Washington Post
May 15, 2000
Pg. 23

Mission To Moscow

By Henry Kissinger, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

President Clinton's visit to Moscow next month will take place in anomalous circumstances. The new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is developing policies intended to shape Russia's future. President Clinton, near the end of his eight-year term, must be careful not to foreclose his successor's options.

The difference in perspective is compounded by a gulf between the two leaders' perceptions of the nature of international politics. Putin has articulated a set of principles to enable Russia to resume the role of a great power and "to uphold its national interests in the international arena." The Clinton administration seems to believe that reform of Russia's domestic institutions is the major solvent to bring about stable Russo-American relationships. Hence its policy emphasizes constant exhortation regarding internal developments in Moscow. And its political agenda stresses a view of arms control that, if implemented, is certain to trigger a political explosion in this country.

This is the real gap that challenges the two leaders when they meet in Moscow. Great powers have interests that they seek to vindicate by their own efforts or to adjust by diplomacy. But the administration policy toward Russia has focused on Russia's domestic redemption. The Moscow visit can make progress if it begins the process of treating Russia as a serious power. It will fail if it becomes the occasion for disquisitions on Russia's domestic structure or for arms-control schemes doomed to failure in America.

Western leaders have pursued a dialogue with the new Russian president. They have showered him with accolades testifying to his intelligence and commitment to reform, and, somewhat condescendingly, as a "quick learner." In the process, they have abandoned the moral precepts they proclaimed less than a year earlier. Then, they justified their Kosovo policy as a new moral dispensation that would no longer ignore domestic repression as an internal matter. But when, six months later, Chechnya produced an almost precise replica of Kosovo with even higher civilian casualties, they changed their tune. The "freedom fighters" of Kosovo were transformed into "rebels" in Chechnya. President Clinton specifically approved Russia's right "to oppose violent Chechen rebels."

Having deplored excessive self-righteousness over Kosovo, I do not advocate it as a precedent for Chechnya. But the rapid oscillation in the West's foreign policy between extremes of moralism and expediency leaves a vacuum with respect to exactly what the new Russian leader is to be engaged about.

Our European allies have made clear their aim. It is to establish Europe as Putin's principal interlocutor during the formative period of the new Russian presidency and our presumed preoccupation with our own presidential campaign. Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed a role for Britain as "pivot" and applied it to the contentious issue of missile defense: "Our role is very much to build understanding of the various points of view, both of Russia and the United States"--not exactly a ringing endorsement of the American position.

The West has a stake in a peaceful and democratic Russia that would contribute to a more stable international order. And Russia is clearly in a historic transition. But history, culture and geography have left a legacy that cannot be removed by "dialogue" for its own sake. Throughout Boris Yeltsin's period in office, Western leaders acted as if they were a party to Russian internal politics. Ignoring a corrupt economy and autocratic governmental practices, President Clinton, on the occasion of Yeltsin's resignation, spoke of Russia as having emerged as "a pluralist political system and civil society competing in the world markets and plugged into the Internet." He explained Yeltsin's leaving office as "rooted in his core belief in the right and ability of the Russian people to choose their own leader. . . ." Almost every other observer viewed Yeltsin's resignation as a skillful manipulation of the Russian constitution in order to entrench as his successor a protege practically unknown six months earlier. And in Russia, the Yeltsin era is widely viewed as a surrender to an American strategy to keep Russia weak.

In these circumstances, Clinton's journey to Moscow is threatened by premises disproved by experience. "The president," announced his spokesman Joe Lockhart, "hopes to use his visit to speak to a broad spectrum of Russian leaders who are building new democratic institutions, civil society and a new market economy." But when heads of state meet, their goal should be to mitigate existing differences or indicate a specific direction toward cooperative relations. Lectures on domestic institutions often create, above all, the impression of American presumption and domineering.

Russian domestic reform is not a favor Putin does for America; it is imposed on him by reality, as he himself has pointed out. There are some ways we can and should help, but in the end, Russian domestic economic reform is a Russian internal problem that depends largely on Russian decisions.

The deepest foreign policy challenge posed by Russia is how a potentially powerful country with a turbulent history can evolve a stable relationship with the rest of the world. For four centuries, imperialism has been Russia's basic foreign policy as it has expanded from the region around Moscow to the shores of the Pacific, the gates of the Middle East and the center of Europe, relentlessly subjugating weaker neighbors and seeking to overawe those not under its direct control. From the Holy Alliance to the Brezhnev Doctrine, Russia often has identified its security with imposing its domestic structure on its neighbors and beyond. Now reduced to the boundaries of Peter the Great in Europe, Russia must adjust to the loss of its empire even as it builds historically unfamiliar domestic institutions. The West does itself no favor by pretending that Russia already has culminated a process that is only in its inception or by celebrating Putin for qualities he has not been in office long enough to demonstrate.

Paradoxically, Putin may prove an effective interlocutor because he does not seem to play the game of appealing to our preconceptions. He emphatically does not share the Western assessment of Russia's internal evolution. In his seminal manifesto, published late last year, Putin declared that "it will not happen, if it ever happens at all, that Russia will become the second edition of, say, the United States or Great Britain. . . . For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly, which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a guarantor of order and the initiator and the main driving force of any change." Putin explicitly reaffirmed Russia's imperial tradition in his inaugural address: "We must know our history, know it as it really is, draw lessons from it and always remember those who created the Russian state, championed its dignity and made it a great, powerful and mighty state."

This attitude was reflected in a Russian national security policy document adopted on Oct. 3, when Putin was prime minister: " . . . to create a single economic domain with the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States"--that is, all the former constituent republics of the Soviet Union (with the exception of the Baltics, which are nevertheless facing constant Russian pressure).

The document does not define what is meant by a "single domain." Even were it possible to confine such an ambition to the economic field, it surely would be resisted by almost all the former subject states. But Russian policy under Yeltsin and, so far, under Putin has as one of its objectives to make independence so painful for those states--by the presence of Russian troops, the encouragement of civil wars or economic pressure--as to cause return to the Russian womb to appear as the lesser of two evils.

Thus the leader Clinton is about to meet seeks cooperation on economics, but in politics he will attempt to generate countervailing pressures to what he considers America's quest for domination. Russia is bound to have a special concern for security around its vast periphery, and the West should be careful about extending its military system too close to Russia's borders. But, equally, the West has a right to ensure that Russia will seek security by measures short of domination. If Russia becomes comfortable in its present frontiers--and with 11 time zones there is no obvious reason for claustrophobia--its relations with the outside world rapidly will normalize. But if the strengthening of Russia as a result of reform produces gradual encroachment--as, in effect, all its neighbors fear--Russia's quest for domination sooner or later will evoke Cold War reactions.

Thus for a discussion with Putin to be meaningful, Clinton needs to focus on two subjects. One is to ensure that Russia's voice is respectfully heard in the emerging international system. At the same time, President Clinton must stress--against all his inclinations--that geopolitics has not been abolished. America cannot remain indifferent to Russia's support of Iran's nuclear program, its systematic attack on American policies in the Gulf, especially in Iraq, and its eagerness to foster groupings whose proclaimed aim is to weaken so-called American hegemony. America should respect legitimate Russian security interests. But this presupposes a Russian definition of "legitimate" compatible with the independence of Russia's neighbors and such serious American concerns as proliferation of nuclear and missile technology.

President Clinton has implied another major objective on his visit to Moscow: a breakthrough on arms control, specifically regarding the ABM treaty, missile defense and reductions of offensive weapons. A word of caution is in order. The administration is highly uncomfortable with missile defense. If unavoidable for domestic reasons, it clearly prefers to squeeze it into a framework where it is confined to threats from so-called rogue states such as North Korea. Yet an ABM system aimed at North Korea also will be useful against a threat from China, and a strategic defense against China that omits Russia implies a definition of national security priorities that will profoundly affect all other international relationships. A lame-duck president should not attempt definitive breakthroughs on so controversial a subject.

As for offensive limitations, the administration is proceeding with the same avoidance of public and congressional consultations that wrecked the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. There has been no public discussion or serious briefing with respect to the implications of a ceiling of 1,500 warheads that the administration reportedly seeks. How is this to be distributed among existing categories of weapons? Does it require different types of weapons? What is the relationship to missile defense? What would be the impact on global deterrence and foreign policy commitments? Among the priorities of a new administration must be to develop a nuclear strategy to answer such questions without resorting to stale numbers inherited from the Cold War.

While Putin is concentrating on the modernization of Russia, which has its own momentum, our challenge is to deal with its international consequences. And, in what is left of the Clinton administration, the best that can be achieved in this respect is to start, rather than conclude, a dialogue.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm that has clients with business interests in many countries abroad.