Is Russia About to Pull the Plug on Negotiations (II)? … or …
Is Chernomyrdin's Ultimatum a Plea for Sanity?

May 28, 1999

Comment: #277

Discussion Thread:  #s 252, 271, 274, 275, 276


[1] Ira Straus, "Chernomyrdin: I won't let America use me," Email Posted on Johnson's Russia List #3309, May 27, 1999.  Attached.

The NATO-Serbian war reveals the unexamined questions of moral legitimacy, strategy, and grand strategy that lie like a mine field beneath the simplistic theory of Coercive Diplomacy (i.e., the theory that one can regulate behavior of one's adversary with drive-by shootings employing a small number of precisely aimed cruise missiles and guided bombs). [see Comment # 252 for a discussion of the interaction of NATO and Serbian strategies & # 274 for a discussion of NATO's strategy and the maintenance of moral influence].

Comment #275 was intended to provide some additional information to help peer through the murk surrounding such questions. To this end, it juxtaposed President Clinton's New York Times Op-Ed defending the Serbo-NATO war [#275, Reference 3] to a critique of U.S. policy by Jim Jatris [#275, Reference 4] in the context of the Augustinian principles of "Just War" [#275, Reference 1 & 2].

Comment #276 added Victor Chernomyrdin's May 27 rebuttal to Mr. Clinton's Op-Ed. Chernomyrdin is Russia's chief intermediary trying to broker a deal between NATO and Serbia to end the war. Bear in mind, he is also well known as a pro-western moderate and is about as friendly a Russian as we can expect to find in the current climate of suspicion. Nevertheless, Chernomyrdin issued what amounted to angry ultimatum and ended his Op-Ed by raising the vague threat of Russia joining with India and China in some kind of alliance against the United States, a position that had been pushed earlier by the hardliner Yevgeniy Primakov.

While I concluded my introductory comments in #276 by saying that his ultimatum may have painted him into a corner, possibly setting the conditions for a strategic paralysis, I ignored the larger grand-strategic issue of the evolving Russo-American relations implied by his threat. Ira Strauss shows [in Reference 1 below] why this notion of strategic paralysis in the Serbo-NATO war is far too narrow a context in which to understand the implications of Chernomyrdin's Op-Ed.

Strauss describes an exceedingly complex situations pregnant with ominous implications for relations between Russia and the United States over the long term. These the kinds of grand strategic issues that SHOULD have been addressed in open debate between the President and Congress prior to NATO's decision to coerce Milosevic into signing the Rambouillet 'Accords' by slapping Serbia around with a few precision strikes.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference 1

Chernomyrdin: I won't let America use me
By Ira Straus
Email Posted on Johnson's Russia List, Issue #3309
May 27, 1999

Bill Clinton has carelessly boasted that we are succeeding in using Russia for our purposes in Kosovo. Inevitably, Russia, in the person of Viktor Chernomyrdin, has responded that it is not going to let itself be used.

A more foolish approach could hardly be imagined. Using our friends in a former enemy country for purposes contrary to what had been thought of as their own national interest, and doing this prior to the consolidation of better relations, amounts to abusing them, leaving them hanging out to dry, and driving the country back in the arms of those who see us as enemies. We are losing Russia, for the sake of trying to get too much from it too soon.

Clinton wrote carelessly in the New York Times (May 16) - no doubt trying to satisfy some domestic critics, without realizing that he was endangering a far more important constituency abroad - that "Russia is now helping to work out a way for Belgrade to meet our conditions". Inevitably Chernomyrdin in responded - he had no other choice - that Russia does not share, indeed it opposes, the goal of "a NATO protectorate over Kosovo," which is what he, like most people, sees as the meaning of NATO's conditions. (Washington Post, May 27) The unavoidable effect was to emphasize the element of opposition between NATO's goals and Russia's - something that is damaging both to NATO-Russia relations and to the immediate prospects for getting help from Russia in ending the war.

When Chernomyrdin was named Russia's special envoy on the Balkans, it was first and foremost for the purpose of ending this war, and thereby beginning to repair the damage that the war was doing to Russian-American relations and to Russian attitudes toward Americans. Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin pushed aside the main Russian hardliner, Yevgeniy Primakov, even though Primakov expressed the mainstream Russian reaction to NATO's war. Chernomyrdin laid the ground for a joint Russia-West statement on basic terms for ending the war, issued by the G-8. His hardline critics warned that NATO was going to use him as a mere messenger-boy for Western ultimatums to Serbia. If Chernomyrdin is now simply used for the sake of Western war aims - and if meanwhile his country's signature on the G-8 statement is used for moral cover for the West to continue the war without a serious push to reach a diplomatic settlement - then we will not only undermine what little political standing he has to help us; we will re-empower our enemies in Moscow.

Western policy is already validating the argument of the Russian nationalists whom Chernomyrdin has been trying to stem - the argument that the only way that Russia can get us to pay attention to its concerns and to moderate our policy is by being nasty to us; and that it does not work to be nice to the West, since the West simply pockets the friendly words and then ignores Russia as a country that it does not have to worry about. The policy of getting taken seriously by being nasty includes a number of serious elements: developing a geostrategic doctrine based on adversarial struggle vis-à-vis the West, supporting the strengthening of powers hostile to the West, propagating the belief that the West is a threat against which countries must unite, whipping up sentiment against America with language that is not only angry and ugly but which also supports the theory of America as a threat and enemy to the rest of the world, and rebuilding the Russian military. Since Russian cannot afford a good military, this last point has some dangerous corollaries: careless Russian arms and nuclear sales as a military fund-raiser, increased dependence on nuclear weapons, and increased reliance on hair-trigger nuclear postures and first-strike threats at a time when nuclear control structures are already in trouble. All of these ominous policies follow inexorably from one simple assumption: that the West is once again a geopolitical and military adversary. These policies are already underway, fortunately most of them only in fledgling form. As yet we are reinforcing them, although, if we use a lot of wisdom, we might still be able to head them off.

Chernomyrdin, in his response to Clinton, did not just object to being used; he attacked the complacency that is allowing the West to feel that it has Russia in its pocket and can from now on just continue the war and ignore Russian objections: "So I deem it necessary to say that, unless the raids stop soon, I shall advise Russia's president to suspend Russian participation in the negotiation process … and use Russia's veto as the United Nations debates a resolution on Yugoslavia." (Washington Post, May 27) He added that: "On this, we shall find understanding from great powers such as China and India. Of this, I am sure." His recent visit to Beijing gives him every reason to be sure of it; in fact, it is the Chinese strategy of an anti-hegemonic coalition which he, like his more eager predecessor Primakov, would be serving.

Primakov had aimed to do real damage to our global interests, by organizing a balancing alliance with China and India against America. China was interested, even if India was not at first. His threats were taken seriously for a time, since people knew that these were his deeply-held views, based on his attacks on the Westernizers for the previous half-dozen years. The West, sad to say, paid more attention to this than to any of the warnings from its friends in those previous half-dozen years; NATO proceeded to negotiate a consultative Joint Council with Russia in 1997 which, at least on the surface, was far stronger than anyone expected. Yeltsin made sure that Primakov finally signed the agreement with NATO, and the threats of an anti-Western triangle receded. However, NATO policies, ever more responsive to the anxieties of a handful of anti-Russian critics within the West than to the anxieties of 150 million Russians inside Russia, served to downgrade the Joint Council. The war in Yugoslavia, which was started in a way that broke in several ways the agreement that set up the Joint Council with Russia, and which followed close on the heels of NATO expansion, revived the idea of the Russia-China-India triangle with a vengeance. Primakov was making real progress on the triangle before his firing; our actions had validated the feelings on all sides that America/NATO was becoming too arrogant and careless in its use of power.

Chernomyrdin has now threatened to use the Russia-China-India triangle for specific damage against the West in its plans on Yugoslavia. Once again, it is a threat from a moderate who does not really want to carry out such a policy the way Primakov did. Will we take it seriously, as we did with Primakov, finding the wisdom to defuse the situation somewhat as in 1997? If we do not, we may pocket a few minor gains, but nothing of any substance or any lasting value; while we will have a lasting effect in convincing Russians that we will never take their assertions of interest or even threats seriously as long as they are not being made by a leader hostile enough to sound convincing.

With the appointment of Chernomyrdin and then Stepashin, Russia has, for the third time in this decade, thrown out its hardliners and replaced them with essentially Westernistic figures; albeit this time under conditions in which no Russian politician can afford to express unqualifiedly pro-Western sentiments any longer. And for the third time in this decade, the West is responding by asking, not what can it do to solidify Russia in a pro-Western regime, but rather, what can it get out of the pro-Western leadership. It has been more interested in pocketing the limited, temporary advantages that it can get out of pro-Western leaders than in gaining a sustainably pro-Western Russia, which itself would be worth several times more than all the other gains combined.

"How can they help us in Yugoslavia? What can they give us? What are they worth to us?" These are the questions we have been asking, as if an ally is to be judged for its worth solely on a day-by-day basis, not bothering to count the value of having the country as an ally for the long run. The entire idea of a "honeymoon" is that first partners should experience good times together, and after that they will be able to count on one another for help through hard times. American policy has approached Russia in the exact opposite way since 1991: it judges Russia by how much Russia can give to the West now, not by its intention of becoming a Western country and partner and its need for validation in that course. Russia in fact sailed off on a unilateral honeymoon with the West in 1991, only to find that the West did not come along and was watching from the shore while Russia went through the painful throes of shock therapy and truncation of empire.

From 1989 to 1994, Russia gave us tremendous gifts: The abandonment of its entire former empire, most of it immediately falling into the Western sphere of influence. A military withdrawal from its previously unchallenged forward positions in Central Europe, in Eastern Europe, and even in the western former Soviet Union. An abandonment of most of its longstanding anti-Western clients around the world. It gave us all of this essentially for free; no concessions were given from our side, and none were demanded. It did this, in the name of assuming that we are longer its enemy, so that advantages for us would no longer have to be viewed as concessions, losses, or sources of
danger for Russia. We pocketed the advantages without finding anything significant to do for Russia's vital interests in return. We did give some money, but we did not realize that money was not enough: if anything it was an adding insult to injury, suggesting that Russia was simply being bought off and that its leaders were simply selling out to the enemy. We kept on asking what more Russia might do for us, to prove its worth as a partner and ally, not realizing that it was our turn to prove our worth to Russia as a partner and ally.

The West has not bothered to make a significant effort to change the fundamental structures of adversarial relations, inherited from the Cold War -- the stand-off of nuclear arsenals that are built and maintained for mutual deterrence through mutual annihilation; the conventional militaries that are essentially separate and measures themselves against one another (a situation that was moderated by the end of the Cold War and the belated beginning of the Partnership for Peace, but has revived to a dangerous extent with the expansion of NATO while keeping Russia out of doors, followed in rapid-fire succession by the attack of NATO on Yugoslavia); the Western seeking of geopolitical positions all around the borders of the former Soviet Union, and now coming in closer toward the borders of Russia itself, and too frequently doing this in a form and with a purpose (often clearly implicit, sometimes even explicit) that is at Russia's expense. The continuation of these structures and behaviors has meant that Russians have belatedly come to realize that their enormous concessions to the West from 1989 to 1994 really
were strategic concessions -- losses of positions of advantage and interest for Russia, and enhancement of risks to Russia.

In these conditions, for the West to use its friends in Russia for the sake of getting even more Western advantages means simply to destroy its friends politically and drive Russia back into an adversarial relation.

At this late date, the West needs to validate the moderates in Russia by meeting them halfway. We are back in a situation where we need détente. If we do some wise détente and end the war in Yugoslavia, we might next find some things to do for Russian vital interests (such as joining Russia's side in supporting the moderates in northern Afghanistan against Taliban, supporting the relatively democratic Armenia against the dictatorial Azerbaijan, supporting the more democratic regimes in Central Asia rather than the more authoritarian and dictatorial ones which happen to be anti-Russian). On this basis, we could still find a way to rebuilt a spirit of partnership. And then we might have a restrained honeymoon, not as enthusiastic as the Russian one of 1991, but more sustainable because based finally on a two-way street.