Robert Service

Could the West have done more to help Russia?

The Soviet and Russian flags fly over the Kremlin, 18 December 1991. The Soviet flags will be taken down on 31 December 1991 (photo: Getty)

At New Year 1992, the USSR ceased to exist and Russia and the other Soviet republics became independent states. Western powers pondered how to deal with the new world order. Their immediate concern was to seek reassurance about the safe control of nuclear weaponry. The Russian authorities managed to sedate these worries, and by the mid-1990s it had been agreed that the thermonuclear weapons in Ukraine and Kazakhstan would also come into Russia’s hands. Arms control talks with Nato proceeded productively. President Boris Yeltsin himself disliked talking about ‘the West’ as a separate entity and worked for Russia’s own acceptance into the global comity of democratic nations.

A coarsening of relations between the West and a resurgent Russia was always likely but western politicians could have moderated the process

At the same time Yeltsin pleaded with the United States and the International Monetary Fund for assistance in smoothing the transition from a communist planned economy to capitalism. He had some difficulty, even though summit meetings with president Bill Clinton passed in a jovial spirit – Yeltsin seldom missed an opportunity for liquid self-refreshment. The Americans, however, were wary of pouring vast financial resources into the hands of Russian ministers and businesses who were already known for corruption.

Yeltsin himself was nudged by Russian electoral opinion into taking up a more nationalist foreign policy. Russians, raised on the idea that the world was bipolar, were viscerally shocked by Clinton’s military intervention in the wars in former Yugoslavia. The bombing of the Serbian capital Belgrade was seen as confirmation that America aimed at becoming the world’s sole hyperpower. Yeltsin had lost the trust of Russia’s political and security elites even before he voluntarily stepped down from the presidency on New Year’s Eve 1999. He left behind a set of arrangements to stabilise relations with Nato but a full-scale security architecture for the European continent was unfortunately not one of them.

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Written by
Robert Service

Robert Service is Emeritus Professor of Russian History, St Antony's College Oxford and Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His next book, Blood on the Snow, on the Great War and the Russian Revolution, is out in November.

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