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Jewish World Review April 2, 2001 / 9 Nissan 5761

Philip Terzian

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From Russia with love -- MAYBE I'm just an ol' pessimist, but the recent exchange of diplomatic insults between Washington and Moscow is a little disconcerting.

Not long after Robert Hanssen was arrested for (allegedly) betraying the United States to Russia, over a 15-year period, the Bush administration declared some 51 Russian diplomats in the United States persona non grata, requiring them to leave the country. This is standard procedure in such instances. The aggrieved nation will demand the expulsion of those diplomats it suspects of espionage, and the opposite power will respond in some lesser form.

Accordingly, the Russians have since thrown out a half-dozen Americans posted in Moscow. But they have not been content to leave it at that. Senior Russian officials have let it be known that they regard the American expulsions as a deliberate provocation, and are angered that the United States persists in treating the Russian Federation (in their view) as a second-rate power.

Of course, the truth is that, apart from their arsenal of nuclear weapons, Russia is a second-rate power, and the Russians know it. Its economy is a fraction of the size of the Chinese economy, and it is dangerously dependent on aid from the United States and Western Europe. Russia's transition from a command to a market economy was not just poorly executed, and rife with corruption, but incomplete. Russia remains isolated from many global markets, has failed to attract significant foreign investment, and is burdened with debt and the wreckage of a communist infrastructure.

Nor has it been well served by its putative friends in the West. The Clinton administration, where Russian policy was largely the province of ex-journalist Strobe Talbott, sought to disguse the problems of post-communist Russia by warmly embracing its dubious political leadership, papering over economic disaster, and ignoring Russia's menacing diplomatic ambitions. Modern Russia is not about to return to communism, but its national-security apparatus was never de-Stalinized. The fact that the incumbent president was a career KGB functionary is not coincidence.

The problem is that the fall of communism was a kind of slow-motion affair, not a genuine revolution. As a consequence, Russia's commitment to a market economy and political freedom has always been less than wholehearted, and the global reckoning that characterized Soviet foreign policy is still in use. These trends in post-Soviet policy should not be overstated, but it is difficult to ignore certain ominous developments.

Beginning in Boris Yeltsin's tenure, Russia has been seeking to construct what can only be described as a hostile coalition of China, Iran, Iraq and other states as a means of balancing American superpower status. It is a forlorn hope, since success would depend on driving a wedge between the United States and its European allies, but Russia has tried that as well. On such issues as the eastward expansion of NATO and ballistic missile defense Moscow has not only exhorted the Europeans to oppose American plans, but has threatened to augment its own offensive missile systems and modernize China's nuclear missile force.

The symbols are not encouraging. Since assuming office, President Vladimir Putin has pointedly visited China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. And the Yeltsin policies of military and nuclear cooperation with Iran have been accelerated. With the active, and sometimes secret, cooperation of the Clinton administration, all through the 1990s the Russians defied congressional sanctions by providing Iran with extensive nuclear missile technology.

Of course, no one expects that Russia, even a semi-democratic Russia, would necessarily identify with American interests in the world. But it is air to ask where Russia intends to go. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its NATO allies have made it clear that they wish to integrate Russia into the transatlantic political and economic system that won the cold war. But the Russians seem always to be at a fork in the road. While they claim to wish to emulate the market economies, they have not given their home-grown reformers the necessary power and discretion to pull Russia out of its post-communist doldrums. And while they are understandably stunned by their lowered status in the world, they seem determined to revive dormant cold war tensions.

The Clinton administration sought to engage post-Soviet Russia by appeasement, and was rewarded with political and economic chaos, and diplomatic suspicion. It used to be said that the only thing the Soviet Union understood and respected was power. Perhaps the Bush administration should try some version of tough love: Happy to help where assistance is warranted, but prepared to defend our traditional interests, and not afraid to give offense when challenged or defied.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal