Yeltsin's Little Haitis

At Washington summit, Russian leader hopes to press case for intervening in `near abroad'

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin arrives in the United States today for an official visit. But his visit has been almost totally lost amid official Washington's preoccupation with Haiti.

Given his predilection to hold center stage, Mr. Yeltsin might be expected to feel less than happy by this turn of events. But from a Russian point of view, the timing of his visit could not be better.

However unintended, the US intervention in Haiti lends considerable support to Russia's insistence on preeminence in the region of the former Soviet Union. Moscow's foreign-policy priority is to reassert geopolitical control over what once was its empire and, in the process, compel the West to acknowledge this as Russia's legitimate ``sphere of influence.'' With some justification, Moscow can point to its own military ``peacekeeping'' interventions in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia as equivalent to the US role in Haiti.

Moscow already makes similar claims of national-security interests in deploying its forces into civil wars in the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Georgia, and Moldova, and for its plans to send troops to Azerbaijan. As the US has with Haiti, Russia argues that it is acting to bring peace and order to conflict-racked regions, to ensure stability on its borders, and to halt the flow of refugees across its borders.

President Clinton gave a verbal OK to this notion last January during his visit to Russia. In a televised speech, he compared Russia's intervention in Georgia's civil war to US actions in Grenada and Panama. His remarks drew considerable attention in Moscow, including from some US officials who rightly feared that the comments would be seen as giving the Russians carte blanche to intervene in the former Soviet republics. The White House subsequently tried to repair the damage. The US has blocked attempts to provide United Nations status to Russian forces in places such as Georgia and Tajikistan. Questions have been raised about whether Russian forces there are peacekeepers or are asserting Moscow's control over these new nations. The Russians have been pressed to carry these operations out within the bounds of standard international practice, placing forces under UN or some other multinational command.

A key sensitive point now is the war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia is ready to introduce troops to police a shaky cease-fire, but the combatants, particularly Azerbaijan, are wary of reintroducing the Russian Army into the region. Acting through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), Western nations are quietly trying to create a multinational force; but their readiness to commit forces and resources is less than evident. Moscow, impatient over the pace of events, is pressing to gain international approval for its presence.

Now Moscow can point to Haiti as a precedent. The US, acting in its own backyard, has wrapped an essentially US intervention in international colors. UN resolutions are cited to justify the introduction of military force. US troops are to be supplemented by the nominal presence of other nations, largely drawn from the surrounding region.

Moscow has done no less. In Georgia, UN observers monitor Russian troops enforcing a cease-fire between Georgia and the rebel region of Abkhazia. UN observers are taking up positions on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border to monitor a Russian-mediated cease-fire between the Tajik government and Islamic rebel forces. And Moscow has stated it is ready to accept CSCE observers once its forces go in around Karabakh.

In these cases, as in Haiti, Moscow can claim to be implementing UN resolutions, even if the UN itself does not command the peacekeeping forces. Similarly, the Russians claim ``international'' backing by carrying out their peacekeeping operations in the name of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the 12-nation group of former Soviet republics. Earlier this spring, in a little-noticed move, Russia got the commonwealth accepted as an official observer organization at the UN.

Yeltsin's decision to begin his visit with a speech today to the UN General Assembly is a calculated gesture. The Russian government is eager to have the UN embrace its role as a ``peacekeeper'' in the former Soviet Union. And as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia is able to act within the UN context as a great power, key to the solution of crises from Bosnia to the Middle East.

The US response to all of this has been ambiguous, even during the Bush administration. At times, the US has signaled a willingness, even a preference, for Russia to guarantee stability within the territory of the former Soviet Union. At other times, the US has appeared to believe that a reas-sertion of Russian domination, even if not a renewed empire, would undermine democratization within Rus-sia and the broader pro-spects for European security.

These concerns were reflected in the quiet-but-effective US role in mediating the agreements to withdraw all Russian troops from Latvia and Estonia this summer. Similarly, the Group of Seven industrial nations offered substantial economic aid to Ukraine at their July sum-mit in Naples - provided that the former Soviet republic implements serious market reforms.

But the US readiness to involve itself more actively in strengthening the independence of these nations and to seek limits on Russian tendencies to dominate its former empire is severely limited - by a lack of resources and by an absence of public support for a more active US role. But behind these constraints is the failure to articulate a clear US national interest in the non-Russian parts of the former Soviet Union.

Under these circumstances, Yeltsin is poised to collect his Haitian bonus in Washington. If the US is not ready to accept the parallel, then Clinton must say so, privately and publicly.

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