Author:Smith, Keith C.

President Boris Yeltsin's imperial views on the "near abroad," and President Vladimir Putin's regarding Russia's alleged "sphere of influence" has left Russia considerably weaker than it would have been otherwise, and the world much more endangered.

Many Americans and Europeans appear puzzled as to why, thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are back in a Cold War relationship with Moscow. Russia's actions have been enormously costly for all sides as defense spending has been ramped up, war games of unprecedented size are conducted, and NATO forces are again arrayed along Russia's border. Trade and investment with the U.S. and EU members have decreased greatly, and cultural and academic ties have sharply diminished. Many of us were optimistic about the future in 1990, although few believed that it was "the end of history."

There are many theories as to what happened. A mix of Russian domestic politics, traditional paranoia and inferiority certainly play a role. I am not a Russian expert. However, I spent ten years working in Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet republics, first as political officer and later DCM in Hungary, then as charge in Estonia, and finally as ambassador in Lithuania. After my retirement from the foreign service, I spent 16 years concentrating on issues in East Central Europe with Washington think tanks and as consultant to international energy firms.

A Messy Russian Troop Withdrawal and Continuing Distrust.

In late July 1994, Russia announced that all its military officers stationed in the Baltic States would return home. On a beautiful day a month later, I made a point of walking around Tallinn asking people how they felt by having the last Russian soldiers, who had occupied their country for almost 55 years, leave Estonian territory. I had assumed that everyone, except the one-million plus Russian civilians, would be overjoyed. But no. Each Estonian responded gloomily "the Russians will be back."

Constant Russian occupation and repression had left Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians with a deep distrust of Moscow's intentions, and of Europe's unwillingness or inability to guarantee their countries' independence. After recent Russian actions in Ukraine, this distrust of the Kremlin's intentions has spread more widely in Europe and America.

Before the 1994 Russian troop withdrawal, in my role as American charge d'affaires I engaged in sporadic negotiations with the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, trying to enlist its support for a USAID program that would pay each Russian military officer $25,000 to buy a home when they returned to their bases in Russia. At least four times, I made an appointment to meet with their ambassador. On each occasion, he sent a junior diplomat in his stead, a person who had no authority, nor any knowledge of Moscow's intentions regarding troop withdrawal. Russian officers then directly petitioned the American Embassy to exert pressure on their government to provide promised housing for their naval officers, who were not covered by the U.S. housing money.

The U.S. expectation was that the financial incentive of the $25 million program would provide political cover for a withdrawal decision by the Yeltsin government. In the end, the Kremlin only agreed on a withdrawal after Germany joined the U.S. in pressuring a reluctant Moscow to support the program. Nevertheless, thousands of Russian officers took the U.S. money and then illegally stayed or returned to Estonia and Latvia. They, and their descendants, are still there. It took several years after the collapse of the Soviet Union for Moscow to agree to border delimitations with Estonia and Latvia.

During the unusually cold and snowy winter of 1992 I visited Riga and Tallinn to help establish a U.S. assistance program in the Baltic states. I was surprised to find that Russia had stopped shipments of natural gas and of heating fuel to the region, attempting to force the new Baltic governments to accept the continued stationing of its soldiers in Estonia and Latvia. Even in the best hotels in the two capitals, I had to sleep with my clothes on to stay warm. I was surprised that "moderate" leaders like Boris Yeltsin could not willingly accept the full sovereignty of the Baltic states and Ukraine, or of the new Central Asian republics. Russia's military attache in Riga told me that his country's soldiers "should never abandon the Baltic states as that would leave Russia exposed to its enemies." In 1992, it was difficult for me to identify an enemy of Russia in that part of the world.

Russian Suspicion After Soviet Collapse

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the Warsaw Pact had been greeted with relief and pleasure in the West, and the changes ushered in a period of positive feeling in the U.S. and Western Europe toward Russia and Russians. Nevertheless, there is a widespread perception among Russians--fueled by Putin's narrative of Western...

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