How Did We Get Russia So Wrong?


How Did We Get Russia So Wrong?

America's Russia policy since the end of the Cold War has assumed too much ability to radically transform Russian politics, economy, and society.


Thomas Graham, Getting Russia Right ( Cambridge, Polity Books), 272 pp., $29.95.

Veteran Russia-watcher Thomas Graham recently published a thoughtful reflection on U.S.-Russia relations, Getting Russia Right. Through the late Cold War and its aftermath, Graham served in several positions in government, including as Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. His elegantly concise narrative is full of keen insights into this tortured history of U.S.-Russia relations that began in 1991 with so much hope and enthusiasm and now is at rock bottom.


In Graham’s account, U.S. policy consisted of two aspects that functioned almost like a carrot and a stick. On the one hand, we supported through various assistance programs the hoped-for transition of Russia to a market democracy. The sticks, or “hedges” in Graham’s terminology, were threefold: 1) continued arms control to reduce the size of both countries’ Cold War nuclear arsenals; 2) contesting Russian influence in the other post-Soviet states; and 3) promoting the enlargement of a democratic and market-oriented Europe through increased membership in core institutions including NATO and the EU.

But as Mike Tyson famously said about this same time, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In the case of the newly independent Russia, the blow came immediately in the form of massive inflation and economic collapse. Not surprisingly, this catalyzed significant opposition to further economic reforms in the Russian Parliament and society. In fact, it is hard to imagine less felicitous starting conditions for Yeltsin’s reformers as the Soviet leadership had virtually bankrupted the country.

Graham focuses a great deal on the challenge of the profound asymmetry in power of the two states. Unfortunately, the asymmetry in power was only the surface of the problem in U.S.-Russia relations. For seventy-four years, Soviet leaders had made decisions about huge economic allocations and investments on a command basis. Yet, as if overnight, all post-Soviet leaders found themselves in a very rough-and-tumble global market environment. It seemed clear to me, at least at the time, that things would get markedly worse before they got better. As economist Clifford Gaddy explained in The Price of the Past:

And because it is only under market reform that the costs have become evident, many Russians blame the new economic system for having created those costs in the first place. That is, people frequently ignore the fact that many of the “new” costs were actually incurred under the old system, although they remained repressed at the time.

While the George H.W. Bush administration was more hands-off concerning Russian domestic economic and political policies, the Clinton administration dove in head first, in the words of the president’s leading “Russia Hand,” Strobe Talbott, to establish “an alliance with Russian reform.”

There were two glaring problems with this approach: 1) By late 1993, when Talbott announced this formulation, the Russian reformist government under then-acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar had already been thrown out of power, and 2) While the Russian population wrongly associated economic trauma with the fault of the reformers, it should have been obvious that by so closely tying itself with Russia’s reformers, the United States would be viewed as guilty by association. Gaidar himself knew that his reforms would be deeply unpopular and that he would likely no longer be in the government for more than a year, and he was right. 

Tremendous political opposition to reforms emerged right away in 1992–3. It ultimately led President Yeltsin to disband Parliament on September 21, 1993, and use military force two weeks later against the opposition deputies who had taken refuge in the White House, as the Parliament building then was known. While those deputies had been elected in 1990 while the USSR still existed, that election proved to be one of the few genuinely democratic elections Russia would ever have. Clinton’s unqualified support for Yeltsin at this time greatly damaged the credibility of U.S. support for democracy for decades to come.

From the start, the odds were massively stacked against Russia’s rapid and smooth transition to a market democracy. Moscow’s reformers, unlike those in East Central Europe, were dealing with the legacy of a far more entrenched command-administrative, non-market system. The only previous effort to establish democracy in Russia was in 1917, when the Tsarist Empire collapsed. The magnitude of the failure of these two brief episodes in 1917 and the early 1990s only encouraged Russian citizens to view democracy even more skeptically and to fall back on their hard-wired proclivity to accept centralized autocracy. It is virtually impossible to imagine how a Russian reformist government could have succeeded under the daunting circumstances they encountered.

Graham rightly accentuates the challenges of the massive asymmetry in power between Russia and America just after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia at that moment was exceedingly weak, having just experienced state collapse and loss of about 40 percent of its territory and 50 percent of its population, including the stranding of about 25 million ethnic Russians in adjacent, newly independent post-Soviet states. At the time, the Russian elite envisioned a U.S.-Russian condominium at the core of global order. NATO would fall into the dustbin of history, and a muscled-up CSCE would serve as the leading European security institution. Russians were not alone in thinking this way. However, the calamitous condition of Russia in 1992 rendered this vision a fairy tale. 

The nearly immediate onset of the Yugoslav Wars confirmed NATO would not only continue as the premier Western security institution but also expand its remit to “out-of-area” missions, much to Russia’s chagrin. Perhaps if Yugoslavia had not imploded immediately after the Soviet collapse, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic would have had more time and patience to construct a new security system for Europe.

Regardless of the Yugoslav break-up, the former Warsaw Pact member states would have pushed hard, as they did, to get NATO membership (as well as a place in the EU) as soon as possible. Given their long experiences of dealing with Russian and Soviet power, it was only natural that Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the others would seek to join the West as soon as possible as a foundation for their domestic reform policies and their own security.

The essence of Graham’s account focuses on how and why Washington’s policy of expanding the community of market democracies in Europe back-fired by catalyzing the outcome it least desired. As Graham puts it on pg. 163, “Here Washington erected the most formidable hedges against Russia turning bad and, in the process, radically increased the chances that it would.” He outlines this process in the book’s most provocative chapter, “Washington’s Blind Spots and Missteps.”

Without getting into the weeds, Graham states the main obstacles preventing a durable U.S.-Russia partnership on pp. 167-8:

First, the United States would have had to consider itself a normal great power. That would mean turning its back on the last 100 years, during which it has positioned itself as a great power like no other, one that does not simply advance its own parochial national interests but works for the benefit of the world as a whole. Second, the United States would have had to put to the side its dueling images of Russia to acknowledge the possibility of a third variant, which in fact would be Russia as the normal great power its leaders consider it to be.

But such was not to be. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington became “dizzy with success” during its unipolar moment fueled by the 1990s high-tech economy. We abandoned the restraint and compromises that mark the behavior of “normal great powers” to engage in messianic crusades, intervening all around the world. We misread the lessons of post-WWII Germany and Japan’s remarkable recoveries as market democracies to believe that the United States could promote democracy with military power. Sure, Russia was too weak to do much in the 1990s. Still, as its economy began to recover (coincidentally when Putin came to power in 2000), Russia played a vital and constructive role in helping Washington oust the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001. 

Here, I agree entirely with Graham that the Bush administration missed the best opportunity for a more durable U.S.-Russian strategic partnership. Unfortunately, the neoconservatives in the administration out-maneuvered the realists to pave the way for the considerable error of the Iraq War, and Russia was again viewed mostly as a nuisance. And then, beginning in Georgia in 2008, then Ukraine in 2014, and again in 2022, Putin embarked on his own dark messianic crusade to defend the remnants of the Russian Empire, and here we are.

In a sense, Graham’s narrative is a defense of realism over idealism in the foreign policy of great powers. The realist school of international relations has taken a misguided beating with the Ukraine War thanks to John Mearsheimer, the best-known realist who blames the Ukraine War on NATO expansion. I disagree with him. Realism in and of itself does not prescribe specific policy solutions. In fact, regarding Ukraine, one can, like a smart lawyer, use a realist framework to argue either for accommodation or confrontation with Russia.