THE CURRENT low point in U.S.-Russia relations echoes the worst days of the Cold War. In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire,” provoking a bitter reaction from Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and the Politburo, which declared in June that the U.S. media was at the “highest, most hysterical pitch.” In September, a MIG fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which had strayed into Soviet airspace, killing 269 innocent people. In November, according to a declassified top-secret U.S. intelligence review, Andropov put Soviet nuclear forces on a “hair trigger,” fearing that the United States was about to launch a first strike under cover of the NATO military exercise “Able Archer.” Recent studies suggest that the November event was not as dangerous as often portrayed, but experts agree that the risk of inadvertent war was extremely high. Fear of a nuclear war unleashed by miscalculation, Russian insecurity or an accident in time of crisis was a factor that pushed Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to engage the Russians to end the Cold War.
This June, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Vladimir Putin angrily denounced the “hysteria” in Washington and in the U.S. media. Again, bitter accusations and scorn abound. Both U.S. and Russian experts now agree that once again there is a heightened risk of unintended nuclear war—much higher than in the early 1980s—but this danger is not as widely perceived as it was back then. There is less awareness, less alarm. Few people know as much about nuclear policy as William J. Perry, a former secretary of defense. He has been on a crusade this year, warning, “We are starting a new Cold War. We seem to be sleepwalking into this new nuclear arms race. . . . We and the Russians and others don’t understand what we are doing.”
The risk of nuclear miscalculation is now higher than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, due to increasingly lethal technology and the breakdown in almost all official mechanisms of bilateral communication since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Yet that is only part of the story. In the 1980s, few could imagine today’s advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, data processing and geospatial analysis. The complex interactions and tightly coupled systems linked to modern nuclear arsenals—early-warning and command-and-control systems—have made accidental war more likely. Moreover, the Russians and Americans have to face new nightmare scenarios, like a terrorist hacking a nuclear command-and-control center or a ballistic-missile submarine.
If the Kremlin received intelligence of a possible U.S. attack, it could reasonably expect to have no more than seven to ten minutes to assess the information before Moscow was destroyed. Washington would not have much longer, and the new president is untested in crisis. In place of the regular contacts and civil discourse established by the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in 1985, Washington and Moscow now have frequent dangerous military encounters.
It is a depressing picture: America and Russia seem to be blindly repeating the errors of the past, creating a nuclear déjà vu even more menacing than before.
THERE IS again a great chasm in the worldviews of Washington and Moscow. We now hear a call to train more Russia experts, just as in the early 1980s, to help the U.S. government understand the way Moscow thinks, the nature of its perceptions, its cognitive universe and the sources of its behavior. The scholar Stephen Blank argues that Russia experts must be trained to counter the Kremlin’s “constant, unceasing information war” directed against the United States and virtually every European government. To understand Russian tactics and policies, Washington needs to be able to “think like a Russian.” Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, has taken to studying Russian history in order to investigate ties between President Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
Russians themselves suggest that Americans fail to understand not only their interests, but how to work with them. The late Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, commented privately about U.S. officials in conflicts over Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Crimea: “They just don’t get us. They’re not dealing with us the right way.”
How would Washington “get” the Russians? How should it deal with them in “the right way”? In 1983, negotiation expert William Ury and I were asked to facilitate meetings of the Harvard-Soviet Joint Study on Nuclear Crisis Prevention, which included senior experts and top former officials at the level of the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We knew Churkin back then as a bright analyst who would soon become the spokesman of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Gorbachev was still a little-known new Politburo member from the agricultural hinterland.
In some of our first tense conversations, we presented the Russians with a negotiation tool we call a “Partisan Perception Chart”—a summary of the “state of mutual accusation” that shows the grievances of two sides placed side-by-side. We used it to start a dialogue, to build a shared, fact-based understanding and a modicum of trust in a group that met regularly for off-the-record conversations from the nadir of U.S.-Russia relations in 1983 through the fall of the Berlin Wall. We began with a frank conversation about the past and who allegedly wronged whom, who deceived whom, who lied to whom, who violated what agreements and what international norms. We convened a series of meetings with the actual participants of the Cuban Missile Crisis—among them, Robert McNamara, Andrei Gromyko and Fidel Castro. For the first time, we heard all three points of view and learned that the Soviets had, in fact, gotten nuclear warheads into Cuba; that Castro had called for a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States; and that the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons, which all agreed would have been used against the 180,000 U.S. troops ready to invade had President Kennedy given the order. We came closer to a full-scale nuclear war than we ever knew.
THE CHART we made in 1983 to begin a conversation with the Russians looks a lot like the one my colleagues and I have just redesigned in 2017. Like last time, each side sees the other as the aggressor, as provoking a new arms race, as invading sovereign states and violating human rights. “We are losing potential by blaming everything on Earth on each other,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Fareed Zakaria in March. Not quite everything. And there are some new twists, the most striking of which would not have arisen in Soviet times: both sides now see the other as interfering in each other’s elections. The United States is still coming to terms with the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia conducted an influence campaign in the 2016 election, seeking to harm Hillary Clinton and favor Donald Trump. The Soviets never accused Washington of interfering in their elections because there were no serious elections. Russians now point to U.S. violation of their sovereignty when Americans helped Boris Yeltsin’s come-from-behind win in 1996. The United States officially and openly helped their preferred candidate Yeltsin—whom Bill Clinton called “ol’ Boris.” He got the help of expensive American consultants and the IMF. Washington continued to support preferred opposition candidates in “Color Revolutions” in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. The Russians consider the latter case a U.S.-backed “coup.”
There are also some important differences in Russian and American values. The Russians are now more conservative on both foreign policy and social issues. They seek stability in the Middle East, in contrast to Soviet efforts to overthrow Third World regimes and build utopian Marxist-Leninist socialist societies. They deride the Bush era’s neoconservatives and Obama’s liberal internationalists as utopians engaged in ill-conceived regime-change efforts to create democracy in the Middle East. Such campaigns, they argue, have created chaos and havens for terrorism. In the words of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, “The U.S. handles Islam like a monkey handles a grenade.” Polls show an all-time high in anti-American sentiment among Russians, due not only to the Kremlin’s state media propaganda but also to some real differences in social values. The Russian Orthodox tradition is more conservative on gender and other social issues, which has led American conservatives like Pat Buchanan to praise Putin for “planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity” (see 2017 Partisan Perception Chart).
Back in the 1980s, we facilitated a process in which both sides could air their grievances, challenge the other side, correct inaccuracies and then move beyond their emotionally charged, opposing positions to begin to address critical underlying interests. We made use of humanizing folk wisdom from our respective cultures, like the Native American saying not to judge another “until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” The Russians are famous for their down-to-earth proverbs, which helped bridge the gap in difficult moments.
Today, the annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the atrocities in Syria have brought trust to a rock-bottom low. Even those well disposed to dialogue believe that Moscow has violated the INF Treaty. Back in 1983, the outlook was similarly dismal. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and hundreds of innocent civilians were killed, including a U.S. congressman, when a Soviet fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. Cultural and other exchanges were halted. Most Americans saw only the face of a brutal, subhuman enemy. Soviet spokesmen accused Reagan and his advisers of “madness,” “extremism” and “criminality.”
In the current exchange of mutual accusations, the Russian side goes back to the events of 1989–91, their criticism of the U.S. response and the subsequent conflicting visions of the post-Soviet international order. The Russian analyst Dmitry Suslov offers insight into how Russians see world order. After the Soviet collapse, he wrote in Strategic Analysis last year, the United States attempted to promote its status as the sole superpower, but failed to get non-Western power centers to accept its global leadership. Russia differs with America in its view of sovereignty, the use of force and rules of international decisionmaking. “Since none of the sides is ready for one-way compromise and all bet on the weakening of the opponent,” Suslov wrote, “continuation of the US-Russia confrontation will deepen the split in the Atlantic and Pacific.” He sees Russia moving toward an alliance with China as the new, emerging epicenter of global politics. One might think that Suslov had read a scenario from the National Intelligence Council’s 2017 Global Trends report, which also warns of an American loss of status as the sole superpower, shifting alliances in Europe and Asia and a challenge by populist authoritarian regimes to liberal norms and institutions. In response to these challenges, the United States is, in the recent words of Sen. John McCain, in a battle with Putin’s Russia to preserve “the post-war, rule-based, world order built on American leadership and the primacy of our political and economic values.”
THE WAY Russians see it, the schism was formalized in 1998, when the Senate ratified the expansion of NATO. Russian analysts like to point to the fact that, at the time, U.S. decisionmakers did not listen to a man who knew how to think like a Russian, who had walked thousands of miles in the Russians’ shoes, for decades. George F. Kennan, America’s senior Russia expert, said that the Senate’s decision was a “tragic mistake. . . . It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.”
Now Washington sees Russia not as a potential threat, as in the 1990s, but as a real threat. Moscow is aggressively modernizing its nuclear arsenal, increasing the number and size of military exercises and building up forces on its borders, which it says is in reaction to NATO’s expanded territory. From Kennan’s point of view, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, the result of an absolutely predictable, destructive cycle of conflict—a human dynamic leading to an arms race well studied in the field of international relations, negotiation and conflict transformation.
Russians go back to the years between 1989 and 1991, and a sense of being wronged when the United States began to push NATO eastward, starting with the German reunification negotiations. The epic nature of that time is so easily forgotten. The world saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, an empire with a still-loyal, five-million-man standing army that had the capability, imperial intentions and ideology to truly threaten the entire world. One can credit Western resolve, the unwillingness of President Gorbachev to use force and the courage of the Russian people to lead what many consider the greatest nonviolent revolution in history, opening the door for a democratic Russia, freedom for the former Soviet republics and giving way to unprecedented arms-control agreements.
During the critical negotiations over German unification, many in the U.S administration were indeed satisfied to pocket the gains, to leave Gorbachev in a weaker position. They capitalized on the fact that he did not demand more concessions—specifically, that he did not condition German reunification on an agreement that Germany would never join NATO.
Had Gorbachev insisted, the West might well have acquiesced; at the very least it would have made it much more difficult for U.S. negotiators, as noted by Amb. Robert Blackwill, who was directly involved in the negotiations. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that, at the time, certainly France and most likely the United Kingdom would have been quite content with a neutral German state. Regarding the U.S. success in getting its way in the negotiations with Gorbachev on Germany—getting a united Germany in NATO—Blackwill stated,
The statesman’s challenge is often not to create opportunity, but to recognize it and exploit it and that’s why I think President Bush, Secretary Baker, General Scowcroft and their counterparts on the German side did.
Gorbachev had a different definition of statesmanship, one that was based on creating and realizing a historic opportunity for a new common security arrangement and negotiating a long-term relationship in which both sides would need to deal with shared problems. Initially he was negotiating from a position of strength, inspiring millions with his effort to transform the conflict and end the Cold War. In 1988, Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s top foreign-policy aide, wrote in his private diary after a meeting he attended between Gorbachev and German leader Helmut Kohl, “I felt physically that we are entering a new world, where class struggle, ideology, and, in general, polarity and enmity are no longer decisive. And something all-human is taking the upper hand.” Gorbachev’s aspiration made him one of the most admired and respected people on the planet, until it all went awry. Gorbachev was a courageous—but overly self-assured—transformational leader who sought to follow the higher angels of human nature, and it cost him his job. William Taubman’s forthcoming biography on Gorbachev provides an insightful, nuanced picture of his strengths and flaws. By 1989, Gorbachev was negotiating from a position of weakness due to increasing chaos on the domestic political and economic fronts.
The inertia of the past prevailed. The George H. W. Bush administration put U.S.-Russia relations on “pause”—choosing not to follow Reagan’s bolder, cooperative course. I remember hearing the Russian reformer Grigory Yavlinsky say in a state of complete exasperation,
We have let Eastern Europe go, cast off the repressive Soviet system, what you have been seeking to do for decades, we are ready to work together, and your government replies: “We’ll wait and see and please do these additional reforms that we recommend.”
In the absence of a new shared vision for common security, of a “grand bargain” to support democracy in Russia (Yavlinsky and Graham Allison proposed their version in 1991), the United States led the expansion of NATO deep into Russia’s historic sphere of interest in ways that have increased the risk of war. We have only to look at the Baltics today, where experts rate the danger of unintended escalation as a top U.S. foreign-policy risk. Some see a different utility in walking a mile in an adversary’s moccasins: “That way, you’re a mile away from him, and you’ve got his shoes.”
IN 1989, America took Russia’s shoes; now the two powers are a mile apart. Those who saw Russia as a power like the Soviet Union, an expansive state that could only be deterred by military force, feel vindicated by Russia’s belligerence today. They think it was the right course of action to absorb Moscow’s former clients into NATO and the EU while Russia was weak and disoriented after the Soviet collapse. For those who think the independent new Russia was not a threat in 1991, they see it as a classic action-reaction spiral, a human failure to negotiate skillfully, to build a collaborative relationship and realize shared interests, despite initial good intentions on both sides to try to establish a partnership.
In the field of negotiation, we see case after case where not only interests but basic human emotions play a critical role and lead to action-reaction cycles. President Putin fumes about how America has wanted not allies but “vassals,” and last September railed that it is “not our fault” that Russia and the United States are in such a deplorable state, speaking again of the seminal events of 1989–91:
We expected that [our] openness will have a similar reaction from our partners. But . . . they’ve gazed into the magic crystal of national interests and understood it their way—now that the Soviet Union has fallen apart, we need to finish Russia off.
Americans tend to misinterpret Putin’s famous 2005 line, that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical disaster” of the twentieth century. Putin was not so much lamenting the loss of the authoritarian Soviet system. Putin’s point was that Russia must develop as a “free and democratic” country but “show no weakness” in defending its national interests.
Gorbachev now speaks bitterly of betrayal by the West, saying in 2016 that, after he set Russia on a path of radical reform, the West was “not genuinely interested in helping Russia develop into a stable and strong democracy. . . . They’ve squandered the trust we’d built.” Gorbachev, who repeatedly denounced President Putin’s authoritarian “attack on the rights of citizens” and limits imposed on Russian elections, nonetheless by 2014 began to support Putin’s strongman tactics as a necessary response to U.S. global pressure: “I’ll say this. The manual control of authoritarianism was also needed to overcome the situation that our friends, our former friends and allies, created for Russia by pushing us out of geopolitics.”
After the Soviet collapse, Russia was faced with a colossal challenge and went through a real “time of troubles.” When Russia became independent in 1991, it had to create a new political and economic system and a new national identity, anthem, set of symbols—a new present, future and even a rewritten history. I remember in the early 1990s when leading Russian public intellectuals and philosophers were engaged in a government-sponsored search for a “new national idea.” It is hard for those in the United States to have empathy for something that we have not gone through ourselves—though America is now facing the loss of its primacy on the world stage as the Asia-Pacific increasingly becomes the epicenter of the international system and we see an accompanying rise of nationalism, nativism and a president elected to “make America great again.” Putin was elected on a promise to restore greatness, but first “to lift Russia from its knees.” So perhaps empathy could be in the cards.
THERE IS another side to the story. The United States did invite Russia into the G-8 economic alliance, and to be a partner in NATO. The newly sovereign Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries in the region wanted protection. Russia was a mess following the Soviet collapse, struggling to develop a civil society with its entrenched authoritarian Soviet and Russian traditions, and not ready to be integrated into Europe or NATO, though there was some early cooperation with the alliance. The United States had little to work with, even if there had been will to develop a shared vision of mutual security. As one Russian economist put it, “We engaged in ill-conceived reforms. We deceived ourselves and held you accountable.” Russians argue that the United States then became part of the problem by uncritically supporting policies and economic reforms in Russia that led to most people losing out. What is clear is that Washington made Moscow swallow a lot when it was down. As Bill Clinton said of his relationship with Yeltsin, “We keep telling ol’ Boris, ‘O.K., now, here’s what you’ve got to do next—here’s some more shit for your face.’ And that makes it real hard for him, given what he’s up against and who he’s dealing with.” Yeltsin expressed his brewing resentment:
I don’t like it when the U.S. flaunts its superiority . . . Russia’s difficulties are only temporary, and not only because we have nuclear weapons but also because of our economy, our culture, our spiritual strength. All that amounts to a legitimate, undeniable basis for equal treatment. Russia will rise again! I repeat: Russia will rise again.
Yeltsin’s impassioned vow helps clarify what many have considered a riddle: why pliant, democratic “Ol’ Boris” hand-picked steely Vladimir Putin as the one to lead Russia into the future.
Ultimately, the point here is not to relitigate the past or lament lost opportunities. The point of negotiation is to facilitate a meaningful dialogue in an emotionally deadlocked situation, to name grievances and the critical differences in perception, helping both sides to see more clearly how the other side thinks and acknowledge any positive humanizing elements that can create a minimal sense of connection, some healthy introspection and willingness to listen further. In our joint sessions, when we reached an impasse, we often quoted great leaders for inspiration. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Even at the height of the pain and agony of our own Civil War, Lincoln found it in himself to humanize Southerners, to speak of them as fellow human beings who were in error. An elderly woman objected that they were enemies who must be destroyed. “Why, madam,” Lincoln replied, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Lincoln did not attribute moral equivalence to his opponents, yet he still was able to speak of them as human beings and envision a union.
We also cited JFK’s speech in May 1963 at American University. Shaken and enlightened by the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK expressed profound disagreement with the Soviet system; called for introspection on both sides; put himself in the Russians’ shoes, acknowledging their heroism—“no nation in the history of battle suffered more than the Soviet Union in World War II”; and called for concrete policy agreements. The speech was hailed by Khrushchev as the “greatest speech since Roosevelt” and has endeared Kennedy to the Russian people for generations. The Partial Test Ban Treaty, which had been under negotiation for eight years, was signed in August 1963.
There are a number of other tools to assist us to “think like a Russian,” understand the drivers of their behavior and lead to a more effective U.S. foreign policy in the future. In 1990, we held sessions with the prime minister of Estonia. We asked him and his staff to write the speech that Gorbachev would have to give to his own parliament announcing the independence of the Baltic states. Asking a party to write the “victory speech” for the other side forces it to identify the obstacles facing its opponent and, by exploring how to “solve the other guy’s problem,” how to deal with his constituencies, you improve your chances of getting what you want. Believe it or not, Putin does have constituencies, as Russian journalist and insider Mikhail Zygar has documented. Putin is far from a czar. Americans have a very poor understanding of Russian domestic politics. For many Americans, there are many surprises—as when they are forced to think twice upon learning that historically pro-Western Mikhail Gorbachev gave his full support to the Russian annexation of Crimea.
A critical avenue is off-the-record Track II and Track 1.5 conversations, in which representatives of the two sides can speak frankly, explore options and seek to define shared interests, as in the Nobel Prize–winning Pugwash conferences or the current Elbe Group. Such exchanges remind us through personal contact that no country is a monolith. Russian politics is based on personalities, ego and ambition—as is politics in the United States—not just on policy, strategy and ideology.
ONE FINAL avenue involves shifting the narrative from sheer transactionalism to conflict transformation, which involves creating a shared identity and experience of common meaning. Gorbachev sought to inspire the creation of a shared “all-human” identity and new mutual security system. At present, this seems to be a bridge too far. Yet, as Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Party ideologues in the Soviet Union focused on the shared history of victory in the “Great Patriotic War” as a unifying force to try to create a sense of common identity among the many ethnic groups spanning their country’s eleven time zones. Some states focus on Islam, Christianity or Judaism, as a source of shared meaning and identity. In the Middle East, there is an effort to inspire hope and develop a sense of common identity by focusing on the fact that all three great religions of the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which encompass four billion of the Earth’s seven billion people—have a basis for shared meaning in their shared reverence for the ancient prophet Abraham. Early in their relationship, Gorbachev asked Reagan whether America would cooperate with the Soviet Union if aliens attacked Earth. Mandela created a sense of common human identity among both whites and blacks through a “negotiated revolution” that did not dehumanize the whites, focused on truth and reconciliation, and reached a compromise agreement on their shared and opposed political and economic interests.
A dramatic example of an individual in an agonizing conflict who pointed to the ultimate truth of our common humanity was Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s slain former prime minister. Having been a warrior all his life, Rabin made a moving plea at a 1993 meeting at the White House with Yasser Arafat:
Enough of blood and tears. . . . We, like you, are people—people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side-by-side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings.
It is a platitude and yet profound that we are all human beings. We are all mortal, as JFK underlined in his 1963 speech. We all need a healthy biosphere to live. Yet it has been great transformational leaders who have found the strength to inspire others to experience the profundity of this truth rather than dismiss it as a meaningless cliché. But most assume it is asking too much to find a shared identity and common meaning right now in U.S.-Russia relations. It would take a leader like a Lincoln in the middle of the hellish Civil War, a Mandela after twenty-seven years in prison, a JFK after the Cuban Missile Crisis, or a Rabin at the end of his life when he had exhausted his ambition and wanted most of all to savor peace and the simple joys of life.
Today, we have to reexamine the very meaning of strategic stability in a world that is now multipolar and less multilateral.
But some things never change. We are continually faced with the challenge of dealing with human reactions, partisan perceptions and the need to develop greater skill in dealing with our differences. Just as the nuclear risk-reduction centers were the first achievable agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev back in 1985, before agreements on arms control, it might be most productive now to focus again on nuclear risk-reduction measures. Some have called for bilateral U.S.-Russia discussions on how to insulate nuclear systems from cyberattack and other new risks, which could be expanded to include the other recognized nuclear powers, looking to draw in China. It would be very hard to have such a dialogue, but it is necessary. The gravity of new threats could push the United States, Russia and China to unite to combat non-state actors and start a dialogue on the full range of new risks.
Negotiation tools could enable a critical dialogue: listen; think like a Russian, and vice versa; see the world as the other sees it. Sometimes the simplest and most human of reminders can help move things a little forward, like a bit of folk wisdom my colleague likes to quote when tempers flare: “There is a reason that God gave us two ears and only one mouth.”
Bruce Allyn is a senior fellow and affiliated faculty at the Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School, and a former director of the Harvard-Soviet Joint Study on Nuclear Crisis Prevention.
This essay was published in the July/August 2017 print magazine under the headline “Russian to Judgment.”
Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in central Moscow, Russia February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin.