Chapter 3 Preface


For forty years after World War II, the United States viewed Russia—as the central part of the Soviet Union—as the world’s leading threat both to U.S. interests and to world peace. In an October 1999 speech at Harvard University, deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott noted that “when Russia was the core of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, it posed a threat to us because of its size; its military might; its habit of intimidating and suppressing others; its doctrinal and geopolitical drive to extend its power on a global scale; . . . its hostility to American interests and values. That was the Russia whose strength we confronted and contained.”

The collapse of the Soviet Communist dictatorship profoundly changed the nature of Russia’s influence on the outside world. Russia’s hold on Eastern Europe has been broken, and its once-formidable military machine has shrunk. The size of the Russian armed forces decreased from its peak of more than 5 million members to 1.2 million in 1999. Russia has changed from being a military superpower to an economically weak developing nation—albeit one with nuclear weapons. “Russia has gone from being a strong state to a weak state” concludes Talbott.

However, he and others note that Russia’s weaknesses have created their own set of problems. The weakness of the Russian government in enforcing laws has assisted the rise of organized criminals whose activities have expanded to other nations. The debilitated state of Russia’s military establishment has caused concern over its ability to control Russia’s remaining nuclear arsenal and prevent weapons and materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. The viewpoints in the following chapter examine some of the ways in which Russia might yet remain a threat to its neighbors and to the rest of the world.

Russia Poses an Expansionist Threat

In the upcoming [June 1996] Russian election, attention has inevitably focused on the competition between President Boris Yeltsin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. But whatever the outcome, America’s Russia policy requires an urgent reappraisal. If Zyuganov wins, such a reassessment is inevitable. But a Yeltsin victory, too, would impose a new approach. For even under Yeltsin, Russia is pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign policy, which already opposes American notions of world order in many parts of the world.

The administration will have no choice but to disenthrall itself from the flawed premises of its Russia policy: the conceptual misapprehension of the nature of the Cold War and its overemphasis on personalities. Many policymakers of Clinton’s generation hold the view that the United States has its own heavy responsibility for the Cold War, which they believe could have been avoided had the United States pursued a policy of reassurance rather than of confrontation toward the Soviet Union. As a result, Clinton’s Russia policy has emphasized domestic reform and psychological engineering. It has concentrated on promoting internal change and on reassuring the Russian leadership rather than seeking to influence Russia’s actions outside its borders.

Because Yeltsin is viewed as the guarantor of market economics, democracy and peaceful international conduct, Clinton has attended more summits with him than he has with any other foreign leader and with a far greater show of personal warmth. Though the president has never visited Beijing or invited a Chinese leader to the White House, he has been to Moscow three times and has met with Yeltsin on American soil twice (in addition to meetings at the annual economic summits of industrialized nations). Yet despite these efforts, Yeltsin has embarked on foreign policies which differ only in degree from those urged by Zyuganov, perhaps to stave off the Communists—which have become the largest political party in Russia—or perhaps acting on the basis of his own convictions.

The relationship between market economics and democracy— and between democracy and a peaceful foreign policy- is not nearly so automatic as Washington has postulated. In Western Europe, the process of democratization took centuries and did not prevent a series of catastrophic wars. In Russia, which has no tradition of capitalism and participated neither in the Reformation, the Enlightenment nor the Age of Discovery, this evolution is likely to be particularly ragged. Indeed, the early stages of the process may provide incentives for leaders to mobilize domestic support by appeals to nationalism.

Yeltsin himself is hardly cast in a Jeffersonian mold. Nearly his entire adult life has been devoted to serving the Communist Party—a career to which the gentle-hearted have rarely gravitated. In his rise through its ranks, Yeltsin surely had little exposure to pluralistic principles. And while he was courageous in concluding that the moribund and inefficient Communist Party was doomed, Yeltsin has shown few signs since that democratic values, including acceptance of dissent, are a central part of his value system. In short, equating foreign policy with Russian domestic politics has unnecessarily identified America in the minds of too many Russians with the weird Russian hybrid of black markets, reckless speculation, outright criminal activity and a state capitalism in which big industrial combines are run by their erstwhile Communist managers in the guise of privatization.

This has enabled Russian nationalists and Communists to claim that the entire system is a fraud perpetrated by the West to keep Russia weak. Failure to recognize these realities has caused the administration to emphasize objectives that require a long period of time to evolve, and to neglect matters that need to be shaped in the present.

Our reliance on Yeltsin has lured us into endorsing, if not actually encouraging, such high-handed actions as the military assault on the Russian Parliament and the dismissal of the Russian Constitutional Court—acts difficult to reconcile with democratic pretensions, whatever the provocation. The assumption that Yeltsin must be coddled explains why American high officials, including the president, justified Russian pressures on the newly independent states of the Caucasus as being comparable to American actions in the Caribbean. It is presumably also why they felt it reasonable to compare the Russian military campaign in Chechnya to the American Civil War.

The obsession with participating in Russian domestic politics undermines our ability to conduct a foreign policy geared to the external conduct of the Russian state. Yet it is precisely the external actions of Russia that present the greatest challenge to international stability. And, paradoxically, the very domestic drama of which we have made ourselves too much a party provides some of the incentive for Russian adventurism.

Foreign policy has emerged as the deus ex machina for Russia’s elite to escape present-day frustrations by evoking visions of a glorious past. Russia has always displayed a unique set of characteristics—especially when compared to its European neighbors. Extending over 11 time zones, Russia (even in its present, post-Soviet form) contains the largest land-mass of any contemporary state. St. Petersburg is closer to New York than it is...

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Russia Does Not Pose an Expansionist Threat

An ambition, inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions which could only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and could only find nourishment in the miseries of a whole nation, ferments in the heart of the Russian people. That nation, essentially aggressive, greedy under the influence of privation, expiates beforehand, by a debasing submission, the design of exercising a tyranny over other nations: the glory, the riches which it hopes for, consoles it for the disgrace to which it submits. To purify himself from the foul and impious sacrifice of all public and personal liberty, the slave, upon his knees, dreams of the conquest of the world.

—The Marquis de Custine, Russia in 1839

During the Cold War, Americans by and large forgot [French author] Custine, perhaps the grumpiest tourist and most scathing vilifier of Russia who ever wrote. Locked in conflict with a totalitarian state, we thought that the main reason the Soviet Union made trouble for us, and for the world at large, was that it was not a democracy. Take away Bolshevik ideology, the command economy, and the power of the Politburo, and you’d be a long way toward normalcy. Dissolve the Warsaw Pact, slash military spending, give the non-Russian republics their independence, and it would be hard to see what we might fight about. Adopt a constitution, end censorship, respect religious freedom, hold elections, then hold more elections: Could a country that did all these things really be a threat?

Apparently, yes. Political institutions, we are now told, solve much less than was once imagined. They do not address deep psychic and socio-cultural torments, and legions of new Custines have begun to argue that for Russians no torment is deeper than that of being a fallen superpower—unless perhaps it is that of being a fallen superpower while also undergoing the transition to a market economy. In any case, the pain is excruciating and is said to be relieved only by an increasingly belligerent foreign policy, ideally by re-establishment of the Soviet Empire. . . .

The Diagnosis
An exceptionally diverse group of analysts and political commentators subscribes to some version of the diagnosis just set forth. It is embraced by those who were the most ardent critics of the Soviet order and those who are trying their best to restore it, by lowly working journalists and eminent former officials. Despite their differences, they agree on this: Russian imperial consciousness is not dead. To the contrary, writes Richard Pipes, perhaps our greatest historian of Russia, the loss of empire “has produced bewilderment and anguish.”

[N]othing so much troubles many Russians today, not even the decline in their living standards or the prevalence of crime, and nothing so lowers in their eyes the prestige of their government, as the precipitous loss of great-power status.

Anatoly Lukyanov . . . (a leader of the revived Russian Communist Party) seconds this view. “We communists,” he has said (this is an admission he would hardly have made in the old days, when good communists despised bourgeois liberties), “always understood perfectly well that the Soviet man, the citizen of Russia, had fewer political rights than a European. But that shortfall was compensated for by the sense of belonging to a great nation, a great state.” [Russian president Boris] Yeltsin undid this formula, thereby making Russian democracy vulnerable to a communist revanche.

He took away that sense of world importance. Any party which takes advantage of this today will be on top. That is why the communists have so many patriotic slogans, slogans of statehood, of nationhood.

The reason that popular government does not mean peace, in short, is that the people don’t necessarily want peace; they want to be on top again. As [former secretary of state] Henry Kissinger has put it, “[W]hat passes for Russian democracy too often encourages an expansionist foreign policy.” Yeltsin can hardly let the Communists be the only ones to tap the people’s mood, so he ends up taking positions that “differ only in degree from those urged by Zyuganov,” his Communist challenger in the June [1996] presidential race. As one measure of how domestic political pressures work, Russia is now inclined “to conduct adventurous policies in Asia for no other purpose than to augment its prestige.”

For Kissinger, this mad preoccupation with “ancient glories” is no mere election-season phenomenon, but something more durable—and more dangerous. “Foreign policy,” he announces, “has emerged as the deus ex machina for Russia’s elite to escape present-day frustrations by evoking visions of a glorious past.” . . .

Toward a Second Opinion
The mere fact that our leading foreign-policy commentators have started to talk like therapists does not, of course, prove that they are wrong. But the mode of analysis is, to say the least, a little unusual—not least because it is so often combined with a vehement insistence that U.S. policy toward Russia must not be, as Henry Kissinger himself put it years ago, “a subdivision of psychiatry.” Let us therefore try to verify the diagnosis.

The geotherapists assert the following four propositions. First, that public opinion creates irresistible pressures, to which Russian leaders have to respond, for an expansionist foreign policy. Second, that the Russian elite retains a strong imperial mindset and, in particular, is determined to regain control of the old Soviet Union. Third, that Russian leaders are dangerously preoccupied with questions of prestige and status, and believe that in the past these were their country’s proudest asset. And fourth, that the indulgent attitude of the West, and above all the United States, toward Russia, even when it defies us, is making all these pathologies worse. (There are, it has to be said, some differences among the various commentators who argue this case. Some feel more strongly about one proposition than another. But we will be in a better position to decide how seriously to take these little nuances once we see whether even one of the propositions stands up.)

Evaluating these four claims should not be hard. A patient in such terrible shape is going to give daily proof of how much is wrong with him. If Russia really were as sick as this, we should find useful evidence everywhere we look—in domestic struggles for political power, in the conduct of foreign policy, in the strategic concepts embraced by officialdom and the intelligentsia. Do we?

The Traumatized Public
The Russian political system lacks legitimacy; it can’t deliver bread, only imperial circuses; expansionism, and expansionism alone, diverts the popular mind from its misery. For symptoms of this problem, we can start with the recent [June 1996] presidential campaign—a political event that in many countries does bring neuroses to the surface. Boris Yeltsin, it should be remembered, ran for reelection on the basis of a dual strategy, and it was often a quite unedifying sight. On those issues where the Communists had him on the defensive, he pandered and dissembled. Hence his promises to pay all back wages and to end the war in Chechnya. At the same time, on those issues where he had them on the defensive, Yeltsin turned up the pressure. Hence his lurid evocations of the Communist past and policy initiatives, like his decree on private land ownership, that were meant to frame the election as a choice between politicians who accept the new order and those who don’t.

Now, where did imperial nostalgia fit into this strategy? Leave aside for the moment the fact that those candidates who put nationalist themes at the center of their campaign lost badly, and that exit polls put the number of voters who were swayed by foreign policy at only 2 percent. If the geotherapists were right about the country’s mental state, we should have seen Yeltsin scrambling to prove that he is part of the revisionist patriotic consensus. Instead, we saw him use foreign policy as a tool to demonstrate the differences between himself and the Communists, and to remind voters of what they don’t want to retrieve from their “glorious” past.

The issue was not simply a matter of rhetoric and mood, but of conflict between the legislature and the executive. On March 15, 1996, the Russian parliament passed two Communist-sponsored resolutions annulling the acts under which the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. It declared that the agreement to create a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in place of the USSR “did not and does not have legal force,” and charged that the officials who had “prepared, signed, and ratified” this decision had “flagrantly violated the wish of Russia’s people to preserve the USSR.”

With this bold move, the opposition clearly thought that they had Yeltsin trapped. On the one hand, he could hardly endorse a resolution that personally denounced him. On the other, opposing it would put him on the wrong side of a supposedly supercharged issue. As things turned out, however, the Duma’s action proved to be the moment when Yeltsin’s campaign got on a winning track for good. It gave the president and his allies their first, best opportunity to persuade voters that the Communists really were bent on restoring the old order. Yeltsin called the resolution “scandalous” and, showing that he had no fear of seeming too attentive to foreign opinion, immediately instructed Russian diplomats to tell other governments that the vote would have no effect.

There is a Moscow witticism that goes: Anyone who does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart; anyone who wants to restore it has no brain. The Communists bet that people...

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The Proliferation of Russian Nuclear Weapons Is a Serious Global Threat

“It was an arrest that should have been reason for rejoicing.”

Turkish customs agents in Istanbul arrested eight men Sept. 7 [1998] on charges of smuggling nuclear material from the former Soviet Union.

Posing as buyers, the agents seized about 5.4 kilograms of uranium 235 and 7.1 grams of plutonium powder.

The material was being peddled for $1 million (U.S.) by three men from Kazakhstan, one from Azerbaijan, and four from Turkey. One suspect was a colonel in the Kazakh army.

While the seizure kept nuclear material out of the hands of rogue states or terrorists, the incident once again raised the spectre of terrorists—or an outlaw nation—detonating a primitive nuclear device....

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The Threat of Russia- Sponsored Nuclear Proliferation Is Exaggerated

Since the Soviet collapse, the American public has been bombarded with the “loose nukes” myth. It maintains that Russian nuclear weapons and materials are leaking to terrorists or rogue states such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, or North Korea.

Despite warnings from the Clinton Administration; in the last [104th] Congress from Senators Sam Nunn (D.- Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R.-Ind.); the Russian government; editorial pages; the Central Intelligence Agency; a General Accounting Office report released in March, 1996; and testimony before the Senate Government Affairs Subcommittee that same month, the “loose nukes” myth survives. Nevertheless, it is not credible, for several reasons:

Fissile materials are not...

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The Russian Mafia Is a Serious Threat to the United States

I The director of a small, lucrative Moscow real estate brokerage firm once explained to me why he avoided paying taxes. It wasn’t just the high rates, then approaching 40%, he said. What particularly worried him was the requirement to provide a statement of income to state bureaucrats, whom he feared would pass on the information to local Mafia lords. He knew what would happen then—a demand for an increase in the protection rate he was already paying to the same armed groups in order to remain alive in the city’s Wild West economy.

That was in 1993, less than a year after the introduction of “capitalism” to the new Russian state. Things have only gotten more sophisticated since then. This week [in September...

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There Is No Russian Mafia Threat in the United States

Wanting to make familiar what is unfamiliar is a generally acknowledged phenomenon. One result of this is a tendency on the part of some in law enforcement and the media to too readily adopt simplistic, stereotyped perceptions. This has certainly been true in the case of Soviet émigré crime, where the term Russian mafia has been loosely applied. As with all stereotypes, this one serves the purpose of simplifying what is otherwise a complex and varied subject. It provides a shorthand characterization that enables law enforcement to communicate among themselves and with the media. The media, in turn, then communicate to the public using this same generally understood term.

[Freelance writer] Scott Anderson...

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