The Empire Still Can Strike Back


The honor guards may have been removed from Lenin's mausoleum on Red Square but the empire Lenin and Stalin built from the suzerainty of Peter and Catherine the Great is flexing muscles. Russia, despite its current degradation, still is a big and mighty country. It has the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. It has unchanged security needs. It wants to be heard and respected.

This is the message that has been heard from Moscow in recent weeks. As soon as last week's rebellion was put down, it was heard again.

Much of this message is aimed at the West, which has been enjoying a honeymoon with Russia for the past two years. In the euphoria that followed the collapse of communism, some Russian politicians went so far as to urge their country to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the the European Community's economic and political integration efforts.

In past weeks, that tone has changed. First, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin warned Western leaders against expanding NATO eastward by admitting such former communist states as Poland or the Baltic republics. This warning was followed by a threat by Russia to withdraw from a pact limiting conventional forces in Europe unless it can station more tanks and other military hardware close to the conflicts in the war-torn Caucasus.

Meanwhile, Russia has breathed new life into the Commonwealth of Independent States, the post-Soviet umbrella which never amounted to much. Ukraine, weakened by economic chaos and political uncertainty, has been dragged into cooperation. Another holdout, Georgia, was badgered into realizing that its economy and political future are inextricably linked to Russia's.

"Nobody should doubt that the mentality and reflexes of Russian imperialism are not dead," Georgia's distraught President Eduard Shevardnadze pronounced before being forced to apply for membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States. He had little choice. A refusal could have meant continued Russian support to secessionists who are tearing his country apart.

Great powers have always maintained spheres of influence. For months, Russia's military establishment has been complaining that their country's weakness had created a vacuum on the fringes of the empire and that other countries were itching to fill that vacuum. After their crucial role in suppressing last week's coup attempt, military leaders have the clout to demand that those security concerns are addressed.

Europe does not need Russia as a bully. However, an assertive but reasonable Russia could be of great help as a stabilizing force.

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