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Our Stale, Unimaginative, and Wrong-Headed Approach to Russia Has Finally Caught Up with Us

In the late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev flushed away the old Soviet foreign policy and stunned the world with a “new-thinking” one. It changed Soviet dealings with the United States and helped end the Cold War. Is it not now time for the USA, a country that prides itself on innovation, to come up with its own new-thinking foreign policy, at least in regard to Russia?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 our Russia policy has been one of attempting to capitalize on Russian weakness by strengthening our strategic position at its expense. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, American fears that Russia might take over more Ukrainian territory, and the limited options that President Obama now seems left with have all suggested a failed U.S. policy. This article will demonstrate how stale, unimaginative, and wrong-headed our post-1991 position regarding Russia has been.

The most damning, consistent, and thorough indictment of our Russia policy has come from historian and Russian specialist Stephen Cohen, who is also a contributing editor to the leftist magazine The Nation. But criticism comes also from more surprising sources such as Jack Matlock, U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. under Presidents Reagan and Bush (sr.) from 1987 to 1991, and from Robert Gates, secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama from 2006 to 2011.

First, a brief summary of Cohen’s indictment, as found mainly in his Chapter 7, “Who Lost the Post-Soviet Peace?” in Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (2011 ed.).  He credits primarily Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, but also Presidents Reagan and Bush (sr.), with ending the Cold War, as Bush initially stated, “so there were no losers, only winners.” Cohen also quotes the Bush promise made in 1990 and 1991 never to move NATO “one inch to the east” (see here for more on this significant guarantee). It was made in exchange for Gorbachev’s agreement that a newly united Germany could join NATO.

In 1992, however, after Russia had become an independent state under Boris Yeltsin, the United States switched to a more arrogant position. Bush declared, “America won the Cold War. . . . the Cold War didn't end—it was won.” Cohen then describes what followed in the remainder of the 1990s: The “Clinton administration . . . . failed disastrously” to get Russia policy right. It made “two fatefully unwise decisions.” First, it decided “to treat post-Communist Russia . . . as a defeated nation, analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II, which was expected to replicate America’s domestic practices and bow to U.S. international interests.” Secondly, it broke Bush’s promise never to move NATO “one inch to the east”—in 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became NATO members. “From that profound act of bad faith, followed by other broken strategic promises, came the dangerously provocative military encirclement of Russia” and Moscow’s ever-growing belief that it had been ‘constantly deceived,’ as Putin charged.”

Regarding Russia, Cohen sees considerable continuity between the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies (1993-2008), which included: a “relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness”; “growing military encirclement of Russia”; denial of Russian security interests; interference in Russian internal affairs; and proposed U.S. nuclear arms policies, such as installing components of a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, that Russia found offensive. In 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the last three former parts of the USSR) entered NATO.

In 2008 U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced, “We agreed today that Georgia and Ukraine [two other former USSR republics] will [eventually] become members of NATO”—to date, they have not, but this remains a constant fear of Putin. And in 2008 Russia fought a brief successful war with Georgia when Russian forces aided two separatist Georgian border areas (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). Cohen points out that for several prior years the United States had “amply funded” Georgian military forces, and that many Georgians and Russians considered the war a “proxy battle” between the USA and Russia. The war reduced U.S.-Russian relations to a post-Soviet low.

The war also indicated that Russia was in a stronger position regarding its neighbors than U.S. policymakers acknowledged. Cohen noted that “politically, Moscow has widespread support in Ukraine’s large ethnic Russian provinces and could encourage separatist movements there even more consequentially there than it did in Georgia”—given what the U.S. intelligence community should have known about the ethnic makeup of Ukraine, including Crimea, and about Putin, this year’s developments regarding Russian-Ukrainian relations should have been better anticipated. (See here for a 2008 cable warning “that US-EU-NATO meddling in Ukraine could split the country in two.”)

In an Epilogue to the 2011 edition of his book, Cohen fleshes out U.S.-Russian relations during the first few years of the Obama administration. Although he praises the president’s attempt to “reset” these relations, Cohen believes the reset continued to be undermined by certain fundamental “underlying fallacies,” by domestic political opposition, and by Obama surrounding “himself with advisers tied to the failed Russia policies since 1991.” What was needed Cohen believed was “nonconformist American thinking about Russia,” but none had been “in circulation before or after Obama took office, nor had it been for nearly twenty years.”

Most recently Cohen and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel (his wife) claim that in April 2014 “the White House declared a new Cold War on Russia—and that, in a grave failure of representative democracy, there was scarcely a public word of debate, much less opposition, from the American political or media establishment.”

Cohen’s criticism has always been controversial, but some of it has recently been echoed by voices considered much less radical than Cohen’s. Consider this excerpt from Jack Matlock, a former ambassador to Russia appointed by President Reagan. Asked to comment in late May, 2014 about NATO and Putin’s concerns, he said:

Oh, I think that is and has been Putin's main concern, and I think that's why he took Crimea. You know, one of the problems when we started expanding NATO in the way we did is that if we weren't prepared to stop at a certain point, which had to be Ukraine and, I would add, Georgia, this was going to create a very strong reaction from Russia, whoever the leader of Russia was. And I think it was quite irresponsible, the talk that we had in around 2007, 2008, of bringing Ukraine into NATO, and the fact that the Ukrainian governments were not willing to sort of pledge neutrality. . . . I think this has been probably the crucial issue.

In former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s new book, Duty, there is also the following surprising words from someone long-considered a “hard-liner” and a hawk regarding the Soviet Union and later Russia.

From 1993 onward, the West, and particularly the United States, had badly underestimated the magnitude of Russian humiliation in losing the Cold War and then in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. . . . The arrogance, after the collapse, of American government officials, academicians, businessmen, and politicians in telling the Russians how to conduct their domestic and international affairs . . . had led to deep and long-term resentment and bitterness. . . .

. . . the relationship with Russia had been badly mismanaged after Bush 41 left office in 1993. Getting Gorbachev to acquiesce to a unified Germany as a member of NATO had been a huge accomplishment. But moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake. . . . Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching. . . . Were the Europeans, much less the Americans, willing to send their sons and daughters to defend Ukraine or Georgia? Hardly. So NATO expansion was a political act, not a carefully considered military commitment, thus undermining the purpose of the alliance and recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests. . . .

. . . . When Russia was weak in the 1990s and beyond, we did not take Russian interests seriously. We did a poor job of seeing the world from their point of view, and of managing the relationship for the long term.

Reinforcing the criticisms of Cohen, Matlock, and Gates are a few comments made by Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, and Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford from 1973 to 1977.

In a review of Stent’s The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century, I cited a quote accusing the United States of “an empathy deficit disorder” toward Russia, and her words that NATO expansion which omitted Russia “perhaps . . . reflected officials’ lack of imagination and reluctance to think creatively about what would admittedly have been a major challenge.” In March 2014, Kissinger wrote that “Ukraine should not join NATO,” and that “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” (Putin’s popularity in Russia should alert us to the fact that his attitudes toward Ukraine and the West are widely shared by many other Russians.)

In other works I have written about the paucity of imagination and creativity in present-day political affairs and, despite my admiration for many of President Obama’s fine qualities, quoted Michael Brenner, who in 2010 criticized him as follows: “He is a remarkably conventional thinker who defers to established opinion and persons. He instinctively gives the benefit of all doubts to those who embody a conservative perspective. He lacks the imagination and forcefulness to fashion his own conception of what a situation is, what it means and what the public need dictates in the way of policy action.” Brenner was thinking mainly of Obama’s policies regarding Afghanistan, but it also applies, as Cohen indicated, to his approach to Russia.

Cohen and others have suggested how to construct a new, more imaginative and successful U.S. policy toward Russia. But that is a subject for a future essay.