Events in Yugoslavia these past weeks show that Russia, despite the sad state of its economy and armed forces, continues to play a significant role in European affairs. The issue for the United States and its NATO allies is whether Moscow will help to solve an increasingly dangerous situation in the Balkans, or instead be a mischief maker in that part of Europe.
Many Americans, including some of our leaders, assumed that the serious economic and political problems facing Russia after the Cold War ended would oblige President Boris Yeltsin to cooperate in resolving security issues in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Moscow reluctantly acquiesced when NATO decided to offer membership to three of its former Warsaw Pact countries, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. It even sent peacekeeping soldiers to Bosnia three years ago as part of a NATO-led mission to restore order there. Russian officers were attached as observers at NATO headquarters in Belgium.
But the cooperation ended when NATO commenced its bombing campaign against Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov visited Belgrade and tried to broker a cease-fire in Kosovo with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But NATO rejected the result. A Russian warship was then dispatched to the Mediterranean to demonstrate Moscow's opposition to the NATO bombing, even though Boris Yeltsin said Russia had no intention to become militarily involved in the conflict.
What are we to make of Moscow's new policy toward Washington and NATO?
First, American policy makers should not be surprised that Russia shows support for Serbia's position on Kosovo, a part of its sovereign territory, because in two world wars Serbia was allied with Russia against Germany. Like most Russians, Serbs are Orthodox Christians and are fearful of the large ethnic Muslim minority living in their country. Although Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito refused to join the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, it also kept its distance from the United States and NATO.
Another factor driving Moscow's policy today is the deep humiliation Russians feel over losing the Cold War and loss of great power status. They also resent the steady decline in their living standards. In this regard, Russia now resembles the situation in Germany in the 1920s, after World War I when millions of Germans were humiliated over their defeat in that war.
The Clinton administration and European NATO countries are now at a crossroads in their relations with Russia.
If NATO expands further into Eastern Europe and draws additional countries, including former Yugoslav states, into its orbit, Russia could experience a major internal political shift away from cooperation with the West and toward dangerous nationalistic policies. The Russian presidential elections next year may also bring victory for anti-western political leaders.
An alternative for Washington and European NATO countries is to resist the pressure to introduce combat troops into Kosovo and instead seek common ground with Moscow to resolve that conflict before it escalates into a major war. This would mean that NATO gives up the idea of introducing its own peace keepers into Kosovo, but agrees to a peacekeeping force that includes Russians as well as those from NATO countries, including the United States. This force would not be part of NATOs structure, however.
Another alternative is that NATO build up major military forces in both Macedonia and Bosnia for the purpose of containing Serbia, and Slobodan Milosevic. A drawback is that NATO would refrain from trying to resettle ethnic Albanians back to Kosovo. This option may not be politically acceptable within NATO, including Washington, but armed containment of Serbia could reduce the likelihood of a wider Balkan war. If there were a political decision to partition Kosovo, part of this force could be introduced into the non-Serb sector.
A major question that American political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, need urgently to sort out is whether a friendly, cooperative Russia is a vital national interest of the United States in the next century. And if so, what concessions to Russia may be necessary?
Some experts argue that Russia will never be a friendly, cooperative partner of the West because of its history, size, and geography. Like China, it is said, Russia views itself as a great power and will do whatever is required in the next years to restore itself to that status.
Others suggest that Russia would be a friendly, cooperative power in Eastern Europe if Western Europe and the United States continue to help rebuild its bankrupt economy and support its fledging democratic institutions. A corollary is that Moscow's policy views should not be dismissed, as occurred in the NATO bombing of Serbia.
I believe that US-Russia relations will be a pivotal element in the coming decade on whether the international security situation is relatively stable, or whether we will experience dangerous wars erupting in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Therefore, U.S. policy on Kosovo is part of a much larger strategic consideration, one that goes to the heart of America's security and well-being in the 21st century.
File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST