Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 20

Moscow’s foreign policy grows increasingly hardlineCIS Countries seek to loosen the Russian yoke

by Vladimir Socor


Despite the accelerating pace of the campaign for legislativeelections, it was foreign policy that laid first claim to theattention and emotional energies of Russia’s political class thesepast two weeks. Some foreign observers felt more justified thanever to trace this phenomenon to putative electoral pressurespresumably forcing politicians to adopt hardline foreign policypositions. But opinion surveys and other evidence continued tosuggest that such issues as NATO’s enlargement, the conflictsin ex-Yugoslavia, or Russia’s military agenda in the CIS rankednear the bottom of the general public’s concerns, which continuedto focus heavily on socioeconomic problems. Russia’s politicalelite, on the other hand, demonstrated during these two weeksthat its own priorities lay in the realm of great-power policy.

However snailpaced, the advance toward formulating a conceptof NATO enlargement provoked president Boris Yeltsin intowarning that enlargement would unleash the flames of war acrossEurope. To prevent that apocalyptic scenario, Russia would formits own political-military alliance with its partners in the Commonwealthof Independent States, redividing Eurasia into hostile blocs.Appearing again to be either poorly briefed or simply improvising,Yeltsin proposed a new, all-European security system based oncommon armed forces which would be commanded by each member statein rotation. The bizarre proposal is not known to have been submittedby his diplomats before or since Yeltsin aired it. In Brussels,envoy Vitaly Churkin threatened that Russia may withdraw fromNATO’s Partnership for Peace program, and the Defense Ministrysuspended its planned participation in a PfP joint exercise withthe US at Fort Riley, Kansas. Led for some time to believe thatRussia’s participation in PfP was crucial to NATO, Russian leadersmay well have concluded that threats of withdrawal give them realleverage over NATO policy. In a more traditional vein, the ForeignMinistry warned that Moscow may resort to military as well aseconomic and political measures if the Baltic states moved towardaccession to NATO. The warnings did not prevent NATO from approvingon September 22 a study which moved the enlargement issue forwardfrom the discussion to a pre-planning stage.

On the conflict in the former Yugoslavia it was a foreignpolicy moderate and leader of the reformist Yabloko group,Vladimir Lukin, who said in a speech to the Duma that Russia founditself "with its back to the wall" but would yet recover,as it had in critical moments of history.

The Duma’s debates on the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia were explosiveas deputies attacked NATO for its retaliatory raids on BosnianSerb positions, the Contact Group members for minimizing Russia’srole, and the Russian Foreign Ministry for its failure to bringRussian influence to bear on the situation. Solidarity delegationsof the Duma departed in quick succession for the would-be Serbrepublics in Bosnia and Krajina. A growing number of voices beyondthe hardline fringe called for arming the Serbs–an idea now embracedby two Duma committee chairmen and alluded to by Yeltsin and Grachev.Yet the political orators and foreign policy specialists attackingWestern policy and urging a more active defense of Russian interestsin the region were unable to define those interests or to transcendnineteenth-century notions in explaining their position. In thesecircumstances it took Yeltsin some courage to veto the Duma’sbills, adopted by overwhelming margins, to unilaterally end Russia’sparticipation in international economic sanctions against Serbiaand impose Russian sanctions on Croatia.

Croatia found itself widely denounced in Moscow political circlesfor recovering most of its own territory of Krajina, held andethnically cleansed since 1992 by Serb forces. In the highly chargedatmosphere, the US embassy in Moscow was hit with a grenade firedfrom a portable launcher by unidentified perpetrators. Many tracedthe act to Russian-US tensions in Yugoslavia but there was noevidence to substantiate that hypothesis, and the two governmentsplayed down the incident.

Adding to the contentious issues, Russia made clear that it wasrepudiating the limits on combat hardware in its "flank"regions, as stipulated in the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forcesin Europe (CFE) signed in the framework of the CSCE (OSCE).Moscow had for at least two years contended that it needed todeploy far more hardware than the treaty allowed on its southernflank in the Caucasus and in the northern flank in the Leningradmilitary district. More recently it cited its own interventionin Chechnya and, finally, NATO’s action in Bosnia as further argumentsin support of its demand for a higher hardware entitlements inthe flank regions. With the November 1995 deadline for complianceapproaching, and Russian forces nowhere near the lower levelsmandated by CFE, NATO offered a compromise redefining flank areasin a way that would bring Russia’s flank quotas above those stipulatedby the breached treaty but still below the present deploymentlevels. Details of the offer were not immediately available, andultimately Moscow ruled out a tradeoff between CFE revision andNATO expansion. Reversing earlier suggestions that it might toleratethe latter if satisfied on the former, Russia now argued thatthe two were entirely unrelated and that its opposition to NATO’senlargement remained unconditional.

In Chechnya, where the massing of Russian armor and artilleryhad spelled CFE’s unraveling, the military and political standoffpersisted while fruitless negotiations continued on both tracksin the military and the political commission. That in itself constituteda positive development since it meant a substantial de-escalationof the hostilities. Nonetheless, sporadic clashes continued asChechen fighters raided Russian positions even in Grozny. TheRussian Security Council’s Secretary and Yeltsin’s special envoyto Chechnya, Oleg Lobov, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.Russian reconstruction programs in Grozny and elsewhere provedfarcical and were criticized in a devastating report by the sameLobov shortly before the attempt against his life. On the politicalfront, the ineffectiveness and lack of popularity of Moscow’scollaborators in Grozny forced the Kremlin to turn, with obviousreluctance, to Yeltsin’s archrival Ruslan Khasbulatov in its permanentsearch for a political alternative to Dudayev. Initial indicationswere that the Kremlin was overestimating Khasbulatov’s politicalpotential in Chechnya almost as much as it had overestimated Dudayev’sdomestic opposition prior to and during the military campaign.Perhaps recognizing this, Moscow began inching toward a conditionalacceptance of Dudayev as a political factor and potential dialoguepartner in Chechnya. Although the preconditions for a resumptionof fighting remained in place, hardly any Russian policy makersin Moscow or in Chechnya seemed willing to resume large-scalehostilities at this time.

As the campaign for elections to the Duma picked up steam,parties, blocs, and coalitions continued to form and reconfigure. One of the most notable developments in the campaign was thesplit in Duma chairman Ivan Rybkin’s "left-of-center"bloc–one of the two faces of the "party of power."A powerful grouping calling itself the "Fatherland Party,"headed by Col.-General Boris Gromov and economic perestroika architectsStanislav Shatalin and Nikolai Shmelev, broke with Rybkin, declareditself in "constructive opposition" to the government,promised to slow down market reforms, and named the CommunistParty and former USSR Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov’s Power tothe People bloc as its prospective allies in the new Duma. Inthe reformist camp, Grigori Yavlinski’s Yabloko announcedthat it was prepared for limited cooperation with "Russia’sDemocratic Choice" after having refused to entertain suchcooperation.


Yeltsin’s unilateral announcement that Russia would respond toNATO’s enlargement by forming a political-military bloc of theCIS states was only the first of two shocks the Russian leaderreserved for the CIS countries in the space of two weeks. Thesecond shock came in the form of a decree by which the Russianpresident ordered his government to accelerate the pace of economic,political, diplomatic, and military integration of those stateswith Russia, again without consultation or reference to thosestates’ sovereign latitude of choice. After all this, a proposalby Russia’s Foreign Ministry to create a center for monitoringthe entry and exit of foreign citizens to and from CIS countries,and to empower Russia’s consulates in the outside world to representthe citizens and firms of CIS countries, seemed almost trivialby comparison with all its alarming implications.

Some of the countries managed to weather these shocks betterthan others. The Foreign Ministers of Ukraine, Moldova, and Turkmenistanexplicitly rejected the idea of participation in a bloc by referringto their respective countries’ self-assumed obligations of neutrality.The president of Kazakhstan and aides to the president of Kyrgyzstanrejected the bloc idea in more cautious but nevertheless unmistakablestatements. The president of Belarus was virtually alone in endorsing the bloc and urging others to rally; but he was challenged byhis country’s Supreme Soviet chairman who cited Belarus’ constitutionallysanctioned neutrality. Other countries, more vulnerable to Russianpressure or more in need of Russian support, appeared to keeptheir opposition or reservations to themselves.


Ukraine: Growing Security Role

The envisaged enlargement of NATO placed a security dilemma beforeUkraine. Its admission to NATO being ruled out for a long timeto come by the alliance, by Moscow, and by the realities of Ukrainiandomestic politics, Kiev continued to express the fear of beingforced into the situation of a "buffer" between Russiaand an enlarged NATO. Such a situation could be fraught with instabilityand generate pressures from Moscow to turn the buffer into anally and outpost of Russia. To obviate or postpone such a development,Ukrainian policy makers had recently urged a cautious pace toNATO’s enlargement and redoubled efforts to reassure Russia thatit did not face a security threat from Ukraine. But at the sametime Kiev intensified its participation in NATO’s Partnershipfor Peace program to the point of emerging at the forefront ofthe newly independent countries’ cooperation with NATO.

A special session of the North Atlantic Council approved on September14 Ukraine’s individual program of cooperation with NATO underthe PfP program. The Brussels meeting upgraded Ukraine’s statusin relation to NATO by using the 16+1 formula for consultations,a formula available only to Russia until now. The North AtlanticCouncil recognized in a communique Ukraine’s key importance toEurope’s stability and security, supported Ukraine’s independenceand integrity, and welcomed its democratic changes and economicreforms.

Ukraine continues in the meantime to face a security challengein Crimea from the Russian-controlled Black Sea Fleet. Russian-Ukrainianagreements on the fleet’s partition and on the status of itsfuture Russian portion on Ukrainian territory are reported tobe close to completion, apparently on terms favorable to Russia.But Kiev now conditions the resolution of those two issues ona further agreement regarding compensation to Ukraine for theuse of land, resources, infrastructure, and territorial watersby the future Russian portion of the fleet. Some Russian officialscomplain that the rental and usage fees Ukraine proposes to chargeare high enough to asphyxiate the fleet financially or force itto simply leave Ukrainian ports.

Despite this continuing challenge in its own backyard, Ukrainebegan cautiously to assume the role of a supplier of militaryassistance to former Soviet countries not wishing to depend fullyor at all on Russian military assistance. In Riga, Ukrainian defenseminister Valery Shmariv agreed with his counterpart Maris Gailisthat Ukraine will extend material and technical assistance toLatvia’s army and help to train Latvian officers. In Ashgabat,Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov said aftermeeting with Udovenko that Turkmenistan would be able to createa national army with Ukrainian assistance.

Moldova: Deadlock in Transdniester

Yet another Russian- and OSCE-mediated meeting between PresidentMircea Snegur and Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov came and wentfruitlessly, with Transdniester insisting on full-fledged statehoodand all its attributes. Chisinau for the first time offered officiallyand publicly to conclude a constitutional agreement granting Transdniesterthe status of a "republic" within a federalized Moldova,but this was rejected by Tiraspol. Boris Yeltsin’s foreign policyadviser Dimity Ryurikov came to Chisinau to discuss a possiblemeeting between Yeltsin, Snegur, and Smirnov to settle the conflict"at the summit." Reflecting Snegur’s professed trustin Yeltsin’s capacity and will to settle the Dniester conflictfrom above on terms acceptable to Moldova, officials in Chisinauindicated that they eagerly awaited a meeting in Moscow. But Russia’sambassador to Moldova lowered their expectations: the October1994 agreement to withdraw the Russian troops from Moldova, heinsisted, lacks validity until ratified by the Duma. The chanceof ratification has been shown to be nil.

In the Russian capital meanwhile, one of the most memorable episodesin the brief annals of post-Soviet parliamentarism was triggeredby the appearance of Tiraspol’s Igor Smirnov as an unscheduledspeaker on an unscheduled item on Moldova at the Duma’s sessionon the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. When Father Gleb Yakunin, thedemocratic deputy and former Soviet camp prisoner, objected tothe impromptu change of schedule, he was physically assaultedby ultranationalist deputies Nikolai Lysenko (who also tore offand confiscated Yakunin’s crucifix) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky;and the latter then assaulted a female deputy who had tried toshield Yakunin. The incident was seen on television in Russiaand worldwide. What the media missed entirely was Smirnov’s speechasking for Russian recognition of Transdniester, as a transitorystage toward Transdniester’s accession to the Russian Federation.Smirnov described his fief, where Soviet-era Russian settlersform 25 percent of the population and exercise minority rule,as "ancestral Russian land."

The Baltic States: Sights Set on NATO

During the past two weeks the three Baltic states waged an intensecampaign to promote the enlargement of NATO and urge the allianceto consider them for membership. Baltic political leaders anddiplomats challenged the notion, prevalent in some NATO circles,that the admission of the Baltic states could only be considered,if at all, after that of the Central European countries. In arapid succession of meetings with their counterparts from NATOcountries and also from countries aspiring to NATO membership,Baltic presidents and prime, foreign, and defense ministers presentedthe case for early consideration of their admission to the alliancein the interest of common security. They also discussed an intensificationof bilateral military assistance programs to the Baltic statesof their activities in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Ascould be expected, Nordic countries took the lead in supportingthe case for a more rapid integration with NATO of the three Balticstates. Outside NATO, it was Poland who markedly increased itsprofile in discussing regional issues of common concern with theBaltic states.


Georgia’s Gamble

Georgian head of state Eduard Shevardnadze virtually admittedto engaging in a high-risk gamble by granting military basingrights to Russia, as a quid pro quo for Russian support to therestoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Moscow also paidfor the basing agreement with commitments to supply massive economicaid to Georgia. Those commitments may yet prove to be insolventeven as Russian troops stay put in Georgia. Tbilisi had alreadyagreed to federalizing the country as a precondition to any reintegrationof Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Shevardnadze signed with Russianprime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in Tbilisi an agreement legalizingthe presence of Russian troops at three bases in Georgia, twoof them fronting on Turkey. The agreement’s precise terms werenot disclosed. The preparation and ultimate signing of the agreementprompted the Abkhaz leadership to raise the alarm about a possiblejoint Russian-Georgian military operation to restore Georgiancontrol over Abkhazia. Georgian leaders in turn felt emboldenedto warn of unilateral military action against Abkhazia and SouthOssetia if they insisted on full-fledged secession from Georgiainstead of accepting a compromise solution in a federal framework.

The increase in tensions with the breakaway regions was accompaniedby a remarkable stabilization of Georgian domestic politics. Shevardnadze’sauthority rose to a very high level in the wake of the assassinationattempt against him. Substantial sectors of the opposition supportedthe state leader’s crackdown on violent political opposition groupslinked to criminal organizations.


Kazakhstan‘s president Nursultan Nazarbayev issued a long-prepareddecree to move the country’s capital to Akmola in northern Kazakhstanfrom Almaty in the southeast. The main but usually unstated considerationbehind the decision is to assert Kazakhstan’s authority in thenorth of the country, where the indigenous Kazakh population waspartially uprooted and large numbers of Russians were settledduring the Soviet period, creating a potential Russian irredentasince Kazakhstan became independent. Akmola itself, known underSoviet rule as Tselinograd, has only 27 percent ethnic Kazakhsin its 300,000 population.

Kyrgyzstan gave democracy a chance when its legislativeassembly voted overwhelmingly against holding a referendum onthe question of prolonging president Askar Akayev’s tenure inoffice until the year 2000 or 20001. The referendum was expectedto produce a landslide in favor of extending the presidential term, but the country’s elite and politically aware citizensin Bishkek

managed to block the initiative. Akayev, an authoritarian reformerand modernizer, remains the favorite in the presidential electionwhich is due later this year.

In Tajikistan, the scheduled fifth round of negotiationsamong the government and the armed opposition failed to materializebecause of the government’s intransigence in the preliminarydiscussions. Meanwhile two rival factions in the pro-Moscow regime’sarmed forces fought each other with tanks and artillery aroundthe city of Kurgan, where they have been competing for controlof the local economy. But Moscow and Dushanbe need those troops,and Russia’s Lt.-General Valentin Bobryshev, commander of nominallyCIS peacekeeping troops in Tajikistan, rushed to mediate in theconflict. A senior UN military observer from Austria was killedin the crossfire.

In Uzbekistan‘s Karakalpak republic, bordering on theAral Sea, a three-day international conference of officials andexperts surveyed the ecological and genetic disaster bequeathedto the region by predatory exploitation during Soviet rule. Theconference in Nukus called for internationally-assisted measuresto halt desertification of the region and degeneration of itspopulation, which suffers from the highest disease rates in theterritory of the former USSR.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation