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Analysis From Washington: Russia -- Looking Back To The Future

Washington, 19 February (RFE/RL) -- A nineteenth-century Russian foreign minister has again been held up as a model for Moscow's foreign policy in the future because of his ability to use "the force of the word" to prevent other powers from exploiting Russia's time of relative weakness.

Writing in the latest issue of the Russian foreign ministry's journal "International Affairs," Viktor Lopatnikov continues the celebration begun by Yevgeny Primakov last year of Aleksandr Gorchakov, Russia's foreign minister for nearly a generation after its defeat in the Crimean War.

Lopatnikov, who represents the foreign ministry in Saint Petersburg, argues that Gorchakov's approach to dealing with the outside world remains "amazingly topical today." And he suggests that Russian officials should study three aspects of Gorchakov's approach in order to learn how to act in the future.

First, Lopatnikov says, Gorchakov's immense dignity in the face of the indignities Russia suffered following its defeat in Crimea not only helped restore Russian national pride but had the effect of demonstrating to foreigners that Russia is, in Fyodor Tyutchev's words, "a country that cannot be measured by an ordinary yardstick."

To the extent that foreign powers recognize that fact, Lopatnikov argues, they did not in the nineteenth century and will not in the future be interested in exploiting Russia when it is "concentrating" on its domestic affairs.

These powers, he continues, will thus find themselves once again caught between their own recognition that Russia is a country unlike any other and their acceptance of Russian demands that Russia be treated as an equal. Being thus trapped, they will be forced to give more deference to Russia than its position might otherwise justify.

Second, Lopatnikov argues, Gorchakov understood that Russia simultaneously must be extremely selective in deciding where it will actually get involved. It must also insist on its right to deploy its diplomatic and political muscle wherever it deems necessary.

On the one hand, that stance as Gorchakov showed, will keep other powers off balance and thus allow Russia to use diplomacy rather than force to prevent any combination from arising against its interests. And on the other, it will allow Russia to focus on the recovery of its domestic economy, the ultimate source of its power.

As Primakov argued last spring on the 200th anniversary of Gorchakov's birth, this domestic focus both provides an anchor for stabilizing Russia's foreign policy and guarantees that Russian advances internationally can always be justified in terms that other powers are likely to find acceptable rather than aggressive.

And third, Lopatnikov suggests, Gorchakov recognized that the chief focus of Russian foreign policy must be along its own borders. The twentieth century diplomat notes the praise his nineteenth century predecessor received for doing just that.

In 1864, Aleksandr II formally congratulated Gorchakov for his use of "the force of the word" to disarm the enemies of Russia, an action the tsar said guaranteed that Gorchakov's name would be entered in "the future chronicle of the Fatherland."

Lopatnikov does not provide the text of the Gorchakov message that won Aleksandr's approval. But most of his readers are likely to recall with precision just what policy the nineteenth century foreign minister was advancing.

On November 21, 1864, Gorchakov sent out a dispatch justifying the Russian imperial advance into Central Asia. He argued in terms that many of his European counterparts would have found difficult to answer.

Specifically, Gorchakov said that "the position of Russia in Central Asia is that of all civilized states which come into contact with half-savage, nomadic populations who posses no fixed social organization."

In such cases, Gorchakov said, "the more civilized state is forced in the interests of security and commerce, to exercise a certain ascendancy over those whom their turbulent and unsettled character makes most undesirable neighbors."

Presumably, Lopatnikov would not endorse these specific terms for the present and future. But his and Primakov's enthusiasm for Gorchakov who uttered them may confuse some Russian diplomats and create problems for others.