In the film “Animal Crackers,” the Marx Brothers find themselves impersonating Italian aviators who must explain to the mayor of New York how they failed to complete a non-stop flight from Rome. “We get almost there,” elucidates Chico, “just about three feet, when–boom!–we run out of gas and got to go back.”
So Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, flying to Washington March 23 for meetings with Vice President Al Gore and the International Monetary Fund, was just two hours out when he turned his plane around and headed back to Moscow. With NATO’s launch of an air attack on Yugoslavia, Russian diplomacy ran out of gas.
Russia now risks not isolation but estrangement. Not isolation, because a nuclear power can always find company–if only with a bad crowd. But estrangement, at least from the West that many in Russia, and not so long ago, had hoped to join.
Under Primakov’s tutelage, first as a top foreign policy advisor to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, then as head of foreign intelligence and foreign minister under President Boris Yeltsin, Russia sought an international role as mediator between the West and many of the countries on Russia’s periphery. Such a role would squeeze every bit of leverage out of Russia’s rapidly declining power and give the country global reach despite a lack of global grasp. Russia adheres to the United Nations resolutions on Iraq but works as Iraq’s advocate to mitigate their enforcement. Russia describes itself as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism but maintains close ties to Iran. In the Balkans, Russia plays a large part in the peacekeeping force in Bosnia while its leadership panders to pan-Slav jingoes at home.
Not long ago, the West, and the United States especially, was eager to spend billions to promote Russia’s presumed transition to capitalism and democracy. Western money sustained the Russian government through the war in Chechnya, a war more brutal in conduct and far bloodier in scale than Serbia’s action in Kosovo. (And during that war, President Bill Clinton visited Moscow, stressed the civil nature of the conflict and compared Boris Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln.) Boris Yeltsin was then the indispensable man.
But the collapse of the ruble last summer and the hollowing out of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency seem to have persuaded Western leaders that the indispensable can be dispensed with. As the reality of Russia’s weakness sinks in, Western leaders are increasingly unwilling to listen to Russia’s advocacy for rogue states and increasingly uncaring of Russian opinion or Russian repercussions.
Before he left for Washington, Primakov told a meeting of his cabinet that Russia would not permit its outrage over the NATO air strikes to alter its economic policy or to harm its relations with the West. If by that he meant that Russia would manage to receive Western loans and political solicitude despite default and mischief, he is likely to be disappointed.