CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series: Getting Russia Right by Thomas Graham

Wednesday, October 18, 2023
Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, Getting Russia Right


Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations; @JamesMLindsay

As U.S.-Russian relations scrape the depths of Cold War antagonism, the promise of partnership that beguiled American administrations during the first post-Soviet decades increasingly appears to have been false from the start. Getting Russia Right identifies the blind spots that prevented Washington from seeing Russia as it really is and crafting a policy to advance American interests without provoking an aggressive Russian response.

In Getting Russia Right, Thomas Graham deftly traces the evolution of opposing ideas of national purpose that created an inherent tension in relations. Distilling the Putin factor to reveal the contours of the Russia challenge facing the United States whenever he departs the scene, Graham lays out a compelling way to deal with it so that the United States can continue to advance its interests in a rapidly changing world.

The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows. 

LINDSAY: Good evening. I am delighted to welcome everyone here in Peterson Hall to the Council on Foreign Relations. I also want to welcome the nearly two hundred members who are joining us virtually for this book launch of Getting Russia Right by Tom Graham. 

I am Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at the Council. I have the great pleasure of moderating tonight’s discussion. I would note that books form the foundation of what we do in the David Rockefeller Studies Program, the Council’s in-house think tank. So book launches are a very big deal for us. So thank you very much for coming out.  

I am pleased to be able to introduce tonight’s speaker, Tom Graham. As you know, he’s a distinguished fellow here at the Council. He has been with us since 2019. And not surprisingly, his area of expertise is Russia. Tom has had a long and distinguished career in the U.S. government before coming to the Council. He served as a foreign service officer for, I believe, fourteen years. He spent much of that time in Russia. His assignments, I think, including two tours of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, in which he served as head of the political internal unit and acting political counselor. From 2002 to 2004, Tom served as director for Russian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council in the administration of President George W. Bush. And then from 2004 to 2007, Tom served as special assistant to President Bush and senior director for Russia on the staff of the National Security Council. In that position, he managed a White House-Kremlin strategic dialogue. I should also note that Tom has made his mark in academia. He is the cofounder of the Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies Program at Yale University, where he sits on the faculty steering committee.  

But we’re not here tonight to talk about Tom’s past accomplishments, but to talk about his current accomplishment, the publication of the new book, Getting Russia Right. I’m asked to hold up a copy of the book so you can focus on it, even though I believe it’s also on the screen over my shoulder. A little belt and suspenders action here at the Council. 

Tom, I want to congratulate you on the publication of Getting Russia Right. It is a timely and thoughtful book. You don’t have to just take my word for it. Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, says, and let me quote him here, “Getting Russia Right is a much-needed contribution to a saner conversation about U.S. policy toward Russia. One hopes the Biden administration will pay close attention to this wise and balanced assessment.” Very nice words, Tom. Congratulations. 

GRAHAM: Thank you. 

LINDSAY: Please join me in welcoming Tom. (Applause.)  

Let’s talk about Russia. 

GRAHAM: Let’s do it. 

LINDSAY: U.S.-Russian relations are the most tense at any time I can recall during my lifetime. This isn’t where we expected to be three decades ago after the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union ended up on the ash heap of history. Then the talk was about creating a long-standing, durable U.S.-Russia partnership. What happened? 

GRAHAM: Well, let me start by adding something to your introduction of me. Because I always like to talk about my first tour of duty in Moscow, which was 1987 to 1990, where the job was to bring down the Soviet Union. Tremendous success at that time. The second half of the tour—of my time in Moscow turned out not to be quite as successful. And that’s the part that we’re going to talk about tonight. 

You know, the relationship is perhaps not the worst that it has been in my lifetime, since I can remember back to the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it’s certainly the worst it’s been since I joined the U.S. government in 1983. Now, the standard Western narrative is that Putin is at fault for this, that Putin came to power, rebuilt the traditional, autocratic Russian regime, then began a series of efforts to extend Russian sway into the former Soviet space, began to push back in a(n) ever-more brazen way against what he called the American, U.S.-led rules-based international order, which he thought was based on hypocrisy, ultimately. 

You know, the point I would make is that there is indeed some truth to that, particularly if you look at Putin’s actions since 2014 after the seizure of Crimea. At that point, Putin really becomes the individual who’s driving U.S.-Russian relations. And it’s not only the seizure of Crimea in 2014, we get the insertion of Russian troops into Syria in 2015, basically, to save the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from almost certain defeat by the rebels, the interference in U.S. presidential elections in 2016. And then it sort of continued and builds up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of last year. So there is a great deal of truth to that. 

The point that I make in the book, though, is that this is not the whole truth. That there’s a—there’s a bigger picture that we need to bear in mind. And in particular, we can absolve ourselves from some role in the deterioration of the relationship over the past—over the past thirty years. I think, particularly in the early years, when we’re the ones that are driving U.S.-Russian relations after the breakup of the Soviet Union, during the time when Russia’s experiencing a very deep socioeconomic and political crisis.  

And it was a combination of our failure to understand what was really going on in Russia, what was driving Russia, what the Russians themselves wanted, as well as of—not to put too fine a point on it—some hubris on our side on our ability, with Russia in a very weakened state, to drive things forward, to get things done that we feared we might not be able to get done sometime in the future, if ever—if Russia ever regained some of its power. 

LINDSAY: So talk to me about that, because you lay out in the book the policy United States—you called it the integration doctrine. But you’re not persuaded that the U.S. effort to integrate Russia was ever going to succeed. Why was that the case? 

GRAHAM: Well, I think, in large part because of Russia. Now, I mean, I mean, it’s—we can understand why the United States moved in the direction of integration at the end of the Cold War. The Cold War, in our narrative at that time—and there’s a great deal of truth to it—was a victory for liberal Western democracy over communism, fifty years after we defeated fascism in the Second World War. So in this titanic struggle—ideological struggle of the of the twentieth century, democracy—liberal democracy comes out on top. You’ll remember—well, some of you will remember—that back at that time we were talking about the end of history, right? That what the Cold War demonstrated, the end of the Cold War, was that if a country were to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century, it really had to adopt free market democracy. 

At that time we had what was called the third wave of democracy spreading across Europe, Latin America, Africa, into Eastern Europe, and, we thought, naturally to the former Soviet space. And globalization at that time was beginning to gather steam. And that clearly was based on—foundationally on free-market democracy. So there were reasons to believe that Russia had to move in this direction. And if it were to, in fact, move in that direction, this would also be a tremendous vindication of the American system. So it’s something that we thought was the logical thing to happen. We wanted to assist that to happen. And we also believed, based on some of the words that we had heard from senior Russian leadership, that Russia itself wanting to move in that direction. 

I was on the ground in Moscow in the middle of the 1990s. And if you listen not to what the small core of individuals at the center of the Russian government were saying, but to what more Russians were saying and Russian elites were saying at that time, you would realize that they had a quite different view of where they wanted to take the country. In the West, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the emergence of the new Russia, is often presented as a democratic revolution of some sort. Yeltsin rising to power on the wave of popular demand for a more open, more democratic society.  

If you look at this more closely, what really happened was that Yeltsin gained power based on the support he had some significant elements of the Soviet nomenklatura, Soviet elite, that was dissatisfied with the direction that Gorbachev was taking the country in. And the Russian elite, the new Russian elite, is pretty much the old Soviet elite, minus the first echelon. And these people held a very traditional view of the Russian state, the role that the state should play in society. And it wasn’t democracy by any stretch of the— 

LINDSAY: What was it? 

GRAHAM: It was autocracy, to put a—I think what we would say today. And in addition, they thought that Russia had to act like a great power. This was a core element of Russian—not Russian national identity, but certain Russian elite identity. And so while the United States was focused on trying to change Russia, to help what we called this transition to free market democracy, what most of the Russian political elite wanted to do at that time was to restore Russian power so that they could, once again, play that role on the international stage that they had not only during the Soviet period, but for, you know, two (hundred) or three hundred years before that, as the Russian Empire. So that was one fundamental, I think, misconception that we had beginning. We were doing one thing; the Russian elites wanted to do something entirely different. 

LINDSAY: So were we destined to get to this point? Or were there sort of decision points where things could have gone differently if different choices had been made? 

GRAHAM: Well, you know, I like to say we’re not talking about getting to a place where we’d have been partners—strategic partners. Again, something that we attempted, in the post-Soviet period, again, misreading where the Russians were. There are fundamental differences in the way our two countries conceive of world order, the way—there are fundamental contradictions in the missions that that they see for each other on the global stage. So there will always be some tension in the relationship. And, in fact, if you look at the history of U.S.-Russian relations over the past 125 years, it’s been more competitive than anything else, from the very moment that the United States emerged as a major power at the very end of the 19th century. And so that logic would continue in the post-Soviet period as well.  

The question is whether we had to get to the adversarial relationship we had today, or whether there was a way of managing the relationship so we would have sort of constructive competition. And here, I think there are decisions that we made in the late 1990s, particularly in the 2000s, in the administration I worked in, that pushed the relationship more towards the adversarial end of the scale. 

LINDSAY: And what would those be? 

GRAHAM: Well, you know, what is generally pointed to is NATO expansion. I think that plays a role, but not nearly the role that that many people have advocated. John Mearsheimer, for example. If you look at the first post-Cold War wave of NATO expansion, in fact, even though the Russians were dissatisfied with that, had some objections, I think the Clinton administration handled that fairly well under the circumstances—creating a permanent council with Russia so that they could sit down and talk to NATO about certain activities. We reduced the number of troops that we had in Europe. We signed a founding act with the Russians that made clear that we had no intention of placing nuclear weapons in these new—in new NATO states, nor would we station substantial combat forces in these countries on a permanent basis. 

You know, that said, before we moved toward NATO expansion, we had a program that was called Partnership for Peace that brought all the countries of the former Soviet bloc into some sort of relationship with NATO. And that program, perhaps, could have been continued somewhat longer. That would have pushed off the first wave of NATO expansion by a number of years, still provided the countries of Eastern Europe some connection with NATO that will give them some assurances about their status vis-à-vis Russia. It may have led to a more constructive atmosphere in which U.S.-Russian relations could develop. 

But the real policy for the United States I think that turned Putin in particular—or, caused him to reassess the relationship—is what we were doing in the former Soviet space. And you can’t underestimate the importance of the former Soviet space to the to the Russian political elites. 

LINDSAY: When you say, “former Soviet space,” you’re talking about the Baltics? 

GRAHAM: The Baltics, the former Soviet Union, basically. This was a region that Russia had brought into the empire over the past three hundred years or so. It was, in many ways, the foundation of Russian power, Russian prosperity. Ukraine, in particular is important to that. The industrial heartland of the Russian Empire was in Donbas, the region that—over which Russia and Ukraine are fighting today, for example. And it was the encroachments we made on Russia’s influence in the Soviet—former Soviet space. I think the effort to sort of push Russia back, again, at a pace that was more rapid than it needed to be in part because the natural developments in that that part of the world were slowly moving in that direction, that caused the reassessment in the Kremlin of how to approach the United States. 

So what did we do? The Russians had come to some agreement with the Moldovans that would have resolved the Transnistrian issue. We told them, the Moldovans, bad deal. You know, you should back out of this at the last minute. And largely because the agreement would have left a small Russian troop presence in Transnistria, a troop presence that still remains there today, as a matter of fact. There was an organization that formed among Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova called GUAM, that was something of a counterpart to the Russian-led Collective Treaty Security Organization, which we supported perhaps more robustly than we needed to at that time, in part because there really wasn’t much substance to it. But it demonstrated to the Kremlin a desire to undercut them in that part of the world.  

Pipelines out of the Caspian. Clearly, our effort was to make sure that those pipelines circumvented Russian territory as a way of reinforcing the independence of the individual former Soviet states, but also denying Russia the revenue that they would get through the export of that oil. We never recognize the Collective Treaty Security Organization as an institution. We never recognize the Commonwealth of Independent States, in part because we were concerned that these were Russian-dominated and would lead to a continuing Russian presence in the former—in the former Soviet Union. And I’ll say all this, I think, exaggerated, given what Russia’s real capabilities were at that point. 

The two events that really drove home to Putin his concerns about U.S. policy, were the Beslan—the Beslan terrorist attack in September of 2004, an event that Putin thought was at least indirectly encouraged by the United States—although there’s absolutely no evidence that we were involved in this in any way. But it came down to the fact that Putin thought that we were in some sort of counterterrorism alliance at that point. And remember, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush basically presents the world with a binary choice—you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.  

But when it came to the Chechens, well, it didn’t quite work that way. You know, the Chechens could be dealing with terrorist organizations, that we agreed were terrorists, and fight the Russians at the same time, in part because they had legitimate grievances against the Russian state. Now, there may be an element of truth to that, but that’s not the point that I’m arguing. But if you’re sitting in the Kremlin, this is not what you signed up for. 

LINDSAY: OK, so Beslan was one of them. What was the second? 

GRAHAM: The second one is the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which occurs two or three months later. In which Putin is persuaded the United States acted in a way to prevent the election of a pro-Russian president of Ukraine, put in place a pro-Western president. In fact, engaged in regime change operation. And, you know, we’d learned through other channels at that time that there was a great deal of concern in the Kremlin that went up to Putin himself that he saw the Orange Revolution as a dress rehearsal for what the United States was planning for Russia itself. 

Now, we’ve talked about this before. It’s hard to imagine an American president not supporting a democratic movement in Ukraine, protest against rigged elections. And so, you know, that is certainly something that we have to bear in the in the mix. But it comes against the background of all these other events and policies that were intended to lessen Russian influence in the former Soviet space. 

LINDSAY: So let me ask you a question then, because you were in the Bush administration. You were seeing adverse consequences from the Russians. You actually seem to have tried to launch a reset. I will note that the Obama administration also famously tried to launch a reset. Which leads to the question of why didn’t the reset stick? 

GRAHAM: In part because of policy, in part because of Russia, right? Why were there resets? You know, you get a reset with the Bush administration and the Obama administration because, much like the Clinton administration, there was still something they thought they needed to do with Russia that was central to their foreign policy. The Clinton administration clearly thought that if they could move Russia successfully in a democratic direction, this would be a tremendous victory for the United States. It would have reshaped the post-Cold War order in ways that were favorable to the United States for decades into the future. For President Bush, it eventually became the war on terrorism. 9/11 has a tremendous impact on the way the administration thinks of its relationship with Russia. And the administration clearly wanted to have Russia onside in this global war on terrorism that developed at this time. For the Obama administration, it’s a singular policy issue—a world without nuclear weapons. You can’t do that without engaging Russia. 

So despite the fact that the Clinton administration was burned in its Russian policy at the very end, despite the fact that the Bush administration was also burned—the invasion of Georgia in 2008—the Bush administration and the Obama administration thought that they still needed Russia, we’ll do the reset. And because we’re much more competent and much more capable than our predecessors, we will get it right. They also each decides at some point that this is going to have to be a partnership that’s based on democracy, because you can’t sell a long-term partnership with a major power to the American public or the American Congress unless you can argue that it shares our values in some way. Even though within the administration, both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, and even the Clinton administration, there were some doubts about that fundamental commitment to democracy. 

LINDSAY: So are you suggesting that a lot of learning wasn’t taking place in the Bush and Clinton administrations? Should they not— 

GRAHAM: The Bush and Obama administrations. 

LINDSAY: Bush, Obama administrations. Should they have turned to or recognized the inherent geopolitical rivalry with Russia earlier? 

GRAHAM: I think the short answer to that is yes. But it needed to be done in a way that didn’t push it, as I said, towards an adversarial relationship. And indeed, the relevance of that in each of the—in each of the administrations—you know, the focal point was on integrating Russia, but there was always an element of a hedge in each administration, because they did know something about Russian history. And there was always a concern how we should hedge against the possibility of return to an authoritarian, expansionist Russia. That is NATO expansion. That is geopolitical pluralism in the former Soviet space. 

So those policies were undertaken with sort of deliberate concern. But the point that I’m making is that those were pushed more aggressively than they needed to be at the time, particularly if what you wanted to do was build a much more cooperative relationship with Russia. So there’s a—there’s an inherent contradiction in what each administration is doing. It has a primary goal that it repeats publicly that frames the relationship in the public mind. And then there was something else that they were doing that, in fact, eroded our ability to achieve that and pushed the relationship, as I said, in a much more adversarial direction than it needed to be. 

LINDSAY: OK. So we don’t get do-overs in history. 

GRAHAM: Right. 

LINDSAY: However we got here, we are here. How should the United States engage with Russia going forward, particularly given the fact that Russia has invaded and is at war with Ukraine? 

GRAHAM: Good question. 

LINDSAY: Oh, thank you. (Laughter.) 

GRAHAM: Look, I think, you know, we need to think of this at two levels. And there are two goals, There’s a short-term goal that we have, which I think is clearly thwarting Russia’s designs in Ukraine. And then there’s a longer-term goal of how you construct a relationship with Russia over the long term that advances American national interest. So, in the short term, dealing with Russia now requires a combination, I would argue, of war and diplomacy, force and diplomacy. So the Biden administration is doing half of this, right? You need to supply Ukraine with the type of weaponry it needs, the financial support it needs to hold its own against the Russians, if not to push back fully and evict Russia from the territory they’ve occupied since—certainly since February 24 of last year, if not since 2014 and the seizure of Ukraine. 

What is lacking, to my mind, is the diplomatic element at this point, an effort to interact with Russia, to engage on issues that we should be engaging on for our own national interest—strategic stability, for example, and nuclear weapons. But also, I would argue, to convey to the Russian elites, or a significant segment of the Russian elite, that the United States is prepared to deal in a constructive fashion with Russia’s legitimate security concerns, that we’re prepared to lift sanctions at some point, conditioned on Russia stopping its aggression against Ukraine. That is at least a ceasefire, enough bombing critical infrastructure, Ukrainian cities, and so forth. So those are two things that we need to do at this point in dealing with Russia. 

But we also need to think long term, because no matter what happens in Ukraine, Russia is going to remain. And it’s going to remain as a—as a major power on the global stage. And it’s going to remain the power that has some significant differences with us geopolitically, certainly on the values side, but also be a big country with which we’re going to have to cooperate if we’re going to manage some of the critical transnational issues—strategic stability at the top of the list. Climate change. You can’t do climate change without the Russians, given the large role they play in emitting greenhouse gases.  

And I would also argue, and this is more controversial, that we need to be able to work with Russia because we are entering a world in which power is going to be more diffuse—whether you call it multipolar, polycentric, or something else. It’s clear that we’re not going to be able to dominate the global environment the way we have in the first decades after the end of the Cold War, that it’s going to be a more complex international environment. And we’re going to have to build coalition not only to deal with the transnational problems, but also to create regional balances of power that advance American interests. And these will be balances of power all along Russia’s periphery in Eurasia. The most important one is the one in East Asia of how we create the balance with a robustly growing China, at least until recently, that does have the capability, as our national security strategy says, to change the global order in ways that are detrimental to our interest.  

And with the relationship properly constructed with Russia, and other countries in the neighborhood, you can at least begin to channel some of the Chinese energies in ways that are more beneficial to the United States, less detrimental, and it also doesn’t exclude, at the extreme, balances that include China that are also beneficial to the United States. So, you know, it’s thinking about the long term as you manage the short term, which I think is the challenge for this administration and will be the challenge for whichever administration comes in office in January 2025. 

LINDSAY: The long term is the big challenge you just laid out, so I’m going to go back to the short-term diplomatic challenge. Is there a deal to be had with the Russians to end the war in Ukraine? Or are we looking for a war that is going to grind on? Because, you know, there’s been a lot of commentary arguing that President Putin believes that events will eventually come toward him, that support for the West will break down, that Ukraine will simply not be in a position to continue the war. Russia’s three times the size. It is now on a war footing. It’s generating more military weaponry. In essence, all he has to do is sit and wait for victory. And indeed, any effort by the West to try and negotiate will be taken not as an olive branch, but as a confession of weakness, confirming his theory of the case. 

GRAHAM: And that’s right. There is no negotiation to be had right now. Putin is not in the mood to negotiate. The Ukrainians aren’t in the mood to negotiate. And quite frankly, we’re not in the mood to negotiate at this point. Everybody wants to have at least one more go at this in 2024, to see whether offensive operations can be more successful than the offensive operations of this year were. There are domestic political issues that play into this in major countries. We’ve already talked about this. There’s a presidential election in Russia in 2024, March of 2024. And I’m going to go out on a limb here—(laughter)—and suggests that if Putin runs, he’ll win.  

But Russian elections are not simply about who is announced as the winner on election day. There’s a whole process of building up to that, that the Kremlin uses as a way of testing its control of the Russian political system, its mastery of the elites. You know, it’s not as easy as you would imagine getting the people to come out and vote in an election that is meaningless in most ways. And you can’t simply, in Russia today, do it all fraudulently. You simply—can’t simply declare, you know, 70 percent turnout, 75 percent vote for Putin. People actually have to show up at the polls. And you’ve got to get the elites to bring those people out. So the election has some deeper political purpose than might appear at first sight. And a setback in Ukraine, negotiating, admitting that you’re failing, will have some impact on how enthusiastically the elite is going to perform that function for Putin at this point.  

We have possibility of an election in Ukraine. Although, technically, under conditions of martial law you shouldn’t. But the important thing to remember here is that public opinion polling in Ukraine shows that the overwhelming majority Ukrainians believe that the goal in this conflict should be, restore the borders back to 1991. And the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians still believe that they can achieve that goal. There’s no president, not even Zelensky, who can move toward negotiation and hope to survive in that environment.  

And in the United States, the election in November of 2024, it’s hard for me to imagine an administration who’s framed this conflict at least initially as one between autocracy and democracy, moving towards a negotiation in which Ukraine would almost certainly have to give up territory in order to reach a negotiated settlement is going to find that satisfactory at this point. So the domestic politics in the three major countries all lead to further fighting through 2024, I would argue. And then we’ll see where we are. 

On the resilience issue— 

LINDSAY: Well, actually, at this point what I want to do, if I may, Tom, I want to bring the rest of the members into the conversation, if we could do that. And I’m going to ask members to join the conversation with their questions. Before we do that, I want to remind everyone that this hybrid meeting is on the record. And we’re going to take our first question from people here in Peterson Hall in New York. So and I would just ask people to stand, identify yourself, and ask your question. We’re going to begin at the back of the room since I normally begin at the front of the room. I want to change it up. 

Q: Fascinating talk. Jay Koh from The Lightsmith Group. 

If I can turn it a little bit back to your point of construction and ask a question about climate change. Is there a possibility of engagement outside of the sphere of the security situation with the Russians in any kind of constructive way in the climate context? Or we just going to keep putting the existential risk discussion off into the future and, you know, admit we’re not going to have any engagement there, or the China question? 

GRAHAM: Well, I mean, we effectively have no engagement at this issue at the moment. You know, prior to this we did have some engagement. The Arctic Council, for example, was a forum in which climate change issues came up, because of the rapid warming of the Arctic region, the opening up the northern sea route, the reduced ice cap that allowed for the exploration—at least, thinking about the exploration—for the very rich mineral resources that are on the Arctic seabed. Now, that council continues to meet without Russia at this point. So that’s not a forum where we can have that conversation. There are no other bilateral channels in which we can have those conversations. There are multilateral discussions that go on. The Russians participate to some extent in many of those. But, you know, not in a way that we’re going to make dramatic progress. 

You know, part of the problem here is that there’s—we still need to do a tremendous amount to persuade the Russians that climate change is actually not beneficial to them over the long—over the long run. There are many people in Russia that understand that, but that’s—but despite the words or the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin, very little is done in a practical way to deal with it. So the melting of the taiga, the tundra, wreaks havoc on the infrastructure in the north. This is the area that is critical to Russia’s oil and gas resources exploitation at this point. And even if we move towards, you know, zero carbon, those resources are going to be important to Russia for some time into the future. 

The idea that as the climate warms that this will open up more agricultural land for Russia is a fantasy. Most of that land in the north lacks the mineral resources to support agriculture at this point. In any event, so but we still need to persuade the Russians of that. So, short answer, we don’t have the channels we need for that discussion at this point. We do need them at some point, and in part to persuade the Russians that they’ve got a challenge that they need to meet. And cooperating with us and the rest of the globe is going to be critical to their own future health as well. 

LINDSAY: Let me go up here to the front and Rita Hauser. Rita would like to—they’re going to bring you a mic. The mic person is on the way. 

Q: Thank you very much. I read your book. It was very good.  

I want to ask you this: Russia has had a very good relationship with Israel. There is—(off mic). Likewise, Russia is now dependent on Iran—(off mic). How do you see this—(off mic)? 

GRAHAM: Well, look, we’ve already seen some of that in the past—in the past week to ten days, right? The Russian response to this horrific attack on October 7—Putin’s birthday, by the way—you know, a terrorist attack I think quite clearly, you know, 1,000, 1,100, 1,200 Israelis killed. And Putin doesn’t respond for about seventy-two hours. He’s never talked in terms of terror, something that he would have said almost without doubt twenty years ago, probably even ten or five years ago. You know, he called Netanyahu, I think, it’s on the sixteenth or seventeenth, but only after he had talked to the leaders in Tehran, the Palestinian Abbas, and al-Sisi. And then he decided to call Netanyahu. And in that conversation, not once did he really issue condolences for what had happened. The talk is all about ceasefire and bringing this conflict to a close. And then the remarks today after the reports of the bombing of the hospital in Gaza, clearly made without a thorough investigation on the part of the Russian special services as to what actually happened. 

So you’re seeing some distancing from Israel at this point. I would imagine some of that has to do with the greater reliance on Iran at this point, the drones in particular. But simply that diplomatic support is also important for Putin. There had been some deterioration in the relationship with Israel over the past couple of years. The closing down of the Jewish agency in Moscow that helped or facilitated the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel, for example, had led to some tensions between the government. But I think the conflict in Ukraine, reliance on Iran at this point, is going to be a significant factor in the deterioration of Israeli-Russian relations going forward, despite the fact that there’s 1.5 million Soviet—Russian Jews living in Israel. And that should be a factor that brings the countries together to some extent. 

LINDSAY: We’ll stay here in the front. Yeah.  

Q: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti. 

Tom, I’d like to ask if you could do a biopsy on those politically relevant power elites, power constituencies, both— 

LINDSAY: Jeff, I think we’re going to bring you a new microphone. Yours is not working. 

Q: Oh, OK. (Laughs.) Yeah, I can hear it myself now. (Laughter.) 

A biopsy on the politically relevant constituencies that produced Putin a quarter century ago, and where—how they have evolved to produce presumably a successor when God calls Putin home. Back in the late ’90s, was Kosovo the precipitating factor that allowed a generally unknown KGB hack to be plucked up and pressed on Yeltsin? And are those the same power constituencies lurking under the surface of this very personalist regime today that would be steering the selection of a successor, if—or, when, rather, because it’s inevitable for all of us, Putin is called home? 

GRAHAM: So where do you think home is, Jeff? (Laughter.) Look, I wouldn’t put Kosovo in the mix. Back at the end of the 1990s there was a general deterioration in Yeltsin’s health that was complicating the management of this very intense and elite trouble at this point, competition over largely power and property at that point was critical. And what they were looking for was someone that could manage that competition in a reasonable fashion, Yeltsin no longer being capable of doing that. You know, Putin was selected not by the special services, not by the military, but by a small group of individuals in and around Yeltsin at that point, on the calculation that because he was largely a non-entity they would be able to control him for their own future wellbeing into the twenty-first century.  

Turned out to be a gross miscalculation, and it demonstrates what you can do with the power of the Russian presidency, particularly when the group that puts him in power also has a lot of other enemies that want to find a way to get to Putin in order to, to an extent, level the playing field. And that’s exactly what happened is that that group that put Putin in power got outplayed by people in the special services, other oligarchs who were interested in their share of the pie, and so forth. And gradually elevated Putin. Putin began to understand sort of the powers inherent in the office of the presidency and began to move this country in a much more authoritarian direction. 

Who’s going to make the decisions whenever Putin’s time is up? Clearly, this is an elite-based system. It’s going to be the elites. You can’t make that type of transfer and consolidation of power that has to take place after Putin’s departure without some support among the guys with the guns, right? So that’s the special services, in the first instance, the military as well. But it’s not necessarily those groups that will make the actual choice of the individual. I would imagine that will be groups that are much more politically attuned, closer to the center of power, will decide on an individual and then ensure that he has the support in the relevant elites that he can step into power, consolidate his position with as little instability as possible and a little change to this network—this patronage network that is the Russian political leader at this point. 

LINDSAY: So all the way in the back of the room. 

Q: Pete Mathais, term member. 

You’ve described the Russians as the Russians. There’s the Kremlin. There’s the Russian people. There’s plurality within the Russian people. Where are the important areas of consensus but, more interestingly, fracture between those camps? 

GRAHAM: Well, you know, we can break it down, even more than right—than that, right? Because even within the elites, you have factions within the elite. You have the special services, the military. You’ve got government technocrats. You’ve got regional leaders, and so forth. So there are a lot of different constituencies in Russia, all with somewhat different views as to what their—what their core—what their interests might be. And I think what is shared across the elite, and very much within the population as a whole, is this idea that Russia needs to be a great power. That Russia is an important country. And that has been a driving motivation of elites for centuries.  

The population, even when it’s poor, takes some satisfaction, you know, certainly in recent decades, of seeing their country play a large role on the global stage. You see that in the current conflict, where you have a rallying around the Kremlin in this conflict in Ukraine, despite the fact that there was very little—very little desire to get engaged in this conflict initially. But once Russia was engaged, what you heard from many people in Moscow was, well, we don’t want our country to be humiliated. We can’t afford to lose. And you hear that from people who are also not necessarily considered—or not generally considered part of the elite. And the public opinion polling demonstrates that. 

You know, where are the differences? Many of these would be where you expect. The whole question of inequality and equity. You know, there is a vast gap between the population as a whole and a very small strata of very, very rich and powerful individuals. The population as a whole would like to see more attention paid to social welfare issues—education, housing, the things that you would expect the population would be interested in. Those things come up—boil to the surface from time to time when Putin holds these long talks with the public, and then you get the questions about the housing, and the education, and so forth. So that is a—that is a significant divide. 

Within the elites, there always is continuing struggle for influence, for power, for property. And that is ongoing, even during the conflict in Ukraine. The Prigozhin event this summer, in some ways, is related to that. Prigozhin trying to hold onto his wealth that he was getting because of the conflict against members of the uniformed military, the minister of defense, who he thought were trying to deny him the ability to continue to enrich himself in the conflict. So a lot of competition, divisions between the elites and the population. The role of the president is to hold that all together. And as long as Putin is capable of holding it together, he stays in office. If at some point, he’s no longer capable of holding that, then the elites are going to have to find someone else to do that for them. 

LINDSAY: I believe we have a question coming over Zoom. So, Sydney. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Lindsay Iversen. 

Q: Hi. Thanks. Can you hear me? 


Q: Perfect. Lindsay Iversen. I’m a term member out of Chicago. Thank you so much for a terrific discussion.  

You used a formulation earlier in the conversation when you were talking about potential negotiations between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, which is that any sort of settlement would need to take into account Russia’s legitimate security interests. But it strikes me that Russia would define its legitimate security interests as probably de facto control of Ukraine and de facto demilitarization of a great deal of Eastern Europe. So I’m wondering what the United States, and perhaps NATO more broadly, could realistically offer in such a negotiation that could possibly hope to meet those security needs. Thank you. 

GRAHAM: Right. So, you know, first point is taking into account Russia’s legitimate security interest doesn’t mean giving them everything that they want, just—but as a starting point, you know, to understand their concern about their own security and how far that extends. You know, it strikes me that the way you deal with that is through many of the mechanisms that we used in the Cold War, in fact, to deal with Russia’s—or, the Soviet Union’s security concerns.  

Those are arms control measures, you know, particularly those that would create limits on troops that are stationed along this long NATO-Russia frontier. In Europe, it might have—there might be some agreement that, for example, post-conflict that Ukraine will not host foreign military bases on its territory, undertake some obligations on its own to limit deployments of its own troops on its own territory. Again, in—on the assumption that Russia itself would also undertake reciprocal obligations on its territory. So that’s where I would see the discussions being focused in any sort of negotiated settlement, in an effort to take Russia’s security concerns into account. 

One final issue here obviously that will be an issue of discussion is Ukraine’s NATO membership—something that Russia is categorically against. Something that the West and NATO has promised since 2008, reiterated that promise in Vilnius. How and at what pace Ukraine might join NATO, I think is a major question within the alliance itself. In the absence of any near-term NATO membership for Ukraine, the issue of security guarantees for Ukraine will also come up. And that would have to be part of the discussion with Russia as well, and how you would provide those guarantees in a way that would be seen as satisfactory from Moscow’s standpoint but that they would not be inclined to use military force against Ukraine in the future. 

LINDSAY: Time for one last question, this gentleman over to the left side of the room. 

Q: Thanks so much. Robert Kiernan from Advanced Portfolio Management. Congratulations on the book. 

I’d like to go back to the penultimate and antepenultimate question, but first make an observation. I was struck by your characterization of the transition from Gorbachev to Yeltsin as a push back to the nomenklatura, essentially, I guess against glasnost. That transition is interesting in looking at the situation where we are now, but given what you’ve said about great-power aspirations being culturally embedded for centuries, is not the transition in 1964 a more interesting indicator of where we could go from here, given Putin’s precarious political, economic, and certainly battlefield situation? 

GRAHAM: You’re absolutely right. 1964 is something—is an event that we ought to study much more closely. And it is the way that you affect a leadership change without destabilizing the system. Prigozhin’s munity is not the way you do that. That would have been terribly destabilizing for the whole system, which is one of the reasons it failed at the end despite the lack of obvious elite support, or popular support, in those twenty-four hours in which—in which it unfolded.  

You know, I think we know that there is some discontent within the elites over the course of events in Ukraine. I think particularly among younger—a younger people that are parts of the elite, that you can see the problems that are being created strategically for Russia because of this military operation in Ukraine. You have a unified Europe now that you weren’t facing before. If one of the goals was to prevent NATO’s expansion eastward, what you’ve done is accelerated NATO’s expansion eastward. You have pushed out of your economy Westerners who provided critical amounts of investment, technology, and management skills that Russia needs to succeed over the long term, and elements that really can’t be replaced by the Chinese, the Indians, or anyone else at this point. You’ve created a situation in which you’re left alone with China over the long term. And given the disparities in economic growth, technological capabilities, and so forth, you’re going to need a hedge against China over the long term.  

So I could see that discontent. The question is, is there anyone capable of mobilizing that for political purposes? And that is extremely complicated in Russia today, given the increasing repression, for example, or the lack of trust among members of the elite. But as 1964 has demonstrated, not impossible. You know, if this were to happen, we would be surprised. But most importantly, Putin would be surprised. 

LINDSAY: We have come to the end of our time here for this session. I want to thank everyone for joining today’s hybrid meeting. I want to thank Tom for writing a timely and provocative book, and also thank him for coming here and sharing his thoughts with all of us today. Tom, thank you. (Applause.) 

GRAHAM: Thank you. 

LINDSAY: For everyone here in Peterson Hall, there’s a reception taking place at the back of the room. I encourage you to take advantage of it. Thank you. 


Top Stories on CFR


The election date for the world’s largest democracy is set to begin April 19 and last six weeks. What would the results of a third term for Prime Minister Modi mean for India’s economy, democracy, and position in the Global South? 


The response to the temporary closure of the Port of Baltimore—from a deadly tanker collision—demonstrates the resilience of U.S. supply chains despite fears of costly disruptions.

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Violence around U.S. elections in 2024 could not only destabilize American democracy but also embolden autocrats across the world. Jacob Ware recommends that political leaders take steps to shore up civic trust and remove the opportunity for violence ahead of the 2024 election season.