Don’t Just Do Something

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Some years ago, I set out to write a little book about Harvard University’s USAID project to teach market manners to Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government in the 1990s.  The project collapsed after leaders of the Harvard mission were caught seeking to line their own pockets by gaining control of an American firm they had  brought in to advise the Russians. Project director Andrei Shleifer was a Harvard professor. His best friend, Lawrence Summers, was US Assistant Treasury Secretary at the time.

There was justice to be served. The USAID officer who blew the whistle, Janet Ballantyne, was a Foreign Service hero. The victim of the squeeze, John Keffer, of Portland, Maine, was an exemplary American businessman, high-minded and resourceful.

But I had something besides history in mind.  By adding a chapter to David McClintick’s classic story of the scandal (How Harvard Lost Russia, 2006), I aimed to make it more complicated for former Treasury Secretary Summers, of Harvard University, to return to a policy job in a Hillary Rodham Clinton administration.

It turned out there was no Clinton administration. My account, Because They Could, appeared in 2018. So I was gratified last August when, with the presidential election underway, Summers told an interviewer at the Aspen Security Forum that “My time in government is behind me and my time as a free speaker is ahead of me.” Plenty of progressive Democrats had objected to Summers as well.

Writing about Russia in the1990s meant delving deeper into the history of US-Russia relations than I had before. I developed the conviction that, during the twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, US policy toward Russia had been imperious and cavalier.

By 1999, Yeltsin was already deeply upset by NATO expansion. The man he chose to succeed him was Vladimir Putin. It wasn’t difficult to follow the story Through Putin’s eyes. He was realistic to begin with, and, after 9/11, hopeful (Putin was the first to offer assistance to President George W. Bush).

But NATO’s 2002 invitation to the Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all former Soviet Republics, the US invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration’s supposed failure to share intelligence about the siege of a Beslan school, led to Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, in which he complained of  America’s “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.”

Then came the Arab Spring. NATO’s intervention in Libya, ending in the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, was followed by Putin’s decision to reassume the Russian presidency, displacing his hand-picked, Dimitry Medvedev, in 2012. Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for disparaging his campaign.

And in March 2014, Putin’s plans to further a Eurasian Union via closer economic ties with Ukraine having fallen through, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow in the face of massive of pro-European Union demonstrations in Kyiv’s Maidan Square. Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula soon after that.

The Trump administration brought a Charlie Chaplin interlude to Russian-American relations. Putin saw no problem: he offered to begin negotiating an anti-hacking treaty right away.  Neither did Trump:  remember Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Oval office drop-by, the day after the president fired FBI Director James Comey?

Only the Editorial Board of The Wall Street Journal among the writers I read seemed to think there was nothing to worry about in Trump’s ties to Russia. Meanwhile, Putin rewrote the Russian Constitution once again, giving himself the opportunity to serve until 2036, when he will be 84.

But Russia’s internal history has taken a darker turn with the return of Alexander Navalny to Moscow. The Kremlin critic maintains that Putin sought his murder in August, using a Soviet-era chemical nerve-agent. Navalny survived, and spent five months under medical care in Germany before returning.

Official Russian media describe Navaly as a “blogger,” when he is in fact Russia’s opposition leader. He has been sentenced to at least two-and-a-half years in prison on a flimsy charge, and face other indictments. But his arrest sparked the largest demonstrations across Russia since the final demise of the Soviet Union. More than 10,000 persons have been detained, in a hundred cities across Russia, according to Robyn Dixon, of The Washington Post. Putin’s approval ratings stand at 29 percent

What can President Biden do? Very little. However much Americans may wish that Russian leaders shared their view of human rights, it should be clear by now there is no alternative but to deplore, to recognize Russian sovereignty, to encourage its legitimate business interests, discourage its trickery, and otherwise hope for the best. There are plenty of problems to work on at home.