WPJ Winter 2003/04 – Russia and America: How Close an Embrace? by Angela E. Stent


BOOKS: Volume XX, No 4, Winter 2003/04

Russia and America: How Close an Embrace?
Angela E. Stent*

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Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War
James M. Goldgeier and Michael A. McFaul
Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003

The United States is currently engaged in a debate about the democratization of the Middle East: Is it a moral imperative or a matter of national interest? Is it either feasible or desirable, given the uncertainty over what might follow competitive elections and greater freedom of expression in that unstable region? A decade ago, there was a similar controversy about the democratization of postcommunist Russia during its first turbulent decade. Indeed, during the 2000 U.S. election campaign, “Who lost Russia?” was one of the few foreign policy issues on which the presidential candidates sparred. Russia will likely play much less of a role in the 2004 campaign, but Iraq surely will. The protagonists in those debates would do well to heed the lessons from U.S. participation in the difficult and only partially successful experience in democracy building in Russia in the 1990s. These lessons are important not only for U.S.-Russian relations but for understanding the evolution of future policy in other areas, including the Middle East.

Power and Purpose illuminates both the successes and failures of America’s attempts at democratic regime transformation. James Goldgeier of George Washington University and Michael McFaul of Stanford University have done an admirable job chronicling the Russia policies of the first Bush, Clinton, and second Bush administrations. Their book covers many of the events recounted in former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s memoir of the Clinton administration, The Russia Hand. However, the authors provide a more critical view of these policies and compare them more explicitly to those of the two Bush administrations.

A major theme of their book is that ideas matter in foreign policy and that “the worldviews of key decision-makers play a central role in the making of American foreign policy.” They contrast what they describe as the realpolitik approach of Bush père et fils, both of whom believed that it was not America’s business to become involved in refashioning Russia’s domestic political and economic system, and the Clin-tonian commitment to a Wilsonian vision: that the United States had a moral duty to become actively involved in constructing a new, democratic polity on the ashes of communism.

Using extensive interviews with participants in all three administrations, and memoirs by former officials, they paint a compelling picture of officials often overwhelmed by the challenge of an entirely new reality. The unexpected collapse of communism and of the Soviet Union, coming just after the Gulf War, left them with no road map to understand how Russia and other post-Soviet states might develop. Nightmare scenarios suggested themselves: nuclear war between Russia and Ukraine; weapons proliferation on a terrifying scale; Yugoslav-type ethnically based civil war on the territory of the former Soviet Union; mass starvation; economic collapse—the ominous possibilities were endless.

That these “dogs did not bark” is testimony to the unwillingness of people in the post-Soviet space to engage in armed conflict and to Western assistance that staved off famine and economic collapse. The failure of catastrophic scenarios to come about is one indicator of success—but if one were to measure America’s contribution to transforming Russia in more positive ways, the evidence is more mixed. If a minimalist definition of success was the absence of catastrophe, the maximalist definition was the creation of a fully functioning democracy in Russia with a transparent market economy and the rule of law. That has not happened yet, and it is unclear when it will. So far, there is no consensus about what would constitute a realistic timetable for Russia’s democratic development.

Russia was frequently described as a “transition” state. But the authors cast doubt on the whole discipline of “transitol-ogy” developed by Western analysts after the collapse of communism. This idea presupposes that postcommunist societies would undergo transitions away from communism in a linear trajectory whose end point was liberal democracy. If one looks today at the patchwork of electoral and illiberal democracies and outright authoritarian states in the post-Soviet space, one has to conclude that these countries are stuck somewhere in a transition—if that is indeed how one should characterize it—whose end point is unknown.

A World Turned Upside Down
The United States, the authors argue, seriously overestimated what it could do to change Russian realities. The first Bush administration had no plan in place when the Soviet Union collapsed and was slow to respond to the dramatic end of the Cold War. The Clinton administration came into office with a more developed plan, but, by viewing President Boris Yeltsin as the only guarantor of democracy and markets, made a series of choices throughout the 1990s that lessened the chances for success of the very forces it was trying to promote. The current Bush administration, which the authors describe as “more Nixonian than Reagan-esque,” has eschewed the concept of regime transformation in Russia, judging its success mainly in terms of cooperation in the war on terror broadly defined. This policy has reduced friction between the United States and Russia. However, it raises broader questions about how neutral Washington should be in commenting on Russia’s internal situation, particularly in light of this past December’s Duma elections, which, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), fell considerably short of democratic standards.

Almost from the beginning, there was a mismatch between Russian and American understandings of what the collapse of communism meant and what benefits Russia would enjoy for allowing its peaceful demise. Yeltsin and his colleagues believed that, given the scale of what had happened, Russia deserved to be richly compensated for permitting the greatest threat to U.S. security to disappear. For most of the 1990s, the Russian political class felt that Washington did not deliver to Moscow the political and economic support—international recognition via membership in the Western club and large financial transfers—that it merited. These perceptions persist today, and many Russians question whether the Putin administration has benefited concretely from its support for the war on terror. Russians are to some extent justified in citing the lack of initial economic support after the fall of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of NATO as sources of disappointment or anger over broken promises. However, Russia itself has not delivered on promises it made to the United States, especially with respect to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to “rogue” states and troop withdrawals from Moldova and Georgia, as mandated by the OSCE.

American officials, while appreciating that Russia no longer posed the ideological and military threat that the Soviet Union embodied, were disinclined to believe that Russia should be richly rewarded economically or that it should be treated as a great power, given its weakened situation. The United States anticipated greater Russian cooperation on such international issues as WMD proliferation, the conflicts in Yugoslavia, and containing “rogue” states. When Russia refused to support U.S. policies on key issues, Washington became increasingly irritated. Both sides can therefore invoke a litany of what they perceive to be unreciprocated concessions and disappointed hopes. This is a reflection of the difficulty for both countries of forming appropriate expectations in a world turned upside down after the Cold War.

The authors devote a great deal of space to discussing the differences between the realpolitik of the first Bush administration and the Wilsonianism of the succeeding Clinton administration. The Clinton team believed in the Kantian theory of democratic peace, that democracies do not fight each other: “A democratic and market-oriented Russia firmly embedded in Western international institutions would be a more cooperative partner of the United States, thereby enhancing U.S. national security. A Russia that did not succeed in transformation would become a threat to American national security interests once again.” The current administration came in vowing to pursue “tough realism” toward Russia. Since September 11, 2001, this has been modified to closer engagement on issues involving antiterrorism. In practice, this means intelligence sharing, increased cooperation in the energy sphere, support for Russia’s bid to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO), and virtual silence on Chechnya.

Although the authors are undoubtedly right in contrasting the conceptual underpinnings of both Bushes and Clinton, one comes away from the book asking how much difference realpolitik versus Wilsonianism meant in practice. On key questions, such as the two wars in Chechnya, there has been remarkable continuity in American policy throughout the 1990s and to the present day. Declarations of support for Russia’s territorial integrity, combined with criticism of human rights violations and rhetorical appeals to the Kremlin to eschew military solutions for political dialogue have been consistent. Under George W. Bush, there has been an explicit recognition of the links between some of the Chechen fighters and international terrorist groups. Perhaps this continuity reflects the fact that there is little that the United States can do to influence the outcome in Chechnya and because of the importance of Russian cooperation in fighting terrorism and dealing with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, and with respect to energy. Thus, the Clinton administration’s commitment to regime transformation produced no more activist a policy on Chechnya than did the more arms-length Bush realpolitik.

Despite the contrasting rhetoric of Republican and Democratic administrations, therefore, they have shared an overriding common concern, namely that Russia’s weakness could destabilize the post-Soviet space and beyond, and they have sought to prevent that from happening. “In contrast to thinking about the Soviet Union a decade earlier,” the authors write, “a weaker Russia—that is a Russia not able to exercise sovereignty within its borders—was considered a problem for and threat to the United States.” The chief potential threats remain: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through leakage or sale of nuclear and other materials to rogue states, and the spillover of “soft” security problems—the spread of infectious diseases (particularly tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS), organized crime, and the traffic in drugs and people—from the post-Soviet space to Europe and Asia. Moreover, successive U.S. administrations have sought to neutralize Russia’s ability to interfere with American policies or challenge America’s security interests, be they in Kosovo, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, or Central Asia. These “spinach problems,” as some officials have named them, were a constant source of irritation throughout the 1990s.1

From Bush to Clinton
Individuals, the authors argue, were disproportionately important in framing America’s Russia policy, because, after the Soviet collapse, there were no institutional networks through which officials could interact and no regularized means of communication. With the Communist Party structures gone, it was not clear how foreign policy decisions would be made and executed. In this fluctuating and unpredictable situation, personalities assumed a dominating role. From Bill Clinton’s “my friend Boris” to George W. Bush’s “my friend Vladimir,” U.S.-Russian relations have been more dependent on personal ties at the top than is characteristic of other bilateral U.S. relationships. This has had both its positive and negative sides, since so much has depended on the fluctuations in personal relations.

“In the first decade of America’s post-Soviet policy,” the authors write, “it often seemed as if the administration in question was doing too little or too much. Trying to do things just right proved elusive.” In their opinion, the administration of George H. W. Bush did too little. Like every other Western government, the United States had grown to respect Gorbachev as a reformer who had allowed the Soviet empire to dissolve peacefully. It feared what would happen once the Soviet Union collapsed, and it adopted a skeptical attitude toward Boris Yeltsin, who was seen as unreliable and unpredictable. Indeed, the administration was deeply divided over how to deal with him once he forced Gorbachev from office. Goldgeier and McFaul believe that more could and should have been done to assist the emerging Russian state and that the administration missed an opportunity in 1992. The “half-hearted bilateral assistance effort” sent a message of lukewarm support during Russia’s first and most turbulent year of existence. One could argue in the administration’s defense that in this utterly new situation it was difficult to calibrate a commensurate response to the collapse of an empire without defeat in a war. It is also unclear whether a more robust assistance package and forgiveness of the Soviet-era debt would have produced a different outcome in Russia.

Whereas the Bush administration had been divided over Yeltsin, the Clinton administration decided early on that Boris Yeltsin, despite his flaws, was their man in Moscow. “To Bill Clinton,” the authors write, “Yeltsin was the indispensable leader of Russia’s market and democratic revolution. If Yeltsin fell, Clinton believed, reform would fail.” They quote Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s close friend and key advisor on Russia, as saying that the administration regarded Yeltsin as “the reformer-in-chief of Russia.” Power and Purpose recounts in engrossing detail how, at every turn, the Clinton administration supported Yeltsin, believing that the only alternative to him was a return to communism. This included endorsing his dissolution of the Russian parliament in September 1993 by force, after it refused to support his economic reforms and organized an armed resistance against him. The assault on the parliament was a turning point for many Russian democrats, who felt betrayed both by Yeltsin and by his Washington backers. However, given the real prospect of armed resistance from the Soviet-era Congress of Peoples’ Deputies and the prospect of an incipient civil war, Yeltsin had few alternatives if he wanted to continue in office.

It also involved doing all the United States could to support his reelection campaign in 1995–96, when he moved from popularity ratings in the single digits to defeating his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov, in the second round, surviving a heart attack during the process. Crucial to his reelection was the support of the new “oligarchs,” a small group of wealthy entrepreneurs. After convening an emergency meeting while attending the 1996 Davos World Economic Forum, they decided to give Yeltsin the financial wherewithal to win to prevent the expropriation of their property by the Communists. This followed the “loans for shares” scheme, whereby they acquired Russia’s rich natural resources at very low prices in return for funding Yeltsin’s reelection campaign. “Loans for shares” subsequently became the most controversial aspect of Yeltsin’s tenure, symbolizing the questionable way in which huge fortunes were made by a select few after the collapse of communism, while the majority of the Russian population became poorer. The legitimacy of this Russian version of privatization has now been challenged with the arrest of Russia’s richest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, amid indications that Russia is moving toward a new version of statism.

The Department of the Treasury under Clinton became heavily involved in restructuring the Russian economy and advising Yeltsin’s economic team on how to implement the principles of neoliberal economics and macroeconomic stabilization. As Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers said in his confirmation hearings, “The task of rebuilding the Russian economy is the greatest economic restructuring job since the Marshall Plan.” Summers and his deputy, David Lipton, worked closely with Yegor Gaidar, Anatolii Chubais, and other economic reformers to promote the development of a market economy and a middle class. For a few years, the Russian economy grew dynamically. It collapsed in 1998, the result of the Asian financial crisis, excessive financial speculation, plunging oil prices, capital flight, and the fundamental weakness of the remaining structures of central planning. The authors exaggerate in asserting that “the August 1998 financial collapse in Russia had more long-term negative consequences for American policy toward Russia than it did for the Russian economy,” but the collapse certainly occasioned a rethinking and retrenchment in American policy and increasing skepticism about the future of Russian capitalism. Nevertheless, the authors conclude, “the outcome of Russia’s revolution so far has been mixed but not disastrous.” The U.S.-Russian relationship over security matters also receives mixed reviews in this book. The denuclearization of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, leaving Russia as the only post-Soviet nuclear state, was a major accomplishment, as were a series of arms control agreements. The authors detail the disagreements between Secretary of State James Baker—who believed that it was essential to have only one nuclear state in the post-Soviet space—and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who would have accepted several. They
highlight the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, initiated by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, which allocated $500 million from the Pentagon budget to help the post-Soviet states dismantle and destroy their nuclear and chemical weapons and to retrain scientists who had been involved in Soviet-era WMD research and production. However, the authors believe that the first round of NATO enlargement, involving the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, had a detrimental impact on U.S.-Russian relations, despite the creation of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council as compensation. NATO enlargement was controversial, not only in Russia, but also in the United States, where some experts believed it would adversely affect the still fragile relationship with Russia. This book suggests these concerns were justified, as the crisis in Kosovo showed. NATO enlargement was especially controversial for the Russians because many believe that in 1990 Secretary
of State Baker promised Gorbachev that, in return for Soviet assent to a united Germany remaining in NATO, there would be no expansion of the alliance eastward. In fact, no such explicit promise was made from the U.S. side. However, it is undeniable that NATO expansion did not reflect the spirit, at least as the Russians understood it, behind the September 1990 treaty on German re-unification.2 This sense of betrayal may partly explain the Russian reaction to Kosovo.

U.S.-Russian relations reached their nadir in 1999, during the Kosovo war, which Strobe Talbott described as “a near death experience for them and us.” The war broke out shortly after NATO admitted its three new Central European members and elicited a dramatic Russian response. After six years of close cooperation, including during the war in Bosnia, the Clinton administration was taken aback by Moscow’s vehement opposition to the war. According to Goldgeier and McFaul, “Kosovo demonstrated the gulf between the Wilsonian liberals in the Clinton administration and the practitioners of realpolitik in Moscow.” The story is dramatically retold here, with the final denouement when the Russian army made its “mad dash to Pristina.” Talbott and his colleagues believed that the Russian military was out of control.3 The reader will also find instructive the description of Supreme Allied Commander of NATO General Wesley Clark’s attempts to confront the Russians militarily in Pristina, only to be overruled by General Michael Jackson, the Briton in charge of NATO forces on the ground. At the end of the war, and unbeknownst to both the U.S. government and part of the Russian government, 200 Russian troops crossed over into Serbia from Bosnia, where they were stationed, contrary to what Russia and the West had just negotiated. They proceeded to take over the Pristina airport. The Russian military then demanded to use Hungarian and Bulgarian airspace to deploy supplies and reinforcements. Clark wanted to confront the Russians head-on at the airport, but Jackson refused to allow Clark to use Apache helicopters to block the runways. Instead, the British sealed off the roads leading to and from the airfield, avoiding a military confrontation, but denying the Russians access. As Jackson said to Clark, “Sir, I’m not starting World War Three for you.” Although a
direct U.S.-Russian confrontation was avoided, bilateral ties never recovered. After appointing five different prime ministers between 1998 and 1999, and in failing health, Yeltsin abruptly resigned at the turn of the millennium. His chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, decided to await the outcome of the 2000 American presidential election before reengaging with the United States.

The New U.S.-Russian Relationship
During the 2000 election campaign, the Bush team advocated “normalizing” relations with Russia and eschewing Clinton-ian concepts of democratic transformation: “Russia’s power mattered most. How Russia was governed was a secondary concern.” Goldgeier and McFaul remind us that, during the campaign, the Republicans accused the Clinton administration of pursuing policies that led to the corruption of Russia and the impoverishment of its people.4 Several of George Bush’s foreign policy advisers advocated “neocontainment” of Russia, and candidate Bush proposed imposing economic sanctions on Russia because of its conduct in Chechnya. Once the Bush administration came into office, Russia policy was the subject of a major interagency review—something that the Clinton administration had never done. Yet, as the new team pursued its commitment to missile defense, it needed to engage Russia.

After the first meeting between Bush and Putin in Slovenia, the American president modified his view of the Russian leader. “I found a man who realizes that his future lies with the West, not the East, that we share common security concerns, primarily Islamic fundamentalism, that he understands missiles could affect him just as much as us. On the other hand he doesn’t want to be diminished by America.”5 At this meeting, Bush said of Putin: “I looked into his eyes and took the measure of his soul.” After September 11, U.S.-Russian relations improved significantly. A common enemy—international terrorism—now bound Washington and Moscow together and overshadowed both questions about Russia’s internal evolution and the irritant foreign policy “spinach” problems.

Neither the realist Bush administrations nor the Wilsonian Clinton team were able to answer satisfactorily the question about how much influence Russia should be able to exert over the former Soviet space. As the recent turmoil in Georgia shows, Russian officials and business representatives have been able to exert pressure in both a positive and negative way within the Newly Independent States (NIS). The original assumption of both the Bush and Clinton teams was that it was in the U.S. interest from a security perspective to bolster the independence of the NIS and build up member states’ immunity to Russian pressure.

As the decade wore on, however, and many of the post-Soviet states failed to undertake the necessary economic and political reforms, Russia was able to benefit from the vulnerabilities of these states by playing an increasingly significant role in their economies and societies, including supporting separatist movements in Georgia and Moldova. Goldgeier and McFaul rightly cite as one accomplishment of U.S. policy the fact that it would be impossible to restore the Soviet Union. However, given the weakness of the states in the region and Russia’s desire to maintain its influence, one could certainly envisage a future of several ad hoc NIS groupings under Russian leadership on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Russia, the authors suggest,will remain the regional hegemon for the foreseeable future.

The authors conclude that America needs to be more realistic about its ability to encourage democracy and regime transformation in other states. It is a message worth remembering as Washington seeks to remake the Middle East. “The United States was right to assist democratic transformation in Russia, but U.S. officials should have done more, promised less, and realized humbly that even their best efforts would not lead to immediate or easily measurable payoffs.” Commitments must be matched by capabilities. Nevertheless, in the end, Goldgeier and McFaul endorse the idea of a democratic peace. Pragmatic partnerships with authoritarian states have their limits. Partnerships with democracies are much more productive. A more democratic, transparent Russia that respects the rule of law would be a much more reliable and desirable ally for the United States. It would be less likely to challenge U.S. security interests than a more authoritarian Russia.

Russia’s unfinished revolution makes it difficult to predict the contours of the U.S.-Russian relationship beyond a few years. Russia’s Duma elections this past December, which solidified a pro-Putin majority and eliminated democratic parties from the legislature, raise serious questions about the future of Russian democracy. While the United States should continue to work with Russia and other post-Soviet states on common security issues, primarily the war on terror, WMD proliferation, and energy cooperation, that is not the whole agenda. It should continue programs that support civil society and the rule of law, encourage a wide variety of educational and professional exchanges, and maintain a dialogue with the Russian government on difficult domestic issues. In the longer run, realpolitik alone will not ensure that the post-Soviet states become desirable partners for the Westerndemocracies.


1. “Spinach” refers to the situation where, at different U.S.-Russian summit meetings, the American interlocutors would bring up the irritant issues, such as the role of Russian entities in helping rogue states acquire weapons of mass destruction. According to Strobe Talbott, who was ambassador at large to the Newly Independent States during the first Clinton administration, his assistant Toria Nuland came up with the phrase: “That’s what happens when you try to get the Russians to eat their spinach. The more you tell them it’s good for them, the more they gag” (The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy [New York: Random House, 2002], p. 76).

2. For a detailed discussion, see Angela E. Stent, Russia and Germany Reborn: Unification, the Soviet Collapse, and the New Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), ch. 5.

3. For a detailed account of this episode, see Talbot, Russia Hand, ch. 12.

4. See the stinging attack on Clinton, Gore, and Talbott, in Speaker’s Advisory Group on Russia, Christopher Cox, Chairman, Russia’s Road to Corruption: How the Clinton Administration Exported Government Instead of Free Enterprise and Failed the Russian People (Washington, D.C.: U.S. House of Representatives, 2000).

5. Peggy Noonan, “A Chat in the Oval Office,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2001.

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