24 April 1997 - 26 April 1997

Russia and its Neighbours

Chair: Sir Rodric Braithwaite GCMG

Though our prime focus was upon external relationships, we began by recognising that most of these depended in substantial degree upon how Russia saw itself. The hugely disorienting experience of 1989-91 - after seventy years in which former concepts of state identity had been largely erased by the Bolshevik imposition - left a range of alternative perceptions which included a hankering to rebuild lost empire, an instinct to look East and South, and a readiness to accept that the past was gone and that the future lay with the West. Though we discounted fears of further break-up, the long-term management of a vast territory with a highly-skewed distribution of population was moreover a formidable challenge, made no easier by the scars of the Chechnya episode, a consciousness of diminished international standing and an unease about porous borders.

These tasks of self-definition confronted a polity by no means yet a complete democracy - the election habit was well established, but both proper patterns of accountability and the genuine rule of law had a long way still to go. But the maturing process continued; Communism’s back had been broken, and most of us felt that the historic tolerance of the Russian people made the underlying advance robust. We were not wholly of one mind about how crucial President Yeltsin’s health and reformist orientation still were.

In this environment it was not altogether surprising, many participants thought, that external policy sometimes seemed erratic or inconsistent There was a healthy widening of discussion about these issues both inside and outside government, and in the near term the process inevitably reflected the ebb and flow of rival perceptions about the state.

We paused uneasily on the current condition, role and attitudes of Russia’s armed services. Morale was low, funding inadequate and reform difficult We doubted whether the military were an independent force in external relations, whether over the Caucasus or elsewhere, but there could be harmful repercussions on external behaviour if there were a real collapse of their confidence in the elected government

It was evident that the health of the economy remained utterly cardinal in the appraisal of policy prospects, especially in relationships with the “near abroad”. Some of our discussion was gloomy about this - all the key reforms left half-implemented, so one participant suggested; industrial production still falling; the collection of tax hugely uneven; continued export of capital, raw material and energy needed at home. The catalogue went on to include the burdens of crime and corruption, and the drug threat inherited largely from the fiasco in Afghanistan. But the pessimists did not command the field entirely, given Russia’s research-richness and resilience, even if it was perhaps hard at present to define the characteristics of a realistically-successful Russian economy. A market trading economy had sprung up, but not yet a market industrial economy. There seemed still too much aspiration to revive old industries; some governmental industrial policy was needed, but it was uncertain whether government would make (or could implement, especially out in the regions) the hard choices - letting the unpromising go to the wall - that were essential. This apart, what industry most needed now was better management; changed ownership alone was not enough to attract and exploit the massive investment that would be required. The West could help in developing the management alongside the investment, and perhaps also in tolerating a substantial degree of transitional protectionism.

The problem of relations between Moscow and the regions surfaced recurrently. It was right to recognise that the system of elected Governors had not had long to prove itself; but meanwhile links with the centre were at best unsystematic, and Moscow could not impose any consistent structure of rules for economic activity and external relationships. Some of the regions were operating almost autonomously in these matters, and their grasp and skill was uneven, though a few had demonstrated a vigorous realism in recognising what were their key trade interfaces.

It seemed clear that the concept of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was losing ground, even in Russia’s own priorities, though it might retain some value as a general forum. It was questioned whether Russia had yet truly learned to treat other CIS states as partners rather than vassals (and to recognise that weak neighbours could mean danger) but there seemed no sign of any general Russian desire to re-integrate the CIS - several of its members were weak entities of little economic interest to Russia, which could not wish to shoulder again the costs of empire. The reality, for Russia, lay more in a differentiated set of bilateral relationships managed according to specific conditions of economic interest (and, in instances such as Tajikistan, the threat of spreading disorder). CIS neighbours were themselves sometimes ambivalent about Russia’s role, wanting Russia to take particular responsibility for order but uneasy or complaining if it was exercised. Russia’s own domestic politics now generally weighed against the acceptance of further such responsibility, even in the Caucasus (where oil interests were perhaps tilting Russian policy towards Azeri rather than historic Armenian sympathy).

The problem of the Russian diaspora in other CIS states still existed, but re-immigration was reducing its scale - from twenty-five to seventeen million, one estimate claimed - and there seemed to be a growing willingness on all sides to live cooperatively. One potentially-worrying exception to this was Kazakhstan, where there seemed a drive to establish Kazakh identity as the mark of the state even though Russians were thirty percent and Kazakhs less than fifty percent of the population.

Among other neighbours, the clearest pressure for reintegration related to Belarus, though it presaged economic and managerial costs for Russia. Estonian-Russian relationships were being controlled fairly successfully - transit was commercially valuable to both parties - and we heard conjecture that the dispute about border delineation might be being maintained by Russia less for directly substantive reasons than as a useful impediment to Estonian membership of NATO. The most important interface, that with Ukraine, presented a mixed picture. The image of “cold peace” was suggested, and suspicion was voiced that Russia, or many Russians, still did not at heart accept Ukrainian independence. Nevertheless, and though Sevastopol remained an awkward issue, Russia had mostly shown a mature moderation over the Crimea; and trade links were highly important to both countries, despite Ukraine’s policy preference for looking increasingly westward. There remained scope for friction over the operational character of the border between Russia and Ukraine. It was, urged one participant, simply too early to look for a settled and Treaty-ratified all-round relationship between the two countries.

We surveyed relationships to the South rather more briefly. There remained considerable Russian suspicion of Turkey’s influence and intentions, especially in the Caucasus. The relationship with Iran was important for both political and economic reasons. It could, if healthy, be a helpful factor in Russia’s environment; and we heard a view that the West need see nothing negative in this, provided that it did not lead to any aid to Iranian nuclear aspirations. Further East, in the still-inchoate theatre of Inner Asia, the prime Russian interest seemed the avoidance of chaos; we were minded to doubt whether, especially given the secular character of the region’s societies, Russia did or should see much “Islamist” risk.

Should the West be worried about the apparent rapprochement between Russia and China? Not particularly, most of us were inclined to think. Russia was bound to want a calm relationship along so massive a border, and was having to accommodate to a near-reversal of role in which it found itself the weaker and the demandeur. It was notable that Jiang Zemin had pointedly refrained from echoing President Yeltsin’s recent description of the relationship as “strategic”. We observed, too, that China offered no alternative to the Western-style industrialised countries - such as Japan, or even perhaps Korea - as an economic partner, Chinese involvement was as a trader, not an investor.

We asked ourselves whether Russia should be viewed as a significant player in the Asia-Pacific region. In principle and potential Yes, we felt sure, but scarcely in current practice. While in the long run Russia - with the region’s longest Pacific coastline - could be significant for stability, Moscow scarcely seemed to have its gaze or its political grasp directed eastward, even if it could surmount a historic inclination to see itself in the region less as a belonger than as an imperial power.

We heard the familiar reminder of Siberia’s great natural resources - and also of its vestigial infrastructure and scanty population; the timescales for any profitable return on substantial investment were very long, even if (for example following some move of a major Russian corporation such as Lukoil into the region) local prejudice against “invasive” economic involvement could be broken down. Japan was often looked to as the natural prime investor; but even though the neuralgic issue of the disputed islands was politically in remission, the business opportunities compared very poorly with those further south.  

It would distort the balance of this note, despite the author’s predilections, to recount in extenso the vigorous exchanges we had on the high-profile current issue of NATO enlargement. It was clear - unsurprisingly in a gathering of this particular composition? - that the majority, even among Western participants, rather regretted that the enterprise had been embarked upon, and believed that whatever advantages it carried did not outweigh the negative effects to be expected both in the Russian domestic scene and in Russian external reaction. Most however accepted that the die was cast in respect of a first wave of entrants to be accepted at NATO’s Madrid summit in July. Most also believed that a substantial pause, and the development of a more widely coherent concept for any further moves, were needed thereafter, there was no security reason for urgency, and the metaphor of a vacuum should be rejected. Further dialogue with Russia on and around the matter should be conducted carefully and generously, though it was vigorously urged that the theme should be reassurance, not any sort of compensation, and that NATO should not seem to apologise or to accept Russian portrayals of enlargement’s adversarial meaning or claims of its dominating importance within overall relationships.

We recalled that continued interaction on nuclear issues - where Russia could still see herself as an actor of special status alongside the United States - must have a part to play in constructive relationships, even though the Duma might seem disinclined to attach much value to it; we suspected that it would be unwise to insist that START III could not advance until START II had been ratified. More general US/Russia cooperation - for example on the pattern of the efforts at collaboration overseen by Vice-President Gore and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin - might also contribute usefully.

We had time only to note briefly that the European Union and its major members had perhaps been less active and imaginative than they should in developing links in ways which Russia found reassuring and helpful, and which encouraged her to move away from preoccupation with security stereotypes of decreasing relevance in the modem world. For the West generally, both in individual and in collective relations such as the G8, it continued to be a matter of powerful self-interest, not altruism, to sustain dialogue with Russia in a style of sympathetic understanding and non-patronising respect, with patience and without over-reaction to inevitable rough passages. Russia’s task in identifying and locating herself after the post-Communist cataclysm was still an enormous one, and the timescales were bound to be long.     

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman : Sir Rodric Braithwaite GCMG            
Chairman, Morgan Grenfell Securities (Moscow); Ambassador to Russia, Georgia and Armenia (1988-92)


HE Ambassador Anne Leahy
Canadian Ambassador to Russia
Professor Jacques Lévesque
Founding Director, Département de Science Politique, University du Quebec
Dr Paul Marantz             
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia

Mr Sulev Kannike
Director General, Legal Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs  

Mr Rend Nyberg             
Deputy Director General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Mr Alexander Rondeli
Head, International Relations Department, Tbilisi State University

Dr Olga Alexandrova     
Research Fellow, Federal Institute for Russian, East European and International Studies, Cologne              
Dr Alexander Arnot
Ambassador to Ukraine, 1993-96, and to Hungary, 1989-93          
Dr Enno Barker 
Head, Caucasus and Central Asia Department, Federal Foreign Office
Dr Klaus Blech GCVO KCMG
Ambassador to Russia, 1989-93

Mr Kyoji Komachi          
Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Japan, Moscow
Ambassador Koji Watanabe
Ambassador to Russia, 1994-97 

Professor Wojtek Lamentowicz
Under Secretary of State and Foreign Policy Adviser to the President

Ms Oksana Antonenko 
Research Associate, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London
Mr Jamil Bashirov
Counsellor, Embassy of the Russian Federation, London
Dr Sergei A Karaganov  
Deputy Director, Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences
Mr Arkady Ostrovsky
Correspondent, Foreign Desk, Financial Times, London

Mr Alexander Levtchenko
Vice President, Ukrainian Centre for International Security Studies

Mr Ian Davidson             
Columnist, Financial Times
The Rt Hon Tim Eggar
Chairman, M W Kellogg Group Limited and AGIP(UK) Limited
Sir Brian Fall GCVO KCMG          
Principal, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford; Ambassador to Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Turkmenistan, 1992-95
Professor Peter Frank
Professor of Russian Politics, University of Essex
Mr Bill Hopkinson
Assistant Under-Secretary (Policy), Ministry of Defence
Professor Geoffrey Hosking FBA              
Professor of Russian History and Deputy Director, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London
Mr Ralph R Land CBE    
Director, European Strategy Board, ICL pic; Chairman, Russo-British Chamber of Commerce              
Sir Christopher Mallaby GCMG GCVO
Adviser to OBS and other companies; Ambassador to Germany, 1988-92, and to France, 1993-96
Mr David Powell
Deputy Chief, Assessment Staff, Cabinet Office
Dr Alex Pravda
Fellow and Director, Centre for Russian Studies, St Antony’s College, Oxford
Mr Francis Richards CMG CVO
Director (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Mr Xan Smiley
European Editor, The Economist
Sir Norman Wooding CBE
Director, British Nuclear Fuels pic; President, Russo-British Chamber of Commerce

Mr Joseph Condon
President, Condon International Group and Providence Capital, Russia
Dr Rose Gottemoeller
Deputy Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies
The Honorable Penn Kemble
Deputy Director, United States Information Agency
Professor Robert Legvold
Professor of Political Science, Averell Harriman Institute, Columbia University
Mr Thomas Lynch
Director for Russian Affairs, Department of State
Professor James R Millar
Director, Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University
Professor Martha Brill Olcott

Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington and Moscow