Russia and NATO action
Dr Andrei Andreievich Piontkovsky is a director of the Moscow Centre for
Strategic Research and author of several well-received works. The Centre also
works for the Russian government and he has produced a special analysis of the
Kosova crisis for Victor Chernomyrdin, President Yeltsin's spe- cial envoy for
Kosova. Dr Piontkovsky will visit London to speak at The Bosnian Institute's
regular monthly forum on 5 July 1999.
How do you explain Russia's reaction to the NATO intervention against Serbia?
In my view all the hysteria regarding NATO's attack is characteristic of the
Russian political elite. It has nothing to do with Serbia or Kosova but only
with Russia. Our political elite felt annoyed because Russia has lost the
political importance it once enjoyed in the world. Russia's problem is that its
political elite has not changed. It is made up of the same people or their chil
dren as in the Soviet era. This is why they are frustrated. They were used to
playing in the super-league, in which there were only two teams - USA and USSR -
while today Russia is playing in lower and in their opinion contemptible or
unimportant leagues. Russian foreign policy today is driven not by ideology or
national interest, but by the ego of its political elite. They seek a rational
justification for their irrational complexes and then speak of Russian
geopolitical interests, NATO expansion to the East, the threat to Orthodoxy, the
dangers which threaten if the world's bi-polarity is infringed.
This is proved by Russian policy towards Iraq. Russia supports lifting the sanc
tions against that country and the embargo on its export of petrol, although
this contradicts Russian national interests. Russia's main source of foreign
currency is exÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
port of oil, while Iraq's exports of oil can only lower its price
on the world market. This illustrates the confusion and irrationality that char
acterize contemporary Russian policy in the world, which is doing everything so
that the Russian political elite can retain, superficially at least, its per
sonal importance, i.e. the picture of Russia as a great power. The Russian po
litical elite believes the policy of the US administration to be anti-Russian,
although it is not quite that - Russia is actually bothered by the fact that the
USA has lost interest in it. In other words, American indifference towards Rus
sia is more offensive to the Russian politicians than the extent to which
America really is anti-Russian. Russian foreign policy is largely determined by
our political elite's psychological complexes.
Russian citizens are not so offended that Russia has lost the position of an im
portant international factor. They are much more disturbed about not receiving
their salaries and about the welfare state's future. The Russians are not so
much offended by the fact that Grigorij Arbatov was once able to talk privately
and on equal terms with Henry Kissinger, while his son who holds the same posi
tion in Russian society as his father used to is no longer treated by the Ameri
cans as an important interlocutor, as they are by the fact that they live badly.
The Russian reaction to NATO's intervention against FRY seems to have calmed
down in the last few days. Why?
During the first ten days of NATO's intervention, the Russian media created such
a picture that I too perhaps, if I had watched only Russian television, would
have gone to throw an egg or two at the US embassy. These reactions, fortu
nately, lasted only briefly and were in fact marginal and superficial in the
typically indolent and slovenly Russian manner. The Russian government and media
realised, in fact, that in behaving like this they were only helping the Commu
nists and the nationalists, who with their warlike rhetoric and demagogic posi
tion about the abused and humiliated Russia were starting to win new supporters,
taking the opportunity to recruit disoriented Russians. After about ten days
they realised that by participating in the pro-Serb and anti-Western hysteria
they were in fact working for the Communists. Those who fight for a democratic
Russia realised that they were simply repeating the Communist slogan that `The
West is Russia's greatest enemy'. This sobered them up, so that they were able
to recall that Milosevic has been conducting a genocidal policy against the ma
jority of his neighbours for the past ten years. As a result they began to show
the other side of the war.
Many believe nevertheless that the Russian electoral campaign this year will
necessarily be anti-Western and anti-American, and that the democratic parties
will not dare to support publicly Western values.
That would be the Russian democrats' greatest blunder and defeat. It would be
tantamount to suicide. Some of our democrats, fearing loss of support, are say
ing that Russia is weak at present and cannot help the Serbs militarily, instead
of saying openly that on no account should Russia involve itself in the Balkan
conflict, since in doing so they would not be defending the values for which one
should fight but their opposite. To defend Milosevic is to deny the
civilisational democratic gains which we wish to see implanted in Russia. Some
of them do not understand that it is not possible to aid Milosevic, who )at the
end of the 20th century is defying all the greatest values of Western and Euro
pean civilisation, and at the same time defend such values in Russia. Support
for Milosevic would have catastrophic consequences for Russia. For the sake of
our own future we should not support the side which bases its policy on geno
If the democrats were to adopt the Communists' anti-Western rhetoric, people
would simply ask: `What is the difference between you ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
and the Communists? We do
not need you. The Communists are more convincing than you democrats.' This is
what we are telling our politicians, and it seems to me that the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs has finally understood.
How real is the danger of the Communists' returning to power?
It cannot be excluded. However, if they did win they would not win because of
the Serbian crisis or Russian foreign policy, but because of the social
catastrophe which we have in Russia. According to all research the Communists
could gain as a result of the Kosova crisis only a small percentage of new vot
ers, whom they could easily lose again before the December elections. In my view
a full return of the Communists to power is not possible. The Russian political
body is considerably shaken up and disoriented, but nevertheless the vast major
ity of Russians want to have Western civilisational values in Russia. The
absurdity is that such aspirations do not get their confirmation in the elec
tions, since it is obvious that a good number of citizens do not trust our demo
cratic forces and instead vote for the Communists, populists or nationalists.
This fact - that Russian voters do not recognise them as the force capable of
establishing such values - should be of the greatest concern to Russian liberals
How do you view NATO action against FRY?
The Americans, despite all, have a very superficial knowledge and understanding
of what is happening in Russia and the Balkans. The NATO action itself was badly
thought through. NATO was convinced that a few days of bombing would solve
everything and Milosevic would either fall or desist. A week later NATO analysts
were lost, were facing defeat, and public opinion in Western countries began
slowly to turn against the intervention. In those days some of Solana's advisers
on the Balkans and Eastern Europe became desperate, and admitted in conversation
with me that they found themselves in a hopeless situation. My impression was
that they were so desperate that they were ready to stop the action, which could
have led to NATO's break-up. NATO was on the edge of a catastrophe. And then
Milosevic saved them by starting the `ethnic cleansing' action. The NATO action
thereby gained meaning and confirmation, while public opinion, in reaction to
what Milosevic was doing, turned round and gave full support to NATO. If Slobo
dan Milosevic had been clever enough and left his army on the ground without do
ing anything, I am convinced the NATO action would have collapsed in the second
week. NATO would have been left with no convincing arguments, while Serbia as a
victim would perhaps have gained sympathy in certain circles and states in the
West. Milosevic, however, did not have the patience.
How do you think the situation in Serbia will develop?
Serbia is today Europe's sickest patient. It is unfortunate that Milosevic has
managed to make the whole of the Serb nation his collaborator and the hostage of
his policy and crimes. He has tied the whole people to himself, while the people
has agreed to share responsibility for the crimes and the genocide. Europe has
not seen such collective madness - agreement to crimes and collective guilt -
since the time of Nazi Germany. I spoke recently to Vuk Draskovic - he is a
greater nationalist than Milosevic, he is a Serbian Goebbels! This is a tragedy
for the Serb people, whose awakening will be painful and slow but hopefully not
so cataclysmic. They treat NATO's attack as if it were a carnival! They have no
sympathy for the Albanians and even support their expulsion. They gather at rock
concerts, sing and dance in the streets of Belgrade, because they know that no
one will target them, that no one will loot and burn down their homes, that no
one will rape the women and kill the men. It is all disgusting and hypocritical
and they agree to it all. It is an unbelievable case of madness, and they even
wish to make an alliance with us! The worst ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
thing, however, is that the West is
incapable of completing anything. They are already in trouble over their ground
I am convinced that Milosevic will soon propose a plan for Kosova's partition
which will be favourable to the Serbs. The Albanians will be offered the south
ern part of Kosova, while they will keep the northern, more developed part to
gether with Kosovo Polje where the Serbs so heroically lost a battle which they
now celebrate. The West will accept such a solution, because this will free them
from a politically and militarily complicated action on the ground. The Western
public at present supports the air strikes as an action against genocide; but it
will not agree to their soldiers engaging in a battle for the sake of 50-odd
kilometres for one or the other side. I think that Milosevic from the start had
that solution in mind.
What kind of role can Russia play in all of this?
Russia will mediate in order to improve its momentarily worsened relationship
with the West, and this suits the West. The West will appear as the victor who
saved the Albanians from genocide, while the Serbs will not feel that they have
been defeated. They will think about that only later, when they look at the de
stroyed bridges, factories, roads. If Milosevic has a minimum of rationality
left, he will, I believe, put forward his plan at the moment of the hottest de
bate over ground troops.
They say in Russia that NATO has made a dangerous precedent and that a similar
action could be taken against Russia too because of its economic and ethnic
Yes, many speak about this and warn against this possibility, but Kosova is not
a recent problem and one must not forget what has been happening in that region
for the past ten years. Russia is concerned also that the Security Council and
the institution of the veto have been bypassed, which gave Russia the preroga
tives of a great power. They now idealise this system, but it is in fact very
slow and questionable.
What effect will these changes have on the world order? There are those who
worry that the United Nations will go the way of the League of Nations and that
NATO, in its triumphalism, could take over the role of all existing interna
tional institutions upholding the world order.
I do not believe that the UN is in danger. I am convinced that the opposite
could happen. It is becoming clear that the West is not a threat to Russia or
anyone else, since this has confirmed that the key role in starting off NATO's
mechanism was public opinion in the NATO countries, and that this acts as a cor
rective to NATO itself. Public opinion supports military intervention only in
the case of the most horrendous crimes, such as those committed by Milosevic. I
keep repeating that this action need not worry one, but on the contrary that the
West does not have limitless political and economic resources. As soon as public
opinion in the NATO countries comes to feel that a war is economically draining,
that it could cause internal problems including a fall in living standards, NATO
engagement must end. NATO action would not have lasted a fortnight if Milosevic
with his `ethnic cleansing' had not supplied an additional motive. This is why I
think that NATO will not take over the role of the UN, even if some of its offi
cials would like to see this happen. It would be dangerous if the West were to
retreat now, since this would revise the outcome of the Cold War by showing NATO
to be weak and indecisive. This would encourage not only the Serbs, but also
Russian Communists whose anti-Western rhetoric would be confirmed. They would
have a reason to triumph and would in that way gain many supporters and at the
same time disarm all the Russian democrats' arguments in favour of a liberal and
pro-European Russia. This would lead to a return of the Cold War, with the rest
of Europe being left to confront an isolationist, aggressive and Communist Rus
sia and its only EuÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
ropean supporter, an even more aggressive Serbia.
What consequences can the Serbian crisis have for multiethnic problems in Russia
At this moment there are no such problems outside Chechnya. Chechnya's Muslim
neighbours Ingushetia and Dagestan, who toyed with similar separatist demands,
have now given them up and are seeking greater autonomy within Russia, above all
for economic reasons.
What is your prognosis as to the outcome of the December elections?
Although there is some time before they take place and much can change in the
meantime, as things are the electoral body will shift to the left, but not so
much that the democrats will lose all influence. As far as the presidential
election is concerned, if it does take place, regardless of the parliamentary
elections the Communist leader Zyuganov is unlikely to win. All research shows
that the Communists are not strong enough to defeat a democratic candidate in
the second round.
Is a conflict between Russia and the West, about which much has been talked
In Russia people use warlike rhetoric when speaking of NATO, but this is differ
ent from political action. A kind of consensus has been reached between Russia
and NATO: you can shout and attack us as much as you wish, but do not send mili
tary aid to Serbia, do not break the arms embargo, etc. One must not forget that
Russia depends on foreign credits and that it can go to war only if it gets
them! So the West would have to lend us money so that we could go to war against
The second thing is that Russia makes its living largely by selling raw materi
als to the West. And the third, no less important, is that most of the Russian
political elite keeps its money in foreign banks, owns real estate in the West,
and educates its children and grandchildren there. They will do nothing to
The West fears Russia's instability.
This only shows how little it knows Russia. Sometimes it does appear unpredict
able. In ten years Russia has trodden a path from defeat in the Cold War, via
the break-up of the imperial super-power and the demise of a long-standing rul
ing ideology, to an economic and social catastrophe. In any other state this
would have given 95% of votes to ultranationalists, to fascists. Look at France,
where today 15% of citizens vote for Le Pen: if only a small part of what has
happened to Russia had happened to France, he would gain 99% of the French vote.
This shows that our people are not prone to a fascist-nationalist ideology.
Although there have been those who have wished to fan imperialist, xenophobic
and nationalist ideas, and although such populist types of politician do exist,
no one has managed to impose himself - not Zhirinovsky, not Lebed, not
Barkashov, not to speak of a politician of the Milosevic type. Not even, I beg
your pardon, a political leader like your esteemed president [Tudjman].
Some of your analysts argue that since the break-up of the Soviet Union the
United States has not been able to articulate a clear strategy towards Russia.
Yes, indeed, they have not found their way in the new situation, while interest
in Russia is not what it used to be. The USA has two approaches to Russia. The
first is to try to help it in every way possible to adopt Western values and be
come a stable democracy. This is why Russia has been given large credits with
which it was supposed to draw closer to Western countries. The credits, however,
provided the political and economic elite with an excuse not to conduct the nec
essary reforms. All that help was counter-productive, since it helped the cre
ation of an oligarchic capitalism in which, surprisingly, the Americans saw
their support. The other approach is advocated by the Republicans and some radi
cal Democrats, which is that the Russians are enemies of the West: i.e. that the
Cold War was not a war between capitalism and Communism, but one betweenÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
and the West. Such interpretations aid the Russian Communists in their efforts
to regain power.
Some Western politicians argue that a stable Russia even run by Communists is
better than a democratic Russia facing internal conflict.
This is a typical Western thesis, which starts off from the premise that at cru
cial moments of world politics the West and Russia have always been allies
without any significant security problems. They say that the West had no prob
lems in negotiating with Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev. This is a Western prob
lem and I do not wish to think in that way, since I do not like it either as an
analyst or as a Russian citizen. Quite apart from anything else, the West
overestimates the effect of its own conceptions on internal Russian develop
ments. Russia is like a complicated reactor which functions in accordance with
its own laws.
What is it that keeps Russia at the centre of world politics? Is it its nuclear
Yes. Russia continues to be an important international factor because of its nu
clear weapons and its right of veto in the Security Council. After the NATO ac
tion, which started without consultation with UN institutions, Russia was left
only with the nuclear missiles as a proof of its being a great state. This is
why the Russian elite panicked. If Russia did not have nuclear weapons, the USA
and the West would not bother much with us. Who would need such a Russia? Our
economy, political system and influence do not give us the right to seek a lead
ing role in international relations.
Will Russia accept the reality, that it will not be able any longer to play the
same role as before in the world and that the USA is the only great world power?
Such a relationship of forces is not favoured by Europe. Many consider the book
by Zbignew Brzezinski to be a work of anti-Russian triumphalism, in so far as it
claims that by winning the Cold War the Americans proved their superiority. I
myself, however, was intrigued by the part of his book where he in fact admits
to anxiety that USA will not be able to resist the pressure that will come from
being the only super power. As he puts it, we are talking of a 10ü or 20-year-
long interregnum. There are many reasons for this. The basic reason is that a
world policeman should not be obliged to pay so much attention to its domestic
public opinion and living standards when making such important decisions. You
see, it could happen in Kosova like in Somalia, that the military action will
end as soon as a few dozen American soldiers die and TV films it. A power which
behaves like that is not an imperial power. The USA is already feeling the bur
den of a global loneliness, i.e. of the fact that it is militarily the most pow
erful state. This leads some to argue that it should keep - if need be artifi
cially - Russia as its major partner; or else, which is what they are doing now,
try to make China its major partner for the 21st century. We are talking of a
nostalgia for a lost partner, for the USSR.
Can Russia nevertheless remain a great power?
No, absolutely not. I think it is best for Russia itself if it no longer is. It
costs too much. It would be best for Russia to return to the Super League as
part of a common European team. I support the idea of Russia being part of the
European dream-team, alongside the USA and China.
Does Russia wish to be part of the European team?
If it wishes to be an actor on the world stage it will have to be. Europe too
can gain by it. Although we have an anti-American feeling in Russia today, it
luckily has not translated itself into a feeling against Europe. I believe no
state in Europe has welcomed the introduction of the euro so enthusiastically as
Russia. Our economists competed with each other in their praise, because they
wished the dollar finally to acquire a suitable partner.
Do you think that Europe will extend its hand to RusÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
I believe it will, not in order to confront the United States but because it
needs Russia as a buffer against other civilisations. I doubt that Europe would
wish to border China at the Urals. These are our common interests.
Do Russian politicians share your views?
I constantly try to persuade them, with figures, research, analyses. Russia must
realize that it is no longer a super-power and that, if it wishes to remain im
portant in world politics, it must not do so by scaring everyone around it with
its nuclear weapons, but in close coüoperation with Western Europe - not only
with Germany, France and Great Britain, but also with countries like Luxemburg
or Croatia - by becoming a constructive part of Europe.
There are those who speak of Russia's strategic interests and the need to seek
partners on the other side.
These are all remnants of the longing for the old glory, rather than a struggle
for the new, real glory of a new Russia. They talk of strategic partners like
Serbia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, but do not stop to think that Serbia after Milosevic
will change, that Saddam Hussein will not last forever, that Iran is changing
radically and is seeking cooperation with the West. Such alliances cost Russia
dearly, while all those allies ran away to the other side at the first opportu
This interview, conducted by Vlado Vurusic, has been translated from Globus (Za
30 April 1999