Beyond Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin in 1989. Kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons


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

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