Magazine | July 10, 2017, Issue

Never the Twain

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, by Peter Conradi (Oneworld, 400 pp., $27.99)

History has no right or wrong side. There is little about it that is inevitable. But probability cannot be wished away. To read this book by Peter Conradi (the foreign editor of the London Sunday Times) is to be reminded that the odds were always against a durable rapprochement between post-Soviet Russia and the West, but, as Conradi shows, that doesn’t mean that both sides didn’t do their bit to make them even longer.

The original sin was Russian: The 1991 “revolution” was, as Conradi puts it, “incomplete.” The old regime poured into the supposedly new, unbothered by fresh elections. Conradi maintains that a “short-sighted” West eventually staked too much on an increasingly authoritarian, increasingly erratic Boris Yeltsin. Maybe, but one of the tragedies of the incomplete revolution was that it had thrown up no credible alternative. Russia in 1992 was not Germany in 1945. There was no Stunde Null, no definitive break, no settling of accounts with the past — no Soviet Nuremberg (who, Conradi wonders, in the deeply compromised “ruling class would have wanted such a reckoning”?) — or even any agreement as to what that past had been. Many Russians, writes Conradi, “felt a sense . . . of disorientation after so much of what they had been brought up to believe in had been denounced as a lie”; so much, yes, but not enough.

The survival of countless relics, physical as well as political and psychological, of the Soviet epoch — those Lenins on their plinths, that mummy in that mausoleum — conveyed a message that the old days had not been as bad as all that, a myth made easier to succumb to by the brutally hard times that followed the Soviet collapse. Conradi finds it “difficult to fault the underlying logic” of the economic reforms of the early Yeltsin years, but it was a logic torn apart by an uncooperative reality that, critically, was deformed by a “political class . . . sharply divided between reformers and Communists.” In Poland, by contrast, “a broad . . . consensus” helped smooth the move away from a command economy after 1989.

Conradi asks whether the West, which was less than openhanded to Russia, might have done more to help out, citing sources that suggest, not unreasonably, that at certain moments of crisis it could have. But he appears unconvinced that even significantly more-generous assistance would have made the necessary difference. That seems fair. In all likelihood, a Marshall Plan 2.0 would have struggled to turn around a land ruined by seven decades of Communism. Unlike the battered recipients of American post-war largesse, Russia lacked the habits, the skills, and the institutions needed to make a free market work. An inflow of massive amounts of aid money might well have done nothing more than further entrench the kleptocracy that had viewed privatization as an invitation to pillage. The misery of the many had been accompanied by the enrichment of the few, a looting that discredited liberal reform — economic and political — and did much to pave the way to Putin’s sly despotism.

Adding insult and yet more injury after the loss of Russia’s Eastern European empire came the dismantling of the Rodina itself under conditions — a quick deal struck in a Belorussian hunting lodge — that fed many Russians’ suspicions, as Conradi observes, of a stab in the back, a Dolchstoss, as they used to say in Weimar. And the breakup of the USSR was made more painful by the failure — stressed by Conradi — by large numbers of ordinary Russians, “elder brothers” (so the party had never ceased to insist) in a “socialist family of nations,” to grasp that their homeland too was an empire. Relentlessly repeated propaganda (the lie that the Baltic States had volunteered to join the USSR was just one of many) and also, not least with respect to Ukraine, a genuinely tangled history, had left their mark. And so had geography: Conradi recalls how Russia’s was a “contiguous empire” undivided by the oceans that split up its French or British counterparts. Moving from one Soviet republic to another was no bigger a deal than crossing an American state line. The disintegration of the USSR left millions of ethnic Russians stranded in what overnight became foreign countries, their plight a reproach to their kin back home and an opportunity for future mischief-making in what, years before Putin’s ascendancy, the Yeltsin government rapidly dubbed the “near abroad.” It was a phrase that signaled Russia’s continuing strategic interest in what went on there.

Conradi correctly dismisses the idea that the West should have accepted a Russian veto over NATO membership for countries that had broken free from its vanished imperium. To do so “would have meant a de facto continuation of Europe’s Cold War division” and a denial of a country’s right, enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Charter, to choose its own alliances. The NATO–Russia Founding Act of 1997 restricted NATO’s ability to base permanent forces closer to Russia’s borders, but only “in the current and foreseeable security environment.” Moscow’s subsequent behavior has since so changed the environment that, as Conradi notes, the door has opened for the argument that that old constraint no longer applies. And, however tentatively, NATO has marched through it.

The West, contends Conradi, misread Russia in the 1990s. “What it chose to interpret as assent . . . to [NATO’s] eastward expansion was, in reality, weakness and an inability to resist,” a humiliation compounded by the manner in which, as he explains, a “triumphalist” America “had become rather too fond of a unipolar world.” It had become too confident as well, beguiled by an interlude that it mistook for an era. It trampled over the sensitivities of a fallen superpower that had not accepted its fall. Russia believed it still merited a seat at the top table, and not only, as Conradi emphasizes, on American terms.

To be sure, it was wildly optimistic of Russia to expect an invitation to join NATO (something for which Putin was angling in his early period in office): There could be no room for the bear in the henhouse. When West Germany was admitted by its former adversaries into NATO in 1955, it was dependent on the U.S. for its defense and had quite clearly learned from the horrors of the past: It was no conceivable danger to those with whom it wanted to team up. The same could not be said of early-21st-century Russia.

Yet Russia’s support for the U.S. after 9/11 was speedy and helpful (and beforehand Moscow had warned Washington that there could be trouble brewing). The threat posed by Islamic extremism might have formed the basis for long-term cooperation between the two, but that promise was sabotaged by America’s unwillingness to reciprocate, not to speak of the attack on (secular) Iraq, a Soviet client for decades.

And Iraq was not the only longstanding Kremlin ally to fall foul of NATO. Orthodox, Slavic Serbia was also battered into submission, and Kosovo, a rebel province of immense historical significance, was later wrested from it. European borders had been shifted by force. After occupying Crimea six years later, Putin referred to the “well-known Kosovo precedent.”

Yeltsin’s relative liberalism, argues Conradi, will prove an aberration. That too is not inevitable, but under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that Russia, nursing the grievances it did, turned into the antagonist it has become. What is surprising is how long it took for it to be taken sufficiently seriously even after the wealth created by a recovering oil price (rather than by the fruits of a well-managed economic restructuring that, had it happened, might have taken the country in a different direction) both entrenched the regime and gave it the resources to punch back. The West was right to pursue the agenda it did in Eastern Europe but was oddly unprepared for countermeasures by the Kremlin, especially after the challenge to the Putin regime posed by the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and then, with catastrophic results, the far greater upheaval in Ukraine in 2014, an upheaval that Conradi chronicles with characteristic evenhandedness.

To Conradi, it’s remarkable that the West has yet to put together the “well-considered and historically relevant” policy that Zbigniew Brzezinski called for over 20 years ago. Well, our statesmen are what they are, but it’s hard to deny that Russia has been treated with striking carelessness and startling complacency, treatment that may not have “lost” Russia but undoubtedly helped make matters worse. The supposition by the Western elite that Russia’s time as a great power had passed played its part in all this, handily reinforced by the pleasantly reassuring assumption that the history it no longer understood had come, as the saying then went, to an end.

Then there was the conviction, particularly within the EU and the Obama administration, that an emerging supranational order was eclipsing “19th century” power politics, a delusion that overlapped with a curious faith in allegedly universal values. What those were was a touch murky, but democracy was ostensibly among them, something George W. Bush declared that he wanted to promote worldwide — a stance incompatible, as Conradi recounts, with Russian calls for “non-interference in the affairs of sovereign countries.” However hypocritical those calls (ask the Balts, the Ukrainians, the Georgians . . .), they revealed a growing ideological dimension to the burgeoning rivalry between Russia and the West.

As President Trump is discovering, that rivalry is unlikely to ease anytime soon, but it could be managed — jostling between great powers is nothing new — and perhaps even reduced. After all, Russia and the West do have interests in common, most notably (but not only) with regard to Islamic extremism. But first the West must learn to toughen up, panic less, preach less, and think more.

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