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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Whither Russia?

Washington, 5 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Predicting Moscow's future behavior -- a critical task for Russia's neighbors and the West as well -- was never more difficult than it is now.

In the past, Russia watchers often had to make do with the merest scraps of information; today, they are overwhelmed by a flood of data that often point in very different directions.

This new Russian challenge was very much in evidence on Tuesday. In the course of a single day, there were three developments many observers are likely to cite as evidence that Moscow has adopted a new hard line at home and abroad.

But there were also three events that other observers may cite as indications of just the opposite trend.

The three events pointing to a new hard line were especially striking.

First, Russian President Boris Yeltsin demanded that his government step up the fight against what his spokesman said was "a significant rise" in foreign espionage on Russian territory.

Second, Yeltsin named interior minister Anatoliy Kulikov, a no-nonsense law-and-order policeman known for his willingness to use force in Chechnya, as the country's tenth deputy prime minister.

Kulikov reportedly will assume additional responsibilities in the supervision of the tax police, the customs service and economic security organs.

And third, the Russian government stepped up its campaign against any enlargement of NATO. On Tuesday alone, for instance, three senior Russian officials spoke out against any growth in the Western defense alliance.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was quoted by the "Washington Post" newspaper as saying that enlargement could have "ominous" consequences in Russia.

Duma speaker Gennadiy Seleznyov warned in Warsaw that the expansion of NATO would force Moscow to increase its military spending. And Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov claimed that Russia is "strong enough" to prevent any expansion at all.

In the past, such a combination of developments on a single day would have been enough to lead virtually everyone to conclude that Moscow was moving quickly and decisively to the right. But in each case, there are good reasons to draw a rather different conclusion.

Yeltsin's call for a greater effort to combat espionage appears to be anything but an incitement to the spy mania of the Soviet past. Many Russian officials were openly contemptuous of Kulikov's ability to change much even from his new post.

And the campaign against NATO, despite its new intensity, seems increasingly pro forma, even if it does prove effective.

But more important than the limiting factors within each of these are three other developments that took place on the same day and that point to a more positive trend in Russian affairs.

First, the Russian foreign ministry condemned the use of force by both sides in Yugoslavia. That statement stands in marked contrast to Moscow's earlier defense of Slobodan Milosevic and insistence that events in Belgrade were an internal matter of that country. And it undoubtedly helped put additional pressure on Milosevic to back down.

Second, Russian news agencies reported, Defense Minister Igor Rodionov and Defence Council secretary Yuri Baturin had agreed a day earlier that Russian military reform must include deep cuts in the personnel of the armed forces and other security departments.

And third, Russia gave new pledges to the international community that it would work closely with the United Nations to help resolve the situation in Abkhazia, whose leaders have sought to secede from Georgia.

Just as in the case of the developments pointing to a new hard line, these statements indicating a more cooperative one may also prove to be less than meets the eye.

Thus, by condemning both sides in the Yugoslav crisis, Moscow retains its freedom of action. Russian officials have often announced agreement on military reform but their agreements have not meant that reforms have happened. And Russian pledges to the U.N. have not always proven to be true.

So how should the Russian events of Tuesday be interpreted? The truth almost certainly does not lie midway between these two sets of developments, as some may be tempted to think. Instead, it almost certainly is a compound of the two extremes.

On the one hand, the chaotic quality of much of Russian decision making means that Moscow will often be moving in several contradictory directions at once. And on the other, some in the Russian government will be clever enough to know that the existence of these two very different trends gives Moscow a leverage it would not otherwise have.

This second factor may be the more important. The way Moscow is handling the question of NATO expansion shows this clearly: Precisely because Moscow can point to positive developments in some spheres, it has greater credibility in raising the spectre of disaster should the Western alliance expand.

For years, analysts of Russian affairs have wanted more information. Now they have it. But this flood has not provided clear answers to the most important questions. Rather, the new information has overwhelmed these analysts and the political elites who depend on them.

And that pattern in turn has made it more, not less difficult to figure out where Russia is heading and what other countries should try to do about it.