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Poison Pill: A Brief History of Post-Cold War Relations

How the end of the Cold War has led to current tensions around Syria, NATO and nuclear reduction

Visiting Media Fellow Michael Moran speaks with Andrew Kuchins of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies​ and Kimberly Marten of Columbia University about how the end of the Cold War has led to current tensions around Syria, NATO and nuclear reduction.

MORAN: Welcome to Episode Seven of Diffusion: Russia in Focus, which this week lays out some context for understanding the troubled US-Russia relationship. Put simply: How did we get here? I’m Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

To help me explain how a relationship that seemed to have enjoyed the ultimate reset when the Cold War ended a quarter century ago wound up where it is today I have two distinguished guests:

Andrew Kuchins is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and a former director of the Carnegie Foundation’s Moscow Center.

Kimberly Marten is a Professor at Columbia University’s Barnard College and directs the program on US-Russian Relations at the Harriman Institute.

Welcome to you both. I’ll start with you, Andy. In 1991, when Soviet Union fell, there was a promise of cooperation blooming. That path has taken many twists and turns, but is there any one thing you can put your finger on that suggests that we or the Russians got it wrong, and explains where we are today?

KUCHINS: I would point to a couple things from the outset. One of them goes back to the negotiations over the reunification of Germany, during which the George H. W. Bush administration – Secretary Baker and others - had explicitly said numerous times to Gorbachev that there were no plans for expansion of NATO. While the NATO issue didn’t re-emerge until the Clinton administration, and the final documents assigned for the reunification of Germany did not contain anything written about ‘no further expansion of NATO’, in the negotiations this was a critical point in convincing Gorbachev to go through with the reunification of Germany, and support it. The Russian feelings about being deceived and aggrieved about NATO are therefore partly credible. And since the Russians have a real territorial sense of security – more land, buffer zones – that’s especially important. That was a big poison pill through the relationship and especially to this day, particularly with the 2008 decision by NATO to not provide membership action plans for Georgia and Ukraine, but to guarantee that in the future they would become NATO members.

The second thing to point to is that, yes, there was a lot of hope at the time of the collapse of the USSR, but the economic legacy of seventy-four years of non-market considered decisions about the allocation of resources, where to build factories, and so on left the new team of reformers – Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar, and others in trouble. The country was virtually bankrupt. When Gaidar got in there, he found out it was a worse situation than he had expected. Much of the reserves had been absconded by communist officials and others. Then Russia goes into an extraordinary economic tailspin, which naturally has political consequences, and within a year, Gaidar is thrown out of power, and already the economic reform program is deeply compromised. The government is very unpopular. By October 1993 there is practically a civil war in the streets of Moscow in a showdown between the legislative and executive branch. This gets to the larger point in that, with the Soviet Union, the Bush administration was negotiating with a super-power, albeit one in a quickly weakening condition, primarily because of economic problems, but it was still more or less an equal. With the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of the Russian Federation and all the other states, as well as the former Warsaw pact states of central and Eastern Europe, all of these new states became part of a large project of the expansion of the liberal democratic order. Russia was treated in a similar way as the others, and so the sense of being a great power, which is so significant for the Russians, was injured.…. So all of those things conspired to set the relationship off in a very difficult direction.

MORAN: Kimberly, would you agree?

MARTEN: I think it’s a very bad mistake to say it’s specific decisions. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Russia did not mean that institutions emerged in the new Russia. So, the people who were responsible for foreign policy decision making and security policy decision making early on in the Yeltsin era, were not people who had broad societal support. They were not people who had come to positions of power because their viewpoints were ones that were reflected in society as a whole. At the same time, Yeltsin was facing terrible conflict from the legislature, including from within his own bureaucracy of people who were very resentful of what they saw as him giving up everything that Russia had left to it in the time that Russia was already in bad shape. This was made worse by his alcoholism, and that he was sometimes drunk during very important meetings, which again gave an unfortunate view toward the people he was dealing with about what was really happening in Russia.

On the U.S. side I think there was a lack of understanding of Russian pride , when there was pushback coming from Russia, it was interpreted as being hostile rather than being something natural to expect of a country that had just gone through a really stunning change in its power situation, in its place in the world, in all of the institutions that surrounded it, and also in the situation of its economic situation, where basically the entire population had its savings wiped out because of changes made in the early years of the Yeltsin administration in the domestic economy. I think that there was a failure to understand fully in the west what this meant in terms of how the west would be blamed for Russia’s situation, so I’m not saying that the blaming of the west was fair or correct, but it was real, and I think that there was not enough of a sense of understanding and sympathy for what Russia as a whole was going through and therefore there was not enough of a sense of what would actually be needed to help Russia through this difficult transition period. Without understanding that, we cannot understand how specific decisions had an effect on the future of policy and how they were interpreted and misinterpreted.

MORAN: Over the years there have been periods of cooperation – in Afghanistan, nuclear non-proliferation … are there areas for cooperation out there today, that suggest the relationship is salvageable?

MARTEN: The areas where there were cooperation in the 1990s, in particular that lasted over long periods of time, were in areas where you had technical experts being the ones making the policy decisions. You had significant movement forward in arms control situations. For example, in the START treaty, in the following on of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that had been signed under Gorbachev, working on the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, in the dealing with proliferation in other cases, including North Korea, and then eventually in Iran. In – including the Nunn-Lugar cooperation that dealt with trying to gain control over nuclear materials that may have not been under the strictest control as the Soviet system fell apart. There were also other times when you had cooperation when the people who were in charge were people who had a vision of Russia being more able to cooperate with the west, but I think what it really came down to was the individuals who were in place on both sides who saw cooperation as being something that was worthwhile to pursue. I think there’s too much attention that has been placed on the NATO expansion decision. I think the evidence indicates that even President Putin did not start objecting to NATO expansion until the speech that he gave at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. As late as 2002 he said that NATO expansion to include the Baltic states would be no tragedy as long as there were no new major military installations put in the Baltic states. So I think too much has been made of that.

KUCHINS: It’s going to be very very tough to pull the relationship from its currently openly adversarial nature, in which we are competing militarily and remilitarization of Europe after a couple of decades of demilitarization.

MORAN: Georgetown’s Andrew Kuchins:

KUCHINS: It’s not quite analogous to the old Cold War, but I think in some ways it’s actually more dangerous, because we’re not talking about how we manage this remilitarization process. Our military forces in Europe, in Syria, have been flying in very close proximity to each other and Russia is a fully fledged nuclear power and it seems like we’ve forgotten that nuclear war can really spoil your day. Right now the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is at 3 minutes to midnight. The last time it was there was ’83-’84. I think, however, there is some opportunity for the new administration to try to alleviate some of the tension and they absolutely should try to do so. I think we need to reconfigure our position in Syria. It’s been very difficult for the Obama administration, of course, but we need to continue to do so. There are areas where we do share common interests, but on the nuclear side, it is the missile defense issue, on which the Russians and Mr. Putin have become much more hardened. It will be difficult to make progress there, and on the others, but we absolutely need to try, and the administration needs to set a different tone and be much more disciplined in how they talk to Russia and how they talk about Russia. We’re so undisciplined in how we refer to Mr. Putin and the demonization of Mr. Putin. I’m not saying he’s a good guy or anything, but if you want to try to deal with another partner, whether they’re friendly or not, there needs to be a greater sense of respect. The single issue that Mr. Putin is most insecure about is his view that the United States wants to carry out regime change in Russia itself. So I think that Mr. Trump can massage that, and he can take some measures that show more respect to Russia as a great power, but, and it’s a large but, the domestic political climate in our country is so anti-Russia, anti-Putin. I think there has been a market overcorrection, if you will, in the demonization of Mr. Putin, and the Trump administration is going to have as much, if not more problems in dealing with the congress and the bureaucracy in Washington in trying to defuse of the current level of confrontation and hostility in the bilateral relationship. It may be a bigger problem than actually dealing with Mr. Putin himself.

MORAN: Thanks to both of you.

And thank all of you for listening to this edition of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. Join us next week when we examine how the dispute over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be going as a new administration congeals in Washington. My guests will be Harvard’s Tim Colton and Sam Carap of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. For now, on behalf of my colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for joining.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.