The Russian government meddled in the 2016 US presidential election in a variety of ways. Most consequential were the thefts of Democratic National Committee emails and their publication by WikiLeaks. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation documented the interference. A bi-partisan Senate Intelligence Committee report confirmed it. No serious person doubts that the Russian campaign occurred, though few believe it tipped the election. And no serious person, except Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins, Jr., has attempted to dismiss it as a trivial matter.
“I was not shocked and still am not,” Jenkins wrote last month. “Since czarist times, the Russian government has played such games, and was hardly going to adopt a self-denying ordinance now that the internet was making them costless and effortless.”
A more knowledgeable account of the background to the Russian monkey business is to be found in The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal (Random House, 2019), by William Burns, former ambassador to Russia (2005-08) and Deputy Secretary of State (2011-14). Burns is currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and not to be confused with Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador to NATO (2001-05) and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs (2005-08), who is today a professor of practice at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
The formal end of the Cold War was engineered mainly by Secretary of State James Baker, who, in less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, negotiated Germany’s reunification as a member of NATO, in October 1990. He persuaded Soviet leaders that they would be safer with Germany inside the alliance than outside of it, free to acquire nuclear weapon. In talks with Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Baker promised that NATO would not expand “one inch to the east” of Germany’s borders in the years ahead.
But Baker made the pledge before the breakup of the Soviet Union, in December 1991.. Its leaders failed to get it in writing. Bill Clinton won the 1992 election and, at the urging of Poland, Hungary, and what was then Czechoslovakia began NATO enlargement soon thereafter. Defense Secretary William Perry and strategist George Kennan warned of a fateful mistake in the offing; the Moscow embassy advised that “hostility to expansion is almost universally felt across the political spectrum.” Clinton waited until Boris Yeltsin and he had been reelected, in 1996, then went ahead.
NATO’s intervention against Serbia in Kosovo in 1999 left an especially bitter taste, with US jets bombing Belgrade and a tense confrontation between Russian and NATO forces on the ground defused at the last moment. Putin was appointed president of Russia in 1999 and elected the next year. George W. Bush was elected in 2000, and, for a little while, the mood was optimistic. After 9/11, Putin’s hopes for a common front against terrorism, with Russian backing of the US in Afghanistan and Washington supporting Moscow’s measures against Chechen rebels, were dashed (William Burns is especially good on why the US declined), and Bush went ahead with plans to admit seven more Eastern European nations to NATO, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, former parts of the USSR. He barely mentions the second wave of expansion, which took place during NATO Ambassador Nicholas Burns’s watch.)
In 2003. Putin sought without success to persuade Bush not to invade Iraq, but it was the US failure to share information about a pending Chechen hostage-taking at a Russia school, according to Burns, that was a turning point in Putin’s view of the possibilities,. The raid ended with 394 deaths and dramatically altered Russia’s internal politics. In a speech in Munich, in 2007, Putin denounced the United States for “having overstepped its national borders in every way.”
In 2008 Putin warned Bush, in no uncertain terms, via Ambassador Burns, against broaching NATO membership for Ukraine. “There could be no doubt that Putin would fight back hard against any steps in the direction of membership” for either Georgia or Ukraine, Burns writes. In August, Russia undertook a walkover war against a secessionist province of Georgia. In the shadow of a growing financial crisis in the West, it was barely noticed. In 2014. US support for a 2014 Ukraine uprising aimed at joining the European Union instead of a Russian-backed economic alliance proved the breaking point.
Burns sums up his view of the history this way:
The expansion of NATO membership stayed on autopilot as a matter of US policy long after its fundamental assumptions should have been reassessed. Commitments originally meant to reflect interests morphed into interests themselves and the door cracked open to membership for Georgia and Ukraine – the latter a bright red line for any Russian leadership. A Putin regime pumped up by years of high energy prices pushed back hard And even after Putin’s ruthless annexation of Crimea [in 2014] it proved difficult to imagine that he would stretch his score-settling into a systematic assault in the 2016 presidential election.
(I wrote a small book about all this, Because They Could: The Harvard-Russia Scandal (and NATO Expansion) after Twenty-Five Years (KDP, 2017). In The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War (Simon & Schuster, 2018), Benn Steil explained Russian dismay as arising from history and geography, not ideology.)
Why did Putin authorize the campaign? In Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power (Random House, 2016), veteran New York Times correspondent Mark Landler documented the animosity between Hillary Clinton and the Russian leader. It grew after, as Secretary of State, Clinton engineered NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya; deepened considerably when Putin accused her of interfering in his 2012 campaign for reelection to a third presidential term; and achieved new heights after demonstrations caused Ukraine’s president, a loyal ally, (and hopeless crook, let it be said) to flee to Moscow. Clinton was running for president by then. Passing out cookies to demonstrators in Kiev’s central square (and phoning instructions to the American embassy) was Clinton’s former spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, by then serving as Under Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.
What did Putin expect to happen in the unlikely event that Trump won? Clearly the former KGB officer, who served abroad only in Germany before the Soviet Union came apart, doesn’t understand American society or politics very well. In May 2017 he secretly proposed through embassy channels an elaborate reset of relations, including digital warfare limitations talks. John Hudson’s story of the overture didn’t receive the degree of attention and elaboration that it deserved, presumably because Hudson was working for BuzzFeed at the time. Today he covers national security and the State Department for The Washington Post.
Since its annexation of Crimea and subsequent support for low-level civil war in eastern Ukraine, Russia has seemed to revert to its old ways. An “imitation democracy” at home. Arrest or murder or attempted murder in Russia of Putin’s critics. State-sponsored assassinations of enemies abroad, in London, Berlin, Salisbury, England. Digital meddling in other nations’ affairs wherever it pleases, All of this blandly denied, and punctuated by regular claims of technological breakthroughs: hypersonic torpedoes and the first effective covid-19 vaccine.
In Russia Without Putin: Money, Power, and the Myths of the New Cold War (Verso, 2018), journalist Tony Wood writes that such an account is unfair, ignoring the ways in which the West’s own actions have shaped Russia’s decisions. After 1991, Wood writes, the Russian elite tended to see the country’s future as lying “either alongside or within” the G-8. Pro-Western sentiment started with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but continued with Putin and [one-term president Dimitry] Medvedev much longer than is assumed by most Western commentators. Only after Ukraine was it replaced by a more combative approach, a geopolitical watershed.
So what next? President Trump and his defenders at the editorial page of the WSJ have had almost nothing to say about any of this for four years. In Survival, a journal of global politics and strategy, Thomas Graham and Dimitri Trenin last month described a “New Model for US- Russian Relations” that seemed likely to take hold if Joe Biden wins the presidency. Graham is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Trenin, is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center (I saw their essay only because I continue to follow David Johnson’s indispensable survey of coverage of US-Russia relations Johnson’s Russia List.) They write:
To date, Russian and American experts disturbed by the sorry state of U.S.-Russian relations have sought ways to repair them, embracing old and inadequate models of cooperation or balance. The task, however, is to rethink them. We need to move beyond the current adversarial relationship, which runs too great a risk of accidental collision escalating to nuclear catastrophe, to one that promotes global stability, restrains competition within safe parameters and encourages needed cooperation against transnational threats.
The hard truth is that the aspirations for partnership that the two sides harbored at the end of the Cold War have evaporated irretrievably. The future is going to feature a mixed relationship of competition and cooperation, with the balance heavily tilted towards competition and much of the cooperation aimed at managing it.
The challenge is to prevent the rivalry from devolving into acute confrontation with the associated risk of nuclear cataclysm. In other words, the United States and Russia need to cooperate not to become friends, but to make their competition safer: a compelling and realistic incentive. The methods of managing great-power rivalry in the past 200 years – through balance-of-power mechanisms and, for brief periods, détente – are inadequate for the complexity of today’s world and the reality of substantial asymmetry between the United States and Russia. What might work is what we could call responsible great-power rivalry, grounded in enlightened restraint, leavened with collaboration on a narrow range of issues, and moderated by trilateral and multilateral formats. That is the new model for U.S.-Russian relations.
Meanwhile, in 2020 the Russians are at it again, according to US intelligence officials. State-backed actors are using a variety of measures, including recorded and leaked telephone calls, to denigrate former vice president Joe Biden and a Washington elite it perceived as anti-Russian. That’s a job for the next Secretary of State. Here’s hoping it will be William Burns.