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. 

At the end of the Cold War, Russia sought inclusion in the new international system that was taking shape. On the one hand, Russians recognized that their country was greatly weakened and they did not like that. The enduring unpopularity of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, among their countrymen, testifies to what Russians think of leaders who do not take proper care of their domains. On the other hand, they did not consider themselves defeated. They had themselves defeated an oppressive political system, released their Cold War allies, renounced a failed ideology and voluntarily and remarkably peacefully dissolved the largest empire in the world. They believed that they had earned the right to be treated as a partner in major international decisions, rather than as the subordinate in a power relationship. They were disappointed in this hope. From a Russian cultural perspective, the United States behaved after the end of the Cold War in exactly the way the more powerful party in a relationship would be expected to behave. Russians are not accustomed to thinking of authority as divisible. In an authority-based relationship, one side has all of the power and the other has none. This is a relationship they have no incentive to continue, embedded in a system that they have numerous reasons to try to undermine.

The Ukraine Crisis and a Europe Whole and Free

The Ukraine crisis demonstrates how dysfunctional this relationship has become, but also offers an opportunity to begin to change it. A Georgia, or a Ukraine, embedded in Western economic and political institutions would not appear threatening to a Russia also so embedded. The obstacles to achieving that are formidable and would probably take decades of tough diplomatic negotiating to overcome. But so did the movement from the European Coal and Steel Community to the European Union, a principal and thus far successful intention of which was to integrate Germany into the European states system. This is a diplomatic effort that the European states themselves should probably lead. They have had recent positive experience in this area, are the most directly concerned and are generally not burdened by the messianic or moralistic impulses that periodically afflict U.S. diplomacy. The three-way negotiations among the EU, Ukraine and Russia aimed at working out an economic arrangement—albeit one that would certainly also have political connotations that all three parties can live with—are a starting point. If properly utilized, those negotiations could provide a venue for creating a common European home that would exclude neither Russia, nor the United States. Stable and productive relationships in that broad area would provide a good framework for undertaking the potentially even more difficult task of peacefully integrating the rising Asian powers into the international system.

Raymond Smith spent roughly 25 years in the US Foreign Service, including six in Moscow. Significant assignments included Minister Counselor for Political Affairs, Moscow and Director, Office of former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He is the author of Negotiating with the Soviets (Indiana University Press, 1989) and The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats (Potomac Press, 2011).

Image: Flickr/Ana Paula Hirama/CC by-sa 2.0

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