Engagement leavened with realism

To explain US-Russia discord, start with NATO expansion and Ukraine

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The abrupt deterioration in US-Russian relations that began in February 2014, when Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev on the last day of the Sochi Olympics, just as Russia sought to show its best face to the world in an elaborate closing ceremony,  is the most serious crossroads in the relationship of the rival nations since the Cuban missile crisis.

The parallels are imprecise. This present episode is much more complicated than those famous thirteen days in October 1962 for having unfolded much more slowly, and for having affected the interpretation of a US presidential election in the process.  Yet for all of that, it has the potential to be as dangerous as the Reagan buildup/Soviet collapse of the early 1980s, given the impetus it has imparted to a new race to manufacture easy-to-use nuclear weapons equipped with hair triggers.

It is important, therefore, to frame properly the events before and after. Putting Putin in Perspective (revealingly retitled “The Putin Problem” by the editors), a useful contribution by two specially well-qualified authors, appeared in the Boston Review earlier this month.

Thomas Graham, a managing director at Kissinger Associates, was senior director for Russia on the US National Security Council 2004-07. Rajan Menon, a professor at the City University of New York, is author of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention (Oxford, 2016).

“At the core of Russian identity,” they argue, “is the deeply-held belief that Russia must be a great power and that it must be recognized as such. Ever since Peter the Great brought Russia into Europe at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the belief in Russia’s predestined role in the world has informed Russian thinking and actions.”

This is particularly true of the last three Russian leaders, they say – Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Putin, explaining that Dimitri Medvedev, president from 2008-12, never escaped Putin’s shadow. “All three were – or are – consumed by Russia’s future as a great power.”

The article is the best-informed and most persuasive narrative of the last thirty-five years of US-Russian relations that I have seen. It bears reading by anyone seriously interested in the situation today because, as the authors note, their argument is almost completely at odds with “mainstream thinking” in the US, as reflected in political debate and much press coverage: to wit, the conviction that all the blame belongs on Putin.

For purposes of a column I will condense their argument to two main themes – Russian humiliation since the collapse of the USSR in 1991; and US top-loftiness, especially in the form of NATO enlargement since 1995. I compress in order to emphasize an important inflection point in the relationship that Graham and Menon add to a standard list of five others since 1999.  Each of these accounts Russia gave of itself was little noted and much less widely understood. (One was somewhat indirect.) They should have been plain for all to see, since, in each case, Putin was addressing and seeking to persuade a global audience.

  • Putin’s broadside, “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,” issued in 1999, just as he took the reins of government, in which he sounded an alarm: “Russia is in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in its history. For the first time in the past 200-300 years, it is facing a real threat of sliding to the second, and possibly even third echelon of states in the world. We are running out of time for removing this threat.”
  • Putin’s Munich speech, in February 2007, when, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in the audience, he excoriated the United States for having invaded Iraq without winning widespread consent; threatening Russia with NATO expansion; encouraging nuclear proliferation by behaving lawlessly; and for touching off a missile defense arms race.
  • The first hack – when Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s famous “fuck the EU” cell-phone conversation with the US ambassador to Ukraine was recorded by Russian security officials during a street demonstration in Kiev, and posted on the Web in an appeal to world opinion via YouTube.
  • Putin’s speech in March 2014 to a room full of dignitaries in Moscow explaining the decision to annex the Crimean peninsula after what he described as a coup in Ukraine. “If you compress the spring, it will snap back hard,” he said.
  • Putin’s March 2017 private offer to President Trump via diplomatic channels of an extensive re-set, disclosed to BuzzFeed earlier this month, presumably by the Russians, conceivably by the Americans, quickly confirmed by both sides, and reported by CNN, the WSJ, and EP last week. The offer seemed to demonstrate how little the Russian understood the situation as it had developed in the United States.

The sixth inflection point, the one that Graham and Menon added to the standard list, may be the most important.  It has been much less hashed over because Putin spoke to a Russian audience about one episode and on the eve of another.

  • “The turning point,” they write, “came in Fall 2004, with the September terrorist attack in Beslan in the Caucasus and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which started in November.” To that point the US and Russia had cooperated successfully in dealing with Islamic extremists. Putin was the first to reach out to the US after 9/11, and Russia provided valuable support in the early stages of the US war in Afghanistan.

That autumn Chechen terrorists seized a school in Beslan in the Caucasus and held it until negotiations broke down. Nearly 400 persons were killed, most of them children, in the rescue attempt. The US had refused to work closely with Russia against the Chechen rebels, some of whom were moderates in Washington’s eyes, their secessionist grievances legitimate. Not long after the tragedy, Putin spoke obliquely to a television audience about the US and what he considered its goals:

Some want to tear off a big chunk of our country. Others help them do it. They help because they think that Russia, one of the greatest nuclear powers of the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be eliminated. And terrorism is only an instrument to achieve these goals.

A month later, the Orange Revolution began in Ukraine. In Moscow’s reading, the United States had master-minded the protests and streets scenes in order to install a pro-Western figure as president instead of Yanukovych, the candidate Putin had endorsed. He soon came to view it as a dress-rehearsal for regime change in Russia itself. (The authors don’t mention it, but this was the very zenith of George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”: having taken Baghdad, the administration was being urged by neoconservative strategists to drive on to Teheran.) Soon after Viktor Yushchenko was installed, Putin warned,

It is extremely dangerous to attempt to rebuild modern civilization, which God had created to be diverse and multifaceted, according to the barracks principles of a unipolar world.

So it has proved to be.  Around the corner, in 2008, were the short war with Georgia, on behalf of a couple of small self-proclaimed republics (South Ossetia wanting to remain within the Russian sphere, Abkhazia simply wishing to be free of Georgia);  and, in 2011, the beginning of the Arab Spring. Russia developed two policies to resist the United States abroad, Graham and Menon observe: preserving Russian preeminence in much of the former Soviet space; and supporting alternative global institutions.

Domestically Putin cracked down, especially after winning election to a third term, in 2012. He blamed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for encouraging protests beforehand. Opposition leaders were arrested; Western-funded non-governmental organizations were shut down; laws were passed narrowing the scope for political debate. Putin then embarked on “a wide-ranging cyber and disinformation campaign in the West to tarnish the image of Western democracy and sow domestic discord, of which the interference in last year’s presidential election is only the most prominent example,” the authors say.  Nearly everyone in the West agrees the Russians went too far with their cyber-measure, it seems to me, but no such rough consensus has yet emerged as to the intent, scope, tenor and effect of the campaign.

What’s next? The authors list three options:  treat Russia as an adversary and pursue containment; return to the minimalism by which the US dealt with Moscow from 1920 to 1933 when it didn’t even have diplomatic relations; or undertake what Graham and Menon call engagement leavened by realism. Pretending that Russia doesn’t exist is no longer an option in the modern world, so the choice is basically between containment, with the risk of confrontation, and cautious cooperation. The authors warn of the risks of the former:

[of] a future of freewheeling rivalry punctuated by intermittent crises, which will have to be managed in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, even hostility. Moreover, they could spiral into a confrontation. The breakdown in communication and bellicose back-and-forth rhetoric would increase the probability of misperception and miscalculation during dangerous episodes. Given the conventional military power Russia now wields – to say nothing of its nuclear weapons and cyber capabilities – the dangers should be obvious and are already presaged by the hair-raising encounters in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea between U.S. ships and aircraft and Russian warplanes.

Engagement leavened with realism would, they say

welcome the emergence of democracy in Russia but wouldn’t allow quotidian policy to be shaped by the attendant hope. It would assume that the internal differences between Russia and the United States and the dissimilar geopolitical circumstances each faces would inevitably produce divergent interpretations of, and responses to, events – the wars in Ukraine and Syria being examples. It would expect Russia to regard itself as a great power, defend its interests as defined by its leadership, and, even in times of weakness, act on the premise that recovery and resurgence are inevitable.

Crises would continue to erupt, but with the expectation that they could be resolved. Meanwhile, they say, shared interests would accumulate and opportunities accrue.

Consider, for instance, advancing arms control and nuclear non-proliferation; averting war on the Korean peninsula or unregulated rivalry in the Arctic, the thawing of which has made it a maritime passageway as well as a new energy frontier; coordinating policies against terrorism and climate change; avoiding accidental military clashes; stabilizing Syria; and preventing bilateral crises from escalating into armed, especially nuclear, confrontations.

Now, if only we had a president capable of saying as much in his own words – or even persuasively reading speeches written by others! Their prescription is, the authors point out, not very different than the way the United States and the USSR dealt with one another (and China) during much of the Cold War – an approach that produced notably soft landings. It may even be Donald Trump’s instinctive response to the situation, but it has been quite beyond him to deliver.

To refresh my memory of the Cuban missile crisis, I went back to Graham Allison’s famous book: Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971). It’s as good as I remember it, with its overlay of what modern political scientists had to say, mostly then new-fangled rational-actor theory, superimposed on a commonsense interpretation, with a substrate devoted to comparing the two accounts (those of “scientists” with “artists”) and fashioning a third model, in search of a satisfying explanation. Allison’s analysis had its good effect, none greater than when he emphasized the gospel of his mentor, Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling:  it helps to regularly put yourself in the other person’s shoes before acting.

Most distressing at the present moment, however, is the role of two leading US newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, in preferring condemnation and confrontation at every turn (the Times throughout the paper, the Post mainly on its editorial pages).  Granted, the situation has been further confused by Donald Trump’s election as president.  But long before that, the coverage of Putin reminded me of the demonizing of Saddam Hussein in the build-up to Iraq (or, for that matter, the Times’ initial cheerleading for the Vietnam War, forty years before). Truth-seeking, in the form of listening to the other side, is often severely wounded before the war begins.

Certainly it is not auspicious that the Times abolished the position of public editor, its in-house critic, just as the controversy heated up.  “Our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful that one person could ever be,” wrote publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., explaining the decision.   In her final column, public editor Liz Spayd replied:

It’s not really about how many critics there are, or where they’re positioned, or what Times editor can be rounded up to produce answers. It’s about having an institution that is willing to seriously listen to that criticism, willing to doubt its impulses and challenge the wisdom of the inner sanctum. Having the role was a sign of institutional integrity, and losing it sends an ambiguous signal: Is the leadership growing weary of such advice or simply searching for a new model? We’ll find out soon enough.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t have known about either of these articles, the BuzzFeed scoop and the Boston Review narrative, but for Johnson’s Russia List, the compendium of Russian and Western news reports prepared almost daily by the independently-minded scholar David Johnson.

When the history of the Ukraine crisis is finally written, Quaker-raised Johnson will, I think, be a major hero of the story. Neither the Times nor the Post – nor, for that matter, the WSJ – has yet cast light on his long and invaluable reconnaissance throughout the borderlands of democracy.