Russia's U.S. ties are chafing Ex-Soviets haunted by ghost of empire

August 30, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ever since the collapsing Soviet empire succumbed to U.S. pressure and backed the war against Iraq, Moscow and Washington have touted a partnership across the globe, deepened now by the ascension of elected Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

But the "partners" are beginning to get on each other's nerves.

At odds over the Baltics and the Balkans, on arms and technology sales to the Middle East and on relations with Japan, the two are tripping over one another's strategic, political and commercial interests.

Adding to the strains are Russia's muscular stance toward its near neighbors, Moscow's annoyance at American interference, plus slips of the tongue and misunderstandings.

Dmitri Simes, a longtime Washington expert on Soviet and Russian affairs, fears a "growing disillusion" between Moscow and Washington.

"A relationship which was beginning to look like a beautiful friendship leading to partnership is now more and more dominated by estrangement," he said.

At stake is the future of U.S.-Russia cooperation on a broad range of issues contributing to global stability, plus continued political support for the Clinton administration's main foreign policy success so far: mobilizing congressional and international support for Russian political and market reform.

But, say Russia's critics here, its tough stance abroad may be unsustainable without curbs on freedom at home.

Four months after decisively winning a referendum against Communist and nationalist hard-liners, Mr. Yeltsin, his economy still severely troubled, is again bogged down in a power struggle with opponents looking for any evidence that the president is selling out to the West.

This adds to the pressure he faces in dealing with an explosive series of disputes along his border.

Russia's ambassador in Washington, Vladimir Lukin, laid out a worst-case scenario for Russia in an article last fall: Muslim fundamentalists gaining power in Central Asia; escalation of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict; confrontation with Ukraine over the Crimea; mounting tensions with Japan over the Kurile Islands and deepening political crises in China and on the Korean peninsula.

Now, he said in a recent interview with The Sun, "I don't rejoice that I turned out correct," and that much of the nightmare is coming true.

The worst crisis is in Tajikistan, gripped by a civil war that Ambassador Lukin fears has the potential to broaden, pitting Russia against Islamic countries.

"We will not allow our ally, the Tajikistan government, to be [overthrown] from the outside. Interference from the outside is excluded," he said firmly.

Backing hard-liners

Besides the dispatch of Russian troops to the Tajik-Afghan border, some analysts see another disturbing trend in how Russia is responding to the crisis: its support for undemocratic, ex-Communist leaders on its periphery.

Paul Goble, an analyst of the former Soviet states at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contends Russia is backing hard-liners in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Belarus. And where it is not using or assisting military action, it is manipulating energy supplies, he said.

"Russia is interested in showing that Russia still dominates the region," he said.

Ambassador Lukin contends there is a growing trend toward economic interdependence among the former Soviet states, which now realize that total economic separation would be suicidal.

To the extent that Russia's disputes with its neighbors interrupt the development of economic and political ties between these new states and the West, or further aggravate a Muslim world already shaken by the Balkans conflict, the United States has reason to worry.

But Russian behavior in some areas affects the United States even more directly. Its dispute with Ukraine may be bolstering legislators in Kiev determined to hold on to nuclear weapons.

A greater irritant is Russia's relationship with the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, given the voting clout of Americans with roots there. While sympathizing with Russian concerns over Lithuania's financial demands and treatment of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia, the United States has lodged high-level complaints over Russia's suspension of its troop withdrawal from Lithuania.

In Georgia, torn by separatist warfare in Abkazia, the United States feels an obligation to help Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who as Soviet foreign minister took enormous political risks to cooperate with the United States over arms control, Central America and the unification of Germany.

Instincts of an empire

John Hannah, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees signs of a re-assertion of Russia's old imperial claims that could be incompatible with democracy.

In a July essay titled "Empire Redux?" Mr. Hannah wrote, "History provides no reason -- zero, none -- to believe that Russia can be both liberal internally and neo-imperialist externally."

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