“Vigor, Toughness and Tolerance”

27 march 2011

The Legacy of the 1990s – Russian Diplomacy at the Turn of Eras

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: For all the obvious differences between the three presidents of the Russian Federation and despite the upheavals experienced by the country over the 20 years of its existence, the goals that Moscow set for itself during this period have changed much less than one might think. The Kremlin, under each of the presidents, has always sought to restore Russia’s role as a leading player in the international arena.

January 1, 2011 marked the end of the 2000s – the first decade of the 21st century, which showed that the new century will greatly differ from what was expected at the end of the previous century. The 1990s, labeled as “hard times” in Russia, can well be described as “carefree” in the international arena. This definition seems absurd, considering the events of those years: the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the medieval wars in the Balkans, the horrible massacre in Rwanda, the increase in the number of nuclear powers, the first acts of transnational terrorism, the war in Europe, and local conflicts around the world, to name just a few.

But surprisingly, all those signals did not overcloud the general anticipation of a bright future among the more developed and influential part of mankind. It was overwhelmed with a feeling of triumph from the victory over the existential enemy – the Soviet Union, which was achieved without a shot fired. It seemed that everything was possible now after such a monster as Communism had been defeated.

The final communique of the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in the summer of 2000 was a real monument to that self-satisfaction. The G8 leaders discussed in earnest the information society, various aspects of health problems, aging, prospects of biotechnology and, especially, the human genome. It was only the last, and shortest, section of the communique that was devoted to political and strategic issues: conflict prevention (two paragraphs), disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (listed in one line), and finally, terrorism (three short paragraphs).

The world establishment believed that political problems had been largely solved and that it was time to address more serious things, for example, the genome. Particularly amazing is Point 2 of the communique: “The world economy has achieved unprecedented levels of prosperity, the Cold War has come to an end, and globalization has led to an emerging common sense of community.” There was just a little more than a year before September 11, 2001 and eight years before the global financial crisis, which has reshaped the balance of power in the world.

For Russia, the 1990s were a period of tremendous disasters, whose scale has not been fully realized yet. We have already gone a long way from those times, but their serious and sober rethinking is only beginning. Most likely, the reason is that the events of the 1990s have not become history yet and still remain a matter of current politics and public discussions, although not so much intellectual as emotional ones. Contemporary Russia, born on the ruins of a broken-up empire, is still undecided as to how to treat this fact – whether it should be proud of its origin, or whether it should be ashamed of it. Advocacy attempts to combine these two feelings and “switch on” the “right” one depending on a situation only aggravate the state of confusion and give rise to myths.

Russia’s international position in the first decade after the Soviet Union’s disintegration is a subject of special interest and, at the same time, an object of incessant speculations. Categorical assessments of Russia’s foreign policy under Boris Yeltsin, in which some people see only signs of chaos and decline while others view as green shoots of some unreal “different Russia,” are, as a rule, anti-historical and do not take into account the objective conditions in which the Russian leadership had to act then. Instead of approaching that situation from a perspective of justification and accusation, we should weigh the achievements of the 1990s and real opportunities available at that time and try to understand how much those opportunities were tapped.

The two-volume “Correspondence of President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin with Heads of State and Government,” recently published by the Great Russian Encyclopedia Publisher, will be a major contribution to the sober and objective assessment of the 1990s. This is a unique and unparalleled publication, as never before has top-level correspondence been made public so promptly: the two-volume book covers Yeltsin’s second term as president from 1996 to 1999.

The foreword to the book was written by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He wrote, in particular: “Considering the conditions in which the country’s leadership had to act and the limited resources that were at its disposal, we must recognize the obvious merits of Boris Yeltsin.” The president points out that the foreign policy of new Russia took shape at a turning point, “when the global restructuring of international relations demanded new views on international security and stability. Interaction with partners had to be built in a rapidly developing global world.” It should be added that mistakes in that situation were made even by countries that had much greater possibilities than Russia of the 1990s, which painfully struggled to overcome the consequences of the collapse of the former statehood and to build a new one.

Sergei Prikhodko (an international affairs aide to all the three Russian presidents since 1997 – Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev) wrote in the introduction to the book that it has included documents, without which “it would be impossible to understand things that history textbooks write about  now.” The next step will be the publication of correspondence dating from 1991-1996. That was a revolutionary and a truly crucial period of time, but precisely for this reason it presents a particular difficulty in terms of selecting and preparing documents.

Of course, those who expect Wikileaks-style sensations from the book will be disappointed – it includes only official letters; moreover, not all the correspondence has been made public. “At the request of some incumbent and former heads of state, this book has not included some messages that are exceptionally interesting for the history of bilateral relations with these countries, especially their current stage,” Prikhodko writes. “Moreover, we have faced a unique situation as we have been repeatedly and insistently asked not to publish some messages of Boris Yeltsin himself.” Some lacunas are conspicuous, as there are no replies, for example, from Bill Clinton to some important messages from Yeltsin. Yet, the book is a real gift for those interested in international relations and especially those who study them professionally.

“Yeltsin worked very thoroughly over the ideas of the Foreign Ministry, the Government administration and ministers on the foreign policy of new Russia, and often reworked them from the positions of his own vision of the situation and his personal relationships with the leaders of foreign states,” Prikhodko points out. “It was then that these documents acquired features characteristic of Yeltsin’s foreign policy: vigor, toughness and tolerance at the same time.”

Probably not everyone will agree that it is precisely these qualities that characterized the foreign-policy style of the Nineties. There is a widespread view that during that period Russia usually took positions of accommodation, going on a leash of its Western partners, primarily the United States. However, the documents published in the book suggest a different conclusion: Russia sought to pursue a consistent and independent policy, but objective circumstances, which constantly and rapidly changed, forced it to adjust to the situation all the time, weighing its goals against real possibilities.

The social and economic problems faced by the country are always there as a background, and Yeltsin’s correspondents tactfully but regularly mention them. The Russian president’s health is another keynote of the correspondence – the leaders of other countries increasingly often wished him a speedy recovery and good rest. The health issue could not but affect the effectiveness of Russia’s foreign policy. Yet Yeltsin’s letters have no indication of his inactivity or weakness.

The Russian president insistently, throughout the entire period reviewed in the book, raised issues of concern to the Kremlin and made no compromises when he was sure that he was right. Although 12 to 15 years have passed since the time of the correspondence, the issues raised in it mirror precisely those of today. In other words, policymakers of the world are still discussing issues which were  topical a decade and a half ago; which means that the answers to fundamental questions have not been found yet.

The correspondence between Yeltsin and Bill Clinton, which probably best reflects Russia’s international positions of those years, is marked by constant polemics, conducted in a friendly tone though.

The contested issues included the START II Treaty, which was signed but never came into force because of the parties’ reluctance to show flexibility, primarily due to Washington’s unreadiness to adjust the Treaty’s implementation schedule. Another problem in the bilateral relations was NATO’s enlargement. “Our position is neither anti-American nor anti-Western,” Yeltsin writes. “It is dictated by the consideration that the implementation of the NATO enlargement plans will objectively create new dividing lines in Europe and worsen the entire geopolitical situation, regardless of whether or not someone sets such a goal. We cannot be satisfied with statements that the enlargement plans are not driven by a desire to create alienation between European states.”

Clinton does not give in but suggests, along with NATO’s enlargement, bringing relations with Russia to a higher level, which ultimately happened: NATO and Russia signed a Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security. However, as subsequent events showed, this move did not resolve the fundamental differences between the parties. Even now in the 2010s, the leaders of Russia and the U.S. still do not know how to build relations between Moscow and the Alliance. The only difference is that NATO no longer thinks of itself as a victorious bloc, as it did in the mid and late 1990s.

The parties exchanged stern remarks before and during NATO’s Yugoslav campaign. Clinton justifies it, painting a vivid picture of atrocities committed by the Yugoslav military in Kosovo. Yeltsin strongly objects: “On what grounds does NATO dare to decide the destinies of peoples in sovereign states? Who gave it the right to act as a guardian of order? Obviously, such an action by NATO would not only frustrate the negotiating process but would also complicate the situation still further and would push the Balkans to the brink of a big war. Who will take responsibility for that? Please weigh once again all the consequences before making a decision that – let me put it straight – may be fatal.”

Some time later, at the height of the war, Yeltsin writes again: “Unfortunately, all my worst fears are coming true, and you yourself can see it very well. Now we should not blame the circumstances but pluck up the will to reverse the situation and bring it back from a military track to a political one. Please believe me, the most important thing is not our personal likes or dislikes, nor even the historical ties between Russia and the U.S., which for obvious reasons have not been always smooth. Our experience should have taught us that complicated ethnic problems – whether in the Middle East or the Balkans – cannot be solved overnight. Their settlement requires patience and regard for all the factors. [...] A military tragedy is a bad medicine for a humanitarian tragedy. [...] Our relations have been put to a very serious test by NATO’s military actions in the Balkans, and public opinion in Russia has reached a boiling point. [...] Bill, there are moments when the leaders of great powers must justify their purpose and have the final say. I think such a moment has come, and we together must throw all our personal authority into the scales of diplomacy, not war.”

Yeltsin had a similar position on Iraq: “Bill, you know that we advocate political methods of influencing Baghdad. I agree with you that the threat of force may help to sober up the Iraqis. However, I think that the use of force must be prevented by all means. It would be counterproductive in every respect. It is easy to predict that military action against Iraq would trigger an outbreak of radicalism in the Arab and Muslim worlds and would backfire on the peace process in the Middle East.”

This letter, dated 1998, is a fragment of intensive correspondence on the Iraq issue which gives a remarkable picture of Moscow’s and Washington’s attempts to influence Baghdad. Yeltsin’s letters reveal his profound irritation with Saddam Hussein (just as with Slobodan Milosevic), yet they repeatedly emphasize the inadmissibility of war. Today we know the outcome of those developments (under other presidents), and one cannot but admit that Russia’s position was more adequate.

Missile defense is another keynote of the correspondence. The brevity of this article makes it impossible to present all the intrigue surrounding this issue; in addition, most of Clinton’s letters regarding missile defense have not been made public yet. Nevertheless, the book provides a general impression of the parties’ approaches. Washington, while reiterating its commitment to the ABM Treaty of 1972, gradually turned its back on the treaty which was the cornerstone of strategic stability.

It might well be, however, that there was a period during Clinton’s presidency when no decisions had been made yet and when the ABM treaty could be adapted and its frameworks expanded, while the basic limits set by the Treaty would be preserved. One can only guess whether Washington was really interested in that, but proposals of this kind were repeatedly made. On the other hand, keeping in mind the destiny of the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which never entered into force because Western parties set additional conditions for Russia, it is not ruled out that an adapted ABM Treaty would have had the same destiny.

In any case, Yeltsin keeps returning to the missile defense issue which is the keynote of his letters to all the most influential world leaders, written shortly before his resignation. Other issues discussed in the correspondence include Iran, the situation in Asia, economic problems, particularly the Asian crisis of 1998, which brought about a default in Russia, European security architecture, and, finally, the political situation in Russia and the United States.

Yeltsin’s congratulation of Clinton on his victory in the 1996 election is quite remarkable: “I understand that your statements in support of the partnership with Russia, which you made in recent months, were not easy for you, but you did not yield to the electoral pressures. During the election campaign in Russia, there was pressure on me, too, but I did not allow the Russian-American relations to be made a subject of electoral debates. Frankly, when we monitored the course of the election campaign in the U.S., we saw with anxiety the rise of nationalist forces.” Now one might as well write something of this kind to Obama.

Yeltsin and Clinton exchanged very emotional letters in the autumn of 1999 concerning the situation in Chechnya. Yeltsin’s reply to a letter from Clinton, not published in this book, which apparently criticized Russia’s operation there, was adamant: “As President of the Russian Federation, I am interested more than anyone else in preserving the life and ensuring the legitimate rights and welfare of the Russian citizens, whether in Chechnya or other regions of Russia. Therefore my main task is to suppress the nest of terrorism and violence in the Chechen Republic in order to prevent further casualties among the civilian population and to stop the outrages committed by criminals and terrorists against all law-abiding citizens, both in Chechnya and in adjacent territories.”

The last decade of the 20th century appears in the two-volume correspondence as the living past: in fact, none of the global or regional issues that Yeltsin discussed with his correspondents in America, Europe, Asia and the former Soviet Union has been resolved yet. (Correspondence with leaders of post-Soviet countries is particularly interesting, and we intend to write about it in our next issue.) The time that has passed since then has shown that in many cases the decisions on which Yeltsin’s correspondents insisted turned out to be wrong, while the Russian position was more accurate, even though Moscow was unable to translate it into action then.

For all the obvious differences between the three presidents of the Russian Federation and despite the upheavals experienced by the country over the 20 years of its existence, the goals that Moscow set for itself during this period have changed much less than one might think.

The Kremlin, under each of the presidents, has always sought to restore Russia’s role as a leading player in the international arena. It was the circumstances and levers available to the head of state that changed. The Russia of 1996 and the Russia of 2006 are countries with qualitatively different instruments. At the same time, even in the periods of its weakness Moscow was not at all pliant and humble, as it is commonly believed, while in the periods of its growth it was far from aggressive and uncompromising.

Yeltsin’s correspondence does not create the impression that Russia at that time was on the sidelines of the world processes or that no one was interested to know its opinion. The Russian president’s correspondents were well aware of his difficult situation and often tried to take avail of it. At the same time, they understood that Russia, even during hard times, was a major international factor.

Also, there are no signs of insufficient respect for Boris Yeltsin personally on the part of his correspondents. Of course, reading this correspondence today, when Clinton and some members of his administration have given other, sometimes very tactless estimates of the first Russian president in their memoirs, one can speak of the duplicity and insincerity of politics. And yet there is a feeling that at the time when these letters were written, their authors really tried to understand each other and establish a trusting relationship.

The 1990s was the time when the foundations of new Russia’s foreign policy were laid. And even though its membership in many of the old institutions remained formal, while some of the new ones admitted this country out of goodwill and nearly out of compassion, the fact remains that the framework for the future was created and those who replaced diplomats and politicians of the 1990s could rely on it. Moreover, as Dmitry Medvedev writes in his foreword to the book, “The contribution that Russia made to ensuring stability in the world – and especially in the post-Soviet space – during that very difficult period is clearly underestimated.”

Time puts everything in its place, and the tumultuous events of the late 20th century will be rethought thoroughly and impartially someday – without high emotions which now prevail in any discussion of that period, without anger and bias. The two-volume correspondence, published by the Great Russian Encyclopedia, is the first step in that direction. In this regard, I would like to make special mention of the great job done by the staff of the Presidential Administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Publishers to prepare, verify and secure permission for the the publication of materials which enable the readers to take a glimpse behind the scenes of big world politics at a critical time in history.

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