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[Page 56]

Russia's Foreign Policy

THE meeting took place at a time when relations between Russia and the West had been put under severe strain by the conflict in Kosovo. There was general agreement that dealing with Russia posed huge problems. Its foreign policy is erratic, reflecting its difficulties in adjusting to its loss of its Great Power status; indeed, there is arguably no such thing as Russian foreign policy anymore, only the policies of rival political groups and regional blocks. A handful of participants sounded an optimistic note, pointing out that some reforms are working and that relations with the European Union are better than those with the United States. But nobody thought that "the Russian problem" would be solved in the immediate future.


Russia's foreign policy is extremely erratic. All the country's moods and phobias are reflected in its foreign policy: its recent humiliation; its persistent feeling of cultural superiority; and its nostalgia for its superpower status. This irrational and inconsistent behaviour creates the problem of "Russia fatigue" in the rest of the world. Russia is plagued by the failure of its transition from Communism -- a failure that some people refer to as the "dead hand of the beginning". It is also plagued by its lack of a national consensus. Russia is torn between two civilisations: 70% of the population say they support liberal democracy but 90% say that they are willing to sacrifice that principle for the sake of order. This pragmatism means that politics can change at any moment, and that Russian society is characterised by extreme fluidity.

What does the future hold? One possibility is the stagnation scenario. The system simply reproduces all its problems, whether Yeltsin or anyone else is in charge; and foreign policy zigzags

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between animosity, bargaining and restraint. Another possibility is the consolidation of state power. The one thing that we can rule out is the extension of democracy.

There is little that the West can do about any of this. The big task is to help Russia to help itself. The West should stop supporting personalities (such as Yeltsin). It should also reconsider its financial assistance, which postpones structural reform and raises the possibility of long-term dependency. The West will be better off with a strong Russia, which might be able to help it cope with things like Islamic fundamentalism. But Russia is going to remain weak for the next fifteen years -- and the West's task is to learn to cope with this weakness.


Until a few months ago everyone said that they could not believe how friendly relations had become between the former Cold War antagonists. Now NATO's expansion to Russia's border has raised the fear in Moscow that the West is intent on strangling Russia. Kosovo is a symbol of this change, producing a collapse in confidence in Russia's foreign policy analogous to the collapse in confidence in its economy last August.

What went wrong? Russia has suffered from inflated expectations of a Russian-American condominium. Russia has been slow-to realise that its loss of status may be permanent. It is not just that the rouble has been devalued: Russia has been devalued. The challenge for the West is to manage not just Russia's weakness but also its own strength.

How far can the deterioration go? Russia is unlikely to go either Fascist or Communist. There is no such thing as Communism in today's Russia -- only a party that happens to bear that name. There will be no revival of the Cold War -- only a Cold Peace. Russia is not going to become part of an anti-western alliance. The biggest long-term security threat for Russia is not the West but China. Nor will Russia become a rogue state. It is too pragmatic -- too intent on adjusting to its new environment.

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What can be done? Kosovo could yet provide an area of co-operation. In the Russian mind there is a good West in the form of the European Union and a bad West in the form of the United States. The best way forward may be to strengthen relations with the European Union and thereby turn it into an anchor of stability.


Several speakers focused on Russia's strained relationship with NATO. A Swiss wanted a more precise definition of NATO. Is it an alliance against something (Russia perhaps) or a collective security agreement -- and, if it is a collective security agreement, will Russia be allowed to join it? A Czech pointed out that there is nothing new in Russia perceiving NATO as a problem. But a panellist insisted that Russia's feelings about NATO have changed. Russians are appalled that what they had always been told was a defensive alliance has become an offensive force -- and by how quickly the alliance's decision to bomb Serbia was implemented. The other panellist pointed out that it is the nationalists who want to join NATO -- in order to blow it up from inside -- and the liberals who are hesitant.

An American wondered how to put the substance back into talks with Russia. The arms control talks, which used to be a way of talking about common problems, have now become merely mechanical; and much of the relationship with Russia is about "psychiatry" rather than substantive issues. He agreed with an earlier participant that the Ukraine was a particularly important issue. One of the panellists pointed out that one of the more positive things about Russia was its recent treaty with the Ukraine.

The issue of foreign aid for Russia provoked disagreement. One international participant strongly defended the aid program. The amount of money the international financial institutions have devoted to Russia is being reduced, and most of it will not even leave the United States, but will instead be used to pay off debts. The only new money that is going to Russia will be used exclusively for social purposes, strengthening the country's bank-

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ing and justice systems. But a Swede strongly argued that Russia's real problem is corruption -- ministerial jobs are sold for $70m and parliamentary votes are being traded for $4m -- and that the best way to stop this corruption is to reduce the state's resources.

The question of the "good West" and the "bad West" aroused a great deal of discussion. A Canadian wondered what "the West" means to Russians. Does the Russian elite distinguish between different bits of the West? A German pointed out that Russia's relationship with the EU is much better than that with the United States. And a Dane wondered whether it would be a positive move to strengthen the EU's relationship with the Baltic States. A panellist countered that the Baltic countries' membership in NATO had been one of the most important things in transforming the allianace in Russian eyes from a mere problem into a threat. But he agreed that Russia's feelings to Europe are much warmer than its feelings to the United States, partly because Europe is not fully integrated and partly because it lacks America's military might. The European Union seems the natural place to satisfy Russia's need to be attached to something larger than itself. But for that to happen we need to have a notion of Europe that is larger than "the West."

There were a few rays of optimism in the discussion. One of the speakers who decried Russia's corruption also pointed out that the economy is gradually improving and that the society has proved amazingly stable. Others pointed to Yeltsin's ability to escape from the various traps strewn in his path -- notably impeachment. But, as one of the panellists concluded, these events seemed to indicate stagnation as much as stability. Corruption is not the source of Russia's problems, but the consequence of them.