Published February 1, 1994
Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev has also been making increasingly assertive statements in recent months. He has claimed “the entire geographic area of the former USSR” as a “sphere of vital interest to Russia” and has sought international recognition of Russia as the successor state to the former Soviet Union, so that a “distinctive zone … of good neighborly relations and cooperation” would be maintained around Russia—a zone presumably to be policed by the Russian military. But even more ominously, Kozyrev has hinted at times that Russia’s “special and exclusive sphere of influence” in what Russians call the “near abroad” may extend beyond the CIS and the former USSR into central and eastern Europe, i.e., into the nations of the old Warsaw Pact.
In August of last year, well before the Zhirinovsky phenomenon burst onto the Russian and international scene, Kozyrev, in an interview with the Polish Press Agency, argued that “east central Europe has never ceased to be an area of interest for Russia.” And on the basis of this (historically dubious) analysis, he not only warned the new democracies of east central Europe not to join NATO; he also admonished them not to form an alliance among themselves, like the pre-World War II “little entente” of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia. States like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary ought not “become a new ‘little entente,'” said Kozyrev, “a buffer, which could be crushed at any time.” The choice of the word “crushed” does not seem especially heartening; nor does the suggestion that Russia is willing to enforce its preferences in these matters unilaterally, and even militarily, if necessary.
Perhaps this is the “bad cop” half of a good cop/bad cop routine; but if so, President Yeltsin’s “good cop” turns out, on closer inspection, to have some rather rough edges. In a letter on possible NATO expansion addressed to the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany, Yeltsin proposed what appeared to be a Revised Standard Version of Yalta, in which “we [Russia] would be willing—together with NATO—to officially offer them [the countries of east central Europe] security guarantees,” which would, however, “be enshrined in a political declaration or a treaty on cooperation between the Russian Federation and NATO.” In other words, Yalta II: another decision taken, as the Czechs used to say about Munich, “about us, without us.” Yeltsin claimed, in his letter, to have overcome the traditional fear of an aggressive NATO; but what he gave with one hand he proceeded to take away with the other, arguing that “not only the opposition but also moderate circles will, undoubtedly, view [NATO expansion] as a new kind of isolation for our country”—which is to say, a new kind of threat to Russia and its interests.
Taking the full measure of these disturbing trends does not imply that the United States should abandon its support for President Yeltsin forthwith. But it does suggest that our policy should be informed by a far more sober reading of the components of the Yeltsin coalition, which seems to include forces that can properly be described as neo-imperialist. In other words, we have to stop thinking that the danger of a new Russian imperialism is solely derived from Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his fellow fanatics. The assertion of a Yalta-style Russian sphere of influence in central and Eastern Europe has taken place on Boris Yeltsin’s watch, and has been articulated by some of his major supporters. How much of this reflects Yeltsin’s own convictions, and how much of it is the result of trade-offs he has had to make to retain his position as head of the party of democratic and market reform, is hard to assess. But whatever the explanation, these dynamics can no longer be ignored.
For, in addition to the institutional interests they reflect (like those of the military and the foreign ministry), these neo-imperialist currents in Russia also are expressions of an ancient Russian nervousness about the West. That nervousness, which has ebbed and flowed over the course of modern Russian history, may now be flowing again because of the large-scale dislocations caused by the collapse of the Communist regime. But however we account for it, the hard fact remains that, in the recent Russian parliamentary elections, over 50 per cent of the votes for parties went to avowedly and determinedly anti-Western forces: Zhirinovsky’s neo-fascists and the ex-Communists. As Dr. Johnson said about the imminent prospect of being hanged, this ought to concentrate our minds, wonderfully.
And it ought to concentrate them on strategy, not merely on day-to-day and week-to-week tactics.
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.