Russian Reaction, Day Two: Recalling the Ambassador

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Nikolai Sokov
December 18, 1998

The negative reaction to the air strikes against Iraq reached new heights on the second day, with Russia recalling its ambassador to the United States and a resolution by the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) that condemned the bombings as “international terrorism.” This resolution was adopted by a vote of 394 to 1 (the total number of legislators in the house is 450).

The surprisingly harsh reaction demonstrated yet again the depth of Russian concern about the perceived trend toward the unrestricted use of force by the United States. The lesson the Russian elite is learning from these events is that military power will rule the day in the emerging post-Cold War international system, and this is a dangerous lesson, which might inform Russian foreign policy in the decades ahead.

There could also be a misreading of the impeachment procedure in the United States. Judging from the press, Moscow thinks that the vote in the House of Representatives is the final stage of the process, and Bill Clinton could leave the White House as early as next week if the House votes against him, as is generally expected. Thus, Russian commentators tend to see a much stronger link between the air strikes against Iraq and the impeachment process than even President Clinton’s worst critics in Washington suggest.

There are, however, important nuances in the events of the past two days, which require special attention.

1. Historically, the Russian reaction to international crises has always been excessively emotional, bordering on overreaction. In this sense, the Iraqi crisis repeats a familiar pattern that is well over a hundred years old: you vent your feelings right away and plan policy later. This means that in a few weeks there will probably be a cooling-off period, when policy will be gauged to match the actual events more precisely. Of course, the political damage will already have been done, and there is little question that succumbing to emotions will be, as always, counterproductive from the standpoint of the long-term interests of Russia.

2. To a large extent, the impulse for an extra-tough reaction came from the Duma rather than from the government. The Iraqi crisis provided the Communist and nationalist legislators with an opportunity to engage in their beloved anti-Americanism. More importantly, they are gearing toward the next elections to the legislature, which are scheduled for December 1999; if something happens to Boris Yeltsin, there could also be early presidential elections next year. The stakes are high, and the opposition parties apparently consider foreign policy damage a small price to pay for a chance to better position themselves in the impending electoral campaign.

This reaction is natural, to a degree, because in any country legislators tend to use foreign policy for the purposes of domestic politics: after all, they deal principally with their domestic constituents and only rarely with foreign policy audiences. Moreover, if damage is done, it will be the responsibility of the government, not the legislature.

3. The executive branch apparently tried to minimize the damage and has generally kept a cooler head. On the very first day of the crisis, First Deputy Prime Minister Yuriy Masluykov, the No. 2 person in the Russian government, rushed to the Duma in an attempt to moderate the legislators, but failed. As a result, the government found itself compelled to take stronger action than it had originally intended.

On the first day of the attack, Russia issued very strong verbal statements and planned to take tough action within the UN Security Council. This action looked like an acceptable balance between toughness and restraint: the government certainly did not wish to completely spoil its relations with the United States. The domestic political dynamic forced it to search for extra measures, and it decided to recall the ambassador.

This decision has an interesting underside. The current ambassador, Yuliy Vorontsov, has already competed his tour of duty in the United States and was scheduled to leave Washington anyway. Now he will leave to demonstrate Russia’s protest, but will probably use the same airplane ticket. This can only be interpreted as an attempt to find yet another balance between toughness and restraint. Moscow probably hopes that Washington will read its actions correctly.

When the usual cooling-off period begins in a few weeks, a new Ambassador will be appointed (again, as previously planned) and there will be an attempt to return to business as usual in bilateral relations. The government will also renew the pressure to ratify START II: the treaty is important to Russia on its own merits and should not be used as a bargaining chip in political “games”.

There will be serious conflict with the United States in the UN Security Council, of course: Russia will insist more strongly than ever that any use of force be mandated by the Security Council. It will push for the removal of UNSCOM chairman Richard Butler and possibly for changes in the UNSCOM mandate and composition: UNSCOM is increasingly seen as a US tool.

At the same time, Russia’s relationship with the United States is still vital, and the government will try to compartmentalize it, separating conflict over Iraq from other issue areas. The extent to which it will be able to minimize the damage caused by emotions is unclear: much will depend on whether the United States will be willing to cooperate in stabilizing the relationship. But there is little doubt that in a few weeks Russia will recalibrate its response and passion will give way to pragmatism.

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