What Russia Got Wrong
Can Moscow Learn From Its Failures in Ukraine?
Is the Russian-Soviet evil empire coming back? Certainly not yet, but amidst the confusion, there is evidence of an evolution of Russian conduct on both domestic and international issues and the reemergence of some familiar and disturbing themes in Russian history. Taking into account Russia’s past and its enormous power—potential, if not actual—Western policymakers would be derelict of their duty to watch the new elements of autocracy and heavy-handedness in Moscow’s policies without serious concern. It would be equally dangerous, however, to overstate the case, to focus selectively on those contradictory developments that lend themselves to a more sinister interpretation of events. One thing is certain. The bloody demise of the Congress of People’s Deputies on October 4 and the election of the new Federal Assembly on December 12 have created a profoundly different political situation with serious implications for Russian foreign policy and U.S.-Russian relations.
By the time of the October events, it was clear that something had to change. Toward the end of its existence, the Congress of People’s Deputies lost all credibility and sense of responsibility. Increasingly—as going after President Boris Yeltsin and his government. It became an obstacle not only to reform, but to effective governance altogether.
Whether the well-known outcome of the stalemate was inevitable is another matter entirely. After all, this was the Congress that elected Yeltsin as its chairman, amended the Russian constitution to enable him to become president, and stood firmly at his side during the attempted coup d’état in August 1991. Most Russian commentators agree that if, in the aftermath of his victory against the junta, Yeltsin had asked the Congress to dissolve itself in order to clear the way for some kind of democratically elected constitutional assembly, the Congress probably would have complied.
At that juncture, Yeltsin had two sensible options. The first was to disband the Congress. It had been elected under the old Soviet system, was more conservative than the president himself and included a great many people who represented nonexistent organs of the Communist Party and Soviet government. The second was to try to develop a constructive partnership between the executive and the legislature. This would have required that Yeltsin make compromises, cut deals and share the responsibility for governance. Instead, Yeltsin opted to keep the Congress in place but to take its compliance for granted, as if he were a communist general secretary dealing with an old-style rubber-stamp Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin also supported the then aggressively loyal Ruslan Khasbulatov in his drive to become the speaker. The expectation was that Khasbulatov would exercise tight control over the parliament in the president’s name.
This arrangement worked for several months in the fall of 1991—the Congress even granted Yeltsin emergency authority to introduce economic reforms by decree. However, once the high societal costs of these reforms became apparent, the parliament’s subservient attitude changed very quickly. Also, the parliament was angered by the unanticipated consequences of the demise of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin had given his assurance that he would not allow the Soviet state to fracture, but he then contributed to it by entering into the Brest agreement with the leaders of Ukraine and Byelorussia in December 1991, formally replacing the U.S.S.R. with the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Yeltsin’s initial response to the newly defiant legislature was simply to ignore it. Later, on many occasions, he attempted fairly unsuccessfully to find common ground. But his attempts at compromise were always piecemeal and came in response to specific crises rather than as part of a lasting and systematic effort to build a stable, long-term relationship. Furthermore, Yeltsin rewarded his supporters in the Congress by bringing them into his administration—initially by the dozens, and eventually by the hundreds. This move led to a massive departure of prodemocracy reformers, swinging the balance in the Congress in favor of the communists and nationalists—the "irreconcilable" opposition.
By the spring of 1993, mutual distrust between the president and the Congress had reached the point where reconciliation was impossible. And the April referendum confirmed that the vast majority of Russian citizens felt that it was the Congress that had to go. But was dissolving the Congress the only possible way out of the deadlock? A compromise could have led to simultaneous early elections of both the Congress and the president, which Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi had been championing for some time. Yeltsin agreed to new elections in March, but the deal he negotiated with Khasbulatov behind closed doors was summarily rejected by the Congress, which was extremely reluctant to vote itself out of existence. Later, after the April referendum changed the political dynamics to Yeltsin’s advantage, he himself consistently rejected the option of simultaneous elections even as some of his own advisers argued that the Congress would have no choice but to accept elections under the new circumstances.
As late as September there was no consensus within Yeltsin’s inner circle on how to resolve the problem with the Congress. Some of his more radical associates were for the immediate dissolution of the Congress. Other, more cautious voices favored simultaneous elections. Still others argued that the defection to the president’s camp of Vice Speaker Nikolai Ryabov, coupled with Khasbulatov’s lack of a strong constituency in the parliament, made possible an agreement with moderate elements to remove the rebellious speaker and organize parliamentary elections sometime in the spring of 1994. But these more moderate options—articulated by Yeltsin’s key legal adviser Yuri Baturin and others concerned about complying with the constitution, if at all possible—were rejected by the Russian president. As Yeltsin later revealed in an interview with Russian television, he had written his September 21 decree by hand a month earlier, secretly tucking it away in his safe to await just the right moment to issue it officially. There is no way of knowing what would have happened if the Russian president had tried harder to find a power-sharing formula with the parliament, but the Congress bears the principal responsibility for the chain of events that led to its ignominious demise.
In the end, Yeltsin did what came naturally to him. Throughout his career in Moscow—first under Mikhail Gorbachev, then in the opposition and finally as Russian leader—Yeltsin has been most impressive in dramatic public confrontations. It was by challenging Gorbachev at the October 1987 Central Committee plenum, walking out of the Communist Party Congress in July 1990, and standing on a tank in front of the Moscow White House in August 1991 that Yeltsin made his political career and established his unique chemistry with the Russian people. He was both more successful and more comfortable in the role of a charismatic, decisive hero than in addressing the everyday affairs of governance, building alliances and displaying tactical flexibility.
It is both pointless and unfair to criticize Yeltsin for the leadership style that brought him to the top and that, up to now, has enabled him to preside, on the whole, quite successfully over the historic transition from the totalitarian Soviet empire to the new nonimperial, democratic Russia. But it would be a mistake, looking at the Russian president’s record, to assume that his enormous new powers will be used strictly to accelerate radical political and economic reforms while maintaining the stability and unity of his country.
Since his political triumph over the old parliament, Yeltsin has become—until the election of the Federal Assembly—the sole source of federal authority in a Russian state with no meaningful checks and balances. As Yeltsin himself stated in a recent television interview: "My only counterbalance is now my conscience." His decrees have dissolved the parliament, suspended the highest legal body in the land (the Constitutional Court), largely dismantled the system of local governments (the so-called soviets), dismissed those provincial governors—including those who had been popularly elected—who disobeyed his orders, and determined the prerogatives of the new legislature. These prerogatives were incorporated into the new constitution that was prepared under the president’s guidance and approved on the December 12 ballot at his direction, the same day Russians voted for the Federal Assembly. Furthermore, it was by decree that Yeltsin established the June presidential elections—which he now seems unlikely to go through with.
Without engaging in futile speculation about the strength of Yeltsin’s commitment to democracy and the state of his health, suffice it to say that his country has too much of an authoritarian tradition for comfort. Moreover, the Russian president carries within him too much of the baggage of a party apparatchik, has too long a history of putting loyalty above performance, is surrounded by too many corrupt sycophants and has a record of becoming mysteriously unavailable when his personal presence is of greatest importance. These factors should leave the United States no choice but to base its judgments about Russian politics on criteria other than his ability to stay on top.
The Clinton administration took a benign view of Yeltsin’s destruction of the parliament, portraying it as a necessary and almost commendable step to put an end to hard-line stonewalling on political and economic reforms. That extremist communist and nationalist forces have suffered a devastating blow, at least temporarily, is beyond doubt. The ultimate outcome of Yeltsin’s victory is, however, much less certain. Still, at the time of the September 21 dissolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the Clinton administration was correct in backing Yeltsin since the relationship between the Russian president and the now-defunct parliament was beyond repair. If the Congress had stayed in place, an ever-worsening gridlock between the executive and legislative branches would have resulted. Such gridlock would have not only precluded the implementation of any minimally coherent reforms, but also threatened Russia’s unity and stability, possibly leading it to the brink of civil war.
Of the two combatants, Yeltsin was by far the preferable choice from the U.S. perspective. He, much more than Rutskoi and his ally Khasbulatov, favored close cooperation with the West and a relatively benign policy toward the newly independent states. Yeltsin also was in favor of more radical market reforms and, after his victory in the April 1993 referendum, had a stronger mandate than the Congress from the Russian people. In contrast to the Congress, he called for new elections—first for the parliament and then, at a later date, for the presidency. Moreover, taking into account the Russian president’s much greater popularity and his control over the military and security services, he had overwhelming chances of coming out on top. Since the Clinton administration had been betting on Yeltsin for many months, it would have been illogical to deny him support in a lopsided power struggle with unattractive and dangerous opponents.
But there is a big difference between supporting the Russian president in his conflict with the forces of Rutskoi and Khasbulatov after the die had been cast—especially after the latter unleashed violent mobs to rampage through Moscow streets and to attack the mayor’s office and the Ostankino television station—and claiming, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher did in Moscow 20 days after the shoot-out, that "President Yeltsin is by far the best exponent of democracy and progress and hence the path to stability" in Russia. Blanket endorsements disregard America’s foreign policy dilemmas in dealing with the emergence of a Russian strongman who has consolidated and increased his power through a gun barrel and, in the process, become indebted (whatever debts mean in politics) to the military and security services. The Clinton administration should clearly define American priorities and evaluate how they correspond with Russian developments.
For the United States, neither Yeltsin’s political future nor even the future of Russian democracy should be ends in themselves. What the United States needs most in its greatly weakened but still potentially formidable superpower rival is a combination of domestic stability and a system of checks and balances. Stability is important for a nation with thousands of nuclear weapons and continuing territorial tensions with its newly independent neighbors. Too much disunity in Russia (as appealing as it is to those who "love" that country so much that they would prefer to see several Russias) increases the likelihood of a civil war that could easily engulf most, if not all, of the post-Soviet states, creating not only nuclear and environmental disasters but a grave threat to world peace as well. Thus, it is in the U.S. interest to have a government in Moscow that is strong and determined enough to draw the line and to prevent centrifugal, separatist trends from going out of control.
Conversely, the more stable the Russian government, the more the United States should be interested in seeing that there are meaningful checks and balances to prevent the reemergence of a unitary authoritarian state. Without such checks and balances, there would be no assurance that Russia would not again become a threat to its neighbors and a destabilizing factor in world politics. The United States has a vested interest in seeing Russian governments rely more on democratic legitimacy than on the support of the military and security services.
From this perspective, Russian domestic developments since the October shoot-out and December elections have been a mixed bag. For the first time in months there is a powerful chief executive in Moscow that can make decisions. The so-called subjects of the federation (Russia’s republics, regions, provinces and federal cities), which were increasingly going their own way and exploiting the paralysis of authority in Moscow, were quickly reminded by the October events that the federal government and its instructions are to be taken seriously. The new constitution gives the president greater powers than the president of any modern democracy, but it also guarantees basic freedoms and allows the new Federal Assembly to serve as both a partner and a check on executive power. Most nonextremist political parties, the communists included, were allowed to take part in the elections. Moreover, the success of the ultranationalists and communists ironically demonstrates the fairness of that vote. Their success, however, will also make it much more difficult for Yeltsin to continue with meaningful economic reforms.
While the Russian president—relying on the extraordinary powers granted to him in the new constitution—will be able to accomplish much by decree, his ability to stay on a reform course without triggering a confrontation with the Federal Assembly is doubtful. To continue with reforms, Yeltsin may need at a minimum to prevent the emergence of a reactionary majority in the new parliament. This requirement will demand political creativity on Yeltsin’s part and compromises, with perhaps even the communists.
Another important factor in Moscow’s political environment is the troubling new prominence of the military and security services (the "power ministries"). Despite the fact that police units fled in disarray from violent mobs on October 3, Interior Minister Viktor Yerin was awarded his country’s highest military decoration, "Hero of the Russian Federation," lending credence to speculation that perhaps the disorderly retreat of the police was part of some official plan to provoke Rutskoi’s and Khasbulatov’s supporters to reckless action. In addition, the well-documented, systematic police brutality against innocent bystanders, particularly journalists, during the rioting went completely unpunished and uncensured by the authorities.
The Ministry of Security has also scored well of late under a new minister and career KGB officer, Nikolai Golushko, who enjoyed long service in the Fifth Main Directorate, which was responsible for the suppression of dissent. One example of the ministry’s new status is Yeltsin’s recent approval of Golushko’s proposal to form a new division responsible for "the prevention of anti-constitutional activities." Although these bodies exist in a number of democratic nations, including Germany, the organization of such a division under the auspices of former KGB officials has an ominous sound to many Russians.
Unfortunately these are not the only signs. There is also a new cavalier attitude on the part of the Russian president’s camp toward its earlier commitments. Provisions regarding the "sovereignty" of the constituent republics were removed from the draft of the constitution despite the republics’ intense protests. Yeltsin’s commitment to stand for reelection on June 12 has been placed in doubt not only by the December election results but also by the president himself.
At this point, judgments about the direction of Russian political change are premature. The structure of the new Federal Assembly and its relationship with Yeltsin will be critical to determining the course of reform. With ultranationalists and communists scoring surprisingly well, Yeltsin cannot count on a complacent majority. A great deal depends on whether the prodemocracy blocs, radicals and centrists alike, can find common ground against the neo-fascist threat.
The failure of the more radical Russia’s Choice to take over the parliament may slow the pace of economic reforms but, from the American point of view, the rate of Russian privatization should be less significant than the rate of building stable democratic institutions. The ability of the new Federal Assembly to assert itself as an independent factor without challenging the basics of reform will be crucial to the development of the Russian political process.
The real threat of militant communist and nationalist forces, although not fatal to reform, proved to be greater than anyone expected. If reforms create significant social dislocation in a country where 37 percent of the population is currently living in poverty—if there is a sudden increase in unemployment before adequate social protection mechanisms are in place—the appeal of reactionary politicians and their rhetoric could grow very quickly. Thus a legitimate parliament that is both sensitive to the concerns of the population and a partner in the reform process is necessary to prevent an estrangement between the Russian people and the democratic authorities. Former communists have already come to power in some former Soviet republics—such as Azerbaijan, Georgia and Lithuania—and in Poland as well. With the exception of Azerbaijan, these have been milder, relatively reform-oriented communists. In the Russian case, a returning communist-nationalist alliance would likely speak with a much more aggressive, angry voice.
It could be argued that, under current conditions, an autocratic interlude is necessary to create the preconditions for democratic capitalism in Russia. For such an argument to be credible, it must first be established that Yeltsin had no other options, and that the authoritarian period would be fairly benign and of short duration. In truth, Russia is too vast and too diverse to be ruled with modest authoritarian restrictions and too powerful and nostalgic for its imperial past for anyone to be comfortable seeing it again under a coercive autocratic regime.
As far as Russian foreign policy is concerned, a new search is under way to define Russia’s national interests, and there is a new willingness to pursue those interests even through force. This unabashed assertiveness, particularly evident in "the near abroad" (the other newly independent states), has alarmed many Western observers who fear the reemergence of Russian imperialism. There is a widening gap between Russian and Western definitions of responsible behavior for Russia in international politics. In the West, there is a strong tendency to view Russia as a defeated superpower that must go through a long period of reflection and redemption akin to that of postwar Germany and Japan. Most Russians, however, have a radically different perspective. They do not perceive Russia as a defeated villain but rather as both the victim of and victor over the Soviet empire. As such, they feel that Russia should be embraced and supported by the community of democratic nations. No special restrictions on Moscow’s freedom of international action—beyond say, what the United States would be prepared to accept for itself—are considered justified.
In this context, the pendulum has swung from an emphasis on "universal human values" to boasting about the Russian character of the new national security thinking. The former was based on the emotional rejection of the Soviet legacy with its us-against-them mind-set and heavy reliance on military muscle. It emerged at the end of the Gorbachev era, articulated by former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, his first deputy Vladimir Petrovsky and Gorbachev’s foreign policy assistant Anatoly Chernyaev. This thinking, which was maintained and expanded by Yeltsin’s Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev (a protégé of Petrovsky) was based on two major assumptions. First, many Soviet problems both at home and abroad were believed to be a function of being on the wrong side of the Cold War. The new Soviet Union and later Russia had to join its natural brethren—the developed democratic nations with whom it shared values, aspirations and long-term interests.
Similarly, when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the attitude toward the near abroad was also based on wishful thinking: since all of the new post-Soviet nations had been victimized by the communist regime, they would be able to work together harmoniously, taking each other’s interests into account. In addition, there was the clear expectation that Russia, by far the most powerful of the newly independent states, would be accepted eagerly as the first among equals. But it was the West, not the near abroad, that enjoyed the status of the new Russia’s number one foreign policy priority. Other former Soviet nations were treated with benign neglect, seemingly considered as neither very promising nor seriously threatening in terms of emerging Russian national security objectives.
The second assumption was that military force could no longer be a legitimate instrument of foreign policy. The position was that no important foreign policy—or for that matter, domestic—goals could be accomplished by force emerged in the latter years of the Gorbachev period. Force was widely portrayed as immoral, but also outdated, ineffective and totally inappropriate for the new post-Cold War conditions.
Such attitudes—recently described by Russian Ambassador to Washington Vladimir Lukin as "romantic masochism"—could not last. With the West favorably disposed to Russia but in no hurry to assume responsibility for its new partner; with the other newly independent states looking, more often than not, at Russia as heir to the Soviet Union (Moscow’s own grandstanding rhetoric contributed to this image); with the painful breakdown of the extremely interdependent economies of the post-Soviet states; and with 25 million Russians in the near abroad suddenly becoming foreigners and frequently treated as second-class citizens (as in Latvia and Estonia) or exposed to massive violence (as in Central Asia and Transcaucasia), the pendulum of national security thinking was bound to swing.
Those who have called themselves "enlightened patriots," to use Lukin’s term, have carried the day, although the "unenlightened patriots" of the incongruously named Liberal Democratic Party have registered significant support. As often happens in politics with those who espouse controversial ideas early on, the victory of the "enlightened patriots" argument did not advance their own careers. On the contrary, the personal standing of their nemesis Foreign Minister Kozyrev has, if anything, improved. But he speaks with a somewhat different, more confident and more unapologetically Russian-centered voice. In a dramatic December 1992 speech before the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kozyrev intentionally shocked the audience with his hard-line pronouncements designed to demonstrate what would happen if the reactionaries took over in Russia. The reactionaries were defeated in the course of Moscow’s bloody October, but Kozyrev’s recent statements about "special responsibility devolving on Russia in the Eurasian geopolitical space" and his government’s intent "to toughly uphold the interests of the Russian-speaking population and stand up for them wherever that might be" are reminiscent of what, less than a year earlier in Stockholm, he attributed to his hard-line opponents.
In contrast to his earlier emphasis on "universal human values," Kozyrev now—while welcoming partnership with the West—reminds the West of Russia’s "special interests, different from Western interests and at times even competing." Other senior Russian officials are more blunt. In a press conference, Security Council Deputy Secretary Valery Manilov proudly stressed that the newly adopted military doctrine is "characteristic of Russia as a great power occupying one-sixth of the world’s land space and in whose territory lives a unique great Russian multinational people . . . which has its own Russian interests." And Yeltsin himself hardly reassures neighboring countries by announcing in a Russian television interview that, among all historical figures, the one that comes closest to his role model is Peter the Great, founding father of the Russian empire.
Rhetoric aside, there is a demonstrable new readiness to use Russian forces stationed in the near abroad to pursue foreign policy objectives, a greater willingness to employ techniques of "divide and conquer" to assure the victory of local leaders that Russia favors and to exert economic leverage to force weaker neighbors to follow Russian preferences.
What is still uncertain is exactly how far these trends will advance before the pendulum swings back. To date, Russia’s conduct is behavior not so unusual for great powers in their own backyard. Leaders of the newly independent states have a tendency to see a Russian hand behind all their difficulties. Russia—like the United States in Latin America—frequently becomes a scapegoat for problems not of its own making. In policing the Tajik border with Afghanistan, Moscow’s only defensible border between Afghanistan and Russia itself, the Yeltsin government acts at the request of not only the local government but all the other Central Asian nations with whom it has mutual security agreements. In Georgia, beyond local commanders’ sale of weapons to Abkhaz separatists, no Russian meddling is documented. After accusing Moscow of destabilizing his country, the besieged Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, himself appealed to Moscow to provide troops to defend his regime. In Azerbaijan, although Russia has reasons to welcome the victory of former party boss Geidar Aliyev over anti-Russian nationalists, there is no indication of direct intervention by Moscow.
At least until the October events, Yeltsin was not in full control of either his military or his country. He probably was not in a position, for example, to prevent Muslim volunteers from the Northern Caucasus from joining Abkhaz forces. Many of them came from Chechnya, which has proclaimed its full independence from Russia. In other cases, like the role of Russia’s 14th Army in the Dniester enclave in Moldova, the Russian president had a greater say in the conduct of his troops who were supporting local separatists. He was certainly not forced to give a second star to General Aleksandr Lebed, flamboyant commander of the 14th Army. But taking too strict a line with people like Lebed could cost Yeltsin dearly in terms of support among the military—support that proved to be crucial to him during the October events.
Most indignant critics of Russian neo-imperialism sound remarkably divorced from the specific circumstances in the post-Soviet regions. They seem to ignore the monumental role played by Yeltsin’s government in destroying the Soviet empire. They disregard the fact that the Commonwealth of Independent States—which was formed to provide a mutually agreed upon formula for gradual, amicable separation—proved to be a stillborn child, forcing the Soviet successor states to rely on their own individual efforts to protect their national interests. They fail to acknowledge that, in contrast to the Serbian leadership, the Yeltsin team voluntarily accepted the inviolability of borders between the newly independent nations, rejected Rutskoi’s appeals to mobilize Russians in the near abroad as Moscow’s fifth column and instead demanded only that their basic human rights be observed. Calling Russian conduct neo-imperialist is at best a gross oversimplification considering that Russia, in this case, is dealing with nations that only two years before had belonged to the same state, had for the most part shared centuries of common history, and are today separated by borders that very often reflect the arbitrary decisions of past communist rulers rather than tradition, economic conditions or demographics.
Still, Moscow’s record vis-à-vis its new neighbors is far from spotless. And while memories of its communist imperial past are still very fresh, Russia’s new action as an assertive, and not terribly scrupulous, great power is bound to be unnerving to its neighbors and to many in the West. Yet despite the unexpected support for Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s appeals to Russian nostalgia for the stability and power of the former empire, relatively few Russians truly want to turn back the clock. Even fewer, and certainly none in Yeltsin’s inner circle, would want to make rebuilding the empire a practical foreign policy objective. Even military commanders—not unlike their compatriots in the United States—appear reluctant to accept risky military missions outside Russian borders.
Illusions about the new Russia are dangerous to America. And tough dialogue with Moscow about its foreign policy conduct is essential. What is unnecessary and counterproductive is to respond to the swings of the Russian pendulum with a zigzag policy of our own—from overstating commonality of interests to confusing great power assertiveness with new imperialism.
The distinction between traditional great power assertiveness and neo-imperialism has an operational meaning. The latter would be a clear threat to European stability, in which the United States has an important stake. The former is a disturbing pattern, particularly in view of the Russian imperial legacy but, unless carried too far, it is not a serious challenge requiring the United States to take security precautions against Russia. The art of statesmanship is to find the right balance between turning a blind eye to Russian imperial revival and making this revival a self-fulfilling prophecy by indicting and isolating Russia without sufficient reason.
 The Washington Post, October 10, 1993; Foreign Ministry Briefing, November 22, 1993.