Looming over both Moscow’s blatant intervention in the U.S. election and the Trump Administration’s continued struggle to develop a coherent Russia policy is the simple, but persistent question: Who lost Russia? How did Russia go from a fledgling democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union to the authoritarian bully we grapple with today?
Some blame Obama. Some blame George W. Bush. Some blame NATO expansion. Some blame the Washington Consensus, or insufficient aid during the 1990s. But these scapegoats all reflect classic American solipsism. In reality, nobody “lost” Russia; there is relatively little the U.S. government could have done to prevent the Kremlin’s revanchist course. Until we accept that truth, we’ll continue getting Russia policy wrong.
For one example of this blame game in action, look no further than President Trump, who recently tweeted: “For eight years Russia ‘ran over’ President Obama, got stronger and stronger, picked-off Crimea and added missiles. Weak!” More substantive critiques of U.S. policy point further back in time. Many Russia watchers blame Washington for playing midwife to Russia’s economic and political turmoil during 1990s—either by providing insufficient aid or, as Joseph Stiglitz has argued, saddling Russia with “shock therapy” capitalism. As a result, the argument goes, the ensuing chaos of the decade enabled the rise of Vladimir Putin in 2000 as an autocratic savior consumed by historical grievance and nationalist irredentism.
It’s true that economic turbulence and instability during the 1990s made Russia fertile ground for renewed autocracy. Not only does Putin himself cite the perceived humiliations of this decade as a justification for centralizing power; there is strong historical precedent for this kind of argument. The sense of humiliation and chaos in post-World War I Germany is widely credited with fueling Hitler’s rise, the bloodletting of the French Revolution led directly to Napoleon, and so on.
But the odds were that no amount of money, advice, or more “gradual” introduction of market mechanisms would have prevented the sclerotic, over-industrialized Soviet economy from making a chaotic transition to capitalism. Perhaps a better calibrated policy of aid and advice in the early-to-mid 1990s—when Russia’s trajectory was most malleable—could have helped set Russia on a different economic and political path. But the chances were always slim. Russia’s economic unwinding had already started during the 1980s. As Stephen Kotkin argues in Armageddon Averted, the 1990s should thus be seen as an extension of the long, tumultuous dissolution of the Soviet economic system unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev. Besides, had the U.S. government provided more aid to soften this transition (for example, a chimeric “Marshall Plan” for Russia), none of our partners on the ground—the hapless President Boris Yeltsin and a corrupt suite of oligarchs—would have been either able or willing to wield it effectively.
And economic turmoil was only one aspect of the 1990s chaos. Another was a lack of security inside Russia: the wars in Chechnya, rampant organized crime, and a general sense of lawlessness. These combined forces (economic and security) served as powerful tailwinds for a return to dictatorship.
All of this said, while we may exaggerate U.S. influence over the economic and political behavior of a large and unwieldy power like Russia, it does not follow that nothing we do matters, for good or ill, in influencing the trajectory (and foreign policy) of other major countries. U.S. policy does have an impact at the margins, and in molten times, the margin is where the action is. The problem is that we cannot be sure when or where those opportunities are, so we do the best we can. In the case of Russia, the chaos of the 1980s and 1990s obscured our view of the tipping points and limited U.S. leverage in the face of powerful historical forces, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up that Russia emerged from the 1990s as something other than a Western-style democracy.
Coming to terms with this reality is critical, for if we believe the deck was stacked in favor of Russia’s autocratic restoration, then we should not be surprised by Russia’s aggressive foreign policy either. There is a strong historical connection between Russia’s domestic insecurity and fear of disorder (which “necessitates” dictatorship), and its sense of geopolitical insecurity given the lack of natural barriers (which “necessitates” an expansionist foreign policy, in the name of preempting external attack).
Expansionism has been the norm from Ivan the Terrible (who gobbled up Siberia in the 16th century) to Catherine the Great (who annexed Crimea in the 18th century), all the way to Stalin (who expanded control over Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th century). Putin is channeling this history into his own expansionist vision, and specifically his desire to assert control over Russia’s “near abroad”—former Soviet “republics” such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and the Baltic States—as a buffer between Russia and its perceived enemies.
Moreover, foreign antagonism is critical to maintaining autocracy at home, helping to rally support for the regime and distract from its repressive politics and backward economics. Putin’s unfailing instinct to point the finger at the United States is the same mindset that George Kennan identified in the USSR in his seminal essay on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in 1947: “…[T]here is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.”
Given these historical circumstances, what foreign policy would anyone expect from Putin—a nationalist with autocratic instincts, taking the reins after the turmoil of the 1990s—other than hostility toward the West and a desire to reassert control over the countries on his periphery?
Accepting the truth that U.S. policy was unlikely to prevent Russia’s revanchist trajectory undercuts another major critique of U.S. policy: that U.S.-led NATO expansion into Central and Eastern Europe—first in 1999, followed by a second round in 2004—provoked the bear to rage. Critics such as John Mearsheimer, for example, draw a direct line between Russia’s aggressive behavior today in Ukraine and elsewhere and the supposed original sin, and provocative effect, of moving NATO further east. But this argument has it backward. It assumes that external developments like NATO expansion had greater impact on the Kremlin’s foreign policy than Russia’s own domestic evolution.
In reality, it’s a good thing we expanded NATO when we did. Given Russia’s irredentist course, fueled by internal dynamics mostly outside of Western control, NATO expansion has ultimately served as a counterweight, not a catalyst, to Russian expansionism. It is no coincidence that once Russia regained its footing in the 2000s, it invaded two countries on its border that were not protected by NATO (Ukraine and Georgia), while leaving Poland and the Baltics (all NATO members) alone—at least so far.
A Central and Eastern Europe without NATO would probably also have been all the more explosive internally, given that these populations are not passive objects of their own histories. Like the thousands of Ukrainians who braved the cold in the Maidan in 2014, most of the liberated populations of Central and Eastern Europe understandably aspired to be part of a modern “West.” Without NATO as a shelter for such aspirations, they might have ended up on collision courses with Russia just as Ukraine did.
All of this history casts Trump’s argument about Obama’s “weakness” in a trivial light. For one thing, blaming Obama for Putin’s aggression inexplicably ignores the fact that Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 during the George W. Bush Administration. So intellectual honesty demands that, if Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the result of Obama’s weakness, Bush’s weakness is to blame for Russian aggression as well.
But, more importantly, blaming Obama alone ignores the entirety of U.S.-Russian relations in the 2000s, during which a cautiously friendly initial relationship between Bush and Putin after 9/11 (over shared terrorism concerns) deteriorated into smoldering antagonism in the wake of the Iraq War and second round of NATO expansion. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin famously aired his grievances against U.S. policy, and at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, Putin laid bare his view of Ukraine as nothing more than a Russian vassal, reportedly telling Bush that “Ukraine is not even a country.” You can argue that Obama should have taken a tougher line on Russia to deter Putin, but the Kremlin’s antagonistic worldview—and even Putin’s specific designs on Ukraine—was fully formed before anybody in Moscow had even heard of Barack Obama.
Moving beyond this finger-pointing is critical to getting our Russia policy right going forward. Blaming ourselves for either provoking Russia into belligerence or failing to be tough enough with the Kremlin warps the current debate, pushing one side into grasping at an illusory “grand bargain” with Russia in order to ease tensions while the other side competes to win the grand prize for “toughest line against Moscow.” This see-sawing policy debate only serves to confuse our allies and Russian counterparts as to our intentions.
Instead, we should accept continued antagonism from the Kremlin for the foreseeable future and develop a clear, consistent, level-headed response that works constructively where our interests might overlap, but stands up firmly where our core interests (including European security and the independence of countries along Russia’s periphery) are involved. And we shouldn’t sacrifice these core interests in return for some vague promise of “cooperation,” or warmer relations for sake of “getting along” (as Trump likes to say).
Indeed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told us lately, upon his return from Moscow, that relations are now at a low point. But this shouldn’t compel us to rash action. If we try to make a note of areas of cooperation with Russia that are both significant and available, the result is a very short list (limited intelligence sharing on terrorism, bare-bones cooperation in Syria, and what else?). The assumption that poor relations must somehow be our fault—and hence we must rush to do something about it—is wrongheaded and counterproductive.
Putin is adept at feeling out his adversaries’ vulnerabilities and taking bold action to exploit them. He is a master at employing Lenin’s dictum: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.” Moving forward, he will continue to “probe” where he can, causing difficulties for the West and requiring us to meet his advances with “steel.”
From bolstering Ukrainian forces to greater protection for the Baltic States to tougher sanctions against Russian leaders, we shouldn’t doubt our own power to contain and counter Russian bullying. But let’s not blame ourselves for getting us here.