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.”