The relationship between Russia and the West is at its lowest point since the mid-1980s, when former U.S. president Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire." Russia recently responded to NATO's air strikes on Yugoslavia with anti-Western rhetoric not heard for a decade and Russian President Boris Yeltsin has warned that NATO bombing in Yugoslavia may lead to a world war.
But what is most dangerous is the Russian military's involvement in a psychological war with the West. Defense Minister Igor Sergeev readily confirms Yugoslav reports on NATO's losses that are definitely untrue. Despite official denials by Russia, rumors about the possibility of the country being dragged into a war are circulating throughout the military. First, there was a rumor about Russia sending a flotilla of warships to the Adriatic sea, and later, State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev said it was time to redirect Russian strategic ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missles) at NATO countries participating in the action against Yugoslavia.
According to military experts, the "zero aiming" decision of 1994to redirect missiles away from western targets was a political rather than military act. It only takes a few minutes to re-direct missiles. But the political effect of "zero aiming" was truly significant. Around the time of the agreement, U.S. President Bill Clinton often remarked in his speeches that for the first time in the last 40 years, no ICBMs were aimed at the United States.
Immediately after Seleznev's statement, U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright called Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who quickly assured her that no decisions had been taken concerning the missiles.
Meanwhile Russia, not wishing to cooperate with "the aggressor," has suspended all joint projects with the United States and other NATO countries participating in the operation, including programs vital for Russia's security. One of these was the Nunn-Lugar project, which provided U.S. financial assistance to Russia to ensure nuclear weapons security.
Recently, General Igor Valynkin, head of the General Headquarters Main Department No 12 - responsible for the safety of nuclear arsenals - enthusiastically thanked America for $100 million donated for the maintenance of nuclear weapons. The money will be used to purchase special containers and train cars to transport nuclear warheads and install safeguarding systems at storage sites.
But now, Russia has decided not to accept such aid from the United States. Russian-American consultations concerning the Y2K problem are on hold, and the United States is still concerned that a computer failure on the night of December 31, 1999 may cause a malfunction in Russia's missile warning system.
The Russian military, having at last acquired a real enemy, is demanding more budget allocations for weapons purchases. In all likelihood, it will receive only promises as even the most energetic patriotic rhetoric will not add revenues to the budget.
But attitudes are changing in Russian military and political circles, and some believe that the main goal of NATO bombing is not to curb Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic but to ready NATO's military machine to take advantage of Russia's slide into chaos.
Some have suggested that the conflict could precipitate a new cold war.
A meeting of leading U.S. experts took place in Monterrey, California, recently to discuss security issues in Russian-American relations. They agreed that the crisis in Russian-American relations did not emerge when NATO bombs started falling on Belgrade, but after the financial collapse of August 17, 1998. The collapse proved the bankruptcy of Russia's economic policies, but it also proved that the Washington team responsible for dealing with Russia had botched the job. Did the U.S. administration even consider Russia's possible reaction when debating what course of action to pursue in Yugoslavia?
Experts have quite sensibly concluded that Russian-American relations will depend not so much on the development of events in Yugoslavia as on the development of the internal political situation in Russia.
Aware of the pitiful state of the Russian Armed Forces, American military experts do not greatly fear a new wave of political confrontation. Their confidence is based on the fact that Russia simply cannot afford a new cold war. Regardless of who comes to power in Russia, it will take decades to rebuild the former Soviet military machine.
In fact, the only leverage still at the Kremlin's disposal is the nuclear threat. It is within the realm of possibilities for Russia to send one or two nuclear submarines (which have stood idle for several years) to patrol the open seas. As a last resort, American experts said, Russian leadership might put - for the purpose of demonstration - the country's nuclear forces on alert.
If the situation escalates this far, the United States will have to react. But military experts doubt that Boris Yeltsin's threats about the possibility of World War III will cause NATO to desist in Yugoslavia. There will be no returning to the year 1973, when Soviet threats stopped Israeli tanks that were approaching Damascus.
The ability of the Soviet Union to influence international politics at crucial moments came not so much from military might as from the fact that Washington considered the "old guys in the Kremlin" to be totally unpredictable. Back then, American strategists had no idea what might cause Kremlin leaders to "press the button," and so they preferred to retreat whenever no direct threat was posed to security of the United States.
Everything changed when Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed "humanitarian values" as a top priority in politics. The West understood that normal people had come to the Kremlin and they would not blow up the world for the sake of working class solidarity. Since Gorbachev made this statement, nuclear threats have been less effective as a means of political pressure. Washington experts are firmly convinced that Russia will not start a nuclear war for the sake of protecting Yugoslavia. The worst thing that could happen, one of the American experts said, would be Russia sliding into chaos and becoming a security "problem" for the United States. Only a "problem," not a "threat." Russia will not be able to threaten the United States for a long time.