Exactly a year ago this week, the American romance with the new Russia received its first jolt. In their first ever post-communist election, half the Russian people voted for fascist or communist parties openly yearning for Russia's lost empire.
Boris Yeltsin, it turns out, reads adverse election returns at least as well as Bill Clinton. Consequently, the jolt on the domestic front has, over the course of 1994, been dramatically translated into Russian foreign policy, a newly assertive, resolutely nationalist policy prepared to challenge Western aims and influence.The new policy - advanced, to the confusion of this administration, by "our" guys, Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev - defines a Russian national interest with two major themes: local hegemony, re-establishing a sphere of influence over the ex-Soviet Union. Hence the military meddling in the "near abroad" republics of Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan. And recognition as a great power, demanding a place at the table in deciding the fate of world trouble spots - hence the challenge to the Western position in various regional conflicts (Iraq-Kuwait, Bosnia-Serbia) as open reassertions of great power status.
And last week, as if symbolically to mark the transition, Yeltsin invaded the small autonomous republic of Chechnya in the Caucasus. Muslim non-Slavic Chechnya had declared itself independent three years ago. After a clumsy, Bay-of-Pigs-type Russian operation failed to bring down the rebel government, Yeltsin simply ordered in the tanks, Czech-style circa 1968.
With these actions, the debate about how to deal with Russia really comes to an end. One school viewed Russia as incorrigibly expansionist and in need of restraining by the West. The other school held that so long as the evolution of Russia along democratic capitalist lines proceeded, we should do nothing that might jeopardize that evolution. And that to act provocatively - by expanding NATO or objecting too strenuously to Russian incursions in neighboring territory - would weaken the pro-Western voices in Moscow and help to bring about the very nationalist resurgence we were trying to avoid.
The events of 1994 have made the second view moot. Yeltsin and Kozyrev have adopted the nationalist line as their own. The Chechen invasion, for example, was conducted over the bitter objections of their liberal allies and to the applause of the fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The old Yeltsin - the one who acquiesced to Western aims, sought a "partnership" with the United States and was accused of being an American doormat - was indeed domestically vulnerable to such Western moves as the expansion of NATO. But the nationalist Yeltsin - the one who wrecked Clinton's appearance at the Budapest conference on European security by blaming Washington for precipitating a "cold peace" - has cured his domestic vulnerability on the East-West issue. For the newly minted tough guy, a Western challenge is not a threat but an opportunity to display nationalist credentials.
Whatever reasons we might have had, therefore, not to act out of fear of undermining Yeltsin have dissolved. It is true that Kozyrev and Yeltsin still represent the most pro-Western foreign policy we can expect from Russia. But that clinches the argument. The vision of a Russia integrated into a Western security system, acting like Britain or France or a reformed postwar Japan and Germany, stands exposed as a mirage. The truth is far nearer Henry Kissinger's pessimistic view of Russia determined by habit and history to remain apart from and often opposed to Europe and the West.
What to do? The administration response to Russia's geopolitical reawakening has been uncertain. It has tried to straddle the issue of Russian apartness in classic Clinton style: trying to please everyone, promising the East Europeans that NATO membership is a question of "when" not "if," while at the same time trying to induce the Russians to join the Partnership for Peace, a loose association with NATO that would encompass all the ex-communist states, including Eastern Europe.
On Dec. 1, the Russians finally decided with some theatricality that they would no longer play along. At the NATO ceremony marking Russia's formal accession to the Partnership for Peace, Kozyrev refused at the last moment to sign, leaving the idea in limbo and the administration adrift.
Rather than respond to this slap in the face by brushing it lightly aside, as the State Department did, we should instead turn the crisis into an opportunity to acknowledge the new Russian reality. We should say to Kozyrev:
Fine. Perhaps you are right. The Partnership for Peace may not be a good idea after all. We cannot bring all the ex-communist states under a single umbrella. Russia should be treated entirely differently. And it will. Accordingly, the ex-communist states most clearly linked historically, culturally and geographically to Europe - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - will, in three years time, be brought into NATO. At the same time, NATO will negotiate bilaterally with Russia whatever kind of association Russia deems possible, from friendly cooperation to chilly coexistence. Your call. But the fate of Eastern Europe is not.
The romantic period is over. Time to work out a new relationship.