Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 5

The danger of Russia’s great power illusions

By David Satter

As the Senate prepares to vote on the issue of NATO expansion, the key to whether such expansion is warranted lies in the history of Russia’s behavior over the last six years on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

There is nearly unanimous support in the West for NATO membership should the countries of Eastern Europe be threatened by Russia but it is frequently argued that no such threat exists. The record of Russia’s actions in the former Soviet Union, however, strongly suggests that a threat to Eastern European stability does exist which could become a great deal more serious if Russia gains strength.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Army has deteriorated dramatically as a disciplined, fighting force. Nonetheless, Russia has been involved in three sanguinary wars, each of which it helped to initiate. The total deaths from these conflicts is believed to exceed 200,000 — the number of persons killed in Bosnia.

Russia’s reliance on force in the former Soviet space was evident both in the countries of the "near abroad" and within the borders of the Russian Federation.

In the case of the wars in the former Soviet republics, Russia armed proxies to advance its strategic interests. The first and most blatant example of this tendency was the war in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic of Georgia.

The breakup of the Soviet Union deprived Russia of deep water harbors on the Black Sea coast. Such ports, however, existed in Georgia. In the summer of 1992, Abkhazia, the northwest corner of Georgia, was visited by Russian defense and intelligence officials. A short time later, the Abkhazians declared their independence. When Georgian troops tried to crush the revolt, they were defeated by an "Abkhazian" army which appeared out of nowhere and whose ranks were filled with mercenaries recruited by Russian intelligence.

This army soon controlled almost all of Western Georgia. Facing military defeat, the Georgian government agreed to lease its Black Sea ports to Russia. In the meantime, the Abkhazians engaged in "ethnic cleansing," leaving the Abkhazians as the largest group in the republic.

Today, the Russian Coast Guard patrols Georgian waters. There are Russian "peacekeepers" stationed between Georgia and Abkhazia who have taken few steps either to repatriate Georgian refugees or to help end the conflict. There are also 15,000 Russian troops stationed at military bases in Georgia and Russian border guards patrol Georgia’s southern border with Turkey.

The Georgians resent the Russian presence but the Russians are blind to their wishes. "They don’t respect our interests because they don’t feel we are a sovereign state," as Alec Rondeli, an analyst in the Georgian Foreign Ministry, put it in an interview recently.

Another example of Russia’s readiness to interfere in the domestic affairs of independent states was provided by the civil war in Tajikistan.

In the fall of 1992, Rakhmon Nabiev, the pro-Russian former Communist leader and president of the republic, was forced out by social unrest and power was taken by a coalition of Islamic and democratic parties. Tajikistan was visited by Russian officials and, a short time later, a new "democratic opposition" to the coalition government appeared and began to be supplied with huge amounts of weapons from Russian army depots in the republic. Russia’s 201st division, which had been trapped in Tajikistan because of a lack of funds to evacuate it, entered the war, fighting on the side of the opposition.

The Russian-backed former Communists regained power but there was no end to the fighting. The Islamic side fought on from bases in Afghanistan. The result was five years of bitter civil war which ended only on June 27, when the two sides finally reached an agreement on power sharing, in effect, returning to the Islamic side the power it lost in 1992.

The agreement, however, is not expected to last. Igor Rotar reported in the July 11, 1997 issue of Prism that the situation was similar to that in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Both the government and the Islamic forces were split and each of the competing groups was determined to seize power at any price.

In the cases of both Georgia and Tajikistan, Russia made no effort to reach agreement with the legitimate governments but preferred to advance its strategic interests by force. Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of Russia’s reliance on force, however, took place on the territory of the Russian Federation in the war in Chechnya.

Chechnya declared its independence in 1991 and, for three years, Russia made no move to end its de facto independence. In the summer of 1994, however, it became apparent that Azerbaijan was going to sign an agreement with Western oil companies to exploit its huge oil reserves on the Caspian Sea shelf. Oil could be moved either through a future pipeline traversing Georgia and Turkey or through the existing Russian pipeline which went through Chechnya. For the latter to be usable, however, Russia had to control Chechnya.

In the fall of 1994, following visits to Chechnya by Russian defense and intelligence officials, centers of armed opposition appeared in Chechnya which quickly were provided with heavy equipment and armor from nearby army bases. On November 26, the opposition stormed Grozny, the Chechen capital. When the attack was repulsed, the Russian authorities decided to crush the separatist regime, using Russian troops instead. In the war that followed, 80,000 persons were killed, the economy of Russia was damaged, and that of Chechnya virtually destroyed.

Had Russia been a less impoverished country, it almost certainly would have pounded Chechnya into submission. As it was, faced with determined Chechen resistance, the Russian leadership agreed to withdraw Russian troops and Chechnya, which celebrated the sixth anniversary of its declaration of independence with a military parade through its capital, appears well on its way to securing for itself many of the attributes of an independent state.

The situation in the former Soviet space is now relatively quiet. In the case of Russia’s wars in the "near abroad" and the war in Chechnya, however, the map of the region was determined not by considerations of justice but by the rule of force. This is an important fact to bear in mind in evaluating the wisdom of expanding NATO.

Russia is militarily weak at the moment but its weakness is not necessarily permanent. Russia still has the largest army in Europe and, despite a drastic fall in industrial production, its military factories are turning out a new series of nuclear submarines, a new, mobile strategic missile system, and a MiG fighter which, according to experts, is equal to the French Mirage-2000 fighter and slightly outperforms the American F-16.

In the circumstances, Russia remains a formidable power and the history of Russia’s behavior in the former Soviet space during the last six years gives no reason to believe that Russia is committed to permanent non-interference in Eastern Europe, a region it has always viewed as its rightful sphere of influence.

This is why NATO expansion is important. It would deprive Russia of the temptation to indulge one day in the kind of behavior in Eastern Europe that has led to senseless bloodbaths in Georgia, Tajikistan and Chechnya.

And, although the point is not made often enough, NATO membership for Eastern Europe would be in the best interests of Russia itself.

By forcing Russia to confront the futility of imperialist behavior, NATO expansion will encourage the forces inside Russia which stand for moderation and realism. At the same time, it will a foster respect for the rights of small nations which can only encourage respect for rights generally. The net result will be not only to protect the potential victims of aggression but to make a contribution to Russia’s future as a democracy as well.

David Satter is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (Knopf). This article is being reprinted with the permission of the Jewish Forward.


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