If Yeltsin only knew….

Abstract:

Warren Christopher made references to the US dissatisfaction with Russia’s military action in Chechnya, which is straining US relations with Russia. Andrei Kozyrev was hostile after these remarks and downplayed the Chechen war. The US is taking slight measures against Russia because of this war.

Full Text:

When Warren Christopher arrived in Geneva on January 17 for two days of long-scheduled talks with his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, he told reporters: “The Russian leadership knows they have a problem.” He could have said the same about his own leadership.

The Chechen crisis had put the Clinton Administration in an exceedingly uncomfortable position. It was already under fire at home for its uncritical embrace of the Russian bear. Then the geopolitical and human-rights implications of Boris Yeltsin’s bloody crackdown in Chechnya only further discredited its Russia policy. The Administration’s initial reaction to Chechnya – to dismiss it (and excuse it) as an “internal affair of Russia” – only made things worse. Gradually, the Administration began making tougher-sounding statements, calling for military restraint or an end to the fighting. But it had to be pushed. The United States lagged well behind the usually cynical Europeans in its public criticism of Russian policy.

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The Geneva meeting had a full plate of contentious issues – not only Chechnya but also Russia’s resistance to NATO’s plans to expand into Central Europe, its eagerness to end the UN embargo on Iraq, its refusal to provide key data on its chemical-weapons programs, and its determination to sell submarines and nuclear reactors to Iran. All these issues were matters of growing controversy in the United States. Amid all this, the Russians had ostentatiously invited President Clinton to visit Moscow for a summit in May in conjunction with elaborate ceremonies planned there for the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day. This would be a delicate matter for our relations with our German ally in the best of circumstances; with the fallout from the Chechen war, the sight of Bill Clinton in Moscow, clinking champagne glasses with Boris, promised to be a public-relations disaster.

The Russians didn’t make things any easier for Mr. Christopher. Before Geneva, Russian Foreign Ministry briefers played up the May summit with the press and declared that the Geneva meeting would include discussion of preparations for the wonderful Clinton visit to Moscow. They tried to keep Chechnya off the agenda. In the talks in Geneva and in news conferences afterward, Kozyrev rebuffed Christopher’s comments on Chechnya with his own counter-complaints, deploring the impact of the Republicans on U.S. foreign policy and claiming that American Presidents had used troops to quell domestic uprisings five times in the past twenty years. (No one on the U.S. side had any idea what he was referring to.) It all seemed too familiar: the propagandistic sparring, the Russian complaints that U.S. human-rights concerns constituted interference in their domestic affairs.

What made the whole episode even more depressing was the dirty little secret that began to leak out: that the Geneva conversations hadn’t really been as contentious as all that. Kozyrev had oozed reassurances that Chechnya was just a “transitional event,” and Christopher was impressed by Kozyrev’s sincerity. The Russians’ public blustering was excused by State Department onlookers as being due to Kozyrev’s need to protect his position back home. In fact, it became one of Christopher’s main goals to “reinforce Kozyrev’s position at home and abroad,” a State Department official told the New York Times.

Likewise, the Administration was still wedded to Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s democratic hope. “It’s hate the sin but love the sinner,” said a European diplomat. The debacle in Chechnya was attributed largely to the bad advice Yeltsin was getting from his coterie. If the Tsar only knew … If Stalin only knew …

Christopher remained convinced that Yeltsin and Kozyrev needed bolstering, not chastising, since the alternatives to them were worse. But as they more and more adopt the hard-line policies of their ultra-nationalist opponents, their preferability is shrinking fast.

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In fact, the Administration’s whole Russia policy is hanging by a thread. Kozyrev had it right: The Republicans are loaded for bear, so to speak, and losing their patience. On December 12 Senator Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) announced a new foreign-aid policy that would reallocate some of the U.S. aid for Russia to Russia’s smaller neighbors, condition the remaining Russian aid on better behavior, and prepare the way for incorporation of the Central European democracies into NATO. Every day that the Chechen war continues is a rebuke to the Clinton Administration, strengthening the hand of the Republicans.

So far, Christopher has managed to use congressional pressure as a bogeyman to exert leverage on the Russians, much as Nixon and Kissinger used the prospect of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to pressure the Soviets to ease up on emigration. But the Administration risks losing control of the policy, much as Nixon and Kissinger did. When Christopher gave a speech at Harvard after the Geneva meeting, complaining publicly about the Russian sale of nuclear reactors to Iran, there was fear in the State Department that Congress would run away with the issue and insist on cancellation of the sale as yet another condition on Russian aid.

The May summit in Moscow, meanwhile, is on hold. Our President is withholding his commitment for now, hoping for the best.

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