Mishandling Russia

Russia is, once again, a big goddamned problem for America and NATO.

The invasion of Georgia is just the latest and most unavoidable sign of trouble — and most overt headache — in an international relationship that never gelled, as perhaps it should have, at the end of the Cold War. The recklessness provocation of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili gave Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his sock-monkey, President Dimitri Medvedev, all the pretense required to remind NATO who controls the neighborhood.

The Bush administration’s incompetence has been nearly as important to the ascendancy of Russia as it has been to the dismantling of America. Putin understood from the very start that he was dealing with an imbecile in President Bush; something Mr. Bush confirmed for the rest of the world when he famously looked into Mr. Putin’s soulless, serpentine eyes and, somehow “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” As the value of Russia’s oil and gas production grew America’s dependency on foreign fuels continued unabated, the dollar slid and the once non-convertible ruble grew strong. In an ill-conceived “global war on terror,” Mr. Bush gladly accepted an instant, eager ally in Mr. Putin. After all, it gave the former KGB officer the green light to mop up separatist rebels in Chechnya and other Central Asian republics. Needing every possible “ally” in a world where ever-fewer countries were willing to back America’s exceptionalist agenda, the State Department turned a blind eye to Mr. Putin’s blunting of Russia’s fledgling democratic institutions. And as the invasion of Georgia amply demonstrated, Russia is well beyond the point of consulting with the Bush administration about much of anything.

Ever the tough-guy, Mr. Bush is insistent on building inessential anti-ballistic missile defenses and tracking radar in Russia’s backyard – in Poland and the Czech Republic. And then there is Bush’s recent, insane promise to push for the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

Welcome to the new Cold War.

America won the last Cold War by, essentially, spending the Soviet Union into oblivion in a frighteningly well-balanced military escalation. With the U.S. military stretched to the breaking point in two wars and Russia fat on oil profits, this one will require a different solution. Barack Obama speaks, correctly, of the need for the diplomacy which has been absent the last seven-and-a-half years. (It gobsmacks me that we’ve reached a point where the no-shit-Sherlock, first principle of international relations starts to sound like a brilliant, innovative foreign policy initiative.) But there is no question that America will be negotiating from a point of profound weakness in the wake of the Bush Administration.

But there is another, more easily forgotten chapter in the story of how Russia transformed itself from bruised, battered, busted remnant of the Soviet Union to the powerful, wealthy, autocratic menace it is today. And that chapter also has American authorship.

During the Clinton administration, the top foreign policy issue was the expansion of NATO into Central Europe – into countries formerly allied with the Soviet Union. This was a thumb-in-the-eye and unambiguous threat to Russia, which was pointedly not invited to become a member of the alliance. The American strategy rested on the somewhat paradoxical premises that (a) Russia was toothless, and therefore powerless to effectively block the transformation of its allies into its NATO adversaries, and (b) isolating Russia in this way was necessary because it would always pose a threat to Europe.

At the time, there were many who felt that NATO expansion was a bad idea. I was among them. I never would have predicted extent – much less, the speed – of Russia’s bounce-back, and never would have figured them to re-emerge as a formidable challenger to American foreign policy interests. I naively believed that Russia would be developed as a post-war ally of the United States, as Germany and Japan had been. Nevertheless, I saw the military isolation of Russia as extremely harmful to the development of democratic institutions in a country struggling to find its way in a new political system. We had thrown a bizarre amount of support behind the ineffectual, populist drunkard Boris Yeltsin and, at the same time, were openly emasculating Russia as an international player. Mr. Yeltsin looked like our weakling tool, and he was not giving democracy – which was, in any case, confused in the Russian mind with the difficult new capitalism – much of a good name. Given the inequality of readiness within post-communist society for the market economy, and the resulting gross economic disparities within the kleptocracy unleashed with the advent of privatization, the Russian public was showing all signs of saying to hell with this new life. There was no going back economically; but a political backslide seemed quite likely as constitutional crises eventually boiled into the standoff at the Whitehouse. Mr. Putin’s rise to power was the end product of this reversal.

Last Thursday, Tom Friedman summarized the high-points of this history in an excellent column, in which he took both the Clinton and Bush administrations to task for, essentially, saying to Russia: “We expect you to behave like Western democrats, but we’re going to treat you like you’re still the Soviet Union. The cold war is over for you, but not for us.” Mr. Friedman quotes Michael Mandelbaum at length concerning the nature of the American folly:

The Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams acted on the basis of two false premises. One was that Russia is innately aggressive and that the end of the cold war could not possibly change this, so we had to expand our military alliance up to its borders. Despite all the pious blather about using NATO to promote democracy, the belief in Russia’s eternal aggressiveness is the only basis on which NATO expansion ever made sense — especially when you consider that the Russians were told they could not join. The other premise was that Russia would always be too weak to endanger any new NATO members, so we would never have to commit troops to defend them. It would cost us nothing. They were wrong on both counts.

I happen to know a woman who, through an overabundance of intelligence and profound understanding of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian foreign policy, found herself at the epicenter of the Clinton administration’s NATO expansion project. Indeed, I am related to her: she’s my sister.

Betsy served for one year as the officer on the Russian desk of the Pentagon policy team responsible for NATO expansion. She was not there at the beginning of the initiative, but was there when Mr. Clinton and Secretary of Defense William Cohen were negotiating the memberships of several Central European nations into NATO.

So I shot her a note, asking if she had read the Friedman column and if she remembered wrestling with these issues. Here’s her reply:

So funny that you should ask this – actually, not at all funny. I read Friedman’s column last night, and then was unable to sleep for all my remorse. My first thought when he read his comments was: I drank the Kool-Aid. There was absolute consensus when I joined the expansion team at DoD. If there had been dissent, it was no longer voiced. The train had left the station by the time I got on board, though I’m not suggesting this as an excuse for my buying in; but i was too late for any early debate that might have taken place. Realistically, State would have been the primary mover with regard to NATO expansion policy, so if it happened, it most likely would have occurred at DoS not DoD. We all knew the arguments for and against, which Friedman’s article so clearly recaps; but at the time, whatever doubts I had were won-over by the argument that these weak fledgling states need to be protected and nurtured. And, honestly, it felt good to stick it to Russia.

In short: yes I saw the article and no we didn’t do a good job of appraising the risks back then. In my experience, policymaking doesn’t include nearly enough debate; there is way too much early buy-in. And if that was true in the Clinton administration, just imagine the remorse the cogs in today’s machine will feel when they read Freidman in ten years and realize how badly they screwed up!

It will be quite interesting to see where America and Russia end up in the next decade, and if the Bushies are able to recall matters with the candor and insight my sister brings to bear on her experience in foreign policy.


4 Responses to “Mishandling Russia”

  1. 1 smita 31 August 2008 at 12:15 pm


    What a fabulous column with this unique (at least in being voiced) perspective from Betsy.

    If only we followed the “golden rule” as often as we like to quote it. Imagine if we treated foreign countries and their people with respect. Imagine if our policies sought the collective common good rather than whatever is in “America’s best interest” in terms of cost, profit, and security.

    It feels as though we’ve ridden this merry-go-round time and time again, as we did with the Germans after WWI, as we continue to do with Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Feeling a bit nauseated here.

    Thanks for voicing this!


    p.s. One more reason the Cold War ended: The price of oil fell dramatically. More than even our crazy military spending, this deprived the leaders of the Soviet Union of the funds they needed to assert their authority and keep the government standing. Our gas guzzling lifestyle not only fuels the fires in the middle East, it has helped fund this new Cold War (and countless blowhards like Hugo Chavez, to boot).

  2. 2 Amit 31 August 2008 at 3:42 pm

    It will be quite interesting to see where America and Russia end up in the next decade, and if the Bushies are able to recall matters with the candor and insight my sister brings to bear on her experience in foreign policy.

    Observing Henry Kissinger today should give you the answer to that. ;)

  3. 3 Eso 1 September 2008 at 12:23 am

    Well, as citizen of one of these USSR’s “former allies” I know for fact, that “former ally” and “occupied country under installed puppet government” are two different things.

  4. 4 mbjesq 1 September 2008 at 8:57 am

    Roger Cohen’s column in today’s New York Timesupdates the comedy of NATO errors to this past spring, when and the 3 April Bucharest declaration that Ukraine and Georgia would somehow be brought into the alliance — pissing-off the Russians no-end.

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