Reading Russia's motives

Tiff over troops in Kosovo signals Yeltsin's determination not to be an

Eight years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US and Russia remain a wary couple with a fragile relationship.

Typically, just when Washington thinks things are going great, Russia - bam - does something to remind US officials that it isn't willing to be a demure partner.

Thus the race of Russian peacekeeping troops into Kosovo is in keeping with the recent pattern of interaction between Moscow and the West.

This cycle of hope and disappointment is likely to continue in coming months, with the emphasis on disappointment. The reason: Coming elections in both nations may set political limits on what either can offer in the way of reconciliation.

"Confrontation is not entirely over," says Ruth Wedgewood, a

senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Russia still has a kind of unpredictable streak when it feels cornered."

The swirling end to the Kosovo crisis has been an accurate reflection of what one expert calls the "Clinton-Yeltsin bargain" over the US-Russia relationship.

President Clinton's side of the bargain is that he goes out of his way to provide Russia a place at the table in big power discussions. That will be in evidence this weekend, when Mr. Clinton is scheduled to meet President Yeltsin at a Group of Eight summit in Cologne, Germany.

Russia's military and economic weaknesses might have allowed Washington to ignore its wishes. Instead, Clinton "has actively sought to integrate Russia into Europe, to bolster Russia," said James Goldgeier, a Brookings Institution visiting fellow in foreign policy, at a press briefing last week.

In return, Mr. Yeltsin has essentially gone along with the substance of what the West wants, on issue after issue. He grudgingly did not stand in the way of NATO expansion from 16 to 19 nations. His personal envoy played a key role in persuading Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to give in and allow an international peacekeeping force to occupy Kosovo.

The Yeltsin government appears to accept that it does not have a veto over Western strategic policies. But it also believes that it retains a voice in how those actions are implemented. Thus, the dash of 200 Russian troops to the airport in Pristina may be, in essence, Russia's way of saying it will be heard.

"This is a shot across the bow to say they want to be involved," says Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute here. "To some extent they have a point. We ignored them until the air campaign didn't look like it was going all that well."

Moscow's point of view may be that the peacekeeper move follows years of frustration. Russian political elites took great affront at the expansion of NATO right up to their border. Now NATO has bombed Yugoslavia, with which Russia has long-standing ties, with impunity. Ordinary Russian citizens, not just Kremlin habitus, are upset.

"This was the first issue that went beyond the political elite and filtered down into the population ... as something that was wrong for the West to do, and that Russia could not do much to stop," says Mr. Goldgeier of Brookings.

That means the next leader of Russia may be markedly more anti-American, and anti-NATO, than Yeltsin is. Russian elections are next summer - only months before the US vote.

Domestic political pressures may mean that neither side will want to appear to be giving in to the other. Kosovo, in the end, may turn out to be more important to the US as an influence on US-Russia relations than as a NATO humanitarian action.

And Russia still has nuclear weapons, although not as many as it used to.

"We have to be extremely careful," says John Curtis Perry, a professor of diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "What is Russia's role going to be in eastern Europe, particularly in the Slavic states?'

Some experts, in fact, say the contingent of Russian troops in Pristina means that a large change has already occurred in the US-Russia relationship - and one that is for the worse.

The Clinton goal of a strategic partnership between the former adversaries is now dead, says Daniel Goure, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "What you are now seeing is the emergence of great powers competing over the Balkans," he says. "And by the way, that's what gotten us into a couple of world wars."

The Clinton team has ignored Russian attitudes once too often, says Mr. Goure. "This needs to be treated far more seriously than the administration is taking it," he says.

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