Mr. Kozyrev's Little Joke

TRUDY RUBIN

December 22, 1992|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia. -- When Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev started mouthing Cold War rhetoric recently at an international security conference in Stockholm, Sweden, his Western counterparts went into shock.

A half-hour later, Mr. Kozyrev, a bright, pro-democracy reformer, said, in effect, that he was only kidding. He was only warning the West about the dangers imminent if reformers lost out to hard-liners in Moscow.

But his ploy was more than a sick joke. It was a brutal reminder of the risks of taking the Cold War's end for granted and of the dangers in store if the West fails to ensure that the Cold War isn't resurrected.

It has been only 16 months since the Communist coup in Moscow failed, only 12 months since the Soviet Union fell apart. Yet, with the eagerness of children snuggling under their security blankets, we already cling to the comforting assumption that the Russian bogeyman is gone. We want that to be the case; after all, we have pressing problems at home.

Americans have already gotten used to the idea of Russia as a quasi-ally. We have come to assume that, at the United Nations, Moscow will support American ventures like the Persian Gulf War and that the Moscow government won't use brute force to re-establish its The foreign minister's wake-up call underlines the urgency of rethinking ways to bind Russia closer to the West with economic and security links. Most pressing is the need to diminish the nuclear threat while Yeltsin is still president.

empire and, most of all, that Moscow and Washington will work together to slash their nuclear arsenals to the core.

America's defense strategy for the next decade is based on those assumptions. So is the downsizing of the American military. So are international assumptions that the United Nations can play a larger role in keeping the global peace.

Yet in just a few words, Mr. Kozyrev snatched away the West's security blanket. He made us confront the nightmare scenario that everyone knows is a possibility but that Western diplomats had put from their minds.

Russia had Asiatic traditions, Mr. Kozyrev said (meaning it is authoritarian by nature rather than democratic), which limits how friendly Russia can be with Europe.

Russia wouldn't support sanctions against its old ally Serbia, he said, but reserved the right to help the Serbs, presumably with shipments of arms.

Russia would use military and economic means to force the ex-Soviet republics back into its orbit, he said, and the West shouldn't think that it could interfere.

What he didn't say, but what every diplomat present was all too well aware of, was that Russia still possesses 11,000-plus nuclear weapons.

When Mr. Kozyrev left the room, diplomats stood stunned. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger rushed after him, demanding, ''What is going on?'' Then 30 minutes later Mr. Kozyrev returned to the room to assure those present it was all a hoax. ''Neither [Russian] President [Boris] Yeltsin . . . nor I . . . will ever agree to what I read out in my previous speech,'' he said. ''I did it . . . so that you should all be aware of the real threats on our road to a post-communist Europe.''

What gave Mr. Kozyrev's performance an air of chilling %o immediacy was the situation back in Moscow. For days, President Yeltsin had been under severe attack by the conservative Russian Congress. Indeed, when the foreign minister started talking, some diplomats suspected that Mr. Yeltsin had been overthrown.

That very day, in a major political defeat, he was forced by the Congress to dump acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, his chief economic reformer. Many believe that Foreign Minister Kozyrev also will be forced out because of his pro-Western views.

Mr. Gaidar's successor, Viktor Chernomyrdin, is a centrist technocrat who vaguely supports reform but has little understanding of free-market economics. He has already made it clear he'll move back toward state planning, but no matter what he does, Russia's economy is likely to worsen, which means that the Russian foreign minister's hoax shouldn't be written off as a diplomatic faux pas.

In fact, some Russian journalists speculate that it almost became reality this week. They think Mr. Kozyrev didn't intend to re-enter the conference hall after delivering his bombshell, that, in a desperate attempt to save Mr. Gaidar's job, his words were meant to appease the hard-liners in the Congress. They claim that Mr. Kozyrev recanted only after he left the hall and learned that Mr. Gaidar had already been fired.

Whatever the motives behind the Kozyrev drama, Western governments should be forewarned. His wake-up call underlines the urgency of rethinking ways to bind Russia closer to the West with economic and security links. Most pressing is the need to forge ahead with efforts to diminish the nuclear threat while Mr. Yeltsin is still president and while Russian relations with the West remain good.

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