Is Russia a threat again? — with Leon Aron (1995) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. Russia is in turmoil: war in Chechnya, a stagnant
economy, a faltering democracy. But does trouble for Russia mean trouble for
America? Helping us to answer that question are Leon
Aron, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of a forthcoming biography
of Boris Yeltsin; Peter Rodman, former national security aide under Presidents Reagan and
Bush and the author of a book about the Cold War, “More Precious Than Peace,” he is
currently at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom; Peter Rutland, a professor of government
at Wesleyan University and author of “The Politics of Economic Stagnation in the Soviet
Union”; and Paula Dobriansky, former director of European and Soviet affairs for the National
Security Council under President Reagan and now an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. The topic before this house: Is Russia a threat
again? This week on “Think Tank.” For 40 years, from an American perspective,
the Soviet Union was the most important foreign country. Then the Soviet Union split apart. The years following the collapse of communism
have not been easy for Russia. When the Berlin Wall came down, people on
both sides of the former Iron Curtain rejoiced. But today’s mood is much more sober. Russia’s gross domestic product has been
shrinking, by 19 percent in 1992 and by 12 percent in 1993. Inflation currently runs at 18 percent per
month. And crime is increasing. The so-called Russian mafia controls an estimated
40 percent of all transactions in goods and services. Last December, Russian troops invaded the
breakaway republic of Chechnya, bombing its capital of Grozny to rubble. The death toll has reached a reported 24,000
civilians. Former republics like Ukraine and Kazakhstan
fear that Moscow might turn expansionist and try to rebuild the Soviet empire through coercion
or even outright invasion. It is said that President Boris Yeltsin, once
called the George Washington of Russian democracy, is now overwhelmed by the job and suffers
from ill health, perhaps alcoholism. Many Russian democrats, like former Prime
Minister Yegor Gaidar, have turned against Yeltsin. Hard-line nationalist parties are believed
to be rising in popularity and influence. And while Soviet communism has been delegated
to the dustbin of history, Russia still has thousands of nuclear weapons capable of hitting
Western Europe and the United States. It used to be, gentlemen and lady, that the
views on the Soviet Union were divided into hawks and doves, and now it seems to be that
they are divided between optimists and pessimists. And I just wonder, just to sort of establish
where you all are, maybe we’ll just go quickly around the horn here. Starting with Leon Aron, if you could just
try to tell me where you are. Leon Aron: Ben, I think I am a very cautious
optimist. I think it’s a very cold spring. We just had a big chill with Chechnya and
perhaps frost, but it’s still a sowing season. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Peter Rutland. Peter Rutland: I’m also an optimist in the
long term, although I wouldn’t underestimate the problems in the short term. In terms of a threat, Russia may be a threat
to its own people more than to people beyond its own borders. Ben Wattenberg: Paula Dobriansky. Paula Dobriansky: In the short term, I’m
a pessimist, specifically because of the events in Chechnya. The fact that Moscow has waged such barbaric
actions in dealing with the circumstances do not bode well for the future. Lawlessness, corruption is still prevalent. The legacy of communism still has not been
broken. In the long term, maybe a cautious optimist;
in the short term, a pessimist. Ben Wattenberg: Peter Rodman. Peter Rodman: I’m a pessimist. Russia has always been a problem. I mean, the history of Europe teaches that
Russia has always been a big, clumsy, difficult, powerful factor. And I think we’re seeing that again. I wouldn’t call Russia a threat. I think it’s going to be a major problem. I see some disturbing trends in its foreign
policy, and I think we need to be more realistic about it than we have been. Ben Wattenberg: Why do people say — and
it is said — that Russia has always been a problem? I mean, is it their geography? Is it their psychology? Is it their history? I mean, Leon, you grew up in Russia. Leon Aron: Yes. Well, it certainly was a problem for me as
I was growing up. [Laughter.] But — well, I think there are a number of
things, Ben: its positioning sort of between Europe and Asia; its tradition of authoritarianism;
its sort of inability to decide whether they belong to Europe, with Enlightenment and free
enterprise and democracy, or whether they belong to Asia; and its also perennial — almost
perennial insecurity, which largely was brought about by its own expansion, that led Russia
to this paradoxical situation that the more expanded, the more insecure it became. Peter Rutland: I’m not sure we should say
it’s a problem. I’m not sure that any country be described
as a problem. Sure, Russia has had a difficult history. But at various points in history, it’s pulled
Europe’s bacon out of the fire; it’s saved Europe from sundry dictators, from Napoleon
to Hitler. And so it’s been a cycle of successes and
defeats. And Russia right now is at the depths of a
trough. But it will come back, and I don’t think
we should say that it’s a demonic country that’s doomed to cause problems. Ben Wattenberg: Well, will it come back as
a democracy? Paula Dobriansky: Well, I think one of the
greatest concerns today, especially, is the fact that democracy has not taken hold in
the sense of the term in Russia and especially that those countries in Central and Eastern
Europe are very concerned about Russia’s intentions. They’re unclear. Take Ukraine, for example. Ukraine is very concerned about the events
in Chechnya, especially because Russia has not really, in all intents and purposes, fully
acknowledged the sovereignty and the existence of Ukraine. So the dust has not settled, and in that sense,
it does pose a problem, not only for us, but for the Europeans. Peter Rutland: But, Paula, you say Russia
isn’t a democracy. But five years ago, would you have expected
Russia to be this democratic? Paula Dobriansky: No. I think that it has made certain strides. That is true. But still, it is not a democracy in the truest
sense of the term. Clearly, the actions undertaken by Moscow
in dealing with the situation in Chechnya defy any semblance of democratic, peaceful
actions. Leon Aron: With one exception, Paula. It seems to me that indeed Chechnya was a
test for Russian democracy. The executive failed completely. Paula Dobriansky: They failed it. Leon Aron: The executive failed. However, there is one silver lining. Ben Wattenberg: Wait, wait. The United States — I don’t want to sound
as if I’m pro the Russian government, but the United States was a democracy when we
engaged in a civil war dealing sort of with a, quotes, “breakaway republic.” I mean, it’s not, just on its surface, an
outrageous behavior. Leon Aron: No, I don’t think so. And, you know, the Chechnya regime itself,
the Dudayev regime, was far from democratic and blameless for all this. But it failed in its brutality. It failed in its ineptness. It’s failed in the amount of casualties
that it inflicted. More importantly, I think it failed in the
way that war was presented to the people and the way that the executive worked with the
parliament. Ben Wattenberg: Peter Rodman. Peter Rodman: The question you asked was “Why
is Russia a problem?” And I think Leon described the historical
reasons very well. But I would emphasize one factor, which is
its power. It is a huge concentration of power in the
middle of the Eurasian landmass, and it has always been a problem for anybody who had
the misfortune to live in its immediate neighborhood. And as Leon said, it’s been clumsy. It’s never been quite sure where it fit
into the sort of international system. And I think — Peter Rutland: Sort of like Germany. Peter Rodman: Exactly, like Germany. And it’s not an accident that the history
of the last — this century has been, you know, Germany and Russia either competing
or taking turns disrupting the peace. And we may — you know, I worry that we may
be heading in — you know, right now the balance of power in Europe is benign. But I think a lot of that is because the United
States is sitting there as the stabilizer. I mean, this gets into the foreign policy
concern for us, which is how do we, you know, stabilize the situation, make sure that it
doesn’t become a threat. Because as I said before, it’s not a threat;
it’s a problem. Ben Wattenberg: Why did de Tocqueville, when
he came here, I guess in the 1830s, say that the two great nations of the future were going
to be the United States and Russia? What did he sense then? Was it physical? Peter Rodman: It was physical power that was
dormant and yet was inevitable. Ben Wattenberg: If you were writing about
the world today, say, for the next hundred years, would you say those are the two big
powers still? Peter Rodman: No, it’s more — there are
more, other players — Germany, Japan — Peter Rutland: China. Paula Dobriansky: China. Peter Rodman: And China, absolutely. So it’s — you know, it’s been evolving
into a, you know, more multipolar system. But they’re still — I mean, Russia is
big, and particularly because it’s in turmoil, it is scary to anybody who lives in its immediate
neighborhood. Leon Aron: Well, just continuing with that
theme, it seems to me that when I talk about the silver lining in this Chechnya affair,
one thing that it did show is that the Russian society is no longer synonymous with the Kremlin,
that the people did not buy the party line and, most importantly, the media were completely
free to report something that in its explicitness and candor, I would say, was probably unequaled
by any country at war, except for that of the United States during Vietnam. I mean, the coverage that you saw on national
television during the Chechen war utterly belied the notion that this is an authoritarian
regime in that particular regard, that it could crack down on the media whenever it
wanted. So it seems to me that while the executive,
I repeat, failed miserably in this war, we no longer could equate the Kremlin with Russia,
something that is utterly new and, in my view, quite optimistic. Paula Dobriansky: Leon, I would agree with
your point. Absolutely, that is the silver lining. My reason before for mentioning why I don’t
see Russia at this time being a democracy in the fullest sense of the term is because,
yes, there have been free and fair elections. Yes, as you mentioned the silver lining, an
important factor in the crisis in dealing with Chechnya has been the fact that there
haven’t been these constraints on media, that there has been a vibrant media, and in
fact, public opinion has gone very much against the actions of Moscow. However, there still is not an independent
functioning judiciary. There is no rule of law, which is a bedrock
of any society. That has not taken hold. And secondly, although I think the population
has certainly become more engaged in democratic ideas and values, the understanding and the
grasp of it and its translation into concrete action, it still needs to evolve. Much needs to be done. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask you a question. What about the commercial realm? We said in the setup piece that 40 percent
of the Soviet economy is run by the mafia. But that mafia, or earlier the black market,
I mean, that can be viewed as sort of a rudimentary stage of real capitalism. You let all the illegal enterprises flourish,
and then you regulate them. I mean, is that plausible? Peter Rutland: I think if we look from the
robber barons in American history to the current situation in China, we can see that this sort
of informal economy, to use a more polite term than “mafias,” that the two shade
into one another. The informal economy is rife in every economy
in the world. And in some economies, it’s more prevalent
than others; in some economies, it’s legislators that are getting shot down on the streets. Peter Rodman: We did have our robber baron
period. Ben Wattenberg: We also had people selling
protection in the United States. Peter Rodman: Well, but that’s a local aberration. We also had a legal system and a political
system. And as our society evolved, the legal system
was able to dominate these — for the most part, these criminal elements. I mean, Russia doesn’t have a legal system
or an established political system. Everything is in turmoil at the same time,
and there’s no guarantee it’s going to evolve smoothly into a nice, bourgeois, you
know, law-abiding society. Ben Wattenberg: But it has a president. And Leon, you are writing a biography about
Mr. Yeltsin. And I guess the popular question is: Is he
a Democrat or a drunk? And I wonder — Leon Aron: Or both. Ben Wattenberg: Or both, right. Leon Aron: He could be both at the same time. History is replete with Democrats who have
dabbled into all kinds of diversions. Ben Wattenberg: Where do you come out on your
general view of Yeltsin? Leon Aron: Well, I think Yeltsin is a man
who is generally in favor of democratic development, but who himself obviously does not have the
experience being the party boss all his life, doesn’t have the experience or very much
understanding of the free market or democracy. And I think he was an ideal person for the
barricades. Ben Wattenberg: But it must have been a great
temptation during Chechnya for such a man to close down the press, and yet he didn’t. Leon Aron: That’s precisely it. And not only that, but in his address to the
nation, he reaffirmed that with all his problems that he has with the media, he still will
not allow any sort of crackdown on the media. So I think he also — unfortunately — like
Gorbachev, is a man whose hour has passed. I mean, he won the revolution. There is no doubt about that. But Russia now moved beyond the barricades,
and in this space between the revolution and democracy, Yeltsin is lost. He could not find his proper niche. And I think part of it, part of the reason
he decided on this utterly disastrous — politically, morally, and militarily — action in Chechnya
is because he was searching for a mission and he was searching for a way to establish
himself. Peter Rutland: The question I would like to
come back to is whether Yeltsin, if he leaves the scene, can be replaced. Is he actually pivotal to the way that the
political elite works in Russia? And that’s the thing that worries me, that
there may not be a clear transition to another — Ben Wattenberg: If they go to chaos and anarchy
in Russia, is this cause for America to worry? I mean, is that — is this a huge concern
to us, with the nukes rattling around and — Peter Rodman: Well, you put your finger on
it. The nukes are the main concern. And anarchy — Ben Wattenberg: How many are there? Peter Rodman: Well, there were 20,000, I think,
before the — and there are arms control — arms reduction agreements that are bringing
it down under 10,000. Ben Wattenberg: Warheads. Peter Rodman: Warheads. And that process is going on, and we have
a stake in it. Now, so far, the Russians have had very good
command and control over their nuclear weapons. But the continuing deterioration of their
political authority, you know, could change that. I mean, I think if Russia is weak, it obviously
addresses the concern I raised at the beginning. Then it’s less of a threat to its neighbors. On the other hand, there is the nuclear anarchy,
which is enormously dangerous. And secondly, I think there is an Aristotelian
cycle. I don’t think a great power endlessly tolerates
humiliation. I think there will be a return to some central
authority. I mean, you know, a strong man — I think
you’ll have — I think anarchy will inevitably produce some kind of authoritarian regime,
so we’ll be back maybe where we started. Ben Wattenberg: Peter, when you say we might
go back to where we started, we’re not going to go back to the Soviet Union with — Peter Rodman: No, no, no. But in terms of its — we’re talking about
its internal evolution and, you know, whether we have the hopes for democracy. And I think if democracy turns into anarchy,
it usually ends up in some authoritarian — Ben Wattenberg: But if it then goes retrograde,
we are not as bad off as we were during the Cold War in terms of the whole USSR and — Peter Rodman: Well, I think there is a big
difference between Russian foreign policy and Soviet foreign policy. I think there is a big improvement. I mean, Russia is a state. I think it has a sense of its national interest,
or it’s groping for a sense of its national interest. It doesn’t have this Leninist ideological
thrust to disrupt the Western position all around the world. So even I, who worry about it, I can see a
big difference. Paula Dobriansky: Peter, wouldn’t you agree,
though, that although you said that Russian foreign policy is not synonymous with Soviet
foreign policy, that nevertheless, one of the problems or one of the challenges which
we face is that Russia’s interests are not — or have not been in common with ours. When you look at the situation in Bosnia,
look at the situation in the Middle East of late, as well as in Europe the handling of
NATO, our interests or our directions have been rather divergent. Ben Wattenberg: What have they done in the
Middle East? Peter Rodman: They’re selling nuclear reactors
and submarines to Iran, which I think actually bothers me more than Chechnya does, because
this impinges directly on an area of vital interest to us. Paula Dobriansky: And this is one of the — Peter Rodman: I think — Paula Dobriansky: Excuse me, I was just going
to say, this is one of, I think, the greatest challenges that we face that’s separate
from what is evolving on the domestic scene, that internationally, instead of our interests
being more parallel, that they have become divergent, and there is a polarization. Leon Aron: I think Paula and Peter have put
their fingers on it. I think there are several aspects of the new
Russian policy that need to be taken into consideration. I think to me, the Russian foreign policy,
globally — I’m not talking about the backyard; that’s a separate issue — globally, is
sort of like de Gaulle’s France. That is, you lose in substance what you try
to acquire in rhetoric, and you try to show, at least on the rhetorical, symbolic level,
that you’re not in the US pocket. Ben Wattenberg: For example? Leon Aron: For example, Bosnia is one example. Iran is another example. Peter Rutland: The debate is pretty much within
the Cold War scheme of things, where security is the dominant factor in foreign policy. I would suggest that economics is much more
important in the present world. In economic terms, there are lots of mutual
interests between the West and Russia. And the things about selling nuclear reactors
to Iran is purely economy. I mean, if the Russians don’t sell them
in five years’ time, the French or the Germans will be selling them. Peter Rodman: No, but from our point of view,
it’s security, because of the Middle East and the problem — Peter Rutland: But from Russians’ point
of view, it’s economics. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask a question. How is the Clinton administration doing? Have they handled this situation well? Paula Dobriansky: I don’t think that they
have handled it forcefully and directly. First of all, on the issue of Chechnya, the
comparison that this is similar to America’s Civil War I don’t think was an appropriate
parallel. Secondly — Ben Wattenberg: Did the Clinton administration
make that parallel? Paula Dobriansky: Yes. The initial statement was that, well, this
is an internal matter and we should wipe our hands of it. I don’t think it can be viewed as an internal
matter. It has ramifications for Russia’s development. It has ramifications for us from a security
standpoint, and it certainly has ramifications for Eastern Europe. Secondly, and very significantly, I think
that the administration has put too many eggs in Yeltsin’s basket and also has placed
too much of an emphasis on a Russia-oriented policy. Leon Aron: Well, I think Paula is right in
the sense that it should not be Russia only. But I think we would all agree, it should
be Russia first. And the reason for that is not any special
predilection for Russia, but the fact that if Russia goes down, so will other countries. Ben Wattenberg: And you have those nuclear
weapons around that nobody — Leon Aron: That’s right. Paula Dobriansky: If I may just jump in on
that, I don’t think I would say it should be Russia first, because psychologically I
think that sends a very wrong signal. Secondly, many of these countries, just as
much as they are dependent upon the fate of Russia, I think if you do not have democracy
in Ukraine, I think that is very much intertwined with the future of Russia if Ukraine does
not succeed. Ben Wattenberg: Where do you come out on how
Clinton has done — or the Clinton administration? Peter Rutland: Well, I don’t think there
has been an effective policy, either a Russia-first or a Ukraine-first policy. I think there has been just a status in policy,
which in the long run will probably — Ben Wattenberg: A what policy? Peter Rutland: A status. There has been no real movement forward in
American policy. And in the long run, this is probably a good
thing, because if America had adopted a determined policy earlier on, it would probably have
been the wrong policy. So we’re better to just be an observer on
these processes. Ben Wattenberg: Peter Rodman, you have generally
been a critic of the Clinton foreign policy. Peter Rodman: Yeah, I have been, and on this
one in particular. I see it in geopolitical terms. I think Russia — you need to hedge a possible
reemergence of Russia. And yet I see — which means that if your
first line of defense is Russian policy, your second line of defense is the independence
and security of all the new states that have emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet empire. And so I think we have a geopolitical stake
in Ukraine, in protecting the Eastern Europeans. And that’s why I think the disproportionate
foreign assistance that has gone to Russia is a geopolitical mistake. I mean, we have a stake in the independence
of all the others just in order to stabilize the present situation, and as a hedge against
the possible, you know, as I said, emergence of Russia as a problem. Ben Wattenberg: We are running out of time. Let me just ask you one personal question. Five years ago, 10 years ago, the people who
dealt with the Cold War and the Soviet Union were sort of at the top of the food chain
in Washington. You know, that was what was really important. Now the Cold War is over. Do you find any difference? I mean, do people not return your phone calls? Are you no longer invited to as many parties
or — [Laughter] Peter Rodman: No, no, but foreign policy as
a whole is less important. And I worry about an isolationist mood in
the country. Because I think if the United States removes
its stabilizing role or its stabilizing policy in the world, then I think all these problems
would end up bigger than they otherwise could be. Peter Rutland: Well, Ben, Henry Kissinger
said famously that power is the ultimate attraction, right? Ben Wattenberg: The “ultimate aphrodisiac”
is what he said. Peter Rutland: Aphrodisiac, right, exactly. I didn’t know if I was allowed to say something
like that. Ben Wattenberg: No, no, we’re allowed to. We have a very mature audience. [Laughter.] Peter Rutland: But I think Peter’s right,
though, you know, while the foreign policy in general has changed, clearly I find in
retrospect that fear is also an ultimate attraction, and there is no doubt that the attention that’s
given to Russia and to those who are dealing with Russia is not what is used to be and
— but you’re still inviting us, so we must be doing something right. Ben Wattenberg: Well, but we do more shows
about welfare and affirmative action and crime than we probably would have done had this
program started five years ago or 10 years ago. Peter Rutland: Absolutely. Ben Wattenberg: All right, let me just as
a closing exercise here — again, we have to do it sort of briefly — picture the year
2002, which is when the — seven years from now, when the budget is supposed to be balanced
here. What will the Soviet Union look like? Leon Aron: Russia? Ben Wattenberg: I’m sorry. Leon Aron: I mean, that’s an easy question. [Laughter.] Ben Wattenberg: Right. What will Russia look like? Leon Aron: I think it will still be a country
struggling economically and politically, but less of a threat to its neighbors than at
any time in its 400-year history. Peter Rutland: I think Russia will be seen
as a major economic partner. It already supplies 50 percent of West Germany’s
gas needs; it’s running a trade surplus. We should stop thinking of it as just having
20,000 nuclear weapons, but start thinking of it as a major trading partner. Paula Dobriansky: I think that authoritarianism
will reign in Russia in terms of the leadership. I think there will still be strong and vibrant
dissident groups trying to change that, but unfortunately, politically, I see authoritarianism
as reigning. Peter Rodman: If Russia gets back on its feet
economically by then, I think it will be more of a problem than it is otherwise. Ben Wattenberg: Meaning that it would be a
greater threat. Peter Rodman: It’ll be stronger, and I think
we’ll have a bigger problem in foreign policy. Ben Wattenberg: You’ve managed to come out
pessimistically either way. Peter Rodman: Yes, yes. Ben Wattenberg: All right. Thank you, Leon Aron, Peter Rodman, Peter
Rutland, and Paula Dobriansky. And thank you. We enjoy hearing from our viewers very much. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington DC, 20036. Or we can be reached via email at [email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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