'Who lost Russia?' Is More Than Just an Academic Question

(Bloomberg) -- These days, Russia is merely a big football for Americans. There’s little demand for nuance, as some old Russia hands complained to Keith Gessen for his excellent article published in the New York Times Magazine over the weekend. It’s important, however, to reflect on the reasons for this ugly phase in the U.S.-Russia relationship.

An important discussion took place in New York last week between Michael McFaul, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia for two years, and Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton and New York University. From a U.S. perspective, these aren’t the most obvious choices to represent the two sides of the argument: Both hold views to the left of the neoconservative position, which calls for punishing and isolating Russia. But for the purposes of debate, Cohen and McFaul are at opposing poles within the constructive spectrum of the “who lost Russia?” debate.

Cohen is far enough outside the U.S. mainstream to use the word “Russophobia,” beloved of the Russian Foreign Ministry and Moscow’s propaganda channels. He isn’t a proponent of President Vladimir Putin, but believes the U.S. and Russia should be allies. He dares to dismiss Russian interference in the 2016 election as “jaywalking” and argues that the Trump-Russia investigation limits the U.S. president’s ability to defuse what could become the contemporary equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

McFaul believes Russian meddling in the 2016 election is a serious matter, a violation of U.S. sovereignty. He backs sanctions against Russia and a tough line toward Putin. His academic specialty is transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. An early supporter of pro-Western post-Soviet Russia, he’s angry with Putin for ending the country’s transformation. The anger is mutual: McFaul is banned from traveling to Russia.

Cohen and McFaul share a deep understanding of Russia’s complexity, a flawed but nuanced command of the language, and a desire to engage with Russia in some kind of constructive way. But within a constructive framework, their views are polar opposites. And perhaps the most important difference that came through in the debate at Columbia University concerns the timeline of the failure of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Cohen’s version is that U.S. policy toward Russia has been unchanged since the last days of the Soviet Union, and it’s been arrogantly exploitative. The U.S. and its Western allies promised the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, not to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but did so anyway. The U.S. meddled in the 1996 Russian presidential election, helped Boris Yeltsin win, then bullied him. The U.S. rejected Putin’s early advances, giving him nothing for his cooperation with the war effort in Afghanistan. Instead, George W. Bush pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, “the bedrock of Russia’s nuclear security policy.” The U.S. backed Russia’s adversaries such as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. 

“The record shows an aggressive America, not an aggressive Russia,” Cohen said.

McFaul didn’t need to argue with this litany of rejection and deception. The book McFaul he is promoting, “From Cold War to Hot Peace,” recalls the time when most of these moves were made:

Was Putin for or against Milosevic? Would Putin tolerate more NATO expansion? How would Putin react to President George W. Bush’s decision to pull out of the Ant-Ballistic Missile Treaty? The answer to each of these questions was, Who cares? Putin could do little to influence any of these issues. Russia was weak, so the argument went; Russia didn’t matter anymore.

So McFaul countered Cohen’s narrative by recalling the so-called “Reset” of bilateral relations during Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, when the U.S. and Russia agreed on a supply network for troops in Afghanistan that bypassed Pakistan, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed and Russia — for the first time in United Nations Security Council history — didn’t block a U.S.-led military intervention, the 2011 operation against Libya. All the real and perceived slights had already occurred, Putin had made his aggressive Munich speech in 2007, the Georgia war had come and gone — and yet strategic cooperation was still possible!

McFaul attributes today’s current “hot peace” to a chain of events that set off a forceful reaction in Putin’s KGB-trained mind: First the Arab Spring of 2011 (which McFaul, then on the National Security Council, says the U.S. did nothing to bring about). Then later the same year, the protests in Moscow against a rigged parliamentary election. McFaul realized what Putin was thinking when he — with his background in “democracy assistance” — was sent to Moscow as ambassador in 2012, an appointment the Kremlin regarded as part of a regime change effort. 

The way McFaul tells it, Putin’s personality was the biggest obstacle to building a better relationship out of the ashes of the 1990s. Medvedev, a younger, more outward-looking leader, wouldn’t have been a U.S. ally, but at least the bilateral relationship wouldn’t have been zero-sum.

The most striking part of the debate was that neither Cohen’s nor McFaul’s vision of a working relationship with Russia is attainable in the foreseeable future. Cohen sees a full partnership based on U.S. non-interference in Russia’s neighborhood (countries like Georgia and Ukraine shouldn’t aspire to NATO membership, he says) and Russian support for U.S. security interests. This is utopian, as no U.S. or Russian politician sees things this way. McFaul’s vision of a healthy give-and-take, a search for win-win solutions, depends, at first glance, only on Putin’s departure. But much has happened since the failed “Reset,” and mutual distrust is so pervasive that only generational change in both countries could erase it.

For a Russian, any discussion of what went wrong in the U.S.-Russia relationship is largely academic, because Putin is set to remain in power for another six years and there’s a strong likelihood that any successor will be similarly mistrustful of U.S. intentions. I believe, however, that the discussion can still be useful for Americans, who need to figure out how to avoid alienating allies in Europe and throughout the world. As the world’s only superpower, the U.S. has the choice between building trust, making enemies and a variety of options in between. The argument between Cohen and McFaul is really over the right balance, and it isn’t only relevant to Russia. China, the European Union and its leading powers, Saudi Arabia, and Iran all require relationship strategies that won’t go so catastrophically wrong as to leave experts arguing over spilled milk.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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