptance in Europe?
On the economic side, progress is mixed but by no means as poor as much Western press commentary would have you believe. Much has been accomplished in liberalization of prices and in privatization of enterprises and housing. However, much more remains to be done, especially in developing institutions and a legal framework capable of promoting a market economy.
We should remember that post-Soviet Russia inherited a fantastic economic mess. The Russian economy has been described, quite correctly, as neither developed nor underdeveloped, but rather as misdeveloped.
To unscramble the misdevelopment and at the same time to build a new market-based economy is like playing three-dimensional chess against an ultra-fast time clock, requiring simultaneous moves of many pieces on many boards all at onetime. The many moves in the many sectors of the economy all affect the potential success of every other move.
Soviet policies created economic problems unknown (thankfully) in the West. The most obvious of these is the warped role of the military in the economy. To maintain and expand its empire, the Soviet Union became a garrison state, permanently devoting a share of resources to its military in peacetime far greater than did the United States at the height of the Korean or Vietnam conflicts.
Experts will argue just how heavy a burden the military sector placed on the Russian civilian economy, but it is certainly true that, in its most peaceful and secure years, the Soviet Union continued to impoverish its people by lavishing most of the country’s disposable income on the burdens of the military and the empire - at home and abroad.
In addition, Soviet economic masters sought to achieve things any first-year economics student should recognize as irrational in the modern world:
- autarkic self-sufficiency in almost every resource,
- monopolistic production of almost every good,
- central direction and control of almost every decision.
- and elimination of real prices from most transactions.
The result was an economy designed to produce the wrong things, in the wrong way. in the wrong places, at the wrong time, using the wrong technology, and without any of the discipline and rationality of prices, interest rates, profits, losses, and property ownership.
In some sectors, Soviet industry actually reduced value, producing goods worth less than the value of the raw material and energy inputs - not even counting labor costs.
This legacy of seventy-four years of chronic error will be a continuing burden on the new Russia for many years, and probably for generations. We should keep in mind the mistakes of the previous management as we judge the new team. With the best will and policies in the world, the process of reforming the old Soviet economy will be protracted, painful and problematic.
There will he mistakes, many of them, for these are uncharted waters. The Polish reformer Adam Michnik used an apt metaphor to describe the difference between a market economy and a centrally planned one. Anyone knows how to make fish soup from an aquarium, he said, but who knows how to do the opposite?
Russians, for the most part, are remarkably realistic about the challenges they face. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was very little of the euphoric expectation of overnight elevation to Western living standards which swept much of Eastern Germany when the Wall came down. At the very outset of the economic reform process, in January 1992, President Yeltsin probably spoke for most of his countrymen when he said that, with five to seven years of arduous effort and painful restructuring, Russia might hope to attain the living standard enjoyed by Poland today.
I am nevertheless impressed at how far the Russian economy has progressed arid how quickly. Few outside commentators two years ago would have believed Russia today could have been. It has, for example:
- a convertible currency:
- money, not politics, playing the primary role in the distribution of goods and services at most levels;
- the humble ruble able to purchase anything from Cadbury’s chocolate to a Rolls Royce (or, I hope, as an American, a “Snickers” bar and a Cadillac):
- most small enterprises (over 100,000) and many medium and large enterprises (over 10,000) are now in private hands;
- industrial managers are increasingly making their decisions on rational economic grounds rather than depending on orders from a central bureaucracy:
- new enterprise is supplying almost all new jobs and employing as much as one third of the labor force:
- much of the urban housing stock is privately owned and maintained.
Certainly not all manifestations of the economic reform process have been positive, but even the bad news reaffirms the necessity for continued change.
(I) There has been a significant increase in impoverishment in Russian society and there is a growing gap between the new rich and new poor. However, impoverishment in our terms was already widespread and was increasing due to the deterioration of the command economy: indeed it was a primary sign of its demise. Today, a kind of social safety net, while battered, does in fact reach many people. While there is more hardship, especially for the poor and pensioners, there is also more opportunity for individuals and for the economy to develop new productive assets to provide the wherewithal for social protection in the future.
The creation of new private wealth in Russia today has an important social connotation. A major deficiency of the Soviet system was that the fruits of individual achievement could not be passed on to the next generation in property and tangible wealth. This spawned the elaborate caste system of the nomenklatura in which young people inherited position and influence rather than money, to the disadvantage of talented young people lacking this social status. Now, Russians can acquire wealth and pass it on to their children, responding to a basic human urge.
(2) Unemployment - and even more underemployment - have increased. Indeed, both are certainly much higher than official numbers show. This increase primarily reflects the past wastefulness of Soviet labor practices, in which enterprises employed many more workers than needed but at wages far below their value in world market terms.
At the heart of the Soviet economic and social crisis was the immobility of labor and with it dismal, dead-end prospects for most wage earners. Now, with a dose of job insecurity and privatization of housing. comes at least the opening up of the option of moving - and even of moving up.
Some of the new unemployment is at least semi-voluntary as workers, especially younger and more adaptable workers, find alternative sources of income in what is called the “commercial sector” - meaning the new private undertakings in goods and services that one sees everywhere except in the official statistics. For many older workers, to be sure, this option comes too late.
(3) Production in many sectors has decreased significantly, although a word of caution is in order. In the old days Soviet official statistics reflected the desire to fulfil and over fulfil the plan, if only on paper. Today enterprises have learned the fine art of tax avoidance, and evasion. For example, a recent survey showed that consumers are purchasing forty percent more than producers report selling. I also note that in recent months electricity consumption in many industrial areas barely dropped. increasing my own scepticism about some of the reports of catastrophic reductions in manufacturing output.
Nonetheless, there has been a real decline in production. Is this all and of necessity bad? Given the dominant role of the military industry in the Soviet economy, declines in the output of munitions. weapons, and related items may be a net social good, and not only for Russia. In addition, given the horrendous environmental damage emanating from Russian industry, a slowing of production lines in the smokestack industries of Russia’s “rust belt” may be a blessing for that country’s land, air and water.
I certainly do not say that a country of Russia’s size does not require a robust industrial sector, only that all forms of production are not in and of themselves unquestionably good. Production is good if it supplies products people need and want, and if carried out with due regard for the health, safety and well-being of people and nature. Much of the Soviet-era production base, unfortunately, never met these standards.
Crime and corruption in Russia are certainly much in the news of late. The problems are very real and are growing worse. However, crime is not a new feature on the Russian scene. Publicity is new, as is our awareness of the shocking recent rate of growth.
The old Soviet Union was the world leader in the proportion of its population behind bars (and here I am not speaking of alcoholics or political prisoners, although the Soviet Union excelled in those categories as well). Keeping the prisons full was in part a means to obtain cheap labor for arduous tasks and in part a reflection of a draconian criminal justice system. Tragically, the prisons were also factories to produce criminals as they were ruled by brutal gangs which later transferred their activities into the civilian world. In the Soviet period they may have operated more or less out of sight, but they certainly existed and multiplied.
With the collapse of the Soviet system, this extensive criminal caste unfortunately possessed a head start in competitive economic skills. They quickly intruded into early commercial activities and have since branched out into all sectors of economic life. Today, crime and corruption are major impediments not only to foreign investment, hut to native Russian economic enterprise as well.
Crime has also assumed great political and social importance in Russia. Today, the top concern for average Russians is not the state of the economy but personal security. While the perception of danger exceeds the reality (as in many other countries), it is a fact that Russians no longer feel safe in their homes and persons.
Crime and corruption are now potentially more inflammatory than any other political issue in Russia. Zhirinovskiy benefited in the December elections as the only candidate to run on a strong law-and-order program. Democratic reformers need to learn that protection of the lives and property of citizens goes hand in hand with protection of their civil and human rights. Fortunately, recent policy initiatives by President Yeltsin show serious concern about the growth of crime and determination to combat it.
What is the solution? Not, I think, a return to the police state or to laws declaring that the profit motive is an element of “class warfare”. In some measure at least, the solution must be to open up economic activity to the broadest participation of honest Russians rather than to surrender private enterprise to the mob. Russia is still in the process of defining what is and what is not legitimate economic activity, but is doing so along lines that all of us would find familiar and congenial. However, so long as a gap remains between statute and reality, ruthless people will rush to fill the void.
Some of the problem and the solution must lie with the law enforcement organs themselves. Within the Russian police, there exists a perception left over from the old days that private property and business are not as “worthy” of police protection and judicial equality as is the proletariat. Businessmen, whether Russian or foreign, can help by showing that business contributes to the community ‘swell- being. When businessmen are seen as a long-term asset rather than viewed as carpetbaggers, police and other official attitudes will improve.
Building workable and durable democratic institutions in Russia presents a complex picture: a mixture of hope and hesitation, of trial and error, of adaptation and growth. On the positive side, elections are now the favored method of setting national priorities. On the negative side, election results reveal the Russian people are more united about what they do not want than around a positive program of change.
The most worrisome trend is the continuing decline in voter participation, especially among younger people. The young have the most to gain or lose from the direction of public policy but today are much less likely than their elders to bother to go to the ballot box. In part, this is a resumption of traditional Russian scepticism about politics and politicians. There is also, however, a growing sense of “reform and election fatigue” after nearly a decade of social and economic upheaval and yearly polls for the last four years.
Many people simply want to be left alone and left in peace. Whatever the causes, alienation is a real danger to democratization and to the building of representative institutions.
The design of those institutions - still in their infancy - has been strongly influenced by Western European models. In the euphoric early months of post-Soviet Russia, many liberal reformers looked to the American experience for guidance in designing new constitutional and federal structures. Over time, however, American models have given way to European ones, particularly to the constitutional structure of the French Fifth Republic and the electoral system of the German Federal Republic.
In December, these models were grafted onto Russia more or less completely. Unfortunately, the results showed yet again that political development is an organic step-by- step process; Western models - no matter how attractive - require adaptation to local conditions, a slow process only recently begun in Russia.
For example, political parties in Russia are very much in a protoplasmic stage of constant division, subdivision and reformation. Yesterday’s allies are today’s rivals. This “change partners and dance” politics, combined with the German electoral system, did not produce something resembling the Bundestag, but rather something like a combination of the Italian parliament and the Israeli Knesset.
The lower house, the State Duma, is fractured along multiple party lines, making passage of a coherent program difficult, but not out of the question, as recent passage of Russia’s toughest-ever national budget and a law on the Constitutional Court showed.
Within the Duma, reformers are a minority of deputies and are themselves inclined to schismatic rivalries. The large neo-communist blocs aspire to create a new political “center” with themselves in it. between what they term the “radicals” Mr Gaydar on the left and Mr Zhirinovskiy on the extreme right. For his part, Zhirinovskiy retains a hard core of deputy and popular support, but is clearly losing former adherents with his dictatorial style, brawling, and outrageous statements.
The upper house, the Federation Council, is as yet largely untested. Organized along regional lines with a preponderance of provincial powerbrokers in its ranks, the Council is likely to seek more decentralization of power to the regions but with continued central government subsidies. The upper house stands potentially as a brake on excesses either of the lower house or of the executive; its sway could go either way. or both, depending on the issue.
The complex Russian federal system is also in flux. in a vast matrix of competing economic, political and social interests. Non-Russian ethnic areas are uneasily balanced against predominantly Russian regions, while the competing needs of resource-rich but population poor areas clash with those of rust-belt urban centers. These are difficult tasks with no easy answers, as the American federal experiment and the recent European Union experience show, tasks made more difficult in times of economic depression and competition for scarce revenues.
Midway through 1994, the new constellation of political forces has not performed too badly, but neither has it accomplished a great deal. The new legislature is in many ways a welcome change from its predecessor: much more serious and professional in approach, seeking some compromises while avoiding confrontation for its own sake. To be sure, the legislature remains determined to demonstrate its constitutionally-guaranteed independence and authority.
Within the Russian government there is a broad consensus in favor of the financial stabilization course agreed last August. At the same time there is fierce competition among ministries for the limited resources the stabilization program allows. This is a hand-to-mouth - a robbing Peter to pay Paul - style of governance as each successive wave of workers, often unpaid for months, demands sustenance from the central coffers.
As we in the West have learned, there are no easy budget cuts. In Russia today, the choices are harder than ours and the consequences of inevitable cuts are more serious in a society which has already undergone more hardships than most of us will ever experience.
Thus far inflation has been held below eight to ten percent per month, but serious problems remain in looming unemployment and in industrial restructuring. Privatization is well-established in many areas, but defense conversion lags.
Government at the national level is laying down burdens in order to meet essential needs, while government at the regional and local levels is beset with a myriad of new and pressing demands previously funded from Moscow and by large industrial enterprises. Forced-draft decentralization of responsibility out to the regions of Russia has created a frantic search for sources of revenue by them.
Yet President Yeltsin remains the single dominating figure in Russian affairs, the man who determines the national agenda and the direction of state policy. Boris Yeltsin may not enjoy the Presidency as much as he did his isolated and valiant opposition to the then-monolithic Communist Party.
President Yeltsin without question is superb in a crisis; however, it sometimes takes a crisis to get him directly engaged. Yeltsin is not and never has been a man for detail in the day-to-thy running of the government. Exceptional in his command of issues, with a formidable memory and great powers of concentration, the Russian President delegates a great deal of authority, especially in domestic affairs and economic policy.
More than anything else, President Yeltsin clearly wants to leave behind him a country based on rule of law rather than on arbitrary power and to preside over a constitutional succession of democratically-elected executive power - the first time ever in Russia if it takes place.
The next scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections are in 1996. This is as far removed in time from last December’s voting as that event was itself from the August 1991 putsch. A very great deal can and will happen in that time. Russian events of recent years should lead us to anticipate the dramatic and controversial, not the obvious and sedate.
As a metaphor for understanding Russians today, we should think of them as people emigrating to another country. This emigration is not a physical one but rather a voyage of the mind for one hundred and fifty million people.
Americans have great experience with the phenomenon of emigration and we know that it affects people in very different ways: for some people it is simply too much of a challenge. Most emigrant groups experience generational stress, dividing family members from each other: the younger people adopt the ways of the new country easily and eagerly while their parents are less adaptable and more reserved.
So it is in Russia today. Most younger people are not looking back, while many of their elders worry about lost values and loss of control. The parents are not altogether unjustified in their fears. Many young people today in Russia are seduced by the new material abundance and the new opportunities and lose their moral bearings. Among the older generations, many people accept the need for changes which they do not understand and which are personally punishing, hut many others simply do not understand the need for change.
The unique feature of this Russian emigration is that it encompasses an entire nation, and is therefore involuntary for many. As with traditional emigrations, it takes time for the newly-arrived to adjust to their circumstances, to learn new ways of doing things and new patterns of thinking and organization, and to decide what things from the old country they wish to preserve in the new. Russia’s thousand years offer her emigrant children a wealth of traditions they would be wise to cherish, and a multitude of lessons they would be prescient not to forget.
Do Russian conditions today qualify it for acceptance into Europe? By the standards of the well-established democracies, perhaps not. But be careful. Many countries have turbulence, and worse, in their recent past.
Yes, there were certainly tanks on the streets of Moscow a few months ago and the country seemed poised on the brink of civil war. However, thirty-five years ago there were tanks on the streets of Paris and something close to a civil war. In both cases, loss of empire and painful questions of national identity provoked popular frustrations. In both cases, strong leaders possessed a vision of a different role for their country in Europe and in the world.
As we now know. Soviet Russia, particularly under Stalin, committed crimes against humanity on a scale exceeded - if at all - only by Nazi Germany. However, in the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat, the Western powers did not opt for a Carthaginian peace hut sought rather to absorb post-war Germany into a web of democratic and peaceful commitments and to bring new generations of Germans into full integration in Europe.
Something similar is needed for Russia today in the aftermath of the Cold War, because Russia is not going to go away. It will not conveniently turn its back on Europe. Russia’s new government believes it has led the battle to end the empire and put aside communism.
I know the view exists in much of Eastern Europe and among Russia’s near neighbors - often passionately - that the solution is somehow to move the “dividing line” between West and East a little further to the east, generally to a point just beyond their own eastern frontiers. This is an old theme in European affairs - the idea that “Asia begins at the Landstrasse”, if you will - but it will not work.
Americans know from our own long and still-evolving relations with their southern neighbors that frontiers mean little where populations are large, aspirations are high, and the mix of cultures is vigorous. No barrier will prevent Russia - or Russia’s near neighbors, for that matter - from engaging Europe.
And what of Russia’s near neighbors, the unfortunately-named “near abroad”? How content is Russia to live within her present borders?
I must point out that there is not one “near abroad”, there are several. We can no more generalize about the Baltic states, Central Asia and Ukraine than we could about New Zealand, India and Jamaica. A common imperial experience does not necessarily unite countries; it may actually drive them apart. Russians have always differentiated their policies toward their neighbors and today view them through different prisms, by no means all favorably.
Three Russian views, however, tend to be common toward all its near neighbors.
First there is a sense that Russia is primus inter pares by virtue of geography, scale, tradition and some not clearly defined right. This attitude is by no means unusual among large states. America’s own near neighbors are familiar with the phenomenon, and not all of them would be as charitable in their assessment as was former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who said living next to the United States is like sleeping beside an elephant: no matter how benign the beast, one must worry about every twitch and movement. (I would note that elephants, however clumsy, are at least vegetarian.)
Russia’s neighbors, all too familiar with the carnivorous history of the northern bear, obviously resent Russia’s claim to regional primacy. Fortunately, there exist several multilateral mechanisms which can assist Russia and her near neighbors to find the way to new forms of mutual relations - including the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the North Atlantic Alliance’s Partnership for Peace. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for this task lies with the governments of those countries themselves.
The second Russian bias toward the “near abroad” - and this enjoys near consensual support - is that Russia has an obligation anti a right to protect the interests of its ethnic brothers and cousins: living beyond its frontiers — the many millions of ethnic Russians abroad.
Say what one may about the rights and wrongs of Russian colonization over the centuries, twenty-five million ethnic Russians living in these countries are now going to leave their homes. More than two million people have already moved into the Russian Federation as refugee - mostly from troubled parts of Central Asia and the Caucasus - and their presence is already a serious strain or Russia’s economy and political stability.
Before the hulk of the Russians in the ‘near abroad’ move, the borders would be more likely to move – a daunting prospect or us all. It is therefore in the interests of peace throughout the region that these populations he treated with fairness and equality - difficult as that may he for smaller nations long oppressed and exploited.
There is a profound lesson of ethnic sensitivity writ large in recent years for all of us. . Borders cannot simply be pushed hither and yon like so many pieces on a chessboard The rights of in minorities, and of majorities, need to be clarified, agreed on and, above all, respected if we are to master one of the clearest dangers to global security. Russia’s role in this process as a large and multi-ethnic stat will he of the first importance for its own people and for the populations of all of its neighbors.
The third prevailing Russian attitude is a profound skepticism about direct intervention in disputes beyond Russia’s current borders. Despite much talk in the West of Russian neo-imperialism, a lust to reabsorb these people and territories is not widespread in Russia, at least for now. If anything. Russians feel more than a trace of concern at the difficulties facing some of their former subjects - an attitude which, I am compelled to note, is often tinged with a hint of racism.
It is nevertheless remarkable how little resonance imperial ambitions have in Russia today. Recent issue ranging from a proposed currency union with Belarus to a separatist movement in Crimea to the introduction o peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia in Georgia, all elicit little passion in the Russian metropole, and much skepticism and some real opposition in the Congress. Many Russians certainly regret the loss of empire, and many would favor a resumption of Russian hegemony if the price were right. However. most Russians doubt the price would be anything but prohibitive and take a distinctly caveat emptor attitude toward their neighbors.
There is, however, one country where misperceptions on the Russian side are potentially very dangerous, and thus warrant special attention from the outside world. This is Ukraine. The depth of national feeling throughout Western and Central Ukraine is not well-understood in Russia where the common attitude toward the “little Russians” remains a patronizing and unrequited fraternalism.
Given that about half of all ethnic Russians living outside the Federation are in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, the continuing failure of Russians to appreciate the aspirations for independence of the Ukrainian people has potential for peril. Fortunately, in the past two years the governments in Kiev and Moscow have behaved with remarkable restraint and responsibility on key, sensitive issues such as Crimea, nuclear weapons and so forth which could quite easily have led to bitter rivalry and conflict.
For the West, our relations with Moscow have lost the ease and simplicity of the early post-Soviet period when it seemed enough to inform the Russian Government to assure acquiescence. Those days are gone, almost certainly forever. We now must put greater meaning and substance into the concept of partnership to move it beyond rhetoric.
Within the Atlantic Alliance we have already begun to address this problem with the establishment of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council and the Partnership for Peace. These institutions offer real opportunities for effective and meaningful cooperation with Russia.
Russia’s response so far has been, frankly, tentative and uneven because the idea of cooperation with the traditional Western adversary creates many psychological and political problems in Russian society. The same is true for Russia’s nascent ties with the European Union. While some Russian officials have publicly acknowledged that Russia is twenty or more years behind the countries of the European Union, others have suggested that any eastward expansion of the Union should include Russia on the same priority basis as the countries of Eastern Europe.
I suspect the very idea that Poland or the Czech Republic, might be allowed to “join Europe” ahead of Russia would upset very many people in Moscow. Realistically, this is likely to happen at some point in the future, but hopefully at a point when Russian tendencies toward isolation will not be reinforced.
Our task - and here I speak of the United States, of the states of the North Atlantic Alliance and of the European Union, of the newly independent states, and of countries farther afield - is clearly one of cooperation, partnership, and engagement with Russia on each step of the road away from authoritarian government toward representative democracy and away from the burdens and false glories of empire toward a responsible and mutually beneficial relationship with its neighbors. This task may lack the moral clarity and stimulation of the Cold War, but it can open the door to a more satisfying and peaceful future for us.
As we look at Russia today and in the years ahead, there will likely be as much confusion on our part as there will be on theirs. To understand this often-baffling country we must often look to its past. I can sum up in no better way than to cite again the wisdom of America’s leading expert, friend and critic of modern Russia, George Kennan. Writing in September 1944, when so much Western opinion about Russia was the product of self-delusion and wishful thinking, Kennan assessed our intellectual limitations in dealing with this great country, limitations which remain valid still fifty years on.
Kennan wrote, in part, “We are incapable, in the first place, of understanding the role of contradiction in Russian life. The Anglo-Saxon instinct is to attempt to smooth away contradictions, to reconcile opposing elements, to achieve something in the nature of an acceptable middle ground as a basis for life. The Russian tends to deal only in extremes. And he is not particularly concerned to reconcile them. To him, contradiction is a familiar thing. It is the essence of Russia ... the American mind will not apprehend Russia until it is prepared philosophically to accept the validity of contradiction. It must learn to understand that Russian life at any given moment is not the common expression of harmonious, integrated elements, but a precarious and ever-shifting equilibrium between numbers of conflicting forces.”
Coping with these differences will not be easy, but the opportunity to turn an implacable ideological enemy into a partner and friend comes rarely - so far, only once in the nuclear age. In facing this challenge of the century we will need all our wisdom, understanding, patience, and persuasiveness. We are encouraged by the fact that Russians, in the main, want what we want. We must do all we can to assure the new partnership with Russia is shaped by common interest, free of mindless distrust and in support of a common future.
© The Ditchley Foundation, 1994. All rights reserved. Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.