Global Focus: TALK ABOUT RUSSIA
David Hoffman, chief of the Washington Post's Moscow bureau, discussed on March 30 Russia and its changing role.
Hoffman has covered Russia and the former Soviet republics since 1995. He was recently awarded the 1998 SAIS Novartis Prize for Excellence in International Journalism for a series of articles about the post-cold war legacy of Russia's military-industrial complex.
Read the transcript below.
Fairfax, Va.: If the Primakov-Milosevic talks fail to find a compromise solution, do you see any possibility the Russians could come to Serbia's aid -- if not militarily, at least with arms shipments, or other assistance?
David Hoffman: There are some elements in the Russian arms trade who would like to come to their aid, but I don't think they have done so yet. There has been a lot of sabre-rattling in the last few days. Why, just today it was announced that the Russians field-tested a surface-to-air missile battery that can shoot down anything, they said. No mention was made of the current conflict. But the message seemed to be clear.
Arlington, Va. :
David Hoffman: Thanks for that, it's good to know someone out there is reading!
alexandria, va: What's the word on the "new secret weapon" that the Russians believe NATO is using?
David Hoffman: The Russians hint that it's some kind of electro-magnetic pulse bomb that wipes out radio communications. I recall they were very worried about this as a prelude to a nuclear attack in the years of the Cold War. Given the high pitch of current emotions over the conflict, I have no idea whether there are any new weapons or not. The Russians also reportedly have some new ones of their own; I read a recent report that they have a new kind of plane that hides from radar using some kind of plasma plume. No confirmation.
David Hoffman: Not only its international prestige, but it is a serious problem at home. The country is leaderless in many ways, and the system developed under the 1993 Constitution called for a super-presidential system. Imagine the Russian presidency as a powerful sports car careening down the mountain highway with a driver who's basically out of it. So far, no crash, but I wonder when...
David Hoffman: Does it have to be either/or? It is probably a combination of both. I would say that projecting some influence on the world scene is terribly important to Russian leaders because the reality is they now are so weak. I also would add to your list of their past attempts the Milosevic visit here some time ago, which didn't produce much but promises.
College Park, MD: Mr. Hoffman -- There is an opinion that Russian government is going to use Kosovo's crisis to distract Russian people's attention from internal economic problems by launching a new "cold war" against USA. Do you think there is any basis for this kind of speculations? Thank you.
David Hoffman: The problem with that is that it's a bit of the cart before the horse. The economic problems are real. They are huge. They can't really be "distracted" from. If you ask, does the anti-Western sentiment generated by the NATO airstrikes take over some from the news and drudgery of the economic woes, I would say yes, perhaps for a while. But the economic issues are just too big, too pervasive, to go away or be hidden for very long.
Cape May, NJ: How permanent is the damage to U.S-Russian relations over this recent Kosovo flap? I ask this because it seems our relations with Russia have deteriorated to the point where we seem to simply either ignore or dismiss everything that is going on there.
David Hoffman: The truth is that relations have been sliding downhill for some time. It seems to me there is a slow corrosion. I can't judge how permanent, but I can see how deep. Take just one issue, the Start 2 treaty. It would actually benefit Russia more than the US, but in another sense it would mean fewer nuclear warheads and lead to even deeper cuts. Each time it was on the verge of approval (very late, I might add) in the Russian State Duma, external events -- Iraq, and now Yugoslavia -- have knocked it into a cocked hat.
University Park, MD: From the U.S. it seems like we are not doing anything to help Russia control aging nuclear systems. What kinds of things are being done and do you think its enough?
David Hoffman: Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin promised last year to set up a joint missile launch early warning center. Early warning is one of the major vulnerabilities. The plan was never implemented. Even an attempt to set up a temporary center around the year 2000 computer problem has fallen apart in the wake of the Kosovo conflict. It seems pretty clear to me that this is a subject both countries have an interest in and yet nothing is being done. If anything, we are walking backwards.
Bethesda, Md.: How are relations between the Russian government and Chechnya since the secessionist region won de facto independence in 1996? Have there been any overtures to a government crackdown? If so, do you think Russia is willing to risk another another war in Chechnya?
David Hoffman: Relations between Russia and Chechnya are rocky, at best. Chechnya today is rife with kidnapping, and it is economically a basket case. I don't think the Russians will risk another war in Chechnya, and it would be instructive to look at what air power did there during the early stage in that war. Bombing destroyed a lot of buildings and killed a lot of people, but did very little to stop the Chechen fighters.
David Hoffman: Yes, they are trying to project power. They don't have as much global influence as they once did, and it creates obviously imbalances, dashed expectations, and humiliation. Just look at the day before the bombing: Yeltsin says, please don't. And he is ignored. But I would say that so far the Russians have talked more than acted. It isn't yet clear what the Primakov mission will bring about, but most of the Russian reaction in this case is rhetorical.
Fairfax, Virginia: Is the Russian Gov't and the military prepared for Y2K? Specifically, are their nuclear capabilities secure?
David Hoffman: No. Their biggest vulnerability appears to be in early warning systems.
Woodbridge, VA: What trends do you see regarding Western firms operating in Russia? Are any Westerners in Russia hopeful about potential profits?
David Hoffman: Some firms have staying power. But the trends are not good. I could give you a long list of the ones who have recently pulled out. Many consumer goods companies have given up. Oil and gas is not particularly booming even though the legislation was finally passed that could make it profitable. And in another area -- shareholder rights -- there are a slew of fights underway between western investors and Russian owners.
Woodbridge, VA: Today, we hear Boris Yeltsin is ordering the Northern Fleet to sea on exercises. Isn't the Northern Fleet more of a danger to her sailors than any potential foe? Russian maritime capabilities are only a shadow of former Soviet "glory," regardless of the remaining nuclear arms. What is your comment?
David Hoffman: As for the danger to sailors, I can't give a concrete answer. But we know one thing: it is a danger to their meager budget. They can't afford to sail. Just look at the number of ships tied up for years for lack of routine maintenance. and repairs
David Hoffman: The IMF money is a stop-gap. It means Russia won't have to pay this much back, so there's a slightly less big hole in their budget, and the ruble probably won't collapse quite as fast. But there are still problems, huge problems, and this is only a small tablet of anti-acid for a raging heartburn, if I can put it that way.
Maryland: How serious is the impact of Russia's abandoned chemical bombs on its environment and what has the Russian government done to contain-clean up the mess?
David Hoffman: The clean-up is years behind schedule. I saw one base last year where there is enough nerve gas to kill every person on the Earth! It's kinda scary to think all that stuff is just sitting around. Russia did the right thing by ratifying the convention, but as we are discovering, good intentions aren't enough. There is a huge amount of work to be done, and it isn't happening.
Is it wise on NATO's part to sideline the Russians when they are weak ? Is there not a
David Hoffman: Not only is it wise for NATO to sideline Russia, but is it wise for the West? For the United States? I think Russia passed an important turning point vis a vis the West in recent days. It will already be harder to enlist their help. But this is not the first crisis in which Russia was given the back of the hand by the West.
We're roughly half-way through this live discussion
with David Hoffman. Submit questions using the hyperlink below.
The Russian space program is often said to be on the verge of collapse--the current crew aboard creaky old Mir is said to be the last.
David Hoffman: I think the better comparison is this: All Soviet-built space and rocket and missile gear had a "srok exploitatziya" or period of useage built in. For the Mir, it was five years. They have now more than doubled that, and look what has happened. The Russian nuclear weapons have the same system, and many of them are passing their guaranteed terms of operation. What happens when a missile which was supposed to last 20 years in the Siberian cold, filled with a volatile fuel, is kept on for 25 or 30 years? What happens to the metal? This is the important issue: soon these weapons get old. It's one thing if they are retired. But if they are kept on hair-trigger alert?
Washington DC: What you said about the "car out of control worries me." Can we be sure that a rogue Russian or Ukranian general or disgruntled missle crew won't launch a nuclear bomb aimed at the US.?
David Hoffman: No, we can't be sure. We have already seen some scary evidence of what kinds of things could happen. Last year a sailor on board a sub killed 8 comrades and locked himself in the torpedo room... the wives of missilemen in a Siberian base blocked the road so the servicemen couldn't man the rockets, because they had not been paid... and so on.
Chicago, Illinois: I'm amazed by the Russian reaction to NATO's current policy. I read the other day, for example, a short interview with a St. Petersburg grandmother who said that she cried all night after hearing that attacks had begun because she feared her grandchildren -in Russia- were now likely going to die in war. Is such a reaction surprising and, if not, could you comment on some of the reasons why Russians might view the situation in such stark, threatening tones?
David Hoffman: I think your description of the reaction is not far off. Maybe it is partly left over from Chechnya. This was a brutal, awful war. There is a very, very strong vein of sentiment here that runs against any involvement in military action. And I dare say, it is not only Chechnya, but memories -- such as the grandmother -- which go back to millions lost in earlier wars.
This Kosovo situation certainly doesn't look like it will work to improve US-Russian relations to say the least.
David Hoffman: So far I have not seen any sign of fallout. Most of the reaction has been confined to military cooperation between Russia and the West. Russia's problems with the ISS seem to be more financial and not linked to the current crisis.
Newport News, VA: How is the Russian media covering this crisis?
David Hoffman: It's hard to generalize but the media is emphasizing the NATO airstrikes and the Russian anger at NATO. There has been some coverage, especially today, of the refugee tide as well.
Arlington, Va: The current Kosovo conflict is the latest in a series of post-Cold War regional conflicts that the U.S. has found itself embroiled in. Along with it's low-level war in Iraq, the U.S. now finds itself fighting a war on two fronts -- a longtime goal of the Pentagon. Do these developments now mean the U.S. is far and above the only remaining superpower, placing Russia in a secondary position for the future?
David Hoffman: I am no military analyst or war historian, but I think it's pretty clear, from evidence widely available, that Russia's place in the world has slipped. Some big American corporations will have 2nd quarter revenues larger than all of Russia's federal budget! Russia has a long, hard slog in the years ahead to rebuild, and it is not the Soviet Union. Yes, it is a nuclear superpower. But its role in the world economy is rather small.
David Hoffman: Sad to say, conversion was never really carried out. It is one of the many unfulfilled yet critically important issues facing Russia. Yes, some of the inventions were wacky. But the truth is, the whole idealism of defense conversion just never was realized. Low-tech projects succeeded in some cases. High-tech ones found a niche with Western help. But the majority of conversion ideas never found a market, never found capital -- this is a capital-starved and leaky country -- and so the dream foundered.
arlington, va.: President Boris Yeltsin is sick. The government is corrupt. The country's economy is flailing. How are the young people, Russia's future leaders, coping with problems there? Is Russia experiencing a brain-drain -- the flight of young intellectuals leaving the country to find better opportunities abroad?
David Hoffman: I think the younger generation is coping rather well, given some of the foolishness their elders have handed down. Despite all its problems, Russia's great gift is this quiet patience people have. I hope it doesn't run out before some of the young people get a chance to try their hand at running the country.
Idaho: Do you think the russians are up to "no good"
David Hoffman: Compared to who?
The WHO reports that among 22 nations, Russia has the highest TB infection rate and that the infection rate in the country's prisons is alarmingly high. How has the Russian government responded to this health crisis in terms of funding and education?
David Hoffman: Russia has responded poorly, judging by the western experts I have heard talk about the problem. One of the great tragedies of the last few years has been the collapse of public health. And then there is the environment. And defense conversion someone asked about. Oh, yes, education. And on and on. It is extraordinarily painful when a country slides down the ladder of nations. Russia is in many ways becoming Third World.
Bainbridge, GA: Big Dow 30 component companies like McDonalds and Coca Cola have invested heavily in Russia. Will the continuing economic depression over there eventually drag down the US stock market? Coke for example is in the doldrums because of its overseas exposure. How much of a drag on Wall Street is Russia?
David Hoffman: Excuse me, but I think Wall St. just broke 10,000 -- if Russia is a drag, I don't see it. Instead, look at what's happening to the Russian experience in capitalism and share-holding. That is a serious issue. Establishing property rights and shareholder rights ought to be in Russia's interests if it wants to be part of the globalization trend and if it wants to keep capital at home. But just the opposite is happening.
Pittsburgh, PA: Who is the next Russian president?
washingtonpost.com: A frank question that is weighing on all our minds. Who are the top contenders for the presidency when Boris Yeltsin's term runs out in summer 2000?
David Hoffman: Top contenders as of today are:
Okemos, MI: Do you think if it weren't for Russia's need to obtain more foreign financial aid form the West, that they would be more willing to step in militarily in the Kosovo crisis and help Serbia?
David Hoffman: There is definitely some tension between their need for Western aid and their desire to do something in the current crisis. Maybe that's a good thing. The result has been relatively restrained, so far, although it looks like NATO has to forget about the so-called Founding Act signed at the time of the expansion. It has been damaged.
Washington, D.C.: When the Russians were faced with a rebellion in Chechnya, their response to was to quash the uprising with force. So why would anyone trust Primakov to persuade the Serbs to do otherwise in Kosovo?
David Hoffman: Ahem, let me point out that while the Russians would like to have quashed the uprising with force, that was a war that quashed both sides. It wasn't a particularly good model for success.
New Orleans, LA: Russia is certainly not the great power that the USSR once was. Do you believe that it will regain great power status within the next several decades? If so, will this lead to a new cold war?
David Hoffman: I am not a seer. I don't know what will happen. But one thing is evident today: it will take Russia a lot longer than 7 years to become a market democracy. And there were a lot of hopeful people who thought that could happen in a year or two.
Washington, DC: How much of Russia's current support of Yugoslavia is based in its historical pan-Slavism, and how much is based in its interests -if any- in the region? From what you've seen, are Russian leaders taking pan-Slavism's previous failures into account regarding this crisis?
David Hoffman: Again, I would say that pan-Slavism takes a back seat to anti-NATOism. I have talked to lots of people in recent days and the answer you get is not about Slavic brothers, but "we was had" with NATO.
Ottawa, Canada: Do the Russian people have an emotional or historic attachment to the Serbs, or is the historic relationship being exploited by Russian politicians for their own ends?
David Hoffman: Exploitation? Here? By politicians? Heaven forfend.
washington D.C.: Why do you hate Russia?
David Hoffman: It's a kind of peculiar motivation that compels me to tromp through subfreezing temperatures, through plutonium-polluted waters, through war zones, through smoke-choked rooms -- come on, no one does this out of hate. Russia is one of the great journalistic and historic stories on the planet.
That's all the time we have. Thanks to everyone who participated and thanks to David Hoffman, chief of the Washington Post's
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