Russia’s slow progress over the past ten years, from implacable adversary to cautious friend of Western interests and Western values, is the second casualty of the war in Yugoslavia. (The first, as Senator Hiram Johnson taught us, is truth.)

Even as President Boris Yeltsin and his sometime rival, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, search for a role for Russian diplomacy in fashioning a settlement of the crisis in Kosovo, Russian politicians and the Russian public have turned decisively against NATO’s tactics, strategy and motives. The prime minister calls the West “barbaric.” The foreign minister accuses NATO of “genocide” and “terrorism.”

Western politicians have tended to deride this inflamed rhetoric of their Russian counterparts as “just for domestic consumption.” But why does such language resonate with the Russian public?

One Russian observer, Tatyana Matsuk of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says the answer lies in the inflated, romantic hopes of a decade ago, when Russians looked for a quick transition to democracy, prosperity and integration with the industrialized West. The West, she writes in the April 23 edition of Jamestown’s Prism, promoted Russia’s exaggerated expectations but made no effort to understand Russian realities. In its arrogance and ignorance, the West gave money and support to “people who looked respectable and made nice speeches in good English,” leading to corruption and collapse.

In Ms. Matsuk’s analysis, the utter failure of “reformers” whom the West had backed and praised restored cynicism to the center of Russian thinking about Western policy. So when Western leaders say the bombing of Yugoslavia is intended to prevent a humanitarian disaster, Russians are skeptical. They remember Western silence when Mikhail Gorbachev suppressed ethnic uprisings in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Lithuania, and when Boris Yeltsin in the name of “constitutional order” killed tens of thousands of civilians in Chechnya. They seek other motives for NATO’s behavior: a connection to President Clinton’s impeachment, a U.S. scheme to reduce Europe’s attractiveness for investment capital, a vision of Kosovo as a “strategic crossroads” for cheap raw materials.

Bizarre as these theories may seem to us, they are plausible to Russians, Ms. Matsuk writes. And the coercive power of NATO weaponry is easy to portray as a direct threat to a Russia weakened by the failure of reform. Communists, nationalists and patriots can appeal to the electorate’s sense of victimization and vulnerability: “You were told that under the communist system you lived badly and were lied to. But under the democratic system you live no better and you are still lied to. With democracy you have double standards, lying self-indulgent politicians and American bombs over your heads if you don’t behave how the West wants…. We must restore justice. We need a state with a “strong hand” and a powerful economy capable of mobilizing everything to repulse the enemy. Then we will be feared again–which means we will be respected.”

That is a powerful argument with a strong emotional appeal. The difficulty of rebutting its political logic leads one of Russia’s failed reformers, former Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, to assert that “every strike on Yugoslavia is a blow to the prospects of maintaining democracy in Russia.”