A specter haunting Europe

The war in Yugoslavia brings U.S.-Russian relations to the brink.

Published April 13, 1999 9:49AM (EDT)

The post-Cold War relationship between the United States and Russia has
always been uneasy, but the past week saw a level of tension unrivaled in
recent years. President Boris Yeltsin escalated his rhetoric denouncing
the bombing in Yugoslavia, and warned that the cordial state of East-West
relations could deteriorate into a European and possibly world war if NATO
persists with airstrikes against Yugoslavia. While reports last week that
Russia would re-target its nuclear missiles toward NATO nations and forge a
union with Serbia were denied soon after they became public, they served to
underscore the sudden frostiness between the two Cold War antagonists.

Does the tension foreshadow a permanent frost? Certainly Yeltsin's
complaints are reminding U.S. leaders of Russia's ability to act as a
destabilizing force in the Balkans region. Although Russia is in economic
and political turmoil and appears unwilling -- and probably unable -- to
take military action on the ground, the Yeltsin-Primakov government still
has at its disposal a large nuclear arsenal. Moreover, Operation Allied
Force has intensified anti-American sentiments in Russia, tarnishing the
image of the United States as a helpful partner in reform and a model of
democratic humanism.

Russian specialists disagree about what Moscow's latest moves mean. But
most are united in dismay at the Clinton administration's current policies
toward the former Soviet Union. Salon asked two Russia experts to talk
about the current state of American-Russian relations and the war in
Yugoslavia. Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of Russian studies and history
at New York University and a contributing editor to the Nation. Dimitri K.
Simes is director of the Nixon Center and served as a policy advisor for
the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations. He emigrated from the Soviet
Union in 1973.

Could the war in Yugoslavia mean a return to the Cold War?

Cohen: The short answer is yes, absolutely. The reason is that the
bombing has aroused latent Cold War feelings on both sides, in Moscow and
in Washington, but more so at the moment in Moscow. The anti-American
feeling there is authentic and widespread and is being expressed by both
the political elite and ordinary citizens. Now you can't replicate the Cold
War. The circumstances were different. But certainly driving Russia out of
the West, out of Europe, and erecting some latter-day variant of the Iron
Curtain between the countries is possible. It is not inevitable, but the
bombings have been a substantial stride in that direction, a stimulus to
that kind of development.

You want to remember there is no one Yeltsin administration, no one Russia,
no one set of Russians, and that there are different groupings and points
of view that are struggling over this very issue. Based on what I know, on
firsthand discussions in Moscow on a fairly regular basis and on reading
the Russian press, there is no one point of view. Even within the Yeltsin
administration there are several. There is the viewpoint that there should
be a very hard, even military, reaction to the American bombing, which
would be strengthened if ground forces were introduced. There is the
viewpoint that under no circumstances should the Russians resort to any
kind of military reaction; i.e, that Russia should remain rhetorically
engaged but practically laid back in order to A) avoid spoiling the
relationship with the West, and B) hold Russia in reserve for an
important diplomatic role when it becomes clear that a military solution is
in the making.

Simes: Russia is a country which throughout history has been slow to
adjust to new foreign policy situations. But once it begins to change it
unfortunately also begins to change with great speed and goes beyond
reason. And what you see in the making is a serious anti-Western, and
particularly anti-American, political wave in Moscow. Up until now, the
Russian government and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov were trying to
control this wave by offering a lot of pseudo-patriotic rhetoric, but
substantively doing very little that would harm the United States. I do not
know where the red line is beyond which Primakov would make a choice
between losing domestic legitimacy and starting to create problems in the
U.S.-Russian relationship. But I think we are moving in the direction of
this invisible line and perhaps are very close to it.

I think our relations with Russia depend very much on how this war ends. If
this war ends with a negotiated solution, in which Russia is invited to
play a role and has helped to bring about a settlement, I think we can
limit the damage and create perhaps not a new foundation but at least a new
impulse for the U.S.-Russian relationship. If NATO prevails on the
battlefield through air strikes and Milosevic is forced to surrender, it
would do a lot of damage to the U.S.-Russian relationship. It would move
Russian public opinion and the Russian political process in a more
nationalistic and xenophobic direction. But hopefully it still would be
controllable, at least in the short run. If contrary to our hopes,
Milosevic resists and the war continues on the ground for a couple more
weeks, then all kinds of political scenarios may become possible. You have
to understand there is a potential for a very dangerous escalation of
global tensions. We do not want to start the 21st century by prevailing in
Kosovo but losing Russia and China.

But is this conflict about more than Yugoslavia?

Cohen: What you've got is a bombing arousing conflicts within the
Kremlin and the Russian political class coming at a moment when a political
succession struggle is under way. Yeltsin won't be around too much longer.
Therefore a struggle for power and policy is underway, which affects
Russian reactions.

Simes: The anti-Americanism that we see in Russia today did not begin
with the bombing. It originated in the disastrous impact of Yeltsin's
economic policies -- of so-called shock therapy -- which fairly or unfairly
millions of Russians believe were made in America. That was the origin of
the current anti-American sentiment. It was exacerbated by the expansion of
NATO. It was further exacerbated by the bombing of Iraq. And now it is
greatly exacerbated by the bombing in Yugoslavia.

So it is a process, a process of the Russian backlash against American
policies. Part of that is an enormous disillusionment by the generally
pro-Western middle-class intellectual professionals, who believed that, if
nothing else, America was a humanitarian nation that would not do the kinds
of unhumanitarian things the Soviet regime had done over the years.

How could Russia escalate the current conflict?

Cohen: There is a powerful view in Washington that Russia has no
options, that Russia is on her knees, and even though Russia is hollering
and bitching and complaining, there is nothing Russia is going to do about
it. This is a mistaken view. Russia has options. The problem is we won't
like any of the options.

In the short run, for example, if provoked, or if the more militant
factions in Russian politics win, the short-term option for Russia would be
to break the weapons sanctions against Yugoslavia and possibly against
Iraq. In the long run, if America decides to punish Russia by refusing to
let Russia into the West, by cutting off financing, Russia could become an
arsenal on a long-term basis to all those nations that the United States
does not want to see undergo a military build-up. That would mean Iran,
Iraq, China, perhaps India, Pakistan and maybe even Libya. And Russia could
earn billions of dollars doing this, a lot more than the pittance that the
IMF is offering. So Russia has options, but none of them good from the
American point of view.

If you want stability in the Balkans you must have: A) a stable Russia, and
B) Russian cooperation. And if you're bombing Iraq because you're worried
about weapons of mass destruction, the great number of weapons of mass
destruction that you should be worried about are in Russia. So this
priority makes no sense from America's own interests.

Simes: If Russia wanted to, I think it would be very easy for them to
stop the NATO alliance. The question is: What price would they be willing
to pay? If President Milosevic appears in Moscow to sign a defense treaty
and President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Primakov announce that Yugoslavia
is now a part of Russia's vital national security interests, if Russia puts
its strategic nuclear forces on increased alert, it is very difficult for me to
imagine that NATO would be willing to risk World War III over Yugoslavia.
Needless to say, if Russia were to accomplish that, it would pay an
enormous price: isolation from the West, no new Western loans. Essentially
Russia would be put outside the global mainstream. One very much hopes that
they will be smart enough and pragmatic enough not to allow something like
this to happen. But history is not just about pragmatic relations. History
is also about political processes, about emotions, about leaders trying to
enhance their domestic standing. And if this situation in and around Yugoslavia
continues much longer, there is a risk of escalation and miscalculation on
all sides.

There is no way Russia can make a difference on the ground in Kosovo, if
for no other reason than that there is no way for them to have either an airlift
or to deliver forces by train or by ship. Even if they wanted to move their
air defense missiles into Yugoslavia, and NATO for some strange reason
decided to allow these missiles to arrive without bombing Serbian
airfields, I don't know how they could be delivered.

What role could Russia play in securing peace in the Balkans?

Simes: I think Primakov is not going to do the bidding of the Clinton
administration. If Vice President Gore asks him to go to Milosevic and
persuade him to accept NATO positions, I don't think that Primakov would
want to do it. And even if he wanted to do it, he couldn't do it. If
Milosevic wants to surrender, on the other hand, it might be easier for
Milosevic, psychologically and politically, to surrender to Primakov than
to the United States. But as along as Milosevic does not want to surrender,
I don't think Primakov will be pressuring him to do so.

What worries me is not how Russia may meaningfully help Milosevic, but the
escalation of tensions around Yugoslavia. Remember, Russia is a weak and
sleeping giant, but it is still a giant. And if you provoke the Russians,
as they were provoked many times in their history, you may find their
responses very surprising. Russia started World War II with humiliating
defeats. Russian campaigns against Napolean initially resulted in defeat
and surrender after defeat and surrender. Most Americans don't talk about
history when it comes to situations like this. History is important.

The Russians are already desperate and angry and there is a great
accumulation of anger against the West. Until now, in the competition
between pragmatic national interests and public indignation in Russia,
national interests were prevailing. But we cannot take for granted that if
this conflict continues, this situation could prevail indefinitely. A
victory of common sense in Russia is not something one can ever take for

What about Russia's historic and religious ties with the Serbs?

Simes: Religious and ethnic ties are important. However, I would not
overstate the importance of these ties. Historically, the Russians have had
difficult relations with Yugoslavia. Under Tito, Yugoslavia if anything had
a pro-American rather than a pro-Soviet orientation. But Russia did
traditionally protect the Serbs -- against the Ottoman Empire, against the
Germans, against the British Empire.

I think to appreciate the Russian response to Yugoslavia, you have to
consider two other factors. The first thing is that the Russians have had
their own experience with the United States and with American policy. They
do believe that the United States backed radical reformers in Russia, using
the IMF as a proxy, and in this way contributed to Russia's financial and
economic disaster. They do feel that the Clinton administration, while
talking about strategic partnerships with Russia, was careful to reduce
Russia down to size and limit Russian international effectiveness. In the
case of Yugoslavia, they do feel that the Clinton administration did
whatever it wanted in Yugoslavia, and that helping Albanians was much more
important than taking Russian views into account. It is this sense of
humiliation mixed with impotence that emerged in Russia vis-`-vis the U.S.
before the current crisis, which explains the extreme radicalism of some
Russians in response to the war.

Cohen: So long as images of Slav cities burning are being broadcast back
into Russia, it generates a profound revulsion against America on two
levels. One, it's sentimental: "My God, they're bombing Slavs." Second,
it's fear-inducing: "They're bombing closer and closer to Russia. We could
be next." Some people think that the anti-American sentiment to the bombing
in Yugoslavia is not authentic. They think it is all for show. And
admittedly, some people are showboating, namely Zhirinovsky and that crowd.
But for the people I know in the political establishment as well as
ordinary rank-and-file citizens, it's a horrifyingly authentic reaction.

Does the war affect the internal power dynamics for Yeltsin and Primakov?

Cohen: First, physically and probably mentally, Yeltsin is not capable
of sustaining the energy necessary to be a day-to-day leader. We've known
that for the last two to three years. What he does seem to be capable of is
periodic interventions. But bear in mind something else: It is widely
understood in Russia that Yeltsin was part of the pro-American faction in Russian politics. It was Yeltsin who conceived of
the idea of My Dear Great Friend Bill and My Dear Great Friend Kohl. It is
now American and German warplanes that are bombing Serbia. Therefore,
Yeltsin's political position, not to mention his health position, are in
shambles. A poll last week, for example, shows that 6 percent of Russians
support Yeltsin.

Simes: Prime Minister Primakov is no friend of the United States. But he
is no friend of Slobodan Milosevic either. I am sure he resents Milosevic
almost as much as he resents Clinton because, after all, it is Milosevic
who put him in this terrible predicament, where he has to make a choice
between surrendering to NATO demands and alienating Russian public opinion
or moving against NATO and the United States and risking his vital American
connections. I think Primakov is a man in a very difficult position. He did
not have any plan when he went to Belgrade. He was sent there by President
Yeltsin, which is an important reminder that Yeltsin cannot govern but
still can give orders and fire prime ministers. Primakov left Belgrade
empty-handed and since then he has been trying to cool the situation, while
proceeding with vicious and often totally unfair criticisms of NATO
actions. To some extent, his rhetoric was designed for domestic
consumption, to allow him to do little that would damage the U.S.-Russia
relationship beyond repair.

Primakov is a Russian patriot and he does not like the idea of the United
States being the only superpower and NATO acting unilaterally without a
U.N. mandate, meaning without consultation with Russia. It is also clear
that Primakov's domestic power is limited. He has high public opinion
polls, but Yeltsin now resents him, precisely because of that popularity.
His domestic economic results are modest at best, and he can survive and
have whatever effect on the system he has because the Russian parliament
supports him. So if it appears that he goes against the Russian political
mainstream, he may survive but he would not be able to do anything. He
would not be able to continue with reforms. That is why he is maneuvering.
That is why his conduct appears inconsistent. I think he will avoid radical
steps as long as he can. His instinct essentially is: "Do as little harm
as possible but don't take chances, don't stand tall in the name of some
higher objective." Primakov is not sufficiently strong politically -- and I
think it is not in his very flexible and pragmatic nature -- to take tough
positions and risk his political neck.

By Tamara Straus

Tamara Straus is a San Francisco freelance writer and magazine editor.

MORE FROM Tamara Straus

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