The end of our Russian love affair

February 06, 1996|By Walter Russell Mead

THE LONG THAW between Washington and Moscow is visibly ending. Washington charges that Russia is reneging on arms-control agreements. Yevgeny M. Primakov, the ex-KGB head who replaced pro-Western Andrei V. Kozyrev as foreign minister, threatens to renege even harder and denounces Western hypocrisy and greed in the good old-fashioned way. Boris N. Yeltsin fires Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly B. Chubais, one of the last committed reformers in his Cabinet, and replaces him with Vladimir V. Kadannikov, widely considered an old-line Soviet hack.

Last week, with Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin in Washington for a round of talks, both sides were saying the relationship was on track, but they weren't fooling anyone.

At the end of the Cold War, Americans and Russians fell in love with one another. Russians accepted every new fad from the West. Western political methods would create a stable and just social order on the ruins of communism. A new, friendly foreign-policy relationship with the United States would allow Russia to keep its honor and dignity even as both countries escaped the costs and risks of Cold War confrontation.

Our trusty sidekick

The new Russia was good for U.S. self-esteem. The more they told us they admired us, the better we felt. Like Germany and Japan after World War II, post-Cold War Russia was going to settle down as Uncle Sam's trusty sidekick -- and Washington would help Russia as it helped the defeated Axis.

Wrong. The Russians may have believed that Yeltsin and his colleagues were implementing ''Western'' economic and political reforms, but the reality was far different. Russian privatization was a feeding frenzy for various corrupt interests; behind a democratic facade, Russian politics was a struggle among large economic interests.

At the same time, Western economic aid has been minimal. Politically, we have frozen Russia out. The Middle East peace process moves ahead as if Russia didn't exist.

The wonder is that the love affair lasted as long as it did. Now the Russians see that we don't plan to treat them as a superpower or give them any substantial economic help. We see plainly that neither Yeltsin nor anyone else will introduce genuine democracy and the rule of law in Russia, and that any resemblance between the Russian economy and Western democratic capitalism is purely coincidental. The Russian suppression of the Chechens is as brutal, if not as efficient, as anything the Communists would have done, and the new Duma, dominated by Communists and followers of Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, will be an echo chamber of fulminations against the West.

Not a superpower anymore

But the news out of Russia isn't as bad as it looks. While the over-inflated hopes of a grand U.S.-Russian partnership have collapsed, we are not headed into Cold War II. The changes in Russia are not as important as they look, and Russia is in no economic condition to start a new Cold War.

Russian politics today aren't driven by abstract ideas but by money and power. As Russia privatizes its state factories, mines, farms and enterprises, Russian political parties are more like wolf packs hunting together for prey than like organizations seeking converts to their political views.

Russia can make a certain amount of diplomatic trouble. We could get less cooperation at the U.N. Security Council, and Russia's cash-starved arms industry will be pushing its products throughout the Third World. The Russians will try to revive their influence in the Middle East, intimidate neighbors in Eastern Europe and encourage China to make life more difficult for the United States in Asia.

Keeping our distance

This will all be unpleasant, but it doesn't amount to Cold War II. Russia isn't a superpower anymore. There are things Russia could do that would truly cause us problems, such as selling nuclear material to countries like Iran, but this isn't likely. Russia is Iran's neighbor, and Moscow worries more about Islamic fundamentalism than we do.

There's another good sign. Despite his KGB ties, Primakov is no dinosaur. In Soviet times, the new foreign minister headed what foreigners regarded as the most progressive and intelligent think tank in Moscow.

For the United States, the lesson is clear: Don't work yourselves into a frenzy over every twist and turn in Russian politics. Russia's "democrats" aren't about to turn Russia into a Western country, and its "Communists" aren't about to bring back Stalin. The crooks in office are somewhat better than the crooks who hope to get in at the next election, but we are talking shades of gray, not black and white.

The best thing the United States can do in Russia is to stay out. We don't have answers to Russia's problems and we don't have the money to pay its bills; the Russians will have to find their own way, and if they want our advice, they can ask.

At the same time, we should treat Russia with all due respect, and then some.

We can't make things much better in Russia, but we can help keep things from getting worse. The Long Thaw may be over, but we are still far from the Deep Freeze. Patient, thoughtful, low-key U.S. diplomacy is the best tool we have to keep it that way.

Walter Russell Mead, author of ''Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition,'' wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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