Fear and Loathing

Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War BY Peter Conradi. Oneworld Publications. Hardcover, 400 pages. $27.
Return to Cold War BY Robert Legvold. Polity. Paperback, 208 pages. $19.
Should We Fear Russia? (Global Futures) BY Dmitri Trenin. Polity. Paperback, 144 pages. $12.

The cover of Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War The cover of Return to Cold War The cover of Should We Fear Russia? (Global Futures)

THE LONG-STANDING ANIMOSITY and suspicion between Russia and the United States have reached such a frenzied pitch of late that the very idea of good relations has begun to feel impossible, almost ahistorical. You'd never know that, until the late-nineteenth century, the two countries were, in the words of the historian Norman Saul, more like "close friends in separate spheres," or that, thanks to a feeling of "mutual interest and common destiny," for the most part, "harmony and friendship prevailed." There are many nineteenth-century celebrations of this affinity on both sides. The Slavic nationalist Ivan Kireyevsky wrote, "Out of the whole world two peoples are not taking part in the universal somnolence; two peoples, young and fresh, are flourishing with hope: the United States of America and our fatherland." In an echo of Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles B. Boynton hoped that, together, America's "model . . . Christian Republic" and Russia's Christian monarchy would "bless, instruct, and elevate the people." If they could accomplish this, he prophesied, they would become "the two great powers of the future." Indeed, this sense that the two nations shared a "historic and divine mission" would inspire none other than Walt Whitman to write, "You Russians and we Americans;—our countries so distant, so unlike at first glance . . . and yet in certain features, and vastest ones, so resembling each other."

This history of amicable relations is surprising only because it's been so totally forgotten. Today, to speak of mutual interest or a common destiny for Russia and the US would be to invite condemnation and ridicule from both sides—if not accusations of being a covert agent for one or the other. Perhaps the existence of this memory hole in the history of US-Russia relations is what makes recent treatments of the subject so unsatisfying. Books like Peter Conradi's Who Lost Russia?, Robert Legvold's Return to Cold War, and Dmitri Trenin's Should We Fear Russia?, despite their considerable merits, can often feel instrumental, narrow, and pedestrian. They reduce the history of US-Russia relations to the past twenty-five years, taking the 2014 Ukraine crisis as the key turning point and making few real attempts to place American and Russian foreign-policy traditions in a larger context. On the whole, they read more like diagnostic manuals than histories. These faults do not really reflect the personal failings of the individual authors. Rather, they speak to the ways in which the intensifying standoff between Russia and the US has constricted the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Each book represents one of three familiar and interconnected lines of inquiry, pondering the questions of who is to blame for the failure to improve relations, whether we are in a "new Cold War," and whether the West should now be afraid of Russia.

That first question—"Who lost Russia?"—has been asked repeatedly over the past twenty-five years. Its phrasing is a recasting of the "Who lost China?" debate of the 1950s, which captivated US foreign-policy circles after the Communists, despite US support for Chiang Kai-shek's opposing Nationalists, managed to come to power. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a strong faction in the US argued for a large influx of American money. In 1992, Charles Krauthammer and Richard Nixon were already issuing the clarion call: Without more US aid to Boris Yeltsin, the chance to make a real ally of Russia would be lost. American aid never did approach the levels these advocates desired: After reaching just over $2.4 billion between 1992 and 1999, it steadily declined in the 2000s. Over time, though, the emphasis shifted from America's obligations to Russia's failings. The question of who had lost Russia morphed until it became primarily about the (alarmingly inadequate) quality of Russian democracy, and in that form it remained a mainstay of American punditry throughout the 1990s, reaching its apogee with George Soros's 2000 essay in the New York Review of Books.

Conradi's book is part of a long tradition that reveals a great deal about how America understands its relationship with Russia. The underlying implication of the "Who lost Russia?" question is that the US and its Western wet nurses have a responsibility to rear the Russian child—to bring him, whether sternly or gently, into the liberal-democratic fold. Different versions of this argument assign blame differently for the failure to parent post-Soviet Russia properly. Some emphasize the West's mistakes, others focus on Russian recalcitrance, and more "balanced" treatments do both. Conradi takes the balanced approach. He offers a catalogue of missed opportunities and failuresof imagination among Western policy makers. Even Bill Clinton, who invested more than any other Western leader in Russian reform, was aware that the swift expansion of NATO and American dominance in general, and the many strings attached to Western aid, didn't make the whole process especially attractive for the Russians. Clinton once admitted to Strobe Talbott, "We keep telling Ol' Boris, 'Okay, now here's what you've got to do next—here's some more shit for your face.'" Still, American politicians, like the pundits who came after, couldn't help presenting the Russian reluctance to accept these humiliations as the temper tantrums of a toddler. Clinton noted that "there ain't no dessert on the menu we're showing them." And Victoria Nuland, Talbott's assistant, said that persuading the Russians to cooperate was like trying to get them "to eat their spinach. The more you tell them it's good for them, the more they gag." Talbott noted later that giving the Russians the "spinach treatment" became "shorthand for one of our principle activities in the years that followed."

Yet Conradi concludes with a stiff finger-wagging at both sides. He criticizes "the West" for not providing Russia with its own Marshall Plan, for pushing NATO expansion too hard and too fast, and for reinforcing the Russians' feelings of victimhood by consistently ignoring their concerns. But he also blames the Russians for their inability to shed that persecution complex. And he faults Vladimir Putin personally for his alpha-male posturing—the "desire to be feared"—and for seeking to revive Russia as the "heart of Eurasia." Curiously, the book ends on an almost biblical note, with a quotation from the "Long Telegram," the prophetic text by George F. Kennan, the high priest of Cold War American foreign-policy thinking on Russia: "To be genuine, to be enduring and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves." But of course, the "Who lost Russia?" question is not really about Russia. It is far more narcissistic than that, revealing more about the person asking the question than about any plausible answer. For lurking behind it is another question: Why is Russia not like us? The assumption is that the US is the only acceptable yardstick for what a democracy should look like. Regardless of who falls where in the blame game, the same premise reigns: Russia and homo Russicus just keep on missing the off-ramp to Francis Fukuyama's "end point of mankind's ideological evolution." Russia is an intractable problem in part because it can't, or won't, become American enough.

Then there's the second question: whether we are in a new Cold War. You can find the Cold War meme at work both among Russia's friends, such as The Nation's Stephen Cohen, and its foes, such as Edward Lucas of The Economist. Like the "Who lost Russia?" question, the ghost of a new Cold War has been haunting us pretty much since the end of the old Cold War. In every dust-up between the US and Russia of the past two decades, one or both sides have charged the other with having a "Cold War mentality" in order to shame and caution them against further escalation. It's a favorite insult, intended to point out the other side's backwardness. Sadly, it's lately begun to feel like rather less of a laughable throwback. The idea of a replay of the Cold War expresses itself as both trauma and desire. A new Cold War is scary because in theory it places the entire world at the mercy of US-Russia relations. By the same token, it's weirdly consoling for both sides, even offering a certain measure of nostalgia. Both powers were at their peak during the Cold War's tensest periods, and both understood the rules of engagement—the Cold War framing restores a sense of familiar, binary order in a rapidly changing world. We shouldn't entirely discount the subconscious appeal a return to that greatness and simplicity might offer, especially at a time when the US and Russia are both experiencing internal shocks, newer powers are on the rise, and there are signs of utter chaos elsewhere.

The “reset” button (mistranslated as “overcharge”) presented by Hillary Clinton to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, March 6, 2009. Reuters/Fabrice Coffrini/Pool/Alamy
The “reset” button (mistranslated as “overcharge”) presented by Hillary Clinton to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, March 6, 2009. Reuters/Fabrice Coffrini/Pool/Alamy

Legvold starts by emphasizing that he is not a cold warrior trapped in an old paradigm. "Five years ago—even two years ago—I could never have imagined writing this book," he writes. But the Cold War was "in the air," and eventually Legvold succumbed to its airborne spores. Like many others, he has since the Ukraine crisis felt compelled to embrace arguments he previously met with skepticism. Legvold identifies five characteristics of this new Cold War to demonstrate its equivalence to the old: 1) Each side blames solely the other for the conflict; 2) there is no recognition of common ground; 3) the conflict is zero-sum; 4) every small moment of agreement is a one-off, not a step toward increased cooperation; and 5) the conflict subsumes all others around the world into its logic. Put simply, Russia and America have now returned to their natural state of enmity. The stakes are incredibly high. Both sides risk igniting a wider conflict that would destroy not only the US and Russia but everyone else as well. Voilà! All our past paranoias and anxieties return to the surface!

And perhaps this is the real attraction of the idea of a new Cold War. To believe that Russia and the US are locked in some renewed clash of civilizations allows everyone involved an ideal opportunity for psychological displacement. It affords the Kremlin, for instance, a way to explain away internal problems and dissent via the convenient specter of Western machinations. The most visible example of this so far came during the mass protests of 2011 and '12. Genuine protesters were frequently denounced as puppets of the US State Department or Western-funded NGOs (sound familiar?). Russia introduced draconian laws that targeted NGOs receiving funding from abroad (they now had to register as "foreign agents," though, incidentally, a similar law passed in Israel has met with far less outcry in the US) and stretched the existing extremism law so that people could be jailed for insulting the national religion—as famously happened in the case of Pussy Riot. In the US, too, we've seen old fears of Russia blossom into hysteria over the 2016 election, with serious people charging that Trump has been compromised by the Russians and is their "Siberian candidate."

It's understandable that many Americans simply cannot comprehend how Trump could have become president. Trump can't have come from within us good, liberal Americans—he must have come from outside, like some infectious disease surreptitiously delivered into the US body politic. Such displacement is, especially for Democrats, a way to avoid looking in the mirror and asking, "How did we fail?" Better to have been tricked, deceived, hoodwinked by Russian devils. It's true that the Russians have made efforts to exploit Americans' anxieties about their democracy, but they shouldn't shoulder the full blame for what is a specifically American problem (just as we shouldn't blame American hegemony when the Kremlin uses it as an excuse to enact more extreme domestic measures). We can't know for sure how much of a rational basis there is for this latest wave of paranoia about Russia, partly because the American security agencies have thus far declined to provide any solid proof they may have. But our perceptions of Russian motives overall are skewed, and it doesn't help that American pundits tend to buy into the same cult of Putin that exists within Russia—over here he's more supervillain than superhero, but super nonetheless. My own view is that, like so many others, the Russians probably assumed that Hillary Clinton would be elected president and simply took what opportunities they found to poison the well.

Which brings us to the third question: Should we be afraid of Russia? According to Dmitri Trenin, a Russian with a long history in the Russian military who is nonetheless a critic of the current state of his country, the answer is no. Russia is no longer the Russian empire of the nineteenth century or the Soviet empire of the twentieth. It's geographically smaller now than it has been at any time since before the reign of Catherine II. It lacks the resources to re-create its glory days. And, pace the hype, it's obvious that Russia doesn't have the soft power to infiltrate or sway Western societies. Moreover, it lacks the will to do any of this. Trenin makes a convincing case that Russia's foreign ambitions are far more modest, its politics mostly insular and risk averse. (Crimea, the Donbass, and Syria have all involved fairlyminimal domestic and even international costs—while the sanctions have no doubt made a bad situation worse, they are by no means the main cause of Russia's current economic crisis, which is directly linked to the low price of oil.) When you look at things from the Russian side, to assert that we're in another Cold War sounds like quite a stretch.

So what does Russia actually want? You could say it just wants a seat at the table and its concerns and interests respected. But to answer the question more thoroughly, we may need to set aside our fears and take a longer view of Russian foreign policy, not to mention European history. As Trenin notes, Russia dislikes the idea of any single power being able to dominate international relations. It considers "great-power concert" the best way to deal with international conflict—for example, the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the Holy Alliance, and the United Nations Security Council. Russia was an indispensable player in all these, able to help restrain the unilateralism of other great powers. "In fact," Trenin asserts, "the implications of Russia's international 'restoration' include checking US supremacy by subjecting the US itself to the authority of the UNSC." This is multipolarity tout court, something the US may find inherently threatening.

Understanding this provides an essential window into how Putin and the Russian foreign-policy elite think. As they see it, there are only a handful of truly sovereign states: the US, Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France, and perhaps Brazil, Iran, India, and Turkey. Smaller states, like Ukraine and Syria, will always be under the influence of one sovereign power or another—so the big boys should decide their fate. That's why Russia doesn't really bother talking directly to Ukraine but deals with Germany, France, and the US. And over Syria, Russia assumes that it, the US, Iran, and Turkey will be the real brokers. This is a conception of the world America rejects, except of course when, as with Iraq, a particular great-power concert happens to suit its own interests. Hence Secretary of State John Kerry felt able to scold Russia without even a hint of self-consciousness: "You just don't in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext."

Trenin's book is notable for its brevity, clarity, and sobriety. He positions himself as a therapeutic go-between, attempting to calm the West's fears and temper its knee-jerk Russophobia. Russia presents a challenge, for sure. But that challenge should be met in "a constructive way"—that is, through economics and soft power. The first challenge for US-Russia relations, however, is to establish some real common language and memory. As Conradi correctly suggests, the US and Russia don't even share a consensus over what happened in 1991. In Russia, the collapse of the Soviet system is seen as a catastrophe, while in the US it's regarded as a liberation. Perhaps the greatest danger in the US's myopic focus on Putin is that it suggests that relations will magically improve if and when he can be ousted from power. This is foolhardy. Regime change in Russia is unlikely and, more to the point, would be very unlikely to solve the essential problem. In the days of the USSR, the West had plenty of would-be allies on the inside, but its treatment of Russia over the past twenty-five years has not won it many new ones—not among the elite nor the general population. If we look at Russian foreign relations historically, we can see that Gorbachevs and Yeltsins are rare. The US and the West would do well, for once, to contemplate how to deal with the Russia it has, rather than any of the Russias it fears or desires.

Sean Guillory hosts the SRB Podcast on Eurasian politics, culture, and history.