Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 1

Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s surprise departure from power left world leaders stunned over the holiday weekend. U.S. President Bill Clinton and others scrambled to hail Yeltsin for the contribution he made to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and to the establishment of democracy in Russia. And in their public statements world leaders also welcomed the naming of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting president and expressed hopes that the former spymaster’s ascent to power will usher in an era of stability and continued progress toward democracy in Russia.

Behind the mostly positive public rhetoric, however, the change of leadership in Russia was clearly being viewed warily in foreign capitals. The last years of Yeltsin’s presidency were in many regards a disaster, as the ailing Russian leader became increasingly erratic in his conduct of both domestic and foreign policy. But, for all his shortcomings, Yeltsin was at least a known quantity, a man who had met nineteen times with U.S. President Bill Clinton and who had strong personal relationships with a number of world leaders in Europe and elsewhere.

The same is not true of the forty-seven-year-old Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer who until his surprise appointment as prime minister in August had been best known (but hardly well known) as the head of the Federal Security Service–Russia’s chief domestic intelligence agency and the main successor organization to the KGB. Western leaders were quick to highlight the modest credentials as a reformer that Putin had exhibited during a stint as the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. They also welcomed a series of public and private statements–from Yeltsin and from Putin himself–attesting to what they said would be the new president’s commitment to the ideals of a democratic and free Russia and to continued cooperation with the West. Those points were made, for example, during a twenty-minute telephone conversation between Yeltsin and Clinton on December 31, and then on the following day during a shorter chat between Clinton and Putin (EFE via COMTEX, December 31; Washington Post, January 1).

For all of that, Western leaders can hardly be heartened by the ascent to the Russian presidency of a career intelligence officer whose political popularity is based solely on his conduct of a bloody and barbaric war in the North Caucasus. There is also little to welcome about the parallel fact that Putin has made himself the front man in a virulently anti-Western campaign, one which is being driven by hardline leaders from Russia’s military and security establishments and which is being used as justification for increased military spending and a buildup of Russia’s armed forces. Putin appeared to confirm that those would remain his priorities in remarks made on December 31 following a meeting of the Russian Security Council. The acting Russian president was quoted as saying that Moscow “will not change its foreign policy; it will continue building up the armed forces and [pursuing] military reforms focusing not only on providing them with modern arms, but also on solving their social problems” (Reuters, Russian agencies, December 31).

At least one Western leader, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, expressed over the weekend the hope that Yeltsin’s departure and Putin’s temporary appointment as president would bring “to a speedy end” the war in Chechnya and the suffering of the Chechen people (Washington Post, January 1). That would seem to be wishful thinking. Indeed, given the dependence of his political hopes on a complete victory over the Chechen rebels, Putin seems likely to intensify Moscow’s war effort as he advances toward what is expected to be a late March presidential vote. And, barring a quick Russian triumph, that policy in turn could very well poison any possible efforts by Moscow and the West to mend fences in the wake of Yeltsin’s departure from office and the installation of a new leader in the Kremlin. A more pragmatic policy of cooperation with the West–should Putin choose to pursue one–could also stumble over the acting Russian president’s alliance with military hardliners. In political terms they have profited enormously from the Cold War-style confrontation with the West which Moscow has whipped up in recent months, and they will surely be reticent to see any relaxation of tensions occur, unless that relaxation comes on their own terms.