Russia's uneasy place in Europe

Kosovo crisis underlines Moscow's place as the Continent's perennial

History took a wrong turn at the end of the cold war and ended up in the deadly cul-de-sac of NATO's current war against Yugoslavia.

That, at least, is the overwhelming view in Moscow, where it is an article of faith that the West needs Russian diplomatic help to extract it from the Balkan quagmire. Any settlement, Russia believes, must be followed up with a sweeping revision of European security arrangements.

"The West was shocked by the intensity of Russian anger and indignation when NATO attacked Yugoslavia. But they shouldn't have been," says Viktor Levashov, a foreign-policy specialist at the Institute of Social and Political Studies in Moscow: "When the United States chose to ignore Russian hopes of partnership after the Soviet Union fell apart and decided to reshape Europe using NATO - a military alliance - as their instrument, the stage was set for disaster."

As the Balkan conflict grinds on - despite yesterday's unconfirmed announcement by Belgrade of a partial troop withdrawal from Kosovo - tragic mistakes like NATO's attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade appear to deepen Russian fear and resentment. Opinion polls show two-thirds of respondents now see the Western alliance as "a direct threat to Russian security."

"Our attitude toward the West over the past decade has been a long fall, from euphoria to disenchantment," says Georgi Shakhnazarov, a Kremlin foreign-policy adviser under former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. "Everybody thought the West would help us, teach us, bring us into its superior way of life. Now increasing numbers of Russians believe the US and other countries conspired to destroy the Soviet Union, to wreck our economy and reduce us to third-world status."

The West's efforts to forge a new security order in Europe are seen as a chain of lies and power grabs at Moscow's expense.

"Russia was told we would always be consulted on European security matters, that our permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council ensured our role," says Pavel Felgenhauer, military expert with the liberal daily Segodnya. "With this war the Security Council is shoved aside and NATO is attacking a sovereign state, a traditional friend of Russia," Mr. Felgenhauer says. "What do we believe now?"

Many in the West find this attitude baffling. Russia is seen as a wayward and often obstructionist power that pleads for Western loans to shore up its bankrupt economy and then snarls angrily - even threatens World War III - when the US and its allies intervene in Iraq or the former Yugoslavia.

Moscow's post-cold-war record is one of constantly demanding to be treated as a great power, but offering only grudging and belated help when the international community faces problems like Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's brutal "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovar Albanians.

Javier Solana, NATO's secretary-general, complained last week that Russia's stubborn refusal to be a team player may even have aggravated the Balkan crisis. "If Russia had been firmer along with the European countries that were putting all the pressure [on Yugoslavia] ... we would have saved a lot of tragedy," he said in an interview on Spanish television May 3.

Moscow has moved, however, from uncritical support for Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic at the war's outset to looking more presentable as a potential mediator between the two sides.

In addition, Russia's special envoy for Kosovo, Viktor Chernomyrdin, traveled to Beijing yesterday, where he is expected to try to calm Chinese ire over the embassy bombing and seek to coordinate efforts to end the Kosovo crisis.

In pursuing its own agenda on Yugoslavia, however, Russia may just be resuming its traditional place on the fringe of Europe - looking in with a peculiar mixture of fear and admiration, envy and disdain.

Despite many efforts to assimilate Western economic and technological dynamism throughout its history, Russia has always regarded itself as fundamentally - and proudly - different.

"Western Christians have no knowledge of that sort of community which belongs to the Russians," the early 20th-century political philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote, pointing to Russia's historic suffering, collectivism, and deep spirituality.

The strains that erupted over the Balkan war have their roots in the post-cold-war illusion that Russia could be easily integrated into the Western economic and political system. "Historically and geopolitically Russia is doomed to be a Eurasian power," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the liberal Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "Russia's national interests and its point of view on the world are simply not compatible with the West," he says. "The solution is to work constructively with Russia, to draw it into partnership wherever possible, but not expect it to become just another Western country anytime soon."

RUSSIA'S future relations with Europe may depend on whether it can cooperate with the West in forging a Balkan settlement and then move on to a broader search for new and more effective global security arrangements.

"Of course Russia must play this role and help to resolve that very dangerous situation. But that is not enough," says Mr. Shakhnazarov, the former Kremlin aide. He says it is necessary to return to the moment the cold war ended and seek the path not taken. "Ten years ago there were so many constructive and creative ideas about how to create an open, cooperative, and inclusive European security system, with the United Nations as the highest authority. We need to go back to those ideas and find the formula that will cement Russia as a full and equal member of our common European home," he says.

"I'm afraid if the West goes ahead and imposes its will by force on Yugoslavia, then we are headed for a new cold war."

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