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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- An Occasion Not A Cause

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kosovo compromise reached between Moscow and NATO is unlikely to reverse the rising tide of anti-Western and anti-American attitudes in Russia or to open a new era of East-West cooperation. Instead, it may have just the opposite effect, intensifying these attitudes and leading to new confrontations between Moscow and the Western alliance.

The reasons for this sobering conclusion are not far too seek. To a greater extent than many realize, the events in Kosovo have been more an occasion than a cause for the expression of Russian anger at the West over a variety of issues including what many Russians see as the West's intentional isolation and even victimization of Russia.

The Kosovo crisis has provided both a focus and a vocabulary for anger about Russia's economic and political decline, its loss of international influence, and the absence of significant Western assistance to help Russians overcome their current difficulties -- all issues that both polls and political statements suggest have been agitating ever more Russians over the past several years.

And because that is the case, no resolution of the Kosovo conflict -- even one that involves Moscow in the process -- will do much by itself to address these deeper sources of anger and distrust. Indeed, such a resolution could have the opposite effect by highlighting the West's increasing involvement with East European countries relative to its involvement with the Russian Federation.

That trend in popular attitudes may even be amplified at the official level precisely because of the lessons Russian leaders appear likely to draw from their experiences in the complex diplomatic maneuvering that both preceded last week's agreement and is certain to continue in the days ahead regardless of whether a final resolution of the Kosovo crisis is in fact achieved.

First of all, at least some Russian leaders appear to have concluded that threats and outbursts of indignation are more effective in leading the West to include them in discussions than a more cooperative stance would have been.

Until a few days ago, Russian leaders were making statements and taking actions that would have seemed to preclude their participation in any accord with the West to help stop Slobodan Milosevic's vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, for example, said that Russia would not allow NATO to act unilaterally in Kosovo. The Russian Duma voted to invite Yugoslavia to join in a new union with Russia and Belarus. And numerous ordinary Russians were volunteering to go to Yugoslavia to support the Serbs.

But had Russians not spoken out in this way, many Russian leaders may conclude, Moscow would have been ignored rather than courted as a possible helpmate in reaching a solution.

Moreover, at least some in the Russian capital are likely to conclude that the policy of supporting or at least maintaining close contacts with regimes most Western countries oppose is the best way of rebuilding Russian influence in the world.

Not only is the policy of developing ties with countries who are angry at the West in general and the United States in particular been a key plank in Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's policy agenda, but Moscow's maintenance of close ties with Milosevic has made it credible as an interlocutor with the Serbs and thus given the Russian government leverage far out of proportion to its actual power.

And finally, ever more Russian officials are likely to conclude that a combination of threats, however rhetorical and improbable, and offers to help, such as the mission of former Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, is the best means to weaken the role of NATO where Moscow has only a voice while strengthening the role of the UN Security Council where Moscow has a veto. To the extent that the Russian government draws these lessons from the Kosovo, Moscow is likely to employ them in the future as well. And to the extent that happens, the East-West accords on Kosovo that many have been celebrating could soon prove to be a source of discord not only in the Balkans but in a variety of other regions as well.