Russia and the West: A Historical Perspective

Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Don Pollard
Anne Applebaum

Columnist, Washington Post; Author, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

Managing Director, Kissinger Associates, Inc.; Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia (2004–2007), National Security Council

Stephen Kotkin

John P. Birkelund '52 Professor in History and International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; Author, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941


George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists discuss the history of Russian foreign policy, and how themes seen through the last century of Russia’s relationship with the West might affect present and future U.S.-Russia relations.

This meeting is the 2017 Russia and Russian-American Relations Lecture.


SESTANOVICH: (Coughs.) Hearing my cough reverberate around the room tells me the microphones are on and we can get started. I’m Steve Sestanovich. I’m a fellow here at the Council. And I want to welcome you to this session on Russia and Russian-American relations in historical perspective.

I want to begin, though, by noting that this is a session conducted under the rubric of the Alfa Lecture. And I should say an explanatory word about that. About 15 years ago the leadership of Alfa, Misha Fridman and Petr Aven, who are here with us today, approached us with the thought that it was necessary and worthwhile to continue attention to Russia in this country at a time when interest was focusing—turning to other issues and crises, to the issues of Russian-American relations. And we thought that was a worthy project, and one that we’ve tried to carry out over the past 15 years. We are glad to have Aven and Fridman here with us today as a sign of their continued commitment and our continued commitment to this effort. I think it’s a worthwhile cause, perhaps now more than ever.

We are here today with an outstanding panel for the purposes of talking about Russia and the West in a historical perspective. You’ve got their bios, so I’m not going to drone on about their accomplishments. Suffice it to say that Anne Applebaum and Steve Kotkin are the authors of two books that are going to be among the most read, most talked about and, we hope, most purchased of the fall. And Tom Graham is, after many years as a foreign service officer, is one of the most active participants in debate about Russia and Russian-American relations.

We’ve got 30 minutes to talk amongst ourselves—25. I want to leave a lot of room for discussion from the audience. Among the topics that we can take up, I want to—I want to sort of start with a Stalinist perspective, because both Steve and Anne have written about—books that address Stalin. And so I want to start with the question of personalist rule, one-man dictatorship, you might say. And then turn to questions of Russia’s identity, relations with its neighbors, relations with the West.

But let’s start with Stalin. And I’d like to start with you, Steve. Polls continue to show that Stalin is one of the most respected, popular leaders of the past. What can we learn about that that is—about that history that’s relevant to the way Russia is sort of—to cite the title of a book that we all read in graduate school—how Russia is ruled? Is it—people will say Russia is bound to be a kind of authoritarian system. It’s in the DNA to one-man rule. As the author of volume two of a new biography of Stalin, what do you say?

KOTKIN: Thank you for that very simple question to lead us off. (Laughter.) I always can count on you to be kind. Thank you for the honor of the invitation.

There is a political culture argument that’s often made, something which is in Russian culture generally that produces authoritarianism or one-man rule. I prefer to make a geopolitical argument to explain this phenomenon. And mine has to do with Russia having great ambition, not having the capacity to always realize its great ambitions to be among the great—the greatest power. Having, therefore, recourse to state or state as an instrument, state action to try to make up for the gap with the West. And then the quest to build a strong state gives you personal rule each time.

So you don’t actually get a strong state. You get a state that can arrest people or that can break its own laws, but you don’t get a state that can get compliance from these state officials, for example, that can get enactment of its policies. So this is a long-standing problem, personal rule, for them. It looks very strong, but it has tremendous weaknesses. It is, in fact, in many ways a failure of the building of a strong state that they would like to see.

We wouldn’t want to compare Stalin and Putin too closely. They’re very different personality types. I think at a minimum Stalin’s category is a small one—Mao, Hitler, that’s really about it. So we wouldn’t want to take it too far. (Laughter.) What you do see, however, is the desire to raise Russia’s status in the world, the lack of tools or incomplete toolbox to do that, the use of the state as a mechanism to try to close the gap with the West, and then the personal rule.

We tend to see the personal rule as the issue which worsen relations between the two countries. We see it as very much at the center of poor U.S.-Russian relations. But I would also argue there’s a geopolitical story there too. Russian and U.S. interests clash—fundamentally clash. So I wouldn’t say that—the personalism keeps coming back, but I wouldn’t say that it is the cause of the worsening U.S.-Russia relations. But that’s a debatable point.

SESTANOVICH: Anne, Tom, personalism, and as a tradition in Russian politics?

APPLEBAUM: Well, I actually think we make a mistake in over-personalizing the leader of Russia. Of course, you know, Putin is central to any understanding and description of the state. But he also has a lot of people working for him, just has Stalin had a lot of people working for him. And we underestimate the role of, you know, other groups within society and other actors who are constantly seeking to please the leader in various different ways.

So it’s really not just—and just as it was never Stalin—you know, Stalin never took decisions by himself, you know, that led automatically to the expansion of the gulag. What he did is he set a general direction of policy. He was very ideological and the people around him were very ideological. And then others sought to please him and find ways of followings that policy.

And I think—although, again, I completely agree with Steve that it would be a mistake to make a direct comparison between Putin and Stalin, there’s some way in which Russia still works a little bit like that, in that Putin has set a tone and people seek to—you know, seek to find ways of carrying out and seeking to—and seeking to—(inaudible). So it’s important always to understand that it’s a complicated and sophisticated state with different moving parts, and not to try and imagine, for example, that just by doing a deal with Putin or by replacing Putin that we would automatically fix a problem.

SESTANOVICH: Tom, let me put the question to you slightly differently. For all of the features that have promoted a strong central authority, in Russia for the past 60 years there’s been the idea that you had to de-Stalinize. And yet, we end up with a lot of—well, you end up with Stalin popular. You end up with many institutions on which Stain’s rule was based still strong. What’s your perspective on how incomplete that de-Stalinization has been?

GRAHAM: Well, I mean, I would go back to what both, I think, Steve and Anne have said already. I think there is a long tradition in Russia of this type of rule. I would call it more oligarchic than personalized. I think the oligarchy always needed a person at the center to anchor the system, and that became the individual that the system as a whole was identifying with—whether it be Stalin, whether it be Putin now, whether you go back to any one of the—any one of the czars. And so what we’re seeing today is very much in that tradition.

De-Stalinization, you know, played a political role, I think, to—throughout Soviet history over the past 60 years, but as a way of legitimating the rule of certain individuals within that system. It didn’t fundamentally change the system. Now, if you look at the problem today, why is Stalin popular, I don’t think it’s because people are unaware of the crimes that were committed during the Stalinist period. I think that has been aired quite broadly in Russia, certainly over the past 25 years. I think that you have the popularity because the symbol of Stalin, particularly with the Second World War, the Great Patriotic War, an event that demonstrated Russia’s power, Russia’s success in the world, and demonstrated national unity—all things that are important—particularly important to Putin today.

Stalin’s a state builder. Russians tend to like people who build states. You know, you go back to Peter I, Catherine the Great, Stalin, and now Putin wanting to be in that same role. And then also, as I said, the national unity aspect of it. National unity is particularly important at this time, something that certainly Putin himself has emphasized in recent developments. But I think that is shared broadly across the Russian population. So I think there are very good reasons why Stalin is still revered in the Russian political system, despite the widespread knowledge of the actual catastrophes on the personal side during the 1930s in particular.

SESTANOVICH: Since you mentioned World War II, I want to pick up the question of relations with the West, because there was a time when, to the extent Russian and Soviet and American leaders invoked Stalin in a positive way, it was as a symbol of an alliance that had existed during World War II, a common cause that made it possible for the two countries to cooperate. That seems a very long time ago. The kinds of themes that dominate the discourse in both countries are very different. But is there a way in which the rhetoric of national unity and of the desire for standing as a great power push toward accommodation with the West? Or is this entirely now, the legacy of Stalin, one of hostility to the outside world, and a kind of—you know, what Steve started out with, describing as a desire to expand Russian influence in a hostile world.

GRAHAM: Is that a question for me?

SESTANOVICH: Actually, let any of you. I’m eager to have all of your comment.

GRAHAM: OK, I’ll take it very briefly. I’ll pick upon what Steve said, because I think he talked about the political clashes now. I think if you look back over the history of U.S.-Russian relations, certainly since the time the United States emerged as a great power at the end of the 19th century, the relationship with Russia hasn’t been particularly warm. Remember, we began with competition in Manchuria. President Theodore Roosevelt tilted toward Japan at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, and only changed after the Japanese humiliated the Russians on land and at sea. You have a period of nonrecognition after the Bolshevik revolution. You have the Cold War. You know, there are very few periods when we’ve had a hope for cooperation or there’s—

SESTANOVICH: So the World War II alliance is just a—

APPLEBAUM: No, it was—it was instrumental. I mean, Stalin saw World War—the moment of World War II. He saw that it was at this moment useful to have an alliance with the West, just as a couple of years earlier he’d seen that it was useful to have an alliance with Nazi Germany. One of the things we often forget about Stalin is that he was in alliance with Hitler for a number—you know, for a couple of years, and that that—you know, at that time, that governed his thinking.

I think if you want to look at a comparison of the past and the present, I think that one of the difficulties we’re having with Putin right is that he does see, once again, as a series of Soviet leaders saw, he sees an ideological challenge coming from the United States. And this is now harder for us to understand, because we don’t see that we’re doing that, or we don’t identify what we’re doing as presenting an ideological challenge to Russia. But the rhetoric of democracy, if you will, or the rhetoric—you know, the international alliance that we are part of, he now fears these as a challenge to his rule.

I mean, one of the reasons I think why Putin was so shocked by the sight of young Ukrainians waving the European flag and calling for democracy and rule of law in Kiev in 2014 was that that—you know, that’s his nightmare of what could happen at home. Once of the reasons why in 2011 and ’12, and he saw that kind—those kinds of demonstrations in Moscow, he immediately assumed they had been provoked or supported by the United States, he openly blamed Hillary Clinton, was that he identifies that kind of movement with us—rightly or wrongly.

And so, you know, almost whether we like it or not, we are seen—our system is seen as a challenge to his system of oligarchic autocracy. And that—you know, that’s difficult to get around. It’s not about NATO. It’s not about a military clash. It’s really—there are ideas at the heart of it.


KOTKIN: Yeah. So the World War II alliance—

SESTANOVICH: I know that’s volume three. (Laughter.)

KOTKIN: Is—if I write it.

SESTANOVICH: Give us an anticipation.

KOTKIN: The World War II alliance is less of an alliance than meets the eye, right? There’s no coordinated military action. The U.S. even declines to put troops under U.S. command on Soviet territory on the eastern front, right? There is no coordinated military action. There’s lend-lease and there’s some things, but it’s not the kind of alliance that the U.S.-British alliance is.

Secondly, with Hitler, it’s a non-aggression pact, not a form alliance, with the Nazis. And in fact, they can’t come to terms on what the alliance should look like, because Hitler wants Stalin to be a junior partner in a battle against the British empire. And they go through negotiations with this in Berlin in November 1940. And the Soviets want a parity alliance with the Nazis. And so it ends up not working.

But the Soviets, the Russians, they’re not good at alliances in general. They’re not good at joining things, except on their own terms. Now, they are a member—a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Of course, they earned that position by winning World War II land war on the eastern front, defeating the Nazi army. So you can’t gainsay that, obviously. And that was inherited by the current Russian regime.

So why are U.S.-Russian relations bad as far back as we can see? There’s a fundamental clash of interests. The U.S. grand strategy is don’t allow any great power to dominate its region—whether that be Europe, Eurasia, or East Asia. Russia’s fundamental grand strategy is dominate its region. So that’s a fundamental clash of interests. I could elaborate on this quite a lot.

There’s also a fundamental clash of values. The primary U.S. value is freedom, especially freedom from the state. The primary Russian value, the core Russian value is the state, the aggrandizement of the state. There’s a fundamental clash of core values. This doesn’t mean that U.S.-Russian relations always have to be as bad as they currently are, because this clash of interest and values can be better managed than it is currently by both sides.

But this is not a misunderstanding. This is not a lack of dialogue. This is not some individual leader’s idiosyncrasies. This is not something that a button mistranslated can fix, right? (Laughter.) But, however, we’re in a really bad place now. And for our own purposes in the U.S., as well as for the rest of the world, we need to get to a better place with them.

SESTANOVICH: The example that is often used, beyond World War II—which we’ve now learned is not a real alliance—is détente, which is thought to be another period that provides a kind of positive example for how you would restore a more cooperative relationship. I suppose you could argue that the same things undid détente that you’ve just described, Steve. That is, a clash of interests and values. Is that—is that how you would see that episode, as a sort of short-lived exception that was, in a way, based on a misunderstanding, because the underlying clash continued? Any of you want to pick up on—

KOTKIN: I’m looking out at the audience, and I’m careful here because some of you may have been responsible for the détente policy—(laughter)—on the inside here. So I was a little young that—

SESTANOVICH: Be uninhibited, Steve.

KOTKIN: But détente was an attempt to lower the tensions because the U.S. was going through the loss of the Vietnam War, Watergate, Nixon and the rust belt and the oil shock. And there were reasons that generated a push from this side to enter into this bargain. But the détente itself couldn’t be as substantial, for reasons that I articulated. And it ended really quickly.

Kissinger the other day—I was at an event with Henry Kissinger, forgive me for this. It was a freak that I was invited to that event. (Laughter.) And he said that he was pro-détente until he saw—that he was anti-détente until he saw the war plan. And then the war plan was, you know, total destruction of the whole planet. And then he thought that détente might be a good idea. (Laughter.)

So I think—you know, are we in a state of that level of motivation for both sides to get back to a bargaining process where we recognize each other’s interests in a way that doesn’t contravene our core values? I don’t see that imperative right now.

GRAHAM: No, I mean, I agree with Steve on this. But, you know, the point I would make is the same thing happened after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia enters into a more cooperative relationship with the United States because of its strategic weakness at that point. It didn’t have any really other good options. It’s trying to solve its own problems, trying to find a way of getting its feet on the ground. And you see the reemergence of the clash over geopolitical interest and values as Russia regains its strength. That’s the Putin period from 2000 on. And so, again, it’s a natural evolution towards that. The détente, where the break in cooperation occurs, when the other side regains its strength, is prepared to pursue the competitive relationship that it couldn’t have before.

APPLEBAUM: I mean, you could argue that the period of the Medvedev presidency was a kind of détente. It was a moment when—particularly in Europe—people had great hopes for a new kind of relationship with Russia. Germans in particular had hoped that Medvedev was going in their direction. They put a lot of effort and they invested a lot of energy in courting him and people around him. And the same thing in the U.S.

Actually, there was a member of the White House Russia team at that time who said to me, well, actually, our policy with Medvedev is to pretend he’s really the president. (Laughter.) And we’re just going to act like he’s the president and we’re going to believe everything he says and we’re going to assume that his liberal language—and we know there are these other things going on in the background, but we’re going to—you know, we’re going to act like he’s the president in order to keep the relationship going.

You know, the trouble is that now with—in retrospect, that looks like a failure and a sort of naïve misunderstanding and misreading of what was going on in Russia. And so, you know, I’m not sure that it offers that great a guide for the future.

SESTANOVICH: Well, certainly the issue that has played the largest role in, you know, sending relations back into a new period of confrontation is, of course, Ukraine, which gets us back to the way you defined the Russian grand strategy, Steve, which was dominate your region. And I wonder whether in the time we have left just talking amongst ourselves we can say a little bit about Russian national identity and relations with neighbors, because there was for a time in the early ’90s a kind of version of Russian nationalism that said: We’re not interested in these neighbors, even others in the—within the Soviet Union, but regarded them as a drain on Russian resources. And the opportunity to be just a Russian nation-state seemed like a step forward.

That seems also like a long time ago. And the idea of accepting neighbors as other nation-states came to be seen as a kind of reflection just of Russian weakness. What happened in this transition? Is it just that Russian strength made it possible to aspire to dominate other countries? Is it that their—that the threat seemed larger from those countries? Is there—what can we understand about how relations went bad that might tell us how they could get better?

APPLEBAUM: I think you really have to look at Russian domestic politics, and at Putin’s desire for legitimacy. He, you know, doesn’t have democratic legitimacy. And, you know, so he sought finding legitimacy—he sought legitimacy in other ways. Initially, in the first years that he was in power, he offered a sort of bargain to the Russian people. OK, you don’t have democracy and you don’t have these rights, but I’m going to bring you stability and I’m going to give you a constantly improving standard of living.

As that became less true, or harder to deliver, he’s begun to look for other kinds of narratives to explain why he should be in power and why he should stay there. And one of them is I will make Russia great again. I will give Russia a role on the world stage. He has, you know, slowly—has re-politicized history. It was his decision to make World War II and that moment of the victory—put that at the center of Russia’s history politics, having an annual celebration. And he, you know, once again offered to the Russian people the chance to be a world power.

I mean, I think in doing so he misunderstood some things about his neighbors. And I think he very badly misunderstood Ukraine. One of the things he imagined about Ukraine was that all Russian-speaking Ukrainians were Russians. And that when he offered Ukrainians the opportunity to rejoin Russia, they would automatically do it. And the invasion, first of Crimea and then of Eastern Ukraine, was originally intended to be a much bigger event. There was going to be a new state, called Novorossiya, which was going to be eastern Ukraine, a Russian-speaking entity.

And it was going to happen without much trouble. There were going to be a few little coup d’états in Kharkiv and Odessa and a few other places. And then when the Ukrainians pushed back, and when particularly in those cities when people didn’t go along with it, they had to—they had to rethink. But I think he’s had a—he’s seen it as a function of domestic politics. And I think there’s been a lot of—you know, he’s misunderstood Russia’s relationship in its own region as well.


KOTKIN: Well, here’s question, I think, where you do see continuity with the Stalin period, in fact with the czarist period. If you look in the czarist archives and the Soviet archives, you’ll find that they do not take the sovereignty of small states seriously. I think the Putin regime is part of a longer stretch here. What I mean by that is they believe that in the international system small states are instruments for great powers to manipulate against the great power’s enemies. So to someone like Putin, as to someone like Stalin or to the czarist regime before them, things like the Baltic states or Ukraine or Poland or Finland—and I could go on—they’re not really sovereign. They may think they’re sovereign, but they’re just instruments that some other great power will use against Russia.

That is the view of Ukraine for sure under the Putin regime. In addition to some of the important domestic considerations that Anne just outlined, there is this denigration or, as it were, cynicism regarding the sovereignty of—now, there’s an irony there because the Russians, of course, raise the issue of sovereignty as a core international principle on which the whole international system is founded—respect for sovereignty. But they don’t accord that principle the same weight when it comes to these smaller states. So they don’t believe that Ukraine is sovereign. They believe that Ukraine is a Western instrument being used to undermine Western power and, even worse, to dismember Russia. Now, I’m not saying that I agree with that understanding. I’m not saying that I’m validating that understanding. But there’s a longstanding tradition in Russian politics.

GRAHAM: If I could just follow up on this. I think you need to realize that Ukraine occupies a special place in Russia’s imagination. So it’s not like the Baltic states. It’s not like the Kazakhs. It’s not even like the Poles. And it gets to the core question of Russian national identity, who are we as Russians? Building on something that Steve said earlier, you can’t exaggerate the center importance of the state in Russian history. It’s the main actor. And you can make an argument it’s the Russian state that has sort of defined what Russia is, what the Russian nation is.

And rightly or wrongly, that’s traced back to Kiev and Rus. Much of today’s Ukraine was territory that was instrumental in Russia’s rise as a great power. It’s the center of industry in the 19th century, the breadbasket. Russia wouldn’t have been a great power at the end of the 19th century if it hadn’t had this territory of Ukraine. Putin has said that the Russians and the Ukrainians are one people. Again, an issue that wouldn’t have been raise 100 or 200 years ago. In a sense, Ukrainians and the Russians are the foundation of the Russian state, the Russian empire. In many ways, the Soviet Union was run as a joint venture among the—between the Ukrainians and the Russians.

That, I think, continues to today. So this inability on the Russians, particularly someone like Putin, to accept that this is an independent nation that should be a sovereign that has its own interests. No, it should be part of Russia. I think somewhat surprised that, as Anne said, when the Ukraine crisis erupted that the Russian speakers, the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, didn’t rush back into the embrace of Moscow.

APPLEBAUM: A really good analogy is the relationship of Great Britain to Ireland in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The idea that Ireland was automatically British and what—how could it be possible that it could be a separate country, and the refusal to understand that there was some kind of separate sensibility, and that it only took, I don’t know, the Easter Rising and a century of sovereignty and the Troubles and so on before the British really began to see Ireland as a separate country is something like what we’re seeing today between Russia and Ukraine.

SESTANOVICH: Well, right. I am going to recognize questions from the audience so that we can—and I’m hoping to get as many questions as possible. So I’m going to encourage our speakers to be exceptionally concise in their—in their answers. And I’ll start right here.

Hopefully one question. I’m hoping Professor Marten doesn’t stand up and say: I’ve got three questions. (Laughter.)

Q: No, one.


Q: Hi. I’m Kimberly Marten with Barnard College and the Harriman Institute at Columbia. Thanks for this terrific panel. I learned a lot from what each of you had to say.

My question is primarily for Steve Kotkin, but I’m happy to take anybody’s views on this. Was there a time in 1992 when things could have turned out differently if Yeltsin had used the incredible popular support that he had after the collapse of the Soviet Union to pass a new constitution, hold new elections, sell off state assets more slowly, encourage private enterprise by smaller scale individuals through a set of legal norms more rationally, and if there had been a Marshall Plan from the United States? So a lot of what-ifs. But if things had happened differently in 1992, can you imagine a situation where Russia would be willing to give up this desire to have a statist foreign policy security-oriented dominance of its region and join the Western world community? Or was that just wishful thinking on the bunch of scholars who didn’t know what they were talking about? (Laughter.)

KOTKIN: You know, if I’m not mistaken, one of the people up here was sort of on the inside at that time period—(laughter)—and might have a better answer than I have.

SESTANOVICH: Not in 1992.

KOTKIN: OK, but not long thereafter. (Laughter.) Do you want to take that one? (Laughter.)

SESTANOVICH: Well, Kim makes an interesting question about the—about what might have been in the ’90s that’s very different from the usual what might have been in the ’90s, because it doesn’t focus on NATO enlargement but instead on domestic institutions and legitimacy. And I think—I tend to think those are very important, because—a Russian journalist said to me recently, you know, in 1992 there really was the opportunity to keep the KGB from coming back as the dominant institution of Russian politics. And it’s the biggest mistake that Yeltsin made. And I tend to think that was something that we misunderstood at the time. I remember when I was not in government but asked to come in from time to time and brief people in government. I said very shortly after 1991: The KGB is really finished as an institution. (Laughter.) I’m pained to recall that prediction.

GRAHAM: Yeah, but Steve, remember, I mean, Yeltsin did break up the KGB. He broke it into—

SESTANOVICH: He divided it, but I don’t think he broke its power.

GRAHAM: Probably not entirely. But the idea behind that was to diminish somewhat the collective power of the special services at that time.

Another thing to remember is that—I mean, you got the political climate at that time, which Kimberly is talking about, was that really thinkable at that time? A new constitution, what would have that looked like? New elected representatives? And we tend to forget that the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies, which we saw as this retrograde element in the 1990s—until 1993, was elected in probably the freest and fairest election that Russia has ever had, from the Soviet period through today.

So there wasn’t a lot of support for that movement towards the West. I think we tend to exaggerate that. Russia is a very conservative society. The elites had been broken by the breakup of the Soviet Union, demoralized in some way, but wanted to return to that great power status. And I think, as we have argued here, return to the great power status almost inevitably necessitates some sort of clash on the geopolitical side with the—with the West, the United States in particular.

APPLEBAUM: Yeah, I actually think the question focused correctly on things that were not done inside Russia. And we spent a lot of time in the late 1990s and 2000 arguing who lost Russia. You know, what did we do? And there was a lot of breast-beating about our policy. And although I—actually, I have a slightly idiosyncratic view of what our policies were—mainly, I think we were wrong to celebrate capitalism and democracy in Russia at a time when they—neither really existed. And we somehow gave both a bad name by—you know, by blessing them and saying how wonderful they were, when they weren’t really there.

But the—but the point is correct, that the internal change in Russia that could have happened then, you know, at a moment of genuinely revolutionary fervor, when people were very enthusiastic about—you know, about making things different, that that didn’t happen, that that’s really the explanation for where we are today, and not our failure to do X or Y.

SESTANOVICH: I’ll give you the answer that my Russian journalist friend gave on this, that is she said Yeltsin was both too optimistic and too pessimistic. Too optimistic in thinking that things were going to develop in a good way without this kind of massive transformation, and in particular breaking up the KGB. And too pessimistic in thinking that things might get out of control and you might need some instruments to maintain order.

KOTKIN: So there were 250,000 KGB operatives and employees on January 1st, 1992. And there were 7,000 judges, and 250,000 KGB operatives. So we would like to have been able to flush and flush the Soviet institutions and the Soviet personnel and the Soviet practices, and be done with them, and have, as it were, a clean bowl to start. But it was not, what we call, a greenfield site. (Laughter.) It was a brownfield site. In addition, as some of the members of the audience can tell you, there were some policy mistakes. And those policy mistakes were not inevitable. But, you know, we were talking famine in 1992. There was fear that there wasn’t going to be enough food, that they would starve. We were talking about communist revanche, that they would come back. The sense of urgency—I remember being there—the sense of urgency that was felt there at the time also has to be factored in as we retrospectively assess the policy mistakes with hindsight. And there were some policy mistakes.

SESTANOVICH: I’m pledging for the panel that we’re going to answer your questions more concisely. (Laughter.)

Q: Thanks very much. John Lhiota (ph), Princeton University.

Our panel says Russia and the West. But if you travel to Europe, the political conversation is quite different. It’s a struggle to find voices that are, like, critical of Putin, of Russia. All the business sector in all the European countries are very much pro-Russian. The leaders, with the exception of Angela Merkel, was reluctant for this action. So are we talking about West versus Russia or it’s the United States and Europe? Thank you.

APPLEBAUM: I think it depends which piece of Europe you’re talking about. I’m guessing if you’re talking about southern Europe then you’re probably correct that people are asking why can’t we have a better relationship, what is this all about? I think if you were to go to Scandinavia or Central Europe you would be hearing a lot of fear and a lot of conversation about the threat that Russia poses, not just militarily but politically, economically. Particularly in smaller countries, the fear that Russian money can be used to undermine national sovereignty or, you know, through bribing and through use of corruption, undermining the economic and political system. You would hear a lot of that.

So I don’t know that—I mean, I think the more interesting point is that Europe is not at all unified about this issue right now. And there are big splits and divisions. I mean, so far they’ve been papered over by the desire to present a united front, both with—you know, with the Germans, the Poles, and, you know, the Balts and the Scandinavians. Whether that will last indefinitely, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t say all of Europe except Merkel. I would say it’s more—you know, it’s a more complicated story than that.

SESTANOVICH: Quick addendum?

KOTKIN: No thank you. That was good.


Q: You used Ukraine as a template for analysis. Could you do the same thing with Syria?

APPLEBAUM: So I answered the last question, so I—(laughter)—I can do it.

SESTANOVICH: Over to you, Tom.

GRAHAM: Why are the Russians in Syria, is that the question you’re asking?

Q: Well, as an analysis from a Russian point of view, their relationship with us, (box ?) the compass—

APPLEBAUM: I think they’re related, Syria and Ukraine. I mean, there are multiple reasons why Russia’s in Syria. One of them was because Ukraine wasn’t going very well. And Ukraine was a—you know, Ukraine was a very—you know, was the main subject on Russian state television for—you know, for many months running. And it was beginning to be less popular. It was beginning to be less a source of support for Putin. And one of the reasons to go into Syria was to change the subject and give another place where Russia can be great again.

And I also—I think there were a number of things. I think there is a—there was a desire to have another sphere of influence. There was some kind of idea that there might be some big trade—you know, somehow trading Russia for Ukraine—I mean, Syria for Ukraine, that we could do some kind deal with the West. You know, there was talk—one heard backroom talk of a sort of new Yalta, where Russia and the United States sit down at the table and somehow divide the Middle East and Ukraine gets thrown in. But I think that was part of the thinking.

I think there was an ideological element, support for Assad, support for, you know, fellow dictators stick together. We’re not going to abandon our friend. We don’t want Syria to be divided. So I think there were—you know, you can look at all those reasons.

GRAHAM: Yeah, let me build up on that. I remember when Putin talked about Syria at the U.N. General Assembly back in 2015, just before Russia went into Syria, what he talked about was a grand anti-terrorist coalition, analogous to the grand coalition against Nazi Germany. This was supposed to be a way of bringing the world together to focus on what might be called an existential threat. But I think very clearly, in his mind, we’re going to focus on terrorism. Terrorism is a threat to Europe. Russia can provide some help in dealing with that problem. And if we’re going to do that, why are we talking about Ukraine? So I think in his mind, there was a geopolitical play. It was Syria, a coalition. This would diminish the importance of Ukraine in the minds of Europeans. That would lead to an easing of sanctions. And would resolve Ukraine in a way that was compatible with Russian interests.


Q: Hi. I’m Mike Richter from Skadden Arps.

I’m wondering if there’s more of an opportunity for a transactional relationship between Russia and the West. I mean, specifically to the point you just made about Syria and this grand strategy of countering terrorism, especially if there can’t be a sort of strategic relationship, given your idea that there’s this clash of fundamental interest.

GRAHAM: Well, I can take that on. I mean, look, at the end of the day we have to deal with Russia. I mean, despite the clash of values, the geopolitical conflicts, there are areas that we can’t resolve satisfactorily to our own advantage without dealing with Russia. The strategic equation is an obvious one. Indispensable. If you’re going to maintain a strategic nuclear balance, you’ve got to talk to the Russians. And there has to be some form of arms control. That has, I think, become more fragile recently. We obviously have differences over intermediate range forces, some conversation in Washington, what do we do about the New START when it expires in 2021? But there, you need to deal with the Russians. You can’t build a European security system that is going to be sustainable over the long term without taking Russia’s interest into account in some way.

I think a very difficult conversation to have, but we had a conversation like that 40 years ago in Helsinki that managed to stabilize the competition in Europe until the end of the Cold War. The Middle East, you can’t have a discussion in the Middle East, you can’t stabilize the Middle East without dealing with the Russians, although clearly the Iranians, the Turks, the Saudis, and the Israelis are bigger players there than the Russians are, and we probably are at this point. So, you know, we’ve managed to do this type of transactional relationship with Russia and the Soviet Union, even during periods of intense geopolitical competition. The challenge for us today is to get back to a period where doing the things that we need to do to stabilize, reduce the tension, reduce the possibilities of the types of conflicts that neither country really wants at this point.

APPLEBAUM: I would say, I think we do have a transactional relationship with Russia, and have had for some time. The difficulty is—you know, there are a number of difficulties. But one of them is that for Putin, particularly recently, it’s been useful to have us as an enemy. And so we have been featured on Russia—I don’t know that Americans realize the degree to which the United States and—is featured as a major foe and a challenge to Russia on state television, almost all the time.


Q: Thanks a lot. Tim Frye from Columbia University.

I think the sense of the panel is strong support for the continuity hypothesis, that the past is prologue in the U.S.-Russian relations. And that’s a powerful narrative, and I agree with it. I want to ask you to think a little bit differently, to think about the instances where we—the traditional reading of Russian—U.S.-Russian relations, Russian history, might mislead us today. Russia is not an exact replica of the Soviet Union. The world has changed in lots of ways in the last 25 years. The occupant of the White House is not a traditional politician, by any stretch of the imagination. We’re here under the auspices of Alfa Bank. You know, I don’t think that we’d be having these lectures like this in the 1980s. So can you talk a little bit about why history—instances in which history might not be a great guide for either the current state of U.S.-Russia relations or the future?

SESTANOVICH: Discontinuity.

KOTKIN: The problem is that Russia is weak and getting weaker. And cyberwarfare and other activities are weapons of the weak. You’ve got a Soviet economy that is one-third the size of the U.S. economy, at peak. You’ve got a Russian economy that’s one-fifteenth the size of the U.S. economy. We haven’t factored in the EU yet, which is obviously a much bigger economy now than Europe separately was back in Soviet times. Between 5 and 10 million Russians live beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. And they’re earning 20 percent above the mean in the countries they live in. That’s a very large, substantial loss of human capital that is rising. If you look at the entire middle class inside Russia, it’s only about 10 million, as you know.

And so this is a country that is a period of decline. In many ways, the Soviet decline did not stop in 1991, as I’ve argued. It continued. Putin arrested the Soviet decline. There was the fantastic 10-year recuperation, right, that produced a higher standard of living across the board for—deep in the society. Still pockets of poverty, but impressive. That’s now stopped again. And so the problem with the relationship on the Russian side is Russia wants a place in the world and an authority in the world that is not commensurate with its current capacities and trajectory.

The problem on the American side is different, but there are some similarities. We have a loss of confidence. We have a loss of a sense of whether we should lead the international order that we helped create, right? We’re not declining the way Russia is declining, but we have a relative decline in our power. And the relative decline, we’re still a superpower, but there’s obviously rising China and the success that we helped facilitate globally. So we’re in a moment now where U.S. confidence is not where it needs to be and where Russia’s situation is dicey, in my point of view. That’s not conductive to the kind of finding common ground that you implied, quite rightly, is necessary and would be a good thing, if we could find that. Maybe this is a wrong answer, but that’s how I see it.

SESTANOVICH: Tom, Anne, discontinuity?


GRAHAM: Go ahead, Anne.

APPLEBAUM: No, I mean, I think you’re absolutely right to say that there are new factors in Russian politics that weren’t there before and the—you know, the rise of a private sector that’s going to have its own interests, you know, will influence events in a different way. And I also dislike the idea that everything is inevitable and the past always repeats itself. I have a Slavic mother-in-law who has a saying, you know, where there’s death there is hope. (Laughter.) You know, the—

KOTKIN: Is she an academic? (Laughter.) That’s what we say in academia. (Laughter.)

APPLEBAUM: There’s always another generation. So, Tom.

KOTKIN: Top that one. (Laughter.)

GRAHAM: I can’t top that one at all. Again, I think the fundamental point, I think, is the world is changing in radical ways. And history provided us a guide up to this point. The question is, are we done—have we entered, in fact, a discontinuous period in history as a whole, with the developments of the new technology, the geopolitical shifts and so forth, that is going to challenge both the United States and Russia to think of their role in the world in a different way?

Now, I don’t think this necessarily leads to cooperation between the two countries. But I would argue that Russia cannot continue to exist as the state it has historically—which has basically robbed the country for the benefit of the state, going forward as a way of maintaining itself as a great power—that it has to reform that society if it wants to overcome the decline and create the conditions that will lead to a resurgence of some sort. And the United States has to figure out how to deal in a multipolar world, which we never had done before historically.

SESTANOVICH: OK. I’m hoping we can get a couple more questions in. Back there.

Q: Hi. Adam Sharp, former head of news, government and elections at Twitter. Now a consultant.

I’m interested in what—

SESTANOVICH: Anything you want to tell us? (Laughter.)

Q: Nyet. (Laughter.) I’m interested in potential U.S. response strategies to Russian aggression and misbehavior. You know, it appears direct military action seems untenable. Targets for cyber action are not as plentiful. U.N. action is hobbled by the Security Council veto. Are there effective options available to the U.S.? Or is Putin in a position, as you say, weakened to the point where he has so much less to lose that he has an upper hand here?

APPLEBAUM: We could always set up botnets and try an influence their politics the way they did on Twitter.

GRAHAM: And I—the simple—there’s a lot that we can do. But you start here. You don’t start with Russia. We’ve done something for deterrence in Europe. I think that’s fine. But the fundamental problem of its interference in the United States is here. We need to do better on cybersecurity. We need to educate our population about how to deal with all this stuff that comes across their screens today. We need to regain our confidence that we can solve the domestic problems that we’ve known we’ve had for decades now, but because of the polarization in Washington we don’t even get close to resolving.

You know, if we were a successful country, the problems that Russia is presenting to us would seem minor in comparison. We’ve blown them up because we refuse to deal with our own domestic problem. And that’s a convenient excuse. Just the way we accuse Putin of trying to find a foreign external enemy to divert attention from what’s happening domestically in his own country, we’re beginning to do that now with the Russian question. Russia’s on the news every day as an enemy. And it diverts attention from the debates we need to be having on what we can do to return this country to growth, regain our confidence that we can actually master the challenges that we’re going to face in the 21st century.

APPLEBAUM: I would say one thing.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. OK, go ahead.

APPLEBAUM: No, just one more thing. That it’s absolutely right that Russian disinformation always worked with—I mean, it does this in every country—there’s a different strategy in every country. And it always worked with existing social divisions. So they don’t invent Marine Le Pen, they just fund her. And they don’t invent nutty conspiracy theories, they just—they just pump more energy into them. So I agree with—that’s just a way of saying I agree completely, that the solution to the problem of Russian disinformation is here.

KOTKIN: Yeah but, you know, authoritarian regimes have an idea that if there’s disagreement and disunity, the country is weaker. But hello, we’re a democracy. We’re a rule of law order. We’re OK with pluralism, disagreement, even extremist views. The idea that the Russians succeeded in their intervention in the U.S. is wrong. Look at Syria, for a second. Russia had a stable ally, with highly educated population, and a good military base. What have they got now? They own a civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe in a smaller part of that country. Is that a win? What did they win? What was the strategic gain of the intervention in the—were sanctions lifted? I mean, what did they get?

We have to remember that we’re a lot stronger than they are. And when they, quote, “sowed disunity,” or when they play upon divisions that we have, we’re a pluralistic society and we can manage that, right? So that’s a—like I said, a weapon of the weak, the cyberwarfare. What can we do? We could do a lot of stuff to Russia. We’re not going to do it, because there’s no appetite in the part of the executive branch that makes decisions or fails to make decisions about current Russian policy. There’s more appetite in the legislative branch to make Russia pay a price for this. But I don’t foresee bold steps.


Q: Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.

Following up what was just said about the Congress, to what extent do you think that the Magnitsky Act passed by Congress, which was based on zero true information but basically promoted by William Browder in order to build an international wall against the Russians attempt to get back $70 million of taxes and other frauds, to what extent has that roiled relations between the U.S. and Russia?

KOTKIN: You want to take that? (Laughter.)

SESTANOVICH: I want to get a really quick answer from each of you on that.

APPLEBAUM: So I don’t think the Magnitsky Act was based on false information.

Q: I’ll send you the documentation.

APPLEBAUM: I’ve seen it, thanks.

GRAHAM: It was a problem, but truly not the biggest problem we’ve had with the Russians.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, I’d definitely argue that in the absence of Ukraine, the Magnitsky Act would have been a kind of nuisance in Russian-American relations that both sides would have been able to get over, and we would now regard it as something funny that happened in 2011. But if I—I’ve got time for a few seconds more from anybody else here on that question.

OK. Thank you very much to our panel, and thanks for the audience. (Applause.)


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