So, yes, by all means, let us move ahead with aid to Russia and support for economic and political reform there. But that aid and support must not be perceived in Moscow as a sign of explicit or tacit consent to new Russian imperial adventures, a new Russian military aggressiveness, or a reassertion of a Russian “sphere of influence” that would effectively redivide Europe along the old Yalta faultline. Unhappily, it seems that such Western permission slips may have been given, and accepted as such by Russia’s leaders, in recent months.
This concern will be regarded as incredible, even hysterical, by those who believe Russia is so caught up in its own post-Communist transformation that it has neither the time nor the power to assert itself beyond its present borders. Or, if such a concern arises at all in the West, it tends to be attached to the recent rise of the ultranationalist and neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Alas, hard evidence points in a more worrisome direction: that there are dreams of imperial revival, not simply among extremists of the Zhirinovsky persuasion, but within the forces currently aligned with Boris Yeltsin.
One example can be found in the new statement of official Russian military doctrine published this past November, presumably under the authority of those military leaders who helped rescue Yeltsin’s regime in early October. Among other things, the document revokes the former USSR’s “no first use” of nuclear weapons pledge, and reserves for Russia the right to launch a nuclear response, not just against a conventional attack by a nuclear-armed state, but also against a conventional attack by a non-nuclear state that has an alliance agreement with a nuclear-armed state. We may be reasonably sure that this not altogether subtle message was received, as intended, in Turkey; but it also served as a warning to Poland and other central European states not to join NATO.
The document also warns of the “considerable” danger that “local wars” on the borders of today’s Russia (but within the boundaries of the old USSR) “might be used as an excuse” by “other states” to launch a general war against the Russian heartland— language that revs up (or, at the very least, cynically manipulates) the old bogey of a NATO attack on Russia. Moreover, the document takes a rather enlarged view of Russian national interest, defining any suppression of the “rights, freedoms and legitimate interests” of the 25 million members of the Russian diaspora in the countries that once composed the USSR, not simply as a national concern, but as a direct military threat to Russia itself. Further, the document commits Russia to the maintenance of peace within the member-countries of the post-USSR Confederation of Independent States (CIS): a commitment that may include a tacit assertion of the right to maintain Russian military forces in those countries, even against their “host’s” will.
James Sherr of Lincoln College, Oxford, and Sandhurst’s Conflict Studies Research Center, who analyzed these developments for the Wall Street Journal, suggests that this new assertiveness on the part of the Russian military may have been the result of a policy default by the Russian foreign ministry: by focusing so heavily on the West during the immediate post-Communist period, the foreign ministry may have left a policy vacuum toward the CIS states that the military was not reluctant to fill. But even if that turns out to have been the case, it is also true that the foreign ministry itself has not been slow to pick up the new tune. Thus a December foreign-ministry document argues, according to Sherr, “that Russia must be the ‘leader of stability and security on the entire territory of the former USSR,’ and that it should pursue a ‘divide and influence policy’ using force where necessary ‘to achieve firm good neighborliness.’
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.