No longer the rubber stamp

Jonathan Eyal looks at Russia's foreign policy after Kozyrev
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The Independent Online
The resignation this weekend of Andrei Kozyrev from Russia's foreign ministry has been greeted by Western governments with a deafening silence. The subject of intense hatred among Russia's nationalists and Communists, Kozyrev has long been a liability for President Boris Yeltsin. His departure, elegantly explained away by a decision to opt for a parliamentary seat, allows Yeltsin to grant one of the nationalists' main demands without having to perform a humiliating climbdown.

In theory, nothing has changed: Russia will still need Western economic assistance regardless of who is in charge of its ministries, and the country is now tied to myriad international treaties and organisations, something which should preclude violent swings in foreign policy. Yet Kozyrev's demise remains important, for it signifies just how hollow the much-touted "partnership" between Moscow and the West really is. A new foreign minister is unlikely to opt for outright confrontation. But the Kremlin will demand real concessions for its co-operation. The age of irrelevant communiques and grand talk about united continents is over; the games of balance- of-power and spheres-of-influence have returned and with a vengeance.

Kozyrev originally espoused the idea that the end of the Soviet empire was a liberating experience for Russia itself. But, unlike other empires, the Soviet Union collapsed suddenly and peacefully, and most Russian leaders genuinely believe that the demise of the Soviet Union was a mistake which must be corrected. They differ on methods and on the countries concerned, but that the former Soviet republics should be brought under Russian control, and that Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence as a great power, is now the accepted wisdom in the Kremlin.

The great Russian-Western partnership was based on two myths: the belief that a democratic Russia would, by definition, share similar strategic interests with the West, coupled with the assumption that it was possible to treat Russia as a great power without actually making any real concessions. The Russians acquiesced in the Gulf war; the Americans were grateful for the co-operation, but proceeded to eliminate Russia from subsequent Middle Eastern diplomatic initiatives. Yeltsin was told to stop supplying weapons to unstable or unsavoury governments, only to see Western arms sales soar. Russia was also promised an involvement in Bosnia, but when the West decided to bomb the Serbs last year, it did so in the full expectation that Yeltsin would be forced to acquiesce. The "dialogue" between the West and Russia ultimately amounted to little more than formal meetings at which the Russians were expected to ratify decisions already taken by other governments. And, with each crisis, the frustration of the Russians grew. In the words of one leading politician in Moscow, the Russians were once either respected or feared; now they are neither.

All Western governments are sincere about involving Russia in a genuine co-operation. The snag is that what the Russians want - spheres of influence - the West is unable to concede, and what the West offers - new treaties designed to erase such spheres - the Russians no longer find interesting. Such difficulties cannot be reasoned away, for they arise from different strategic interests. The West needs a stable and predictable Europe. Yet Moscow's opposition to Nato's enlargement in central Europe is not based on any clear idea about what the continent's security arrangements should be but, rather, on the assumption that, once Russia's economic difficulties are sorted out, the Kremlin would be able to get a better deal. Thus, not having a policy, not spelling out what it actually wants, is now Russia's policy in the heart of Europe. And even if the Russians ultimately agree to a treaty in Europe, they will insist that, in return, their own control over the space of the former Soviet Union should be explicitly accepted.

In short, an entire Moscow political elite now seems to believe a Russia that is feared is likely to be treated with more respect by the West than a Russia that is loved.

The West can either reach an accommodation or choose to confront Russia's demands openly. But the result will be the same: a world divided into spheres of influence.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London