by Steve Chapman
Whenhe arrived in Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders, the president of Russia was thoughtful enough to let Americans know he hasn't forgotten President Clinton. "Yesterday, Clinton permitted himself to put pressure on Russia," he said, referring to criticism of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya. "It seems he has for a minute forgotten that Russia has a full arsenal of nuclear weapons." Um, yes. And thanks for the reminder.
Relations between Washington and Moscow have been plagued in recent years by contagious deafness: The United States has ignored Russian complaints about our crusading around the world, and Russia has stopped listening to anything we say. But President Yeltsin has found one way to get our attention.
Clinton's criticism of Russia's policy may not have accomplished anything for civilians trapped in Grozny, but it has produced one notable achievement: helping to heal the Sino-Soviet split. China is just about the only country that has firmly supported Yeltsin's efforts to crush separatists in Chechnya. Communism was not enough to bind these longtime adversaries together during the Cold War, but a shared antipathy toward the United States has made them acutely aware of their common interest in resisting American "hegemony."
The Russian resentment is mysterious only if you haven't been paying attention. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has posed no plausible threat to the West. Rather than be grateful for the change, the Clinton administration has treated our former enemy as an irrelevant weakling that can be safely ignored, lectured or pushed around, as our convenience requires.
"The Russians lost the Cold War, got out of Eastern Europe and let the Soviet Union fall apart," says University of Chicago defense scholar John Mearsheimer. "And what is the U.S. doing? Closing in on them."
We consider all sorts of factors in pursuing our international mission, but we've made it plain that we won't take account of Russian interests or sensibilities. If they like what we do, fine; if not, tough luck. After all, they can't do much about it. What's the harm in reminding them of that as frequently as possible?
The end of the Cold War might have prompted a re-examination of the need for NATO. The alliance, after all, was created solely to defend Western Europe against aggression by a nation that no longer exists. Instead, we not only preserved NATO but expanded it to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. We ignored bitter objections emanating from Moscow, where the expansion was interpreted not as a defensive step but as an aggressive one -- much like we'd feel if Russia were to forge a military alliance with Mexico.
The Russians are also alarmed by the talk in Congress and the White House about shredding the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty so we can get on with building a nationwide missile defense. Their conventional army is a ruin, their nuclear arsenal is deteriorating and their early-warning radars are unreliable in detecting incoming warheads, causing them obvious anxiety. We're also pushing them to reduce the size of their nuclear stockpile.
Then, along comes the United States with a bright idea: a missile defense that could make it possible for us to launch a nuclear first strike without fear of retaliation. Someone high up in Washington seems to have the task of getting up every morning and asking, "What can we do today to make the Russians nervous?"
Especially galling to Moscow was the war in Kosovo, where the supposedly defensive NATO war machine spent months bombing Yugoslavia, a Russian ally, because we didn't like how the government there was treating its own people. Lately, we've been talking of cutting off the modest economic aid Russia gets from us and the International Monetary Fund to show our disgust with the brutal tactics it has used in Chechnya. Having done everything possible to antagonize and humiliate our vanquished foes, we now expect them to accommodate us on a matter involving the territorial integrity of their homeland.
There is nothing to stop us from riding roughshod over Russian concerns, but we may find they are not entirely powerless to do us harm. They can refuse to go along with arms reductions, use their veto in the UN Security Council, sell arms or nuclear technology to our enemies, or join forces with the biggest potential security threat on the horizon, China. Not to mention that the rise of anti-Western sentiment could pave the way for a nationalist dictator.
Ten years ago, we would have been more than happy to give Moscow a pass on Chechnya in exchange for victory in the Cold War and democracy in Russia. Asking for more than that miracle is asking for trouble.
December 12, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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