Boris Yeltsin's Russia: Between Reform and Realpolitik

By Shuja, Sharif M. | Contemporary Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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Boris Yeltsin's Russia: Between Reform and Realpolitik

Shuja, Sharif M., Contemporary Review

Since the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991, Boris Yeltsin's Russia has been struggling to democratise its social and political life and capitalist economy, while coming to terms with its own past. President Boris Yeltsin's Russia has been regarded internationally in some respects as the heir of the Soviet Union. For example, it assumed without question the Soviet permanent seat on the UN Security Council. And, like the Soviet Union before it, the new Russia still aspires to be recognised as a global power alongside the United States of America. In this respect Russia still has a nuclear arsenal of superpower dimensions and its military industries can still produce advanced weapons systems.

If Russia has ceased to be a power of major regional significance, it still exercises residual importance by reason of geography in Northeast Asia. Moreover, it could affect immediate arms balances through sales of advanced weapons systems and affect diplomacy in the region. Some Russians, including the Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov, may think that it is a question of time before Russia would recover from its domestic turmoil and would regain the status of a global power, not just a regional power as the West maintains. Thus there remains, arguably, a gap in perception between the Russians themselves and Western commentators.

Moscow under Boris Yeltsin's leadership recognises the importance of continuing political and economic relations with South Korea, China and Japan and adheres to the principle of a nuclear-free zone in Korea. Improvement in Russian-South Korean (ROK) relations continued especially after Boris Yeitsin's November 1992 visit to Seoul and the initialling of a new treaty on basic relations. Russia is committed to a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, as reflected in its 1993 military doctrine. As a result, Russian-South Korean trade has continued to expand steadily, from $1.2 billion in 1992 to $1.57 billion in 1993 and $2.2 billion in 1994. In 1995 trade soared to a record of $3.3 billion, with Russia recording a $447 million surplus.

Russia, like China, is committed to a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, and is interested in limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as noted earlier. Much of the population of Primorskii is concentrated within a few hundred kilometres of the Russian - North Korean (DPRK) border. Any use of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula would contaminate significant areas of the Russian Far East. In addition, any serious conflict - nuclear or conventional - could produce a stream of refugees across Russia's borders and it could exacerbate differences between Moscow and Beijing over how to resolve the crisis, and thus could jeopardise Russia's amicable ties with East Asia's dominant power.

Moscow's foreign policy establishment, therefore, is in agreement on the need to prevent North Korea from developing or utilising nuclear weapons. For example, the Yeltsin government had made clear its opposition to North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons. On this nuclear issue, Russia for the most part has co-operated with the United States and South Korea, because the presence of nuclear weapons on the peninsula threatens the Russian Far East.

Although Moscow, in recent years, appears to have wished to make its policies in the East more dynamic, its initiatives generally did not evoke a strong response in the region, mainly because the Russian initiatives and interests were perceived by the region as being directed more towards the USA and the West, rather than towards Asia.

Forced by the bitter realities of its declining international weight, and with growing domestic dissatisfaction over the results of its economic policies, Moscow declared in late 1993 its intention to correct the pro-US and pro-European tilt in its foreign policy and launched a more active diplomacy in Asia. President Boris Yeitsin visited South Korea and Japan, and met in Moscow with the leaders of China and India.

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