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A Warning from 1997: Russian Domestic Politics and NATO Expansion

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The following article of mine was published nearly two decades ago and predicted what we have in fact seen as a result of NATO expansion:

Russian Domestic Politics and NATO Expansion

By Dr. Gordon M. Hahn, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

FOCUS, Volume 4, Issue 6, August-September 1997

Published by the Center for Political and Strategic Studies


Various observers of international and Russian affairs including Jean Kirkpatrick, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Michael McFaul and others have asserted that NATO expansion has not and will not have the effect of strengthening the hand of hardliners in Russia. Given the tenuousness of Russia’s young democracy and the primary geostrategic importance of its consolidation to international security, it is imperative that we understand the risks NATO expansion poses for the correlation of political groups and economic interests inside Russia.

It was clear from the late 1980s that transition to, and consolidation of, democracies and market economies would be difficult in Russia and the other former Soviet republics. The complexities of Russia’s multiple transition-economic, political and cultural-are among the most daunting of the post-communist cases. The cultural preconditions for civil society and free market activity-interpersonal trust, life satisfaction and commitment to democratic institutions-though taking root are still somewhat weak. Moreover, Russia’s historical ambivalence toward the West and its latent inclination to seek its own Slavophilic ‘third way’ are deeply rooted in her political culture. The liberal democratic strain, though stronger than it has ever been, is still not as strong as would be propitious. Any additional pressures imposed on the transition, emanating from the international environment, could therefore, be decisive: the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. Due to such considerations, NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner said publicly in June 1991 that granting NATO membership to former Warsaw Treaty members “would be a serious obstacle to reaching mutual understanding with the Soviet Union” (TASS, 16 June 1991). Why should this not be true for post-communist Russia today?

In fact, NATO expansion is very likely to intensify Russian chauvinism among hardline, anti-western communist and nationalist opposition forces. It most probably will also convert some of the moderate but ambivalent nationalist, conservative and social democratic ‘centrists’ into their allies and undermine the already weakened authority of Western-oriented democratic forces. Awareness of this possibility led the Clinton administration to delay announcing its decision to consider the admission of new members to NATO until after the 1996 Russian presidential elections so as to protect Yeltsin from a hardline backlash. However, there is another presidential election in little more than two and a half years. The campaign is set to begin a year earlier, precisely at the time Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are expected to accede to NATO membership. At the same time, calls for inclusion of the Baltic states and others will grow louder.

Undercutting Pro-Westerners

The move toward NATO expansion has already led to the political demise of Russia’s pro-American foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, after the first indications, in 1994, that the Western powers might opt to expand NATO east. Then the so-called ‘party of war’, led by First Deputy Premier Oleg Soskovets, with his close ties to the military-industrial complex, and Aleksandr Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s chief of security, used the specter of NATO expansion to convince Yeltsin to turn away from Kozyrev, and later Yegor Gaidar and Anatolii Chubais, who took a pro-American stance and discounted the likelihood of NATO expansion. The centrist

Nezavisimaia Gazeta carried an opinion piece in April 1997 that underscored this point: “We will recall how five years ago the entrance of Poland and the Baltics into NATO seemed a ‘comic chimera’ to several radical democratic analysts. And what about today?” What is the lesson from the Russian political development? The lesson is this: all else being equal, as a threat-real or perceived-grows, so do the prospects of those who predicted and did not downplay the threat.

Kozyrev’s successor, centrist Yevgenii Primakov, has led Russia’s movement toward a ‘Eurasian’ foreign policy model, stressing the potential benefits of close relations with ‘Third World’ states, as an alternative to close cooperation with the West. In a world of realpolitik where the prospects for a close Russian-American partnership seem to have all but disappeared, Primakov and Russian senior foreign policy elite seek to counter the emergence of a monopolar world dominated by the United States. Russia’s new strategy is to play off Western and ‘Asian’ interests-Chinese versus American, Arab and Islamic versus American, ASEAN versus EU-in order to increase Russia’s influence on the world stage and garner cards that can be traded with the West in pursuit of Russian interests there. In short, the reduced importance to the West of its relationship with Russia, represented by NATO expansion, has induced Russia to diminish the importance it places on relations with the United States and Europe. In this new world, Kozyrevs and democrats are expendable and their authority inside Russia is badly damaged.

Strengthening Hardliners

More recently, the hardline opposition, with some support from centrists, has been galvanized by NATO’s march east. In February 1997, deputies from the opposition ‘Power to the People’ faction (Narodovlastie) in the Russian Federal Assembly’s State Duma organized an ‘Anti-NATO’ association of some 240 deputies. By July it had grown to 260, reflecting growing alarm among centrist deputies as well.

This Duma majority could reject ratification of the START II nuclear weapons reduction treaty, chemical weapons agreements, the Open Skies agreement and other important arms control, non-proliferation and confidence-building measures. The leading organizers of the anti-NATO movement, for the most part, are members of the communist-nationalist opposition, particularly the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and Narodovlastie. However, there are also many representatives of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s centrist ‘Our Home is Russia’ party (NDR), as well as independent deputies. The Anti-NATO Commission, created in the State Duma in April at the association’s behest, includes not only five KPRF deputies and several from Narodovlastie and the less extremist Agrarian Party, but also two NDR deputies and one from the centrist ‘Russia’s Regions’ faction. This indicates broad opposition to NATO expansion and suggests the possibility of additional co-optation of the centrists in the future.

Moreover, the association and commission provide the institutional and resource base for hardliners to push their anti-Western agenda. In future electoral campaigns, depending on the details of implementing expansion, anti-NATO sentiment could be a useful wedge for undermining support for Westernization. A recent survey of young people, the most Western-oriented of Russians, found that 82 percent opposed NATO expansion. Therefore, over the mid- to long-term there is a political base upon which anti-Western forces can exploit NATO expansion at the polls. This could lead to either the coming to power of anti-western communist-nationalist forces or the hardening of a centrist Russian regime’s stance toward the West. The first possibility was writ large in Yeltsin’s September 19 statement in Orel, in which he stated that the US has too much influence in Europe.

Hardening of other Russian political forces was made clear in a report made to the Anti-NATO Commission offering a rather chilling vision of an alternative future should NATO expansion produce this worst case scenario. The report, delivered by Chairman of the Duma’s Committee of Geopolitics Aleksei Mitrofanov, a leading member of Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), calls for a Russian foreign policy that seeks a revolution in the international system based on a national and ethnic ethos, rather than on ‘class struggle,’ a system informed by ideology and a geostrategic doctrine of “Russian national egoism.” The collapse of the Cold War’s bipolar structure, in Mitrofanov’s view, has given birth to a new stage in history: one of “partitioning of the world.” In this new world, according to Mitrofanov:

It has now become absolutely obvious that matters are proceeding toward the isolation of Russia from Europe; the creation around its perimeter of a quarantine belt made up of unfriendly states united in military blocs with the United States of America and their closest allies; our country’s further weakening; the development of centrifugal tendencies (inside Russia); and its final break-up with the formation, on its debris, of 10-15 satellite countries fighting amongst themselves and, as a whole, dependent on foreign sovereigns.

The remedy for this catastrophe, he says, which is masterminded in Washington and Brussels, is to correct “the blind pro-American orientation” which “carried an overt, provocative character under Kozyrev and has not changed but is being disguised” under Primakov’s ‘Eurasian orientation’. Instead, Russia should base its foreign policy on the premise that the United States is Russia’s “main opponent” followed by Great Britain, Turkey and NATO.

Specifically, Mitrofanov suggests that Russia must actively counter the American and NATO “carte blanche” given to Turkey to be the “regional superpower” that contains Russia to the south, a role soon to be given to Ukraine, cornerstone of containment to the west. All the “pitiful and unnatural” attempts to negotiate Russia’s participation in this “hostile organization” should be ceased, he says. Instead, the State Duma will “officially and juridically define NATO as a hostile military-political bloc” and follow with “a renunciation of all agreements defining and supporting post-war borders in Europe as well as Asia.” This will regard “in first order Poland and (NATO’s) other new members.” The former “will be obliged to return immediately all German and Belorussian lands,” “encouraged” by “missiles and other types of arms returned to the territory of a Belarus unified with Russia.” A second Molotov-Ribbentrop pact will be negotiated, he asserts, with Germany on an “agreed approach regarding the Baltics and Ukraine and regarding German lands in France and the Czech Republic.” The Russo-German alliance in Europe will form part of a Berlin-Moscow-Tokyo military-political “axis” for “a partition of spheres of influence in Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.” A second, southern axis, a “Russia-China-India bloc,” is to be formed in order to “deliver a last blow to the Anglo-Saxon principles of divide-and-rule and unrestrained robbery of Asia,” “open a path to China for territorial expansion to the West through southern Kazakstan, Iran and Turkey and strengthen India’s leading role on the Indian subcontinent.” This will facilitate “Turkey’s liquidation as Russia’s opponent in the Middle East,” while Northern Kazakstan will be incorporated into Russia.

While such views are extreme, NATO expansion has helped to galvanize and energize the communist-nationalist opposition (which has tended to exclude Mitrofanov’s LDP) and depolarize its relationship with many in centrist parties, including Chernomyrdin’s NDR. The former trend is reflected not only by the ‘Anti-NATO’ deputies. More recently, Communist Party leader Zyuganov has demanded hearings in the Duma on national security and military reform during the autumn session, as a prelude to any vote on START II. The communists’ call for these hearings, at the time that the budget is to be negotiated, signals their intention to use NATO expansion in order to demand increased defense appropriations and play on long-standing tensions in Russia’s civil-military relations, revealing disturbing contradictions. The government’s recent statement that the General Staff not take NATO expansion into account in defense planning is indicative of civilians’ desire to limit the defense budget and target most defense spending on arms production and military pay. The government’s statement is at odds with the draft national security ‘concept’ and a September 17 statement by Ivan Rybkin, the centrist security council secretary, on the other. Both the concept and Rybkin’s statement affirm that national security policy should include, among possible threats to Russia, “the preservation or creation by major powers and their alliances of powerful groupings of armed forces”-a clear reference to NATO expansion.

Straining Civil-Military Relations

NATO expansion, on the background of battles over the military budget and reform, can only complicate already strained civil-military relations. No less than foreign policymakers, military and contingency planners everywhere plan for as many possibilities as far into the

future as possible. An important corollary of a contingency approach was expressed aptly by former US Secretary of State George P. Shultz who noted that foreign policy is and should be built not on the intentions of foreign powers, but on their capabilities. Indeed, intentions, stated or real, cannot be read very far into the future. This is why militaries tend to approach contingency planning on the basis of capabilities. Looking at the implications of NATO expansion from the perspective of a Russian military planner-even imagining oneself to be not a hardliner, but a moderate military professional-one would have to conclude that the capabilities of NATO vis-à-vis Russia will grow, thus its capability as a potential threat. The correlation of forces will change drastically to the detriment of Russia’s already compromised security. Alexei Arbatov, Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee and the leading national security expert of the liberal Yabloko party, recently told an audience at the US Army War College that after the first phase of NATO enlargement, the ratio for conventional ground and air forces will change from a 2.5:1 NATO advantage over Russia to a 4:1 advantage.

Russian military planning responses to NATO expansion have thus appeared. In a July interview Colonel-General Vladimir Yakovlev, Commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, noted one effect on Russia’s security of NATO’s post-expansion capabilities:

“(N)ow that NATO is moving eastward it will have the ability to use most of its tactical aircraft to deliver strikes at our facilities. Moreover, they will be able to spend more time in our deployment areas, which will increase their combat load. There is no direct threat of this now, but the Strategic Missile Force is doing research designed to increase the viability of launching sites and command stations. This is done as part of the work to ensure high combat readiness and effectiveness.” (Krasnaia Zvezda, July 22, 1997, p. 2.)

Such responses, however, will have to be undertaken at a time when the civilian leadership, having imposed on the army a new defense minister, will be attempting to implement a reform that envisages eliminating the Air Defense Forces as a separate branch of the Russian military and making deep cuts in manpower and expenditures overall.

Arbatov, as well as a small coterie of reformist officers, will have to convince the rest of Russia’s security and military policy community that they should embark, at this time, on an unsettling and costly military reform in an international and domestic political environment that is, as a result of NATO expansion, less conducive to their efforts. Arbatov, in a recent editorial in the New York Times, wrote that expansion is already making military reform and arms control more difficult to sell. The elite of the decaying Russian military, so badly in need of reform, is already highly politicized precisely because of insufficient financing-which has produced half-year wage arrears, a lack of housing for officers and their families, crumbling equipment, and a rising suicide rate. The additional pressure of military reform and further budget and staff cuts, in tandem with NATO expansion, could push civil-military relations beyond the breaking point.

This dynamic was reflected recently when a supporter of the Yeltsin-Chernomyrdin administration, General Lev Rokhlin, denounced President Yeltsin for intentionally destroying the military. Rokhlin, a leading member of the NDR and reportedly well-respected in the military, was expelled from Chernomyrdin’s party, but maintained chairmanship of the Duma’s Defense Committee. He then organized a new military opposition movement that includes the most sinister of former and active-duty military and KGB officers in the country: Vladimir Kryuchkov, leader of the failed August 1991 armed coup and former USSR KGB Chairman; Vladislav Achalov, former USSR First Deputy Defense Minister (a leading participant in the August 1991 coup and the October 1993 uprising); Leonid Shebarshin, former head of the USSR KGB Intelligence Department; and Stanislav Terekhov, the ultra-nationalist Officers’ Union Chairman (veteran of the October 1993 uprising who committed suicide in July this year).

In an appeal to President Yeltsin, whom Rokhlin now hopes his movement can impeach, Rokhlin tied NATO expansion to a demand for increased expenditures on Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. “It is no accident that in Helsinki the USA’s president agreed to . . . America’s observation of the 1972 ABM Treaty until the year 2000,” asserts Rokhlin. “It will be at about this time that our strategic nuclear forces will be practically destroyed.” This shows that NATO expansion can and may already be impinging on the fight between military and civilian leaders over military reform. Rokhlin’s movement held its founding congress in Moscow on September 20 with more than 2,000 delegates in attendance, representing 62 regions of Russia. Both the KPRF and 1996 presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed have offered to cooperate with the new movement, while Rokhlin has agreed to support the KPRF during the national security hearings.

Alienating Economic Interests

In addition to mobilizing and depolarizing various hardline and centrist political groups, NATO expansion is already damaging important Russia economic interests that could come to the support of a more broad-based anti-NATO movement. Among them is the powerful defense industry lobby, which has been a special target of Rokhlin’s activities. The availability of American arms impinges on the attractiveness of Russian arms among imminent and prospective NATO members. In June 1993 such Russian interests did not suffer, as Hungary accepted Russian MiG-29s as partial payment for Russia’s hard currency debt to Hungary. This mitigated, somewhat, US sponsorship of the Hungarian military air control system’s modernization. But when Russians attempted unsuccessfully to do the same with the Czech Republic they were rejected due to Czech concerns about remaining dependent upon Russian-made weapons. This trend can only grow with the onset of NATO expansion. This pressure might have been avoided had a more cooperative security relationship with Russia been achieved prior to or in place of expansion. Under some alternative European security institution, such as the OSCE, the non-interoperability of Russian weaponry could have been addressed. For example, Germany has managed to make 24 MiG-29s, incorporated from the former GDR air force, interoperable with NATO forces.

The Russian defense industry’s uphill competition with American and British arms dealers, now complicated by NATO expansion, coupled with growing American-Russian tension over the Great Game in and around the Caspian over oil deposits and transport routes could ally them with Russia’s powerful oil and gas lobbies (and the banks and financial-industrial clans that have thrived on their profits). Both interest groups might respond in reaction to Russia’s ‘undefended interests’ and weakness, of which NATO expansion is an important symbol. These economic interest groups are the political base of Chernomyrdin’s NDR and other centrist parties. NATO expansion, on the background of increasing damage to their interests, may facilitate a hardline-centrist rapprochement over the mid- to long-term. This would polarize relations between the regime and the recently less irreconcilable opposition, and further weaken democratic parties such as Yabloko, its ally First Deputy Prime Boris Nemtsov, and Chubais’s and Gaidar’s ‘Democratic Choice’ party, straining Russia’s relations with the West to the breaking point.

Over the short-term, factional conflict among financial-industrial clans and between the reformist ‘young Turks’ Chubais and Nemtsov, on the one hand, and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, on the other, is more likely to lead to a split of Chernomyrdin’s party and a ‘no confidence’ vote by the Duma against the government during the fall debate on the 1998 budget, particularly over defense items. Analysts have grown skeptical of the Moscow rumor mill’s annual summer speculation about a ‘hot autumn’. This year the talk may not be so idle, in no small part due to NATO expansion.

(The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies. The Center for Political and Strategic Studies provides an organizational vehicle for scholars working on issues of vital long-term importance to the United States, but does not itself advocate specific policies or attempt to influence legislation.)


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014).  He has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution and Kennan Institute.

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