It may seem like an odd time to bring up the other Russia story, this being the first anniversary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. But as it happens, there has been a break in this neglected case – or, rather, two of them.
It was slightly more than a year ago that President Trump fired FBI director James Comey and, the next day, told Russian officials visiting the Oval Office that Comey was “crazy, a real nut job.” He continued, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Two weeks later Mueller was appointed, and his Russia investigation has only escalated since then, sprawling into several unexpected corners.
The New York Times offered readers a helpful graphic last winter: “Most of the stories under the ‘Russia’ umbrella generally fall into one of three categories: Russian cyber attacks; links to Russian officials and intermediaries; alleged obstruction.”
There is, however, another aspect of the Russia story, a category altogether missing in the Times’ classification scheme, an obviously thorny topic that almost no one wants to discuss: the proverbial elephant in the room.
It concerns the extensive background to the 2016 campaign – the relationship between the United States and Russia over the long arc of the twentieth century, and, especially, the years since the end of the Cold War. This aspect is complicated, involving all five US administrations since the Soviet Union dissolved itself at the end of 1991. It is a difficult story to tell.
I backed into it slowly, having followed for many years the Harvard-Russia scandal of the 1990s. In 1993, the US Agency for International Development, a semi-independent unit of the State Department, hired Harvard University’s Institute for International Development to provide technical economic assistance to the Russian government on its market reforms. Eight years later, the Justice Department sued Harvard for having let its team leaders go rogue.
Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer and his deputy, Jonathan Hay, were accused of investing in Russian securities, and of having established their wives at the head the line in the nascent Russian mutual fund industry. The suit was settled in 2005. The government recovered most of the money it had spent. The incident played a part in Harvard University president Lawrence Summers’s resignation the following winter. As Shleifer’s friend and mentor, Summers had distanced himself via recusal.
After Boris Yeltsin had died, in 2007, I wrote a column about the failures of US policies in the 1990s. Thereafter I followed developments with increasing interest and alarm, particularly after the Ukraine crisis of 2014. And in the summer of 2016, when it seemed likely that Hillary Clinton would be elected president, I set out to collect some of the columns I had written and to add some additional narrative material in order to call attention to the entanglements she and her advisers would bring to the job. That project was supposed to take one year. It took two.
Because They Could: The Harvard Russia Scandal (and NATO Expansion) after Twenty-Five Years (CreateSpace) was finally published on Amazon last week – 300 pages and a relative bargain at $15. Alas, almost as quickly as the book went on sale, Amazon took it down, to make sure I actually owned the collected columns: their cloud computers had discovered these were also “freely available on the web” — in the archives of Economic Principals. Artificial intelligence at work: shoot first and ask questions after. Because They Could will be back in print shortly. The book consists of three main parts.
The first is a recap of the scandal as it appeared in the newspapers, from the front page of The Wall Street Journal, in August 1997; to Harvard’s decision, in March 2001, to try the case rather than settle the government suit; to September 2013, when Summers withdrew from the competition with Janet Yellen to head the Fed. These 29 columns, written as the story unfolded, introduce first-time readers to the scandal, and remind experts of what and when we knew and how we knew it.
The second part concerns the Portland, Maine, businessman whom the Harvard team leaders inveigled to start a mutual fund back-office firm in Russia, then forced out of its ownership. It turns out there was a second suit, overlooked for the most part because Harvard settled, paying an undisclosed sum in return for a non-disclosure agreement. This now-familiar tactic insured that John Keffer, whose Forum Financial at that point was one of the largest independently-owned mutual fund administrators in the world, and a significant presence in Poland, would be unable to tell his story. Only his filings and the massive documentation of the government case remained.
The third consists of six short essays on aspects of the US relationship with Russia since 1991. These relate a brief history of NATO expansion, which took place despite the administration of George H.W. Bush pledging in exchange for Russia agreeing to the reunification of Germany that the US would not further enlarge NATO; tell something of the US press corps in Moscow during those twenty-five years; identify a key issue in Russian historiography; express some sympathy for ordinary Russians and even for Vladimir Putin himself; and seek to separate the accidental presidency of Donald Trump from all the rest, the better to understand why he has so little standing in in the matter.
Also included is a short paean to the news values of The Wall Street Journal and two appendices. One is Shleifer’s letter to Harvard provost Albert Carnesale as the USAID investigation built to its climax. The other is the heavily-annotated business plan, drafted by Hay’s then-girlfriend, Elizabeth Hebert, later his wife, to make it appear to have been written by Hay, and backed financially by Shleifer’s wife, hedge-fund proprietor Nancy Zimmerman, offering control of Keffer’s company to Thomas Steyer, of Farallon Capital (who had been Ms. Zimmerman’s principal backer), and Peter Aldrich, of AEW Capital Management, a director of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Preparing to espouse these unpopular views has made me snap to attention on the rare occasions when they are expressed in the mainstream press – not on the op-ed pages, where they mostly represent reflexive ballast-balancing, but in the news pages, where some deeper form of institutional judgment is at work. That was the case last Sunday, when an 8,600-words article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine presented the case that the United States shared the blame for the current disorder. “The Quiet Americans” startled me (though not the designer, who illustrated it with a standard what-makes-Russia-tick? design). The dispatch itself was a significant advance in the other Russia story.
Keith Gessen, 43, is a Russian-born American novelist (A Terrible Country: A Novel) and journalist, a translator of Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl). He is coeditor of n+1, a magazine of literature, politics, and culture based in New York City, and an assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is a younger brother of Masha Gessen, 51, author of The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017) and The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2013); their parents emigrated, with four children, from the USSR to the US in 1981. (As an adult, Masha Gessen returned to Russia in 1991, leaving for a second time in 2013.)
In the article, Gessen writes that “behind the visible façade of changing presidents and changing policy statements and changing styles, [those who influenced US policy toward Russia] were actually a small core of officials who not only executed policy but effectively determined it.” Getting out of the mess requires retracing the steps by which we got into it, he writes; that means starting with the small group of experts known as “the Russia hands.”
Gessen identifies and interviews many of the analysts who were in the vanguard of NATO expansion: Victoria Nuland, former NATO ambassador under Bush who became Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia under President Obama; Daniel Fried, her predecessor under Bush; Stephen Sestanovich, ambassador to the Newly Independent Sates of the Former Soviet Union under President Clinton; Richard Kuglar, a strategist who co-wrote an influential1994 RAND Corp. report advocating NATO expansion; and Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State for seven years under President Clinton, “the first-high level Russia hand of the post-Cold War.”
Interleaved with their stories are those of their critics, analysts “deeply skeptical of the missionary impulse that has characterized Ameican policy toward Russia for so long”:” Thomas Graham, of Kissinger Associates; Michael Kimmage, of the Catholic University of America; Olga Oliker, of the Institute for Strategic Studies; Michael Kofman, of the Wilson Center; Samuel Charap, of RAND Corp.; Timothy Colton, of Harvard University; Angela Stent, of Georgetown University; and the former Brookings Institution duo of Clifford Gaddy, of Pennsylvania State University, and Fiona Hill, now serving as an advisor to President Trump.
Conspicuously missing from Gessen’s account are veterans of the first Bush administration, Jack Matlock, ambassador to the USSR, in particular. Compensating for their absence are the anonymous quotations (in March) of a “senior official” of the Trump administration, “deeply knowledgeable and highly competent, which fits the description and the mindset of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. For something of Gessen’s take on Putin, see his long article last year in The Guardian: Killer, kleptocrat, genius, spy: the many myths of Vladimir Putin,
Many of these names also appear in the second half of my book. The story is broadly the same: that bedizened by its “victory” in the Cold War, the United States has consistently overreached. But there is an important difference. Gessen concludes that the servants did it. I ascribe the blame mostly to the American presidents who hired the hands, to Bill Clinton in particular, who with his Oxford roommate Talbott and friend Richard Holbrooke began the process of NATO expansion over experts’ objections; George W. Bush, who continued and ramped it up with his “Freedom Agenda”; and Barack Obama, who may have been more concerned with the limits of American power than his first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, but who continued the policies of his predecessors.
On the central point, however, Gessen and I completely agree. We both think the US debate is seriously out of kilter. He quotes the legendary George Kennan, from his “Long Telegram” of 1946, which framed the long-term strategy of containment: “Much depends on the health and vigor of our own society.” Gessen then concludes:
[American] society now looks sick. The absence of nuance on the Russia question – the embrace of Russia as America’s new-old supervillain – is probably best understood as a symptom of that sickness. And even as both parties gnash their teeth over Russia, politicians and experts alike seem to be in denial about mistakes made in the past and the lessons to be learned from them.
He might also have mentioned the mainstream press: The Washington Post, the WSJ, the Times itself, at least until last week. That’s why I depend on Johnson’s Russia List for my coverage of the topics. For instance, I admire Bloomberg News columnist Leonid Bershidsky. I might not otherwise have seen his account of the “Who Lost Russia” debate last week between historian Stephen Cohen and former Obama Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Bershidsky is right when he states, “These days, Russia is merely a big football for Americans.” More revealing than the yardage between the opposing goalposts that are McFaul and Cohen is the scrimmage taking place somewhere in between, as, for instance, in the difference of opinion between Gessen and me. This other Russia story is just getting started.