Beset by foreign policy crises in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, President Clinton and his chief advisers have argued over and again that they are at least getting the big issues right. They invariably point to their policy toward Russia as the exemplar of this success. Indeed, the administration deserves great credit for energetically organizing multinational economic assistance to the former Soviet Union. It also chose wisely to endorse Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s dictatorship during the September struggle with his parliamentary opponents--though it was inconceivable that any American administration could have lined up behind Ruslan Khasbulatov and Aleksandr Rutskoi. The real choice was whether to support Yeltsin with strong words or weak ones.

Individual accomplishments, however, must be judged against some external standard. The best measure of success with Russia is the extent to which America and its friends have become safer and more secure. Judged by this ruler, the results are troubling. The Clinton administration has elevated support for internal reform in Russia--a means to an end--into an end in itself. It is revealing that the administration’s own policy czar of all the Russias, Strobe Talbott, has emphasized to the Congress that, "Bill Clinton made clear that support for reform in the newly independent states would be the number one foreign policy priority of his administration."

While there has been much support for reform, there has been less success so far on the objective of enhancing America’s security. American policies have not kept pace with the growing danger of dispersal of nuclear weapons and materials within the former Soviet Union. Russia and other republics could still become important conventional arsenals for America’s adversaries. And the record of cooperation in "global problem solving" with Russia has gone from excellent at the end of 1991 to problematic by the end of 1993.

After Russian–American rapprochement swelled into a genuine entente between Moscow and Washington during 1990 and 1991, both the Bush and Clinton administrations were hopeful that they might press on to turn the relationship into a true "strategic partnership" or quasi–alliance. These hopes are now fading. In the years ahead it will be difficult enough to protect the old entente as the path to democracy grows more tortuous, divergences between Russian and American interests become clearer, and the Russians react to a geopolitical relationship they increasingly consider to be one–sided.

President Clinton has wholly cast America’s lot with Yeltsin, despite having criticized President Bush for too strongly and lengthily attaching American interests to Mikhail Gorbachev. The alternative to the current U.S. policy is not abandonment of Russian reform. It is the articulation of coherent policy goals that transcend internal Russian politics. The adhesion to Yeltsin risks encouraging within Russia exactly the polarized, anti–American tendencies that Washington fears. The United States should make clear that its policies are guided by the lodestar of enduring American security objectives, whatever Russian faction prevails. Such a position can more easily be explained and defended to Congress and the American people. Meanwhile, the United States would remain free to support whichever Russian leaders are most able to help the United States achieve its security goals. Such a position may be more candid. It will certainly be more durable. The Russians and others will respect both qualities.


America is not bound to Russia, Ukraine or other former Soviet republics by deep or intrinsic ties of history, culture, demography or commerce. Before the Second World War Russia did not have an important role in the history or interests of the United States. Usually friendly, sometimes hostile, American relations with Russia were, above all, distant. Concerns about Russia, for instance, played little part in bringing America into either World War I or World War II. American interest in Russia during and after World War II arose from Russia’s involvement in or threat to those areas where the United States did have such deep and intrinsic interests. In other words, American national interests in the Soviet Union during the last half century were an outgrowth of concerns about Soviet security policy.

This condition has not really changed. The real and latent military capabilities, threat of conflict, and possible imbalances of power emanating from the former Soviet Union remain the primary reason for American interest in the region. Contrary to statements from the Clinton administration, there is nothing especially compelling about Russia’s value to the United States either as a market for goods or as a source of commodities (except for oil). Russia ranks alongside Turkey in the value of its trade with the United States. American direct investment in Russia is one–fortieth of its investment in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and does not even match what Disney has risked in opening its French amusement park. In 1991 the United States exported more to tiny Malaysia than it did to Russia and all of the other republics of the former Soviet Union put together.

Traditional security concerns--concerns about conflict and military power--thus remain the principal motives for strong American interest in the fate of Russia and the Eurasian republics. And among those, no issue is more important to the United States than the fate of the enormous nuclear arsenal that belonged to the Soviet Union.


The Clinton administration has made little progress on the problem of nuclear weapons dispersed in the former Soviet republics, specifically in Ukraine. The strategy is such a patchwork of improvisation that at this point it is difficult to make out what theory of persuasion lies beneath it. When it was a strategy of appeasement--offering reassurances and promises of aid to propitiate Kiev—the results were counterproductive. If it has since become a strategy of both carrots and sticks, then the only stick has been to withhold baby carrots. Nor is it clear why Washington has not involved West European allies to a greater extent and has instead reserved for itself all the risks and burdens of a problem that concerns all.

Thus to influence Kiev to give up nuclear weapons, the Clinton administration has moved from single–issue pressure tactics to promises of fruitful general relations to aid enticements to military "cooperation" in exchange for Kiev’s early deactivation of strategic missiles. Washington has also tried to arrange purchase of Ukraine’s resulting cache of highly enriched uranium. Some useful progress was made during the summer, aided by Secretary Les Aspin’s use of defense–to–defense channels. But by the end of September the deal had fallen apart, along with the Ukrainian government. Ukraine’s ability to carry forward any major policy initiative now appears overwhelmed by the country’s economic and political crisis. The Ukrainian position on retaining nuclear weapons has hardened. The day before Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s October visit to Kiev, President Leonid Kravchuk stated in a speech that Ukraine’s nonnuclear goals should be viewed in the same way and on the same timetable as the global nuclear disarmament of all other nations. A month after Christopher left Kiev, the Ukrainian parliament openly and overwhelmingly defied the United States by refusing to join the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or to forswear nuclear weapons.

The primary weakness of U.S. strategy has been that it alternates between anemic support and toothless hostility of the kind that annoys without commanding respect. Ukraine has correctly assumed that America unconditionally backs its continued independence, a view that is the logical outgrowth of the American sympathy for the forces of self–determination in the Soviet Union’s declining years. But the administration must clearly condition its future support for an independent Ukrainian state. After all, Kiev s assurances about nuclear weapons were linked to America’s original 1991 recognition of the new state. The United States must spell out a strong set of positive and negative consequences for Ukrainian behavior.

If Ukraine does not abjure nuclear weapons, Washington should make clear that it will lobby Western Europe to join in cutting off support for Kiev. The United States and the European Community, moreover, would not only stand aloof from Ukraine’s disputes with Russia but would also be forced to look to Russia as the ultimate guarantor of Eurasian stability. Ukraine could well conclude that, under such circumstances, retaining nuclear weapons would only place its national survival in greater doubt. If, on the other hand, Ukraine chose to align itself with the West, it would receive substantial U.S. assistance, not only economic, but also for its conventional military defenses -- concrete military aid, not empty security "guarantees." Russia might dislike this Western course but, given the choice, it would still choose a nuclear–free Ukraine above all else.

The United States must also worry about the vast stockpile of some 30,000 nuclear weapons in Russia itself. Although the Russians have many more nuclear weapons than the United States, Washington’s concern now is not with the strategic military balance. The more urgent issue is the safety and security of this tremendous arsenal, the related stockpiles of fissile material and other human and material assets used in building nuclear bombs. Russian nuclear forces are scattered among more than 200 different locations throughout the federation. At many of these sites isolated detachments guard aging stockpiles of obsolete bombs or missiles, parts of a nuclear custodial system designed for a very different environment than the one that now exists. One–tenth of one percent of the Russian nuclear arsenal could devastate dozens of large cities and kill millions of people. Yet Russia today is a country where the government cannot confidently assert effective control over 99.9 percent of anything.


Another deeply worrying security problem that faces the United States is the supply of arms to radical states. The stance of Russia (and Ukraine) will plainly be critical for revisionist challenges to the hierarchy of world power led by the United States. States like Iran do not need to match America’s military might; they need only start by building up enough sophisticated forces to offset the portion of America’s power regularly available in the region, raising the stakes for American involvement in a crisis and threatening U.S. freedom of action.

Russia and Ukraine are among the few states able to sell the sophisticated military technology that can even aspire to American levels of quality. Both states know this fact and are anxious to sell more arms. Konstantin Sorokin has pointed out: "Today in Russia, any criticism of arms sales practices on moral or other grounds is rare....This strategy has a broad and influential constituency as well as full governmental backing."1

In 1991 Russia signed a deal to sell three Kilo–class diesel attack submarines to Iran and appears to be renewing substantial military cooperation with China Ukraine has already begun turning to Iran as a source of oil to replace Russian supplies. Arms sales to Iran have been reported as a likely medium of exchange. The lure of the Iranian, Chinese and possibly even Iraqi markets will be powerful as Russia’s traditional arms markets in Eastern Europe dry up or, like India, turn to other sources of supply.

Russian–American disputes over the new arms export policy were crystallized in 1993 by the Russian sale of cryogenic rocket engines to India. Months of high-level negotiations finally produced an agreement that turned a blind eye to some transactions that had already taken place while forbidding new ones. In return for Russia’s forbearance, the United States and Russia concluded a new agreement for cooperation in future manned space exploration.

The cryogenic engines themselves were less important than the apparent lack of connection between the international pledges of Russia’s political leaders and the international behavior of Russia’s state enterprises. The Russian media has reported on the North Korean attempt to set up a ballistic missile research institute with Russian scientists and on the underground delivery to China of technologies and experts in ballistic missile guidance, cruise missiles and sophisticated antisubmarine weapons.

Increasingly U.S. officials are finding that traditional channels for handling international problems through Russia’s foreign ministry seem inadequate or even irrelevant. Although some deals can be struck more or less directly with the entities wielding power over the issue in question, the long–term trend can only worry the United States. The Russian government openly approves of expanded arms sales, and the climate for authorized and "partly authorized" arms exports seems permissive.


Genuine entente once inspired hope in both the Bush and Clinton administrations that relations with Moscow could be turned into a "strategic partnership." Those hopes have faded. They may vanish altogether as the path to Russian democracy grows more tortuous and the divergence between Russian and American interests becomes clearer. Though rarely heard in the United States, more conservative Russian voices, which represent not only the dominant view of the "outsiders" but also many within the Yeltsin regime, express discontent with a geopolitical relationship that is increasingly one–sided. Russia has done little to interfere with U.S. policy initiatives through the United Nations in regions where Russia took little interest, such as Somalia or Haiti. Little cooperation has been needed on Middle Eastern issues. But Russia has already begun to balk at cooperating on smaller matters, disassociating Moscow from the U.S. punitive strike against Iraq in January 1993, refusing to pay Russia’s share of the peacekeeping assessment for U.N. forces in Cyprus, and balking at movement toward harsher U.N. sanctions against Libya.

The major global problem in 1992–93 of common concern to both countries was the Bosnian crisis. Moscow’s principal diplomatic initiative was in May 1993, at a time when military action seemed imminent to enforce Serbian agreement to a cease–fire and acceptance of the Vance–Owen peace initiative. Russia intervened to propose that the Bosnian Muslims be safeguarded in U.N.–protected "safe havens." Moscow won President Clinton’s and Secretary Christopher’s support for the idea. The joint safe–havens proposal, developed after U.S.–Russian consultations, was duly deployed before the end of May.

It is hard to determine what U.S. interests were served by the safe–havens proposal, a policy whose fate soon outran the most pessimistic predictions made for it. At the time the initiative also undermined what little coherence remained in America’s Bosnian policy. This initiative was a success, however, from the Russian perspective. It dissipated the ripening threat of anti–Serb military action. The subsequent movement toward partition has been encouraged by Moscow.

Fears have grown in the West about Russia’s assertive policies in the republics of the former Soviet Union, including the use of force and covert action to reduce Georgia and Azerbaijan to Russian protectorates. The Clinton administration has preferred to say little about these developments, which clash so jarringly with the image of Yeltsin’s Russia being purveyed in order to convince Congress and the public to appropriate aid money. Other commentators have urged, however, that Western leaders use their economic and political leverage to check Russian "adventurism."

In searching for broader themes to determine American policy, two considerations should stand out. The first is U.S. security interests in the region Except for Ukraine and the Baltic states, America’s stakes in the fate of other republics are at the moment limited. The United States lacks strong intrinsic interests in Moldova, Georgia or Tajikistan. In fact Russia’s interests may coincide more with American interests than those of other states, such as Iran, that may be tempted to become involved in these peripheral conflicts. For the United States a continued posture of disinterested detachment may be the best way to help defuse potential conflicts.2

The second guiding principle for American "nationalities" policy should be the preservation of global respect for critical norms of international behavior. One of these is the promotion of peaceful, rather than violent, settlement of international disputes. Yet "self–determination" may not be such a norm, if taken in the collective sense asserted by ethnic groups or nations. A narrower interpretation of self–determination could define it as allowing all individuals the opportunity for effective participation in their government’s political process.

It should be noted, too, that the model of Western–style democratization might not promote civil peace. Several examples suggest that the process of democratization actually inflames or institutionalizes ethnic tensions in severely divided societies, until conditions or political procedures better reward the formation of multiethnic governing coalitions or encourage needed devolution of central control.


Defending the Russian–American entente has been complicated by the Clinton administration’s deliberately simplistic rhetoric, which has portrayed America’s choice in Russia as one of reform versus reaction. The policy is reminiscent of Dean Acheson’s decision to be "clearer than truth" in enunciating the Truman Doctrine in 1947. While such simplified language may be useful in persuading Congress and the American people to support aid programs, it also shapes false perceptions and expectations. In this binary formulation the forces of Russian "reform" are portrayed as synonymous with peace, democracy and national contentment, and the "reactionary" elements with authoritarianism, imperialism and the prospect of a new Cold War. No attempt has been made to prepare the American people for the murkier realities that lie ahead.

Our old assumption was that all reform in Russia was good, because it undermined the totalitarian organization of the Soviet state, which we considered inherently dangerous. Carrying this assumption over to the new era, Ambassador Talbott has described the new U.S. approach as a "strategic alliance with reform" in Russia. Yet not only can America not be sure that reform will win, it cannot even be sure that the reformers, in winning, will maintain many features of democratic governance. Yeltsin effectively assumed dictatorial powers in October 1993 after beating back the parliamentary challenge to his rule, and few Russians believe subsequent elections will be truly free and fair. It also appears increasingly probable that Russia will need to take extraordinary measures to restore basic conditions of public order. In Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov’s July 1993 elaboration of Moscow’s new security concept, it was striking how often he mentioned crime as a threat to be addressed by Russia s armed forces.

Whether reform wins or not, America will want to have a strategic relationship with Russia that furthers U.S. security objectives. The real U.S. alliance should be with any group of leaders in Russia that will guide their state in this direction. Democrats in Russia do tend to be more congenial partners for America’s leaders and help sustain harmony between American global policies and the popular and congressional backing for those policies. Democratic institutions are also more conducive over the long term to both domestic and international stability. Market reform will make Russia stronger in time, and "for the reasons mentioned earlier--a strong Russia can be good for the United States. Yet America got on quite amicably with Czarist Russia during the first century of our republic’s history because the two countries shared common strategic interests.3 While Yeltsin was plainly preferable to Rutskoi and Khasbulatov, the political battle has already passed into a new stage. Understanding the current struggle as one against "ex-communists" is no more use than trying to analyze the French revolutionary battle between Robespierre and Danton as a battle involving "ex–monarchists."

Democrats and advocates of greater freedom are often the most strident secular nationalists. The same Jacksonian democrats who wanted to open up American politics and society during the 1820s and 1830s, helping build the modern American nation, were also among the principal authors of the doctrine of America’s "manifest destiny" to expand to the West.

The United States government should therefore take care in how it draws political portraits of its idealized Russia. It can, if it is careless, use such broad brush strokes that it becomes boxed in. In a major policy address in March, Secretary Christopher declared that: "The most important point is that Russia must remain a democracy during this period, moving toward a market economy. This is the basis the only basis, for the U.S.–Russian partnership."4 More comments like these and Secretary Christopher might have felt even more awkward when he stood up six months later to endorse Yeltsin’s extralegal assumption of dictatorial power including prior restraints on freedom of expression and the press.

Washington should also recognize that, even if economic reform succeeds, it is no guarantee of political stability. England in the 1640s, France in the 1780s and Iran in the 1970s all experienced rapid economic growth. Critical in these cases were the social forces unleashed by economic transformation, placing insupportable demands on governmental institutions and fiscal structures. What we know about the history and sociology of revolutionary movements implies that the revolutionary flood in Russia has not crested. It is still rising.

In the period of turmoil ahead, Washington’s real alliance should be with America’s "friends" rather than with the internal cause of reform. America cannot dictate the outcome of Russia’s internal debates. Russians will choose the government and society they wish to live in. And America will want to seek an enduring, positive relationship with Russia regardless of how Russians choose to be ruled.


1 Konstantin Sorokin, "Russia’s ‘New Look’ Arms Sales Strategy," Arms Control Today, October 1993.

2 An August 1993 furor over Washington’s appointment of veteran diplomat James F. Collins as a possible mediator between former Soviet republics obscured the central point: American mediation was conceivable only if the United States did not have a vital stake in the outcome. Collins’ appointment, in conjunction with complacent ruminations about the opportunities for international peacekeeping, caused some observers to infer an American desire to intervene, even militarily, in these troubled regions. The inference, thankfully, was false. On the controversy, see Steven Erlanger, "U.S. Peacekeeping Policy Debate Angers Russians," The New York Times, August 29, 1993.

4 Address before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the Executives Club of Chicago, and the Mid–America Committee, March 22, 1993, in Department of State Dispatch, March 29, 1993, p. 175.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • PHILIP ZELIKOW is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government. Formerly a Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State, he served on the staff of the National Security Council from 1989 to 1991.
  • More By Philip Zelikow