A New Iron Curtain

NATO is incautiously expanding eastward, which has thoughtful Russians worried about being fenced out of Europe—and worse

Russia today is both weaker and much more cautious than most people in the West realize. There are no indications at present that the Yeltsin government or any other rational Russian government that might come into being (excluding, that is, the likes of Zhirinovsky and his adherents) would be willing to pay the immense economic and diplomatic costs of trying to bring Ukraine and the Balts to their knees. As for the Russian people, while they are certainly deeply nostalgic for the Soviet Union and great-power status, they are also deeply unwilling to sacrifice Russian lives and money to restore that status. This is shown by the widespread unpopularity of the military operations in Chechnya and Tajikistan—something that should give pause to those in the West who talk about Russians' being "naturally imperialist." The French, for example, fought infinitely harder in defense of their colonial empire, from the 1940s to the 1960s, than the Russians have done.

Apart from Chechnya and Tajikistan, Russian military pressure on the republics to submit to Russian hegemony, though often cynical and ruthless, has been exercised through local intermediaries (Abkhaz, Ossetes, Armenians, Transdniestrians), and has therefore been both veiled and limited in scope. As for the intervention in Chechnya, the whole affair has been morally vile, but this republic is, after all, internationally recognized as part of the Russian Federation, and the Russian government hesitated for more than three years before finally invading, in the face of immense provocation from DzhokarDudayev, the President of Chechnya. Western governments over the past generation or so would have shown less restraint. What has happened in Chechnya therefore does not necessarily prefigure Russian policies beyond Russia's borders—especially since Russia has gotten such a bloody nose there.

Western diplomats in Moscow generally know all this—though I detect an alarming tendency among the more opportunistic and cowardly of them to suppress this knowledge in the face of the prevailing wind blowing from their chancelleries at home, and among those chancelleries simply to ignore or censor advice from their Moscow embassies when it runs counter to the new Western consensus.

One problem is that in the West the public discussion, insofar as it exists at all, is taking place in an atmosphere of op- ed pieces highly colored by Cold War attitudes, Russophobia, ignorance of the region, fundamental indifference to the fate of the Balts and the Ukrainians, and a hypocritical refusal to set Russia's present experience in a general context of European decolonization and neo- colonialism—at which point it becomes clear that brutal defense of an existing sphere of influence does not necessarily make a country a threat to the rest of the world.

* * *

The global threat from the Soviet Union came from a mixture of that state's implacable anti- Western ideology, communism's claim to universal truth and applicability, and the immensely powerful Soviet armed forces. Russia today possesses none of these features, and Russian nationalism, while often dangerous and disgusting, poses no direct threat to anyone beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Since Russia is thus not a security threat to Eastern Europe, and most Western analysts know this, the real but unacknowledged motives for NATO expansion have to be sought elsewhere. They appear to be fourfold.

* Within the United States the reason seems to be strongly connected to electoral politics, in the desire of both the Clinton Administration and its Republican opponents to appeal to the Polish and other ethnic lobbies, and in the desire of the Administration to be seen as taking a firm, tough, "dynamic" initiative in international affairs, so as to counteract a general impression of confusion and weakness. Among the Republicans, however, the wish for a stronger U.S. stand against China and Russia coincides with a growing unwillingness to supply foreign aid to regional states or to pursue nonmilitary strategies of deterrence—an intellectually ludicrous and politically dangerous mixture, because it risks encouraging the Ukrainians, for example, to take up tougher positions vis-à-vis Moscow, only to find themselves abandoned by the United States should a crisis result.

* The Western Europeans are falling in line with this U.S. initiative above all out of fear that America will turn isolationist and withdraw from Europe—a fear strengthened by aspects of contemporary Republicanism and mutual irritations over Bosnia. In the (patronizing) words of one Western European diplomat, "We have to give the Americans some new toys to play with in NATO, because we're afraid that otherwise they may get bored and go home."

The Germans in particular have a curious mixture of attitudes: Liberal Germans are possessed by their old fear that unless Germany is anchored in NATO, and NATO is maintained by being expanded, German nationalists may be tempted once again to pursue the German Sonderweg ("separate path"). The nationalists, for their part, do see NATO expansion as a path to greater German influence in Europe, and to rolling back Russia, which they detest for having defeated and humiliated them in 1945. Both camps want a row of NATO buffer states between themselves and the unstable former Soviet Union, even at the risk of making that instability much worse. In neither case is it an ethical position.

* An additional Western European reason for agreeing to NATO expansion is an awareness of just how difficult it will be to expand the European Union, the other Western organization that the Eastern Europeans are passionately eager to join. Russia has no objections to EU expansion, because although it would clearly expand Western influence, it would also carry the possibility of major economic advantages for Russia. Thus the Russian government actually publicly welcomed Finland's entry into the EU.

But as far as the EU itself is concerned, full membership for the Eastern Europeans is the subject of an immense internal debate, at a time when Europe is nowhere near digesting or resolving the consequences of Maastricht or agreeing on its own future nature and identity. In particular, expansion to include Eastern Europe would mean a complete renegotiation of the Common Agricultural Policy—an idea that makes European officials blench. From the point of view of, say, French officials, Russian anger pales into insignificance when compared with the fury of French farmers, who can really make them suffer—or so they think. But clearly the West has to do something to honor all those promises to the Eastern Europeans—so why not expand NATO?

* Finally, there is the sheer force of bureaucratic inertia and interest politics. NATO is an immense international military-bureaucratic organization that also directly and indirectly feeds huge numbers of intellectuals, journalists, and analysts. Consciously or unconsciously, all these people have a strong interest in keeping their jobs by finding a new and continuing role for NATO; and if they can't agree on such a role, then expansion will have to serve as a substitute. The intellectually lazy and cowardly among them also find it easier to recycle Cold War images of the Russian threat than to try to make sense of a new and confusing multipolar world—in which, for example, one really ought to know some foreign languages.

All these factors together add up to immensely powerful political reasons for NATO expansion—but reasons that are utterly feeble in terms of the real interests both of the West and of Russia's neighbors.

The risk now exists that relations with Russia are about to enter an ever- faster downward spiral. In the context of the Russian parliamentary elections due at this writing to be held in December and of the presidential election scheduled for June, anti- Western rhetoric is bound to increase. The same will be true, to a lesser extent, of anti- Russian rhetoric in the United States in the period before the presidential elections. Harsh Russian statements may lead to speeded- up NATO expansion; the Russian response will then become even harsher; and so on. The potential consequences of this range from the serious to the disastrous. (If the Russian presidential elections are canceled, or if Yeltsin dies before then and there is an attempt to create some sort of dilapidated Yeltsinite autocracy, then the implications for Russian foreign policy will not be so clear.)

For the moment Western readiness to renegotiate the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty so as to accommodate Russia's new post-Soviet strategic position has helped to prevent a complete breakdown. So, too, has the fact that NATO has made it clear that the process of accepting the new members will take several years.

* * *

For the future, however, it is still the case that Russian officials and analysts threaten a general collapse of cooperation and deliberate Russian attempts to sabotage Western interests elsewhere in the world in the event of a rapid NATO expansion to Eastern Europe without some considerable compensation for Russia. For example, at present the standing orders to Russian diplomats at the United Nations are to cooperate with the West except when this is seen as clearly against Russia's interests. Those orders could be changed, and the UN returned to its position of Cold War paralysis. This might not worry those Republicans who in any case loathe the UN, but it ought to worry every Westerner who is aware of how frequently the UN has served the West's interests since 1990.

In the new, unpredictable multipolar world, and given the potential danger from China over the next few years, Western policy toward Russia should in my view be devoted to keeping options open, and keeping an eye on the West's possible future need of Russia as an ally—since Western and Russian interests still actually coincide in several vital parts of the world. This policy should be abandoned only if a Russian government demonstrates clearly aggressive intentions toward its western neighbors—which is not at present the case. And as Bohdan Krawchenko has stressed, this is no moment—just as economic reform in Ukraine is beginning to gather speed—to be risking Ukraine's progress toward the West, by drawing new borders that exclude it.

If NATO expansion is slowed to take account of Russia's objections, and if Russia tones down those objections so as not to strain its relations with the West, the reason is indeed likely to be China. Both Russian and Western policymakers are increasingly aware that it would be very foolish for either Russia or the West to allow the issue of NATO expansion in Europe to wreck the chances of future cooperation in the Far East at a time when China's future is looking so uncertain, and when so many potential Chinese threats to Far Eastern security and even territory exist.

Russian policy therefore remains to try to influence NATO by cooperating with it—hence the decision to join the Partnership for Peace. An additional reason for this policy is that although the anger of Russian diplomats over NATO behavior is unfeigned, more serious and less paranoid Russians do of course realize that NATO represents no threat of direct attack on Russia. Indeed, the Western alliance's display of weakness, cowardice, and internal divisions over Bosnia has diminished Russian fears of NATO as an organization.

There remains, therefore, a good chance that over the next few years NATO expansion, and the Russian response to it, will be finessed so as to reduce any damage to NATO- Russian relations and any threat of greater instability in the former Soviet Union. Alternatively, that expansion will be delayed until the emergence of new global issues makes the whole question seem unimportant to both Russia and the West. There is also, however, a real danger that under a new, more nationalist Russian government, and a more hard-line Republican Administration in the United States, disputes over the issue would veer out of control, with consequences that cannot be foreseen.

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