Experts explore the lessons to be learned for U.S. policy from the quarter century since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
MANDELBAUM: Welcome to this morning’s first session. I am Michael Mandelbaum. I will be the moderator. Our panelists are, from my left, Jim Goldgeier, Phil Gordon, and Marie Mendras.
I will not introduce them further since the program does that more than adequately. Rather, I will begin with a question that I sent to each of the panelists a few days ago, asking them to begin the panel by responding to it. But since they know the question but you don’t, I will repeat it, with apologies for its length.
In the 1970s, there emerged an important literature in international relations on the origins of the Cold War, the origins of the estrangement between the two wartime allies, the United States and the Soviet Union. And this literature had, very roughly speaking, two parts.
First, there was an analysis of the central events, the crucial events that led from alliance to estrangement and hostility—the communization of Poland, the failure of the Baruch Plan, the plan for the international control of atomic energy, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Czech coup, the Berlin blockade, and then ultimately the Korean War, which made the Cold War a militarized conflict.
But there was a second part to the literature. Most of those who contributed to it had a kind of overview, an interpretation of what had happened. And there were, I think, again, very roughly speaking—with apologies for oversimplifying the good work of people a generation ago—there were roughly three schools of thought.
There was the conventional wisdom, especially in the United States, which held that it was the Soviet Union and Stalin and communism that were responsible for the conflict. In the shadow of the Vietnam War, and increasing criticism in the West of American foreign policy, there came to be what was known as the revisionist school, which assigned more responsibility, for one reason or another, to the United States.
And then there was a third school, located almost exclusively in the academy, which imputed the conflict to forces beyond either side’s control; the two universally—the two ideologies with universal claims, the vacuum of power that was bound to be filled, a series of misunderstandings that political scientists know as the spiral model, where each country took measures that it regarded as defensive but were regarded as offensive by the others.
In any event, now to the question and to today’s panel. I asked each of the panelists to give his or her version of that literature for the somewhat longer period between 1989 and 2014, from the opening of the Berlin Wall to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the United States and Russia went from being strategic partners to being, I think we can say, especially after last night’s discussion in which both panelists thought that this was the lowest point of Russian-American relations since at least the 1970s and perhaps the early 1960s, so they’ve gone from being strategic partners to outright adversaries.
So I’ll ask Jim, Phil, and Marie, in that order, to respond to that question. And Marie will emphasize the European dimension; that is, how the Europeans have seen the evolution of this relationship.
GOLDGEIER: Great. Well, thanks to Michael. Thanks to Rita. This is just wonderful to be here, and appreciate being at CFR. And I should just say that so much of what I’ve been able to do over the last couple of decades was really possible because of the experience I had on my CFR international affairs fellowship, and truly grateful for that experience; and met the gentleman to my left during that process.
I wanted to do something—I’m answering Michael’s question, but really focusing on a couple of things that occurred in the very early period, because I think they are little-known but they really provide sort of—they encapsulate many of the problems that would continue later on. And I’m going to assume that my colleagues will be discussing some of the later issues.
From the start—and it builds on some things that Dmitri Trenin was saying last night about the issues related to the power disparities between the two countries and Russia’s desire to be treated as an equal, which, given the power disparities, simply weren’t going to happen.
And the first story is from February 1st, 1992, just soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin, President Yeltsin, came to Camp David to meet with President Bush. Yeltsin had prepared for several days for what he saw as his big exam; went in, 30-minute presentation, no notes, laid out the strategic priorities that Russia had, talked about the importance of countries like Latvia and Ukraine being independent countries, and then asked why the joint statement that they were releasing did not state that the United States and Russia were now allies.
And Secretary Baker noted that the statement used the phrase friendship and partnership. And Yeltsin then said, but I wanted to say that we’ve gone from being adversaries to allies. And President Bush responded, we’re using this transitional language because we don’t want to act like all our problems have been solved.
Yeltsin wanted Russia to be part of the West, with Russia having a seat at the great-power table and being seen as on par with the United States. The United States was hedging, and it would continue to hedge, because it wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out in Russia.
The United States saw itself as the Cold War victor. It wanted a new relationship with Russia but saw itself as the victor and was determined to shape the dynamics in Europe, and it had the power to do so.
Yeltsin saw himself as the person primarily responsible for the overthrow of communism, wanted U.S. approval, and wanted this provision of status.
The second story comes from about a year and a half later. And this was a meeting that Secretary of State Warren Christopher had in Russia with President Yeltsin, and it occurred in October of 1993. And it was in advance of the January 1994 NATO summit. And Warren Christopher laid out for Boris Yeltsin what the plan was in a way that was music to Yeltsin’s ears.
Nothing would be done to exclude Russia from full participation in the future security of Europe, said Christopher. The U.S. would be recommending a Partnership for Peace, open to all members of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, so all of former Warsaw Pact. This new body would serve as a mechanism for dialogue with all former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states, and Christopher told Yeltsin there would be no effort to exclude anyone and there would be no step taken at this time to push anyone ahead of others.
And Yeltsin interrupted. He wanted to make sure he understood that all countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union would be treated equally and there would be partnership, not membership. And Christopher said yes, that’s the case. There would not even be associate status. And Yeltsin replied, this is a brilliant idea, a stroke of genius; told Christopher it would remove all of the tension that existed regarding NATO; told him to make sure he told Bill that it was a brilliant stroke.
And Christopher then added that the United States would be looking at NATO membership for these countries as a longer-term eventuality; hard to know whether Yeltsin was fully aware of what that would mean. The United States, of course, wasn’t fully aware of what that would mean. And Yeltsin closed by saying he had complete trust in the United States and Clinton.
Now, it was less than a year later that President Clinton told Yeltsin in Washington at a luncheon, September 1994, that NATO enlargement, in fact, was going to proceed. He tried to ease the situation by explaining it wouldn’t do anything that would harm Yeltsin, particularly politically in advance of Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996.
But Yeltsin responded several months later in Budapest at a meeting of what was then becoming the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that Europe, even before it has managed to shrug off the legacy of the Cold War, is risking encumbering itself with a cold peace. Why sow the seeds of distrust? After all, we are no longer adversaries. We are partners.
I say all that as someone who supported, still does, NATO enlargement. I think it was incredibly important for Central and Eastern Europe. And I—you know, I think we would see a lot more situations like what we’ve seen in Georgia and Ukraine if those countries had not been brought into the alliance.
But I just tell those two stories at the very beginning of the post-Cold War period because it does highlight this central issue. The United States was dominant, could do what it wanted, had an agenda to shape post-Cold War Europe, and there wasn’t anything Russia could do about it. And the resentment that built over time—Putin’s effort to bring Russia back as a great power, his pushback against this idea that the United States could simply impose on the rest of the world, and particularly on Europe, a certain kind of order—is what we’ve seen in the two decades since these events began.
And I would just simply close where I started by saying that I think, to a large degree, this issue of power disparity, Russia’s desiring of status, Russia’s not being able to really find its place within Europe, and particularly with respect to Europe and European security, the challenge for the United States, the Europeans, and for Russia to figure out a proper place for Russia in Europe that would not infringe on the sovereignty of the Central and Eastern European states, and particularly the former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia, is, of course, a challenge that remains with us to this today.
MANDELBAUM: Thank you.
GORDON: Thank you, Michael. Thanks, Rita. Thanks, everyone, for being here. And thanks, Jim, for, I think, setting up—I think my remarks, or at least hope, will complement the approach that Jim took.
And I’ll start by saying I think Michael’s question is a really good one. You know, when you work on policy or work in policy, there is a tendency to focus on the latest developments and to come here now and talk about whether Tillerson’s meeting with Lavrov was good or not.
And it is a healthy exercise to step back and put it in a much broader context of what we’re trying to accomplish in the U.S.-Russia relationship and this sort of—since you did tip us off to the question, it gave me a chance to do that a little bit in advance. And it forces you to think where you fit on the spectrum of different views, because I think there are different paradigms for the recent tensions, just as there were, as Michael said, in the Cold War.
Let me say, as a sort of aside, but I think it’s relevant, when you do that exercise, I think it’s important not to fall in a trap of thinking that relations with a country, in this case U.S.-Russia, is the sole or most important goal. If you think about it in those terms, it can lead you to obviously a very different policy conclusion. And that’s the risk we always run when we focus on a question like this.
You know, if the issue is one single variable—in this case U.S.-Russia relations—then you might choose a policy course to satisfy those relations, but, you know, the cost of a lot of other things. So, you know, presumably Switzerland or Portugal have decent relations with Russia, but they had the option of decent relations with Russia because they don’t have the same global interests and responsibilities that the United States has. So I make that point. I think it’s important to keep in mind, especially as I give my own view of what I think is responsible for the deterioration of relations.
If I had to give a headline for mine or choose among the types of alternatives that Michael suggested we had during the Cold War, I would put myself in a camp analogous to that last one, which is the sort of this was inevitable due to competing perspectives and interests, rather than saying this was the result of flawed U.S. policy or this was the result of flawed Russian policy.
So, again, if the analogy is right—and maybe it’s not—but if the classic explanation of the U.S.-Russia tensions—I won’t say classic; maybe dominant in U.S. foreign-policy circles—is—would be along the lines of the Cold War ended. We won. They lost. We started to exercise our natural policies, and they, because they don’t respect order and don’t share our vision of the world, have been fighting against it ever since, and therefore they are responsible for the deep decline in tensions between the two countries. That’s probably the basic U.S. paradigm, the dominant one that has explained U.S. policy.
But there is another view. And I wouldn’t say it’s revisionist, because it was simultaneous to that one, which put much more blame on the United States for saying we had an opportunity after the Cold War ended to have a balanced relationship with Russia, in respecting Russia’s interests and perspectives, and we blew it. We pursued policies that were too aggressive, didn’t respect Russia’s interests, and therefore we, the United States, are responsible.
Again, that’s not revisionist in the sense that it didn’t come chronologically later, but it’s an alternative narrative.
I can’t fully associate myself with either. And I really do think that, more than anything, we were bound to have tensions and different perspectives because we had a decades-long global competition that wasn’t just ideological. Indeed, I would argue it wasn’t even primarily ideological. It was geopolitical. And it doesn’t just go away automatically.
And even since then you have two countries that are big, that see themselves as having global or, at least in Russia’s case, quite regional—and regional is widely defined, to include Eastern Europe, the Middle East, parts of Asia—interests, and, in their view, responsibilities that are just inevitably going to clash with the other. Neither country was willing to give that up, even though the Cold War ended.
Americans assumed the Russians would give it up and just go back home and deal with Russia, forgetting that, you know, they used to have the Soviet Union, which covered what eventually became a whole bunch of other countries and neighbors, and some of those neighbors had ethnic Russians, and they weren’t just going to give that up, whereas the United States thought the Cold War is over now; it’s time for us to exercise our hegemony. And that was going to go away.
And in addition, you didn’t have a common enemy to bring them together, which might have helped overcome some of those perspectives, as it did with the United States and Europeans, who also—because I’m not trying to say that countries that are once geopolitical rivals can never be allies. Of course they can. But it takes something like a common interest against a common enemy, or at least common values, which, again, we had with the Europeans, which we don’t have with the Russians.
So, without the common interests or common threat, and without the common values—and this is my way of saying, you know, why didn’t Russia just become the next Germany or Britain or France or Spain or whatever after the Cold War, because of these different perspectives, desire for playing a global role, and a deep lack of common interest between the two sides.
So that’s why I think, regardless of what the United States might have done in any of these episodes starting in 1989, or some of the cases Jim mentioned during the Clinton-Yeltsin years, I think we would still probably be clashing today for some similar reasons.
And let me drill down on that a little bit to take issue with one of the alternative paradigms, which would be the one that blames the United States primarily for the tensions between the two sides, because I do think there is a coherent potential view. And Michael had written about this going back to the NATO enlargement debates; Tom Friedman, John Mearsheimer, plenty of Russians, who argue that it is primarily the U.S. at fault for the tensions.
And I don’t—and that argument focuses on policy steps. You ask about specific, you know, markers. One was NATO enlargement. And we didn’t have to do that, but we decided we were going to enlarge NATO in the 1990s. And Russia saw that as a geopolitical threat coming up to their borders, encroaching on their interests.
We collectively decided to enlarge the European Union, which was also—you know, they thought they had a sphere of influence, and suddenly you have this opposing body coming closer and closer. We pressed democratization, lectured them on human rights, intervened in the Balkans and the Middle East, denying them influence. And therefore, the reason there are bad tensions now is that, over this 25-year period, we were constantly taking policy steps that led Russia to be paranoid, reactive, and hostile to the United States.
That, I think, sounds coherent, and it’s hard to rebut such a counterfactual, but I’m not persuaded by that. And I’ll just end with two thoughts as to why.
One is, I think if you do the counterfactual and imagine we didn’t do any of those things, I think we’d still be clashing with Russia today on the very issues that we are clashing with Russia on today. And so why are we clashing with Russia? Well, we think they interfered in our electoral process, which is a very serious step, and the hacking and the trying to influence the outcome. Well, they would probably be doing that anyway, even if we hadn’t enlarged NATO in the 1990s. And we presumably wouldn’t be very happy about it.
We’re clashing over Syria because we have made policy decisions on Syria, right or wrong—we don’t need to have a Syria debate—but that are just very different from where the Russians are on that question. And it’s led to serious tensions.
A couple of years ago, Ukrainians decided they wanted to orient themselves towards Europe and the European Union. Russia didn’t like that. And when they took that step and chased their leader out, Russia went in and seized Crimea, which I think it would have done whether NATO had enlarged in 1999 or not.
So my point is it’s easy to attribute things that are going on today to things that we may have done then. We can never know. But I am skeptical that different U.S. policies in the `90s or 2000s—you know, if we hadn’t pursued missile defense, would Russia be much more amenable to the United States and what it’s doing around the world and we would be not clashing on these issues? I fear that we would.
Now, you can argue that if we had just respected their sphere of influence, then everything would be fine. That’s sort of the Mearsheimer argument. But where does that sphere of influence end? Presumably—or clearly it also includes Ukraine, so we’d have to say hands off of Ukraine. But if we took the view that Russia’s sphere of influence means, you know, hands off Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, well, would they stop there? I mean, would they not try to interfere in the French election, as they’re doing anyway? And then would we have to say, well, in the name of good relations, we’re really not going to complain about that? So I don’t think, you know, if you rerun the experiment, you get to a place where we would avoid these tensions now.
And then, lastly, I would say we tried an approach more similar to that respect for U.S. interests in the early Obama years with the reset, who kind of looked at this past episode and said, as I would say—I’m not saying that the U.S. is, you know, guilt-free in this; I think there were things that we did that exacerbated the relationship; I’m just trying to say that that’s not the core of it.
In the—starting in 2009, we tried to set things right again by saying to the Russians, OK, who’s ever responsible for the past tensions, let’s put that behind us. Let’s see if we have common interests. Let’s try to work together. And we, the United States, are even willing to do certain things to be more respectful of your interests.
We didn’t announce that NATO enlargement was over, but we backed away from it. And the 2008 decision that Georgia and Ukraine will be members of NATO, we didn’t—in the Obama administration we didn’t try to tear up an official NATO declaration, but I think the Russians knew that we weren’t moving ahead on that.
We redid the missile-defense plan so that it wasn’t as directly contradictory to Russia’s perceived interests. We reached out and created a bipartisan presidential commission to work on a whole bunch of mutual interests, military-to-military ties, a lot of things to try to put those differences behind us.
That actually yielded some positive steps. And over a couple of years we worked together on Iran, Afghanistan; got a 123 nuclear agreement, WTO agreement. And so it showed that, regardless of the past or what happened a decade or two before, it was actually possible to improve relations until our interests clashed again.
And then they clashed on Syria. They clashed on Ukraine. And, next thing you know, we were right back to or on the road to the deep divisions that we see now, which I think would be the case regardless of what the United States did or didn’t do in the earlier parts of the period that Michael identified.
MANDELBAUM: Thank you.
MENDRAS: Thank you very much, Michael. May I say that it’s a great privilege and a great pleasure to be here. And I feel so honored that you invited a French Russia scholar and not a German. (Laughter.) Having spent some time in Washington, D.C., I felt, sadly, that there was a feeling here in the United States that Germany was the leader of Europe and that France had given up on its role.
When Michael asked this question to us, what I thought about immediately was my incredible joy on the 9th of November, 1989, sitting in Paris, with my first baby born. And to me, this was just the biggest date in my life, in our lives, and it is so till today.
Some of you might have read Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s memoir and might have noticed how he talks and writes about the fall of the Berlin Wall. I always ask my students, the very first lecture in my course on foreign policy, and none of the students ever get it right—you know, how many pages. The last president of the Soviet Union has only two sentences on the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I think it says a lot about what was the situation at the time and that our American friends do not put at the center of the stage about, you know, 15 European nations, that we’re going through, you know, the most extraordinary change in their existence since, you know, the end of the Second World War.
And we in Paris were thinking about the Germans. Will the two Germanys unite? We were thinking about what’s going to happen economically, socially. How many from Eastern Europe will, you know, want to come and settle in European countries? What are we going to do—we, the EU, we, NATO?
That is the—the stake was about 5 (hundred million), 600 hundred million people living in an extended Europe. Dmitri Trenin made fun of me last night at dinner because I spoke about the European space. And he said, what can we do with this space? Well, it is a vast region of the world that doesn’t have any final borders. But the borders that it has, whether it’s political, administrative, or economic, has quite a meaning. And it’s certainly populated by societies.
And Vaclav Havel had always the better words about thinking, you know, we are European; we think about individuals, about societies, about our common history, our histories of conflict. And the problem is that in Moscow and in Washington, they look at things differently, as if they had all the handles in their hands and could decide the fate of our societies.
This is just to say, first, that it’s interesting that Vladimir Putin has engaged in a permanent writing and rewriting, not only of the history of the new Russian Federation, but also of the history of what I call the in-between states like Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, the states that remain stuck between Putin’s Russia and Europe, between Russia and NATO.
And the—I think the problem we’re facing today is that the Russians are very active not only at rewriting history in the most liberal way, but they are also imposing narratives on their own population, on the population of Russian speakers in Ukraine, in Russian speakers in Estonia, and doing what you mentioned, Phil, is also trying to impose their narratives on the French establishment, the German voter. And this is the situation that we are facing now. And so the question I believe that is more important to ask, rather than, you know, did we do things wrong or why, was Bush right when he did this or, you know, was Mitterrand wrong when he spoke to Gorbachev the way he did, or—I think as historians we can do this. But to understand better what’s happening today, I believe it is essentially to first repeat that the major turning point for us in Europe has ’89, and that ’91 was a sort of—just the continuation of a trend for just emancipation from Moscow.
The second important point is that during all those years, during the Cold War years and during the last 30 years, the Moscow-Washington relationship was such a key relationship because of Europe, mainly. If it hadn’t been for the many countries and societies of Europe and their security, had it not been for the Franco-German reconciliation, the relationship with Boris Yeltsin’s Russia would probably not have been that important once the disarmament and issues were behind—you know, the Budapest Memorandum about Ukrainians nuclear weapons.
The turning points in this history of, you know, the las 25, 30 years are important to emphasize, because I don’t think we can talk of, you know, one Russia during all those years or one American policy, or one EU policy. There were major turning points. And I think one, of course, in ’99, when Russia was in one of its deepest economic, social, and security crises, and when Putin came to power thanks to the second war in Georgia. And when I think all the hopes and all the expectations for an easy exit from Communism and from the—from imperial Russia, all those explanations were really furiously questioned.
And then we have another major turning point which is—you know, around the mid-2000s, a number of events, but certainly one of them being the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. That then brought to the fore this issue: What do we do with the countries that we didn’t welcome—we, European and we, the Western Atlantic community—that we didn’t welcome in the early ’90s, like Poland, Hungary, but those in-between countries, Ukraine, Belarus. What can do with them?
And there, I think we enter a period where our responsibility is greater and where we can—we can see more clearly what we missed. For the EU and NATO, from that standpoint, I see that none of our governance, none of our achievement was ready to take a risk for those societies. And we went for a period—I think that became dangerous period—where we seemed to leave it to Moscow to take care of the security, stability, and development of what we name in Europe our Eastern partnership.
And once we had told the Russian authorities that, you know, this is how we look at it—yes, of course, we tended to agree that Russia had a right to a sphere of influence. And then when—(laughs)—you know, 10 years later things get much worse and another color revolution takes place, and Ukrainian societies asked the Europeans and the Americans and the international community for support against a corrupt and brutal government, then things developed differently, because it was no longer the Russia of the 1990s or early 2000s. I was a different leadership within a different context. And we, European, Americans, all the Western nations, we supported Ukraine and we finally decided altogether to go for sanctions that remain to this day.
So I’m already speaking way too long, but I guess just the very simple point I’m trying to make is that in this amazing period in history we have to think from the point of view of the many players, of the many societies that were part of that history and that made that history, and for which I think to a large extent, you know, the Washington-Moscow relationship was just one aspect of it. Some countries, like Poland for example, put much more emphasis on it, for obvious security reason and, you know, historical legacies. But others did not. And today, when we come to the next of Michael’s question about the current situation, then I will be happy also to do—to put in the discussion a little more how Europe has not failed, you know, its formerly eastern neighbors and today its eastern members. I think so far we haven’t failed them, and I don’t think we will fail them.
MANDELBAUM: Thank you. We’re going to turn to questions from the audience, form the floor. But before we do that, I’m going to invoke the moderator’s prerogative, which I just invented—(laughter)—to give my views on this subject. I will try to do so briefly, because they do differ from our panelists.
And I begin with NATO expansion, which as I have had the opportunity to say in this building and in the pages of Jim Hoge’s magazine, was a serious mistake for at least four reasons. It went back on a promise that the Russians had every reason to believe they had received from various Western leaders that NATO would not be expanded. Second, because it destroyed a very—the very real possibility of a new and common security order in Europe. Third, because it was the beginning of a process that made anti-Western policies and especially anti-American policies the default position for the Russian elite, and ultimately for the Russian public. And fourth, because it was done in an insulting way to Russia, for various reasons. There was the eat your spinach message that the Russians were given.
This was compounded by a series of measures—including the Balkan wars, the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the invasion of Iraq—that the Russians took as being either anti-Russian or unfair because—heedless of their interests—but which were really undertaken by the United States without reference to Russia. Russia was simply not a factor in American decision making. So all of this set a context for what I believe is the most important reason for the Russian-American and Russian-European estrangement, and that is the nature of the Russian regime.
This is a one-person regime, obsessed with popularity in Russia, which has had, in effect, two sources of popularity, support, and legitimacy. One was economic success. Putin was a great success in his first term as president, for one reason and one reason only, and that was the rising price of oil. Made him very popular. The other source of support and legitimacy has been aggressive nationalism, the narrative that has been mentioned having been fueled by this relentless emphasis by the Russian government on the sins of the West, which has some truth into—in it, but it was vastly exaggerated.
But when Putin returned to office, the economic improvement was a thing of the past, the price of oil had dropped, and so—and he confronted a restive middle class, demonstrations in the major cities between 2011 and 2012. And that left the regime with only aggressive nationalism as the source of the support that it has believed since 2000 was essential to its continuation. So I don’t think the United States singlehandedly created this rift. I think the bulk of the responsibility falls on the nature of the Russian regime. But the American missteps did create an environment in which it was much easier than it would have been, and should have been, for Putin to gin up this nationalist resentment against the West, and this support for his aggressive policies.
So you now have four versions. The floor is open for questions. Please identify yourself. Be as brief as possible. Direct your question to one of the panelists if you like. If you would be happy for any or all of them to answer the question, please indicate that.
The gentleman in the back.
Q: Thank you. My name is Richard Dreyfuss and I’m head of the Dreyfuss Civic Initiative.
There are two things I’d like to put forth to any of the panelists. One was that Putin seems to have inherited the disastrous decisions of the Yeltsin government, which took the advice of Wall Street and created oligarchs and sold their state properties to the West, and reduced the Soviets to—or reduced the Russians to poverty. That was his going-in situation. And he—and no one in Russia seems to have blamed Yeltsin. They blamed Wall Street and Richard Rubin. That’s one.
And the other is, when one of you gentlemen mentioned the hegemony of America, that if there was no one else then America felt that it had the right to enter these areas. And in a way, what we’re saying is that America’s liberal imperialism was the end of history and the way that all the world would go, and that we were not going to tolerate differences, and everyone had to be, in essence, a constitutionalist. And I would just put forth that Russia is a country that was defined, to me, by an anecdote told to me about the fall of Khrushchev, when he was resigning or fired. He was weeping and he said: You’re right to fire me, because I was turning into him—meaning Stalin—but I’d give you two gifts. I took the military down from bullet to bullet and tank to tank. And I give you the first bloodless succession. And he meant the first bloodless succession in 3,000 years.
Any attempt to bring Russia up to a modern state with modern democratic ideals is going to be long term, cautious, and it’s not going to look for a long time like anything we like. But I believe that is impossible not to see that Putin, Medvedev and the people around him are trying to establish roots of democracy and understand constituencies within Russia. I also—
MANDELBAUM: Thank you. I think we have a lot on the agenda. Let me ask our panelists whether any of them would like to comment on anything that’s just been said.
GORDON: Well, maybe I can start because I think I was the one who mentioned this American liberal expansionism, about which I would say, yes. The United States did take the decision at the end of the Cold War, consistent with the way it approached foreign policy for years, that it had an interest and consistent with its values in promoting democracy, human rights throughout the world, and including in Eastern Europe. If—and this goes back to the point I made earlier—if the relationship with Russia were the predominant or only focus of U.S. foreign policy, it could have taken the view that it’s none of Washington’s business who governs in the Baltic states, Poland, the Balkans, all other things. That would have been an option, if good relations with Russia were the sole goal.
I don’t think that is consistent with our interests and values, nor do I think it would have actually led to the better relationship with Russia. And this is maybe where I have a difference with Michael. I mean, when you do the list of things—you know, intervening in the Balkans, missile defense, Iraq War, NATO enlargement—we can have policy debates about each of those things, but to the extent that they were pursued because of U.S. interests and, once again, values when it comes to Democracy in Eastern Europe, you are sacrificing a lot if you’re going to back off on all of those things and say, you know, if a million Kosovars are being driven from their home we’d like to help but the relationship with Russia is just too important so we’re not going to do it. Poles want a democracy and they want to join the European Union, we’d like to be sympathetic but, you know, we’re trying to have a good relationship with Russia.
That just doesn’t seem to me to be either realistic or consistent with our interests or—and this is maybe even more important—likely to have led to a better relationship with Russia, as if they would, as today we’re debating or discussing Syria or energy or interference in elections—they would say, like, Putin, that guy that you rightly described, would be saying, well, you know, since they cut us some slack on missile defense and left themselves vulnerable to ICBMs, we should cut them some slack on the current issues. I just don’t think it’s likely. And that’s why I said this was partly inevitable.
I don’t have too much to say on the economic piece. You’re right that a legacy of the way the transition did play out was to leave oligarchs in charge of way too significant sectors of the Russian economy. That clearly has had a consequence, including for Russians themselves. The only thing I would add to it, that would be a whole other debate, is it also underscores there’s just not an easy way to transition from a devastated, you know, 70-year communist program to capitalism.
MANDELBAUM: Other questions. Well, Jim—
MENDRAS: Can I just—
GOLDGEIER: I would add in on—
MANDELBAUM: OK. Do you want to go head?
MENDRAS: Yeah. I wanted maybe just to build on—briefly on what Phil said about, you know, knocking at the door of NATO—of the EU, but also NATO, and, in a way, respond to Michael about NATO. Those newly free societies and those new governments, after 1991, had a policy of rapprochement with us, with us Europeans, Americans, Canadians. And they asked to join the EU and NATO together. There was no two-track thing, which I think was often mistakenly understood in the United States. For example, Poland was at least as interested and eager to join the EU as NATO, because they were convinced that only if they joined, you know, the Western economic community and human rights space could they feel secure. So of course, they would ask for NATO membership in a much more vocal way. And say, listen, we still have this threat coming from Russia. It’s a nuclear power. But really, they knew that the EU was at least as important.
So I don’t think we can just say, you know, we, the Americans or NATO, made a mistake because we took them in. They asked to join at this very key historical moment, and for reasons I’m sure I don’t have to explain to all of you. I don’t see how any of our governments, especially the French and the Germans, could have told—hey, guys, can you wait another 10 years so we can figure out, you know, what the sensitivity in the Kremlin is? It was—it was really impossible to—not to negotiate with the new independent states.
GOLDGEIER: I just—yeah, I just want to make two quick points. One is, I think thinking about EU and NATO enlargement together is very important. And I would argue that EU enlargement could not have occurred without NATO enlargement, because I think NATO provided—there’s no way the Baltics, for example—
MENDRAS: And vice versa.
GOLDGEIER: —could have been in the EU if they hadn’t—if there wasn’t the security guarantee provided by NATO.
On the issues that have been raised, I just do want to make a point about sort of how we approach the—you know, our definition of interests and how we think about that with the Russians, because I think a big mistake in the ’90s was trying to tell the Russians what their interests were, and basically saying: You should be happy about NATO enlargement because your threats are all from the east and the south, you’ve got China, you’ve got the Islamic threat. You know, this will create security and stability on your western border, and that’s good for you.
Our role is to pursue our interests. I do think our interests were well-served by creating this zone of stability and security across most of Central and Eastern Europe. And then you listen to the other side to find their interests the way they define it. And you hear what they’re saying. And there may not be a resolution, but at least you are approaching it from these are ours, and listening to them about theirs, not trying to tell them what their interests are or should be. And I do think that that’s a subtle way of thinking about the approach to Russia or any other country, and one I think we would be well-advised to take onboard.
MANDELBAUM: Kim Martin.
Q: Yes, hi. I’m Kimberly Martin from Barnard College and Columbia University.
My question is especially for Jim, but anybody can take it if they’re interested in it. We now know that what was happening in the early 1990s in Russia is that decisions were being made by Andrei Kozyrev, almost as an individual, who had an enormous amount of impact over how Boris Yeltsin thought about things. Andrei Kozyrev, obviously, was the foreign minister at that time. He also seemed to have a huge amount of impact on how Pavel Grachev, the defense minister, thought about things.
And so when we’re thinking about defining interests of Russia, here you have Yeltsin and Kozyrev standing as individuals, not always being very responsive to the domestic politics of what’s happening in Russia at the time. So what could we have actually in a practical level have done differently to make NATO enlargement something that the Russians, you know, in the broad expanse of things would have accepted, given that there were these two individuals who were not really representative of the country as a whole who were responsible for the decision making at the time? Thanks.
GOLDGEIER: Well, I’d just go back to just what I just said, which is—I mean, you know, there—you know, Yeltsin was the elected president. I mean, you know, I don’t think telling him, gee, you know, your views on the relationship with the United States and the West are different from the way your people feel would have been our—the role that we should have been playing. He certainly well-understood the nationalist forces within Russia. And that’s why he was so relieved in October of 1993, when he thought he’d dodged the NATO enlargement bullet, and why he was upset a year later when he realized he hadn’t. And you know, Kozyrev at the end of ’93 said our greatest achievement this year was that we kept NATO enlargement off the table. And he too was—you know, a year later was quite concerned.
I think that, you know, I mean, the Yeltsin goal was to move Russia to be part of the West and integrated with the West, but in way in which Russia would be an equal, not the junior partner. And, you know, Putin realized that when he came in, that, you know, well, if being part of the West means being a junior partner, I’m not interested in being a junior partner. I’m interested in Russia as a great power. I think, you know, when Putin came in he wanted a good relationship with the West, but on his own terms and, again, not a part of the West. You know, Yeltsin and Kozyrev were really trying to move Russia into the West.
I don’t know that NATO enlargement could have been done in way that would have been acceptable. You know, the United States tried to do this enlarge with the Central and Eastern Europeans, and tried to create a mechanism for NATO-Russia relations, a council that emerged. And again, I don’t know that it was our—it was our job to make Russia comfortable with it. I think that’s where I get back to the point of we had certain interests to pursue in Central and Eastern Europe that we pursued very successfully, and I think were right to do so.
And the real challenge—again, it’s not just for us, but for Russia. Russia also didn’t do a very good job of trying to figure out what its place in Europe would be. And like we’ve seen in places like Ukraine and Georgia, too often defines its own security through the insecurity of its neighbors. And that was going to be a problem for how we approached the European order.
MANDELBAUM: Ed Cox.
Q: Ed Cox, New York GOP.
In the late ’80s and the early ’90s, President Nixon got very involved in Soviet and Russian policy, basically pushing Yeltsin over Gorbachev, and eventually with Clinton going back and forth to Moscow and advising President Clinton. And his view was—a very basic question I’d like to put to the panel—was that communist lost, but democracy has not yet won. And that’s why the ultimate Cold Warrior was going back and forth and trying to be influential in that. Can democracy in the broad sense of the word ever succeed in Russia?
MENDRAS: Yes, of course it can. (Laughter.) I mean, if it’s making progress in Ukraine, why couldn’t it make progress in Russia? But this, I think, would be a long conversation. But I think to start from the point of view that Russians are not fit for democracy when they live, you know, under a regime that makes it very difficult for them to express themselves, what they would like, and when they cannot vote with a real pluralist alternative. And I think it is a bit preposterous to state that they are not fit for democracy. And I think it’s precisely events in Ukraine from 2004 to this very day, are absolutely key in understanding the Kremlin’s frustrations.
Everything that is happening in Ukraine is seen as a threat to the Putin regime, because the Putin regime is in survival mode. They want to survive because they know that they can’t quit power. It’s too dangerous for them to quit power. Hence, they are very great—excited at the capacity of civil society, of opponents like Alexei Navalny to unveil corruption, to unveil the incapacity of their leadership. So we shouldn’t talk about Russians without stating whom we’re talking about and at what time.
And this is where also our previous discussion about the early 1990s, and the problem with the timeline—because there is a timeline of when things happen, and a very tight timeline from early 1992. When I remember for the—really the French, we went to the three Baltic states to offer to help them restructure their army and their defense. I remember, because I was invited by the minister of defense then to go and talk to the three Baltic states. And it was fascinating. So I think all of us had our own timeline, because so many things were happening every day.
Now, the danger when we revisit recent history is that there are quite a few people actively rewriting the timeline. And even Andrei Kozyrev, who was at the Woodrow Wilson Center with me and is finishing his memoirs, he admits that it’s difficult for him to go for analytical story, analytical narrative of his own personal story, because he is so influenced by the many consequences of what they did in ’93, ’94 and ’95, and what they didn’t do. So the—I would like to stress once more that I do not think in the first half of the 1990s that we, Western governments, NATO member states, had many different options, but to enlarge to the countries that felt ready to enlarge.
And I don’t remember at that time any really unpleasant reaction from Moscow. It seems to me that even Putin, if you think about it, he started being quite critical about the formal entry of the Eastern European states into NATO when it actually happened. But if you remember 2001, 2002, I don’t think Vladimir Putin spent much time discussing NATO enlargement. I don’t think it was his major—you know, his major problem. But after enlargement was a fact, then—and for probably many other reasons, like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine—Putin specifically wanted to have a go at NATO, and revisit the manner in which the Americans had imposed NATO enlargement on Poland and Hungary, which of course is not the true story.
MANDELBAUM: Thank you. We’ve reached the end of our time. Let me apologize to Jim Hoge for not getting to him. Jim, I hope you will ask your question at a future panel, even if it’s not relevant to that panel. (Laughter.) And I want to, in closing, to invoke again—and this time abuse—the chairman’s prerogative—so-called, by me—by making two comments, since a number of the comments by our panelists were directed at what I said. I can’t reply in full, by let me make two brief comments.
First, in the Yeltsin era, in the 1990s, we heard a lot of talk about interests. The Russian government defined its interests as joining the West. And we were the ones who said no. We were the ones who told them they couldn’t belong to NATO. Second, as for American interests in Europe, The United States has had, since 100 years ago last week, one overriding interest in Europe, and that has been and is European security. The American government decided in the wake of the Cold War that the best way to assure European security was to have a principal security organization on the continent that excluded Russia. That seemed to me at the time, and seems to me now, strategic foolishness—foolishness being a synonym for stupidity. (Laughter.)
Thank you. We now have a coffee break and we will reconvene in 15 minutes.