Russia Exploits American Confusion

April 11, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--Russia's relationship with the Western powers is fundamentally influenced by relations with what Moscow describes as the ''near abroad.'' Everyone sees this, but not everyone distinguishes between Russia's legitimate interests within the frontiers of what once was the czarist empire and its interests elsewhere.

Some in Washington are anxious about renewed Russian imperialism or alleged expansionism, while others want Russia to police the tumultuous ex-U.S.S.R., or even favor an American alliance with Russia ''to contain China.'' Much of this seems overwrought. American policy has been erratic as a consequence, and the Russian government, despite its internal confusions, has been able to exploit Washington's lack of clarity.

It disposed -- with expedition and no little cynicism -- of the idea that NATO protect the East European countries. Moscow convinced Washington that NATO membership for the East Europeans would be considered a hostile act, provoking Russian nationalism. Washington responded with its nebulous proposal of a ''Partnership for Peace.'' Moscow then said that it wanted to join the partnership too, but on privileged terms -- not like the others. The project was thus deprived of any sense whatever.

Moscow has also asked that the U.N. grant ''blue helmet'' status to its 15,000 troops deployed across the former Soviet Union, where they have served as peacemakers or peacekeepers in old ethnic and national quarrels but are also a vehicle of Russian power in regions of feeble autonomy and disputed rule.

U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was in Moscow last week, and while he indicated to the Russians that their request was impossible to grant, as obviously violating the principles governing U.N. troop deployments, he said that arrangements might be made by which the Russians would act in the region in ''close cooperation'' with the U.N., and be considered U.N. peace ''observers.''

Russia's concerns inside the ex-Soviet Union derive from the fact that most of the new states there have never possessed independent statehood in the modern sense, or have done so only ephemerally or briefly.

Ukraine claimed independence in 1990 and still possesses nuclear forces, a convincing argument in support of that claim. However it is an unconvincing claim historically. Like Belarus, Ukraine in the past was a region populated by Slavic peoples and fought over by the Great Russians, Poles and Lithuanians. Its nationalism is a 19th-century development. Between the 11th century and the First World War it was never truly independent, and the attempt to establish independence in 1917 was short-lived.

The Baltic nations, on the other hand, were independent between the two world wars, and Lithuania was a united nation in the 13th century, in the 14th century even establishing an empire that incorporated part of Great Russia and extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Estonia and Latvia have always had their connections to Central Europe and Scandinavia -- and to Finland; the Estonians and Finns are kindred peoples. Their historical claim to independence is a reasonable one, as Moscow today acknowledges, despite current disputes over the status of their Russian minorities.

The U.S. supports the independence of all the states that have come out of the breakup of the Soviet Union. However, it is necessary to face the fact that not all of them have what it takes to govern themselves effectively, and that Russia's interest in containing disorder in the region is not illegitimate. We are dealing with the breakup not only of the Soviet Union but substantially with that of the czarist empire, three centuries old. Dismantlement of historical Russia is not necessarily a Western interest, nor is Western interference there necessarily a prudent policy.

The independence of the East European states is an entirely different affair, and their defense a clear Western interest. Washington gives the impression of not having fully grasped this point. Moscow certainly understands it perfectly. This is what the Cold War was all about. The essential outcome of the Cold War -- the West's ''victory'' -- was that Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany regained the independence Stalin had taken from them.

It is a fundamental American and West European interest that they keep it. There is a legitimate Russian interest in secure borders and nonthreatening neighbors, which is well understood in the West. There is no legitimacy to any Russian claim to have satellite states on its frontiers.

It is impossible to deal intelligently with the new Russia unless one understands the importance of this distinction, between states possessing historical existence and a proven ability to govern themselves and those who want such a status but have not yet demonstrated that they are capable of it. It clarifies what Russia has a right to expect from its neighbors, and what the West should expect from Russia.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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