From Da to Nyet: How U.S. Diplomacy Helped Transform Russia from Potential Ally into Strategic Adversary

A great diplomatic mistake with repercussions now being felt today. 

The United States responded by pocketing the concessions on the issues at the top of its diplomatic agenda. For the most part, it left out of the negotiations the question of the Soviet (later Russian) role in the new system that was taking shape. This appears to have been partly inadvertent, and partly by design. Although he did not want to crow about it, President Bush considered the Soviet Union a defeated power. Victorious powers have rarely given defeated ones much consideration as they reorganized the international system, and the end of the Cold War was no exception. Robert Zoellick, a member of the small circle of Bush/Baker advisors who formulated U.S. foreign policy, advocated giving the Soviet Union the appearance, but not the reality of a say in post–Cold War arrangements. With these two major issues occupying the time and intellectual energy of the small policy-making circle in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment (which also had such other questions as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to deal with), it is not surprising that little attention was paid at the time to thinking about the structure and organizing principles of the new international system that was emerging. The Bush administration essentially punted these questions to its successors in the Clinton administration.

The Flawed U.S. Diplomacy of the 1990s

The 1990s were almost inevitably going to lead to a period of Russian disillusionment with its turn toward the West. Their expectations were wildly optimistic and bound, at some point, to require reassessment—a reassessment that could lead to a more realistic basis for a constructive long-term relationship, or to a turn toward the more autarkic tendencies that have been a periodic feature of Russian policy. U.S. diplomacy could not determine how that reassessment came out, but it could influence it. Unfortunately, our diplomacy influenced it in the more undesirable direction.

This diplomatic failure occurred on several fronts. First, our primitive understanding of Russian political culture allowed a wildly optimistic view about what was happening in Russia during this period. Where we saw the beginnings of Jeffersonian democracy and free markets, Russians saw social chaos and economic collapse. Under those circumstances, it was quite predictable that Russia’s domestic policies would begin to tilt in a more authoritarian direction. Any diplomacy that is not predicated on a correct assessment of the other country’s reality is built on sand.

Second, we spent most of the decade telling the Russians what was in their interest, rather than listening to them. This occurred on issues large and small, but most significantly on the issue of NATO expansion. This is not the place to debate again the pros and cons of the issue, but its impact on Russia’s view of the new international system should not have come as a surprise. Andrei Kozyrev, probably the most pro-Western foreign minister in Russia’s long history, told us both publicly and privately, shortly before he lost his job, what the impact of NATO expansion would be on Russian reform and reformers. Employing diplomacy cannot reconcile conflicting interests without a willingness to hear the other side define its interests.

Third, we tossed them scraps and expected them to think it was filet. We offered the Russians figurative, but not substantive involvement in selected Western institutions. We appeared to believe they could not understand the difference, managing at the same time to commit the diplomatic errors of both deluding ourselves and insulting them.

Finally, instead of working to establish agreed principles, we appeared to operate on the basis of short-term self-interest. Our principle on NATO membership—anyone may apply—really meant that anyone except Russia might apply. We applied the principles of territorial integrity, noninterference in internal affairs and self-determination selectively and in ways that the Russians saw as harmful to their interests. Kosovo’s right of self-determination took precedence over Serbia’s right of territorial integrity, but Georgia’s right of territorial integrity took precedence over Abkhazia’s right of self-determination. Reaching a common understanding on the meaning of these conflicting principles was an essential, if extremely difficult element in creating a more stable international system. We never really tried. We interfered in the domestic affairs of countries in the name of democracy—Libya, Syria—but supported the violent overthrow of democratically elected regimes whose policies we did not like—Ukraine is the most significant case in point.

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