The death last week of Boris Yeltsin called to mind an important truth — policy never gets made in a vacuum. The US seriously mishandled its relationship with Russia in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in large measure because of its own internal tax-cut politics. With the benefit of hindsight, three major inflection points stand out.
The first had to do with the failure to extend any sort of helping hand to the Soviet Union during the period of its breakup. Mikhail Gorbachev appealed for aid, privately, then publicly, but was rebuffed. “[W]e need some oxygen,” he told Secretary of State James Baker when they met at one point. “We are not asking for a gift. We are asking for a loan we are asking for specifically targeted loans for specific purposes,” perhaps $15 billion or $20 billion “to tide us over.” Out of the question, Baker told him. Before long, Gorbachev was outmaneuvered by Boris Yeltsin, who, in effect, declared Russia bankrupt and distributed a large portion of the nation’s assets to a handful of insiders.
Had some measure of aid been available, Brent Scowcroft later wrote (he was national security adviser to George H.W. Bush), Gorbachev might have succeeded in shunting the painful process of reform on to some different path. A serious program of assistance to Russia in making the transition to a market economy might not have worked, but it is significant that the Bush administration didn’t feel it could try.
The second mis-step had to do with the rapid expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the 1990s. When Gorbachev met Bush in Malta in December 1989, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he handed the American president a map depicting US bases and fleets around the world, in order to argue that while the Soviet Union had adopted a strictly defensive posture, the US as yet had not stood down.
It turned out that Russia hadn’t seen anything yet. Fifteen years later, NATO has admitted to its ranks Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Governments friendly to the United States have been supported in Ukraine and Georgia. American bases have been established in Central Asia to wage war in Afghanistan. And the US has pressed a “coalition of the willing” — including Polish troops — into its occupation of Iraq.
These were the circumstances behind Vladimir Putin’s angry speech in February to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, the one in which he complained of “an almost uncontained hyper-use of force — military force — in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” Not long thereafter New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “We helped create a mood in Russia hospitable to a conservative cold warrior like Mr. Putin by forcing NATO on a liberal democrat like Mr. Yeltsin.”
Finally, there was the advisory role that Americans played in helping the Russians pursue their internal reforms during the 1990s. Specifically, there was Harvard University’s tainted Russia Project, the Clinton administration’s flagship program to help the Russians build a market economy. When the team leader, a young Harvard professor who had emigrated from Russia at 16, was discovered to be enriching himself, the US Agency for International Development fired him; the Russians then shut down the entire. Harvard eventually was ordered to pay back most of the sum it had collected.
By then, however, the damage had been done. The old-line Russian intelligentsia was especially unamused. As political commentator William Pfaff wrote the other day in The International Herald Tribune, “The naïve and usually self-serving recommendations by the western governments, institutions and consultants heavily contributed to the chaos produced in the 1990s by the collapse of Soviet-era institutions, which is the principal reason for the opinions expressed in Russia today.”
It didn’t have to be this way. The US decisively succeeded in its Cold War competition with the Soviet Union and its satellites. It could have well-afforded to be magnanimous in victory, at least in some degree. Instead, Washington found itself hobbled by massive deficits and tempted by unexpected opportunities. So it backed a weak and ineffective Russian leader.
No wonder, then, that Yeltsin’s obituaries stressed the extent to which ordinary Russians view of their first elected president as a man that brought their country to the brink of chaos. He didn’t do it all himself, though. He had help, in the form of short-sighted US policies almost guaranteed to return the country’s leadership to more authoritarian hands.