The Reality of Irrelevance

1998 > Russia

The Reality of Irrelevance is hard for the Kremlin to accept

The ultimate in ground zero, Moscow
What we were aiming for

Where the second nuke would land

Snow sure makes it pretty!

Don't forget who beat the Mongols, Neopolean, and Hitler

Thrice Victorious


All the tourists!
Chicago Tribune 21 December 1998

Russian Anger Grounded in Faded Influence but Don’t
Write us off Yet, Ex-Foes Caution

By Michael McGuire, Tribune Staff Writer.

MOSCOW – On a gray October evening in 1973, a U.S. Air Force attache
and his family sat down to dinner in the Moscow apartment of an American
news correspondent. Quickly the conversation turned to war.

Egypt had blitzkrieged Israeli troops across the Suez Canal, but the
Israelis soon chased their foe back into Egypt. When the Israelis
encircled the Egyptian Third Army and sent a column driving toward
Cairo, the Kremlin delivered a frightening ultimatum: stop in your
tracks or face crack Soviet paratrooper divisions standing by for
flights into Egypt. Both superpowers put their strategic missile systems
on high alert, and Henry Kissinger, then U.S. secretary of state, was
winging to Moscow in what would be a successful effort to defuse the

‘This could be it, nuclear Armageddon,’ the Air Force
attache told his host in Moscow. ‘And I’d rather be here than in
Washington. The U.S. could explode a missile 10 feet above the roof of
this building, but Soviet technology would land a warhead 25 miles
outside (Washington), D.C., and everyone would die a slow death of
leukemia.’ The event was a grim scene from the Cold War, a
four-decade era of superpower hostility.

Flashbacks of the Cold War flared last week when Russia recalled its
ambassador from Washington–a first since World War II–and Britain in
outrage over the decision to attack Iraq. Politicians across Russia’s
political spectrum competed with one another in condemning the U.S. and
calling for an increase in defense spending.

Two top Russian military officers alluded to a new Cold War when they
spoke of damaged relations between Washington and Moscow and a need for
the Kremlin to change its security strategy. Demonstrators paraded in
front of the U.S. Embassy and burned an American flag and a caricature
of President Clinton.

‘It looks like relations between Moscow and Washington are
entering a period of very serious crisis,’ said the daily
Nezavisimaya Gazeta. ‘The next step after recalling ambassadors can
be only a break or freezing of diplomatic relations. No one would want
to believe in that happening, but the Americans are doing business in
just that way.’ Russians on the street and veteran policymakers
echoed the fear. ‘God save us from the Cold War period,’ said
Georgi Shakhnazarov, a top aid to former Soviet President Mikhail
Gorbachev. ‘My hope is that (the American- British strike) will not
reverse the march of history.’

By Monday, it seemed clear that the roar was little more than an
expression of anger over Moscow’s lost ability to influence world events
and fear that one of these days Russia or one of its territories might
be the victim of an American attack. ‘My friends are worried; first
you did it in Yugoslavia, then Iraq,’ a young professional said.
‘What’s to say that you won’t bomb here when something happens that
you don’t like?’

Interviews with Russian foreign policy experts and comments from
Moscow’s streets indicated that a new era of world polarization and
superpower hostility is unlikely but that a blur has appeared after
years of Russian- American progress. It appeared to end a Russian dream
of partnership with the United States in solving the world’s problems.

Most agreed that the once-powerful country and its military,
seriously disabled by a devastated economy, could do little but roar
with indignation. It couldn’t even afford to offend the United States
too much. Moscow, after all, remains dependent on Washington for food
and other assistance.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Russia’s dignity came from being left out
of the decision to bomb Iraq. Insiders said President Boris Yeltsin
first learned of the bombing raids from the French. Washington’s
decision not to seek approval from the UN Security Council left Russia
unable to use its veto as one of the five permanent members. ‘We’re
sick and tired of the way we are treated these days by the world,’
said Edward Alexandrovich Ivanian, editor in chief of the academic
journal USA-Canada Economics, Politics and Culture.

‘Everyone considers that Russia’s strength, power and authority
is a thing of the past,’ Ivanian said. ‘We simply have to
reaffirm that we are a nation to be taken into consideration. Let me
paraphrase Mark Twain: Rumors of our demise are premature. We had to
reaffirm that we still are alive and kicking.’

‘It’s a tragedy when a big power loses its status,’ said
Shakhnazarov, director of a think tank founded by Gorbachev.
‘Still, it would be a big mistake for anyone to neglect Russia’s
international role. It still remains a superpower, even though cornered,
and it still requires a serious and delicate attitude.’

The substance behind that opinion appeared to register with President
Clinton, who sent Yeltsin a letter explaining his decision to bomb Iraq.
The U.S. State Department also announced that Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright would visit Moscow next month. Viktor Alexandrovich
Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Institute for USA and Canadian
Studies, said it is crucial for Russia to feel itself a major power
capable of asserting its influence.

‘This fits the desire of many people that Russia should be
there,’ he said. ‘Take for example the Palestinians: They want
Russia to be a player in the Middle East. The Iranians want Russia to be
there. Indians want Russia to be there, and even China wants Russia to
be a presence in the Far East.’

The Independent (UK) 20 December 1998

Attack on Iraq – Impotent Russia rails against the
West Moscow’s anger.

By Phil Reeves

Here, ladies and gentlemen, are the headlines. Bong! Iraqi children
are suffering because of Bill Clinton’s love affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Bong! The Americans are attacking Iraq to enrich their petroleum giants,
by pushing up the oil price. Bong! As this scandal unfolds, Russia is
powerless to do anything about it.

Thus, in anger and sadness, and with universal disapproval, has the
Russian media covered the American and British attack on Baghdad.
‘Russia is no longer a superpower,’ mourned Izvestia on its
front page yesterday.

Russia is upset not only because its membership of the UN Security
Council has counted for nothing, or because the assault cuts across
Moscow’s policy of pushing for a political solution. What hurts as much
as anything else is the impression that the United States, the world’s
only superpower, no longer appears to care a jot about what Russians
think. Rarely has the aftertaste of Cold War defeat seemed so bitter.

This is not only a matter of the Russian government. The official
response has, in fact, had a ritualistic air, not least because Moscow
desperately needs western assistance if it is to stand any chance of
reversing the country’s steady downward slide. At the same time as the
Kremlin was angrily hurrumphing about the bombardment and pulling back
its ambassadors, plaintive officials were also stressing that an $850m
(more than ?500m) food aid package with the US should not be affected,
and nor would relations with the International Monetary Fund.

It is also a question of public opinion. In bombing Iraq, the US and
Britain have shown no regard for the reaction of a Russian electorate
which can be expected to play a significant role in determining just
what kind of leader succeeds Boris Yeltsin (whose term expires in 2000).

In the past seven years, Russia’s relationship with the West has,
from the public’s perspective, yielded almost nothing good. Russians
have watched a parade of slick young economists come and go from office,
flourishing western remedies from Harvard textbooks.

But the results have been hyperinflation, the rise and fall of
hundreds of dodgy banks, the most corrupt mass privatisation of state
assets in history and a plethora of crooked pyramid schemes – all of
which have contrived to rob millions of people of their savings, their
pensions and their monthly pay packets.

The final blow came in August when a rescue package crafted by the
IMF failed and the rouble crashed to a third of its value, wiping out
yet more savings and wages and sending the country into a full-blown
economic crisis.

Russians have watched with equal gloom as NATO has hurriedly expanded
to Russia’s western edge at a time when a broken-down army represents no
serious threat. Add to this the spectacle of US and British planes
bombarding an old Soviet friend in the Arab world, it is not hard to see
why anti-westernism is on the rise.

For evidence of that trend one need look no further than the State
Duma. Crackpot extremists have long flourished within its doors. But the
Communists, parliament’s largest party, have a new air of confidence
about them. What could be dismissed as the utterances of the loony left
a year ago, are now more significant. Some of these utterances are
deeply alarming, such as a rash of anti-Semitic diatribes – a hallmark
of anti-westernism, as Israel is assumed to be permanently plotting with
the Americans.

The best weathercock of anti-westernism is the Communist leader,
Gennady Zyuganov, runner-up in the last presidential elections. At a
recent congress of his coalition of Communist and nationalist forces, he
identified Stalin as one of the great national heroes – an opinion he
knows antagonises his democratic foes, and alarms western opinion. That
he feels able to utter it is a measure of the current climate.

Politics are a mysterious business in Russia. The Communists have
long had trouble expanding their base, despite the country’s malaise,
and the electorate are given to abrupt mood swings. It is too soon to
say whether today’s anti-western sentiments will translate into
tomorrow’s successes at the ballot box. But the fact that the world’s
last superpower no longer seems to care one way or another is good cause
for concern.

Dec 19 (AFP) via Johnson’s Russia List

Press laments Russia’s passage from superpower to
Third World impotence

MOSCOW – Washington’s decision to launch massive air strikes against
Iraq despite Moscow’s vehement opposition sounded the death knell of
Russia as a superpower, newspapers here said Saturday. Despite its
permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the latest Gulf crisis had
shown Russia to be as impotent as any Third World state, commentators
said, while some evoked the spectre of a new era of ‘Cold

‘Russia is already a superpower no more,’ ran the banner
headline in the moderate reform daily Izvestia, while Sevodnya titled
its front page article on the Iraq crisis: ‘Moscow doesn’t matter
any more.’ ‘Russia has the same influence on world affairs as
any Third World country,’ the liberal Sevodnya said, accusing
President Boris Yeltsin of trying to reassert his waning domestic
authority by talking tough on Iraq. But it warned that risked only
further humiliation: ‘Either (Yeltsin must) follow the logic of
escalating any conflict, and pass from diplomatic to military action, or
back down and recognize that what has gone on is a farce.’

Moscow has led vociferous international condemnation of strikes,
launched by the United States and Britain to punish Baghdad’s hampering
of efforts by UN weapons inspectors to root out proscribed weapons of
mass destruction. The Kremlin upped the ante on Friday by recalling its
ambassador to London for consultations, a day after it did likewise with
its ambassador to Washington, and pulled its defence minister out of
talks with NATO counterparts in Brussels.

Russia, a long-standing Iraq ally, has led efforts to stymie US
punishment attacks on Baghdad, vowing to veto in the Security Council
any attempts to secure UN approval for military action. Britain and the
United States went ahead regardless, saying no fresh mandate was needed.

Izvestia noted that Yeltsin’s ‘an unprecedented anti-western
diplomatic offensive’ came at a sensitive time for Russia, which
was making headway in attempts to secure IMF financial aid next year,
renegotiate its debt morass with foreign creditors and still hope to
receive substantial US food aid. And the paper lamented that
‘anti-Americanism’ appeared to be the only force capable of
uniting Russia’s fractious political class, asking: ‘Is the
situation where an idea which starts with the prefix ‘anti’ becomes the
uniting force of the country, in Russia’s interests?’

The respected business daily Kommersant meanwhile said that even if
Russia wanted to counter US military might, its cash-starved armed
forces were in no position to offer Iraq concrete support. Moscow has no
operational information coming from the Gulf because its solitary
electronic surveillance satellite over the region updates its
information once every 24 hours, Kommersant reported. Russia’s radar
post in Azerbaijan can only track incoming or outgoing Iraqi Scuds or
ballistic missiles, not US cruise missiles used in the air raids, it
said. Any Russian warships despatched to the zone would need three to
six weeks to arrive on station, and would be powerless to act given the
size of US forces present in the region, the paper argued.

Significantly, the defence ministry backtracked on its announcement
that some units had increased their state of readiness over the Iraq
crisis, saying it was ‘practice’ to do so ‘in the event
of a deterioration of the situation in some regions of the world,’
Interfax reported. Kommersant noted that the last time the country’s
armed forces had been placed on alert was June 1982, for military
manoeuvres based on a scenario for World War III.

As a result, ‘Moscow was forced to get involved in the Star Wars
arms race, whose expense was a determining factor in the economic and
political collapse of the Soviet Union,’ the paper concluded.

New York Times 19 December 1998

Russia: Public Anger in Moscow Is Tempered in

By Steven Erlanger

WASHINGTON — Despite Russia’s anger over the bombing of Iraq and the
recall of its ambassador from Washington, Moscow’s private conversations
with U.S. officials reflect a desire to preserve and protect the
U.S.-Russian relationship, senior American officials said Friday.
Russian fury has been leveling off from its peak on Wednesday, the
officials said, noting that the most positive conversation yet occurred
Friday morning between Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Ivanov repeated an invitation for Albright to come to Moscow, and she
expects to go there toward the end of January, said her spokesman, James
Rubin. The conversation Friday, which lasted half an hour with some
translation, was ‘an extremely important exchange,’ Rubin
said, and Ivanov emphasized ‘that the Russians understand the
importance of maintaining a broad-based relationship with the United
States.’ A senior U.S. official said later: ‘The Russians
recognize that they need to keep good political and economic ties to the
West, even if they are angry and embarrassed. And they won’t risk all
that for the sake of Iraq.’

Ivanov also passed on a relatively conciliatory message from
President Boris Yeltsin to President Clinton, officials said. On
Thursday, Clinton sent a letter to Yeltsin explaining the U.S. and
British decision to bomb Iraq and asking the Russians to work to manage
their differences with Washington and concentrate on vital areas of
common interest, including Moscow’s financial difficulties.

Also on Thursday, Vice President Al Gore telephoned Russia’s prime
minister, Yevgeny Primakov, to explain the U.S. position. When Primakov
asked Gore to stop the bombing, Gore responded that the attacks would
continue. Hours later, the Russians recalled Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov,
who was due to retire and return to Moscow soon in any event. Vorontsov
left Washington Friday. The Russians simultaneously recalled their
ambassador from London.

The recall was believed to be the first since 1979, when Washington
recalled its ambassador from Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan, and the Soviets recalled their ambassador from Washington.
But given the tensions of the nuclear-tipped Cold War, both sides
considered it more important to retain diplomats in each other’s
capitals than to give vent to pique.

Discussions with Moscow about its budget and possible new loans from
the International Monetary Fund are proceeding on a separate track, the
officials said. U.S. officials do not want the Russians to think there
is a crude economic or political price to pay for their opposition on
Iraq, an official said. The Russians will keep up loud, public criticism
of American and British actions so long as the bombing continues over
Iraq, a senior U.S. official said. ‘No one should be surprised by
that, and we shouldn’t overblow it,’ he said. ‘Both sides are
mindful of the importance of bilateral relations, there will be more
meetings between officials next week and life will go on.’

The official identified three reasons for Russian anger. First,
Moscow and Primakov personally have tried to be key players in resolving
the Iraq crisis, but their efforts have failed, producing frustration.

Primakov is an Iraq expert and knows its leaders well, including
Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister. In November
1997, Primakov, then foreign minister, personally arranged a deal with
Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions and work with U.N. weapons
inspectors that short- circuited American plans to bomb Iraq. But Saddam
broke his promises to Primakov then, as he broke similar promises made
last February to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Second, the Russians felt insulted that they were not consulted, as
Security Council members, before the bombing began, and that the bombing
in fact began in the middle of a Security Council debate on Iraq. While
Washington says it consults Moscow, Russian officials often complain
that such consultations often have the humiliating feel of lectures or
briefings. The Chinese and French sometimes complain of the same
feeling, U.S. officials admit.

Third, Russian domestic politics essentially demands a tough reaction
to the U.S. superpower taking nearly unilateral action against Russian
wishes, whether it be in Iraq or in Bosnia. ‘People and bureaucrats
in the Russian system itself are frustrated by many factors, by the poor
economy and Russia’s reduced status, and they want to vent,’ an
official said. ‘Events like this one can become a way for Russians
to vent their frustrations about everything.’

Washington Post March 7, 1999

Russia’s Relevance

By Fred Hiatt, a member of the editorial page staff.

So loose nukes may be rolling through the taiga, the ruble may be in
ruins, tuberculosis flares in Siberia. Who cares?

Not so long ago it was assumed that Russia’s health was essential to
world stability. Then Russia’s troubles slid from bad to worse, and the
rest of the world hardly seemed to notice. Now some in Washington are
suggesting that maybe Russia didn’t matter so much after all.

Certainly many Russian politicians believe that the United States has
written them off. (Most of the rest believe the United States is out to
destroy them.) Proof, for them, is everywhere. When President Clinton
launched Desert Fox on the eve of his impeachment, for example,
Republicans in Congress smelled one rat, Russians another. It was also
the eve of a scheduled Duma vote on the START II arms control treaty.
The U.S. military action doomed the vote. So if Clinton really cared
about relations with Russia, many Russians reasoned, he would have
postponed his bombing campaign.

But it’s not just Russians who suspect the Clinton administration has
given up. ‘The U.S.-Russian relationship has, in the last eight
years, gone from a strategic partnership,’ Republican Sen. Dick
Lugar said recently, ‘to a pragmatic one, to a relationship of
benign neglect, to one that is lurching toward malign neglect.’

Administration officials feed this perception when they advocate, in
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s words, a policy of
‘strategic patience and persistence,’ or when Clinton visits
Moscow and seems to have no idea what to do once he arrives. In fact,
most administration officials have not concluded that Russia doesn’t
matter. They still believe, as Talbott also said, that ‘the stakes,
for us, are huge.’ They just aren’t sure what to do about it.

Here’s one way to look at their dilemma. As Russia’s post-Communist
transition has stalled, the nation in fact has lost much of its ability
to influence the world — at least in a positive way. Its economy now
accounts for something like one percent of world output. Russia remains
the world’s biggest country, but territory has long since ceased to be a
key indicator of power. It holds vast stores of oil and mineral wealth,
but in a global economy based increasingly on knowledge and technology,
those, too, are of dwindling value.

Russia’s declining population of 150 million is too impoverished to
tempt many companies as a consumer market. And despite a high level of
education, its value as a labor pool is dimmed by the crime and
uncertain laws and taxes that keep most foreign companies away.

So Russia’s potential influence is mostly negative. It can scare the
world with the consequences of collapse: untended nuclear weapons,
degraded missile-launch computers, the export of crime and pollution and
contagious disease. U.S. policy has evolved in two ways as a result. Not
surprisingly, most of its aid is aimed at averting the bad, not
promoting the good. Three-quarters of U.S. assistance dollars, Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright said last fall, ‘are devoted to
programs that diminish the threat of nuclear war and the danger that
weapons of mass destruction will fall into the wrong hands.’

And, as Russia has moved ‘from the core of the international
system to the periphery,’ as the Carnegie Endowment’s Michael
McFaul said, it has also moved to the periphery of U.S. foreign policy.
On issue after issue — Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, NATO expansion, anti-missile
defense — the message from the administration is that Russia matters,
but not enough to derail U.S. policy.

Excluded from policymaking, Russia then emphasizes even more its
spoiler role: shipping dangerous technology to Iran, encouraging Serbian
aggression, tweaking the United States wherever possible. And so the two
nations find themselves in an unhealthy downward cycle — a long way
from the strategic partnership envisioned at the opening of this decade.

This, it should be stressed, is mostly Russia’s fault. Until Russia
gets its reforms on track, its influence will continue to diminish. A
foreign policy that indulges Russian nostalgia and wishful thinking, as
the United States did with its great-power summitry and its premature
transformation of the G-7 into a G-8, can’t change the reality. It’s
more likely, in fact, to bruise feelings and delay reform by convincing
Russia that normal rules won’t apply to it.

Yet ‘strategic patience’ isn’t sufficient either. Russia
does matter. If it takes its place as a democratic, free-market economy,
pulling its neighbors in the same direction through force of successful
example, one kind of world will result. If it implodes or grows hostile,
the world will be very different, and far more dangerous.

That understanding motivates those who continue to search for a U.S.
policy that will speak to Russia’s potential and not just its
pathologies. U.S.-Russian relations need ‘a new and dramatic
high-profile program,’ Lugar says. His proposal: a U.S. commitment
to help Russia produce 10,000 masters of business administration and
10,000 certified public accountants.

Inside the administration, some officials seek ways to turn
ballistic-missile defense, at the moment one of the greatest irritants
in the relationship, into something positive by proposing a cooperative
undertaking. And many arms control specialists continue to urge
unilateral U.S. steps to reduce the nuclear arsenal and take it off
trigger alert. This could encourage Russia to follow suit but would be
free of the coercion and preaching that seem counterproductive these

Some say all of this must wait — until a spent Boris Yeltsin and a
U.S. administration identified with failed policies both pass from the
scene. Perhaps so. But two years in modern Russian history is a long
time. The next U.S. administration may find itself with even fewer, and
less attractive, options than those available today.