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Archive for January, 1995

We Should Not Support Russian Imperialism

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

In a press release on January 3rd, the US State Department said that what the Russian Government is doing in Chechnya is perfectly OK because it is simply Russia keeping order in Russia.  They even made a comparison to our Civil War.  What a shameful statement!

Why has the Clinton Administration chosen to support Russian military action in Chechnya?  Very simply because they feel they have no other choice and that chaos might follow the end of the Yeltsin interregnum.  That is a poor basis for foreign policy formulation as George Bush found out in supporting Mikhail Gorbachev.

Despite the graphic and often disturbing pictures that are brought us by the public media, Chechnya and Groznyy are places that seldom intrude into our conscious concerns.  It all seems too far away, too remote.  However, what is happening there really does matter.  It matters not because of what is happening, but because of why it is happening and what it really means.

There are three factors at work in Russia today which could easily contribute to the further weakening, if not the outright disappearance of Russian Democracy.  They are Russian/Soviet history and the concern of myriad minority groups about Russian Imperialism, the recent rapid disintegration of the Russian Military establishment and the lack of strong approval and support of democracy by millions of Russians.

Russia is not simply a country, it is one of the last remaining Empires.  It was created by the Imperial Russian push eastward to the Pacific Ocean which subjugated millions of people and hundreds of cultures over a period of more than 400 years.  That Empire was maintained and even expanded by the USSR.  Apparently an attempt to continue the tradition will be undertaken by the current “democratic“ government of Russia.

The history of Russia is such that this move by the Yeltsin government has to be sending shock waves through all the national minority groups in the former USSR.  It is, quite simply, the first step down a very slippery slope.  If you are a member of any national minority group in the former Soviet Union you should be worried.  If we learn from history (and hear from the far right in today’s Russia) there is no reason to believe that this Russian exercise of Imperialism in Chechnya is not the first step in reassembling either the old Russian or the Soviet Empire.

By all counts, the Russian Army is in the process of being thoroughly humiliated by the Chechens.  If they are able finally to take Groznyy, the Chechens will almost certainly take to the hills where they are capable of putting on a performance that will make Afghanistan look like a picnic to the Russian leadership.

All of this results from the degeneration of personnel, materiel and leadership in what was once a proud, first-class military establishment.  Russian military units have sold equipment and supplies on the open market and sharply curtailed training simply to be able to quarter and feed their troops.  The formerly effective Soviet draft is now almost nonexistent.  Conscripts simply do not show up for service with the result that some units have more officers than troops.

This is a very unhealthy situation.  The greatest inherent threats to the fledgling democratic movement in Russia are probably the Russian military establishment and the political right.  The situation in Chechnya provides them with a situation around which to coalesce, and that is both dangerous and frightening since their ideology generally supports return to the old Imperialism.

It is important to  remember that the Russian people have exceedingly little experience with democracy.  The sole democratic government in Russian history was the Kerensky government which succeeded the Czar in July 1917 and fell to the Soviets in October of the same year.  That government had little opportunity to remake a population that had lived under a series of repressive Czars for 500 years.  Most Russians are currently unhappy with their current lot.  They are also passive and long-suffering – not healthy traits in the face of anti-democratic political change.

There is now a set of circumstances at work in Russia which could easily lead to the empowerment of a xenophobic, military-supported, right-wing Government that would not be a friend to the United States in particular or to the West in general.  It’s difficult to believe that the United States Government is actually supporting Russian anti-democratic activities when the only thing that can save democracy in Russia is the strengthening of democratic principles and processes there.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who specialized in Soviet and East European operations. He served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Washington and now lives in Brookfield.

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