NATO's collateral damage in Russia

Bombing of Serbs strengthens militant anti-Western forces and threatens

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Although few in Washington have noticed, US-Russian relations have entered a new era with the NATO bombing of Serbia.

Before Serbia, anti-Americanism in Russia was an elite sentiment. After Serbia, anti-Americanism is rapidly becoming a populist cause that penetrates every segment of Russian society, including most ominously, young people. The Clinton administration should not be lured into complacency by official Russian statements pledging continued cooperation with the West. While Russia's rulers may adhere to the pragmatism of continued engagement with the US, they could quickly become prisoners of popular anti-American hysteria. After all, Russia will elect a new parliament this year and a new president next year. Before permanent damage is done, US officials must rethink engagement strategy with Russia.

Anti-American sentiment in Russia is nothing new. What is new about this crisis is who is now joining the anti-American chorus. Traditionally, Russia's foreign policy elite rant about US hegemony while Russian grandmothers show up at anti-American demonstrations. But last week it was young people throwing beer bottles at the US embassy in Moscow and organizing university teach-ins. In a first, Russian yuppies have joined skinheads in protesting against US "hegemony." Burned by the financial meltdown last August, Russia's young elite may no longer believe their future is best served by Western integration.

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Communist and nationalist leaders, of course, couldn't be more pleased. NATO bombs dropping on their Serbian brothers give them great footage for their campaign clips for the upcoming parliamentary election. Every Russian pollster and campaign consultant I've talked to predicts that the NATO bombing will enhance the electoral prospects of communists and openly fascist groups and revive the waning career of neonationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. President Boris Yeltsin also welcomes this new burst of anti-Americanism as it diverts attention from impeachment proceedings and corruption charges levied against his administration and family.

This new situation within Russia is dire. If militant anti-Western forces sweep into power after the next elections, Russian democracy may falter, economic reform will halt, and US-Russian relations will take a dramatic turn for the worse. To limit the damage, the administration must rethink its strategy of engagement with Russia. The battle for Russia has moved from the diplomatic hallways to the streets of Moscow. The US strategy for engagement must respond to this new battlefield terrain.

In the short run, US officials must articulate clearly and often the reasoning behind NATO actions in Yugoslavia. Western officials (preferably from European NATO members) should appear on Russian TV, write articles for Russian papers, and meet frequently with Russian leaders to explain NATO's mission in Serbia. Of course, the immediate reaction will be overwhelmingly negative. Saying nothing, however, fuels the belief that the US has a secret, sinister plot to destroy Serbia today and Russia tomorrow. If US officials don't explain their policy, Russian fascists will do it for them.

In the medium run, US officials must take very seriously the Russian mission to mediate between NATO and Serbia. Although Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's attempt to broker peace with Iraq in 1991 was a disaster, this is a different kind of war and a different Primakov. As prime minister of a country on the verge of economic collapse, he knows he can't defy the West for the simple pleasure of defying the West. He has real financial interests in maintaining engagement with the West.

If a new round of peace negotiations begins, the Russians must be given a higher profile in the process. Russia or Ukraine should be the location of the next set of peace negotiations. NATO officials should even consider working with Russian troops in a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo if a peace settlement is reached.

In the long run, the US must reinvigorate its training and exchange programs targeted at Russia's youth. The US should fund thousands - not hundreds - of Russian students to study at American universities. Likewise short-term youth exchanges should be increased dramatically and immediately - our best propaganda for Western values is the American system and the American people.

If Russia's 18-year-olds turn against the US, then the NATO campaign in Serbia will truly have undermined the most important US strategic interest of this decade - Russian reintegration into the West.

*Michael McFaul is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, and a professor of political science at Stanford University in California.

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