It was a display of militarism Moscow hadn't seen in years. As late-model jet fighters zoomed overhead, tan and green tanks rumbled down nine-lane Kutuzovsky Prospect. There were lots of red flags with hammers and sickles.
The military parade seemed to give a big boost to the morale of a public whose pride has been hurt by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hardships that followed. When a flight of helicopters thundered above, a plump middle-aged woman called proudly to her young son: "Look, Misha. Ours."
President Bill Clinton was in Moscow for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the defeat of Adolf Hitler as well as a private session with President Boris N. Yeltsin. This was Clinton's first opportunity to see the more confident but also somewhat more scary Russia that has been taking shape over the past few months. What he encountered was a country that still wants a constructive relationship with the U.S. but is no longer willing to follow Washington's dictates as it did just after the Soviet Union's collapse.
MORE ASSERTIVE. What's happening in Moscow is not terribly surprising. Russia lost the Cold War to the U.S. A few years ago, with its economy a shambles, its leaders thought they badly needed U.S. help and had little choice but to heed Uncle Sam. Now, with its economy stabilizing, Russia is once again growing more assertive--as Japan and Germany have in the decades following World War II.
The good news is that there is now much less chance of a total collapse in Russia, with the frightening implications that might have. The bad news is that the Russians are going to throw their weight around in ways that could be troubling or even threatening to the West, as in Chechnya.
Yeltsin did give Clinton some small gifts to take home. He agreed to modify Russia's controversial nuclear reactor deal with Iran so as to make it harder for the Islamic republic to produce nuclear weapons. He said he would delay transfer of the reactors pending a review by a joint U.S.-Russian group.
But Clinton's claim that this was a "win-win meeting" seems exaggerated. He did not get Yeltsin to scrap the Iran deal outright. That could prompt U.S. Republicans to move to kill some $788 million in aid to Russia. Yeltsin also declined to sign off on NATO's admitting former Warsaw Pact countries--though he did agree to participate in Clinton's Partnership for Peace. There's also little sign that Clinton made any headway in getting Yeltsin to call off his troops in Chechnya.
Yeltsin seemed eerily out of touch. At a joint Kremlin press conference, Yeltsin told incredulous reporters that in Chechnya "there are no hostilities there, there is no military there." As he spoke, wire services were reporting that Russian forces were shelling a village southeast of Grozny, the Chechen capital.
But the news on the economy was very positive for Clinton. Privatization is thriving. Inflation rates continue their downward swing, while recovery is a real possibility next year. Russia is fast developing the sort of regulations and financial markets that could underpin an economic power. Says U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin: "If these things can be accomplished, the potential for attracting foreign capital is enormous."
There's a chance that Russia's undeniable economic progress will push forward political reform and strengthen foreign links, thus holding Russia's traditionally aggressive tendencies in check. But it's more likely that relations between Russia and the West will be turbulent for the next few years.