At the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s doomed effort in the 1980s to transform the U.S.S.R. from an “Evil Empire” to what liberal Russians would call “a normal country,” a Soviet sage declared to an elite audience in New York, “We’re going to do the worst thing we can do to you Americans. We’re going to deny you an enemy.”
The speaker was Georgy Arbatov, the director of the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, which like all think tanks in Moscow was a Communist-party-sanctioned center of intelligence filtered through the perspective of Marxism-Leninism. Arbatov was very experienced and, in his way, witty and wise. He captured in that comment a profound reality about this country’s view of Russia, the global empire and the nation state itself. The Bolsheviks and their heirs had provided succeeding American administrations with a satisfying competitive foil and adversary throughout most of the 20th century.
Joseph Stalin and his successors did give the United States cause for a variety of serious concerns, particularly during the Cold War when these two nuclear powers were in competition for world domination. We were, in our sights, virtuous and the Soviets, basically sinister. There were periods of “thaw” in the late 1950s and in the détente era of the 1970s. But fundamentally, Arbatov was right, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was our enemy.
After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, there was a decade of efforts to devise a new relationship with a fallen foe. Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic leadership was notably less dictatorial than Kremlins of the past. His regime was open to Western concepts of commerce and culture. Although internally this led to rampant financial corruption, on the world stage it was a relief from the years of nuclear posturing. The emergence of independent republics in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the ignominy of a defeated ideology were the themes of the 1990s.
But at the turn of the century, two events shaped a fundamental shift in what had been, on the whole, a comforting narrative.
On New Year’s Day 2000, Yeltsin, ailing and exhausted, gave the Kremlin to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who had risen fast in this new political arena. As publisher of two Yeltsin memoirs, I was able to ask him why he chose Putin. Because, Yeltsin told me, the other contenders were sycophants and Putin seemed up to the job.
It was also rumored that Putin pledged not to prosecute Yeltsin or his family for any financial misdeeds and he did not. (I never saw evidence in their lifestyle that the Yeltsin family had stashed billions while in power).
The other event was, of course, 9/11 a day that literally upended history. “Muslim extremism” and terrorism led to two wars and an overhaul of American security comparable to the nuclear anxieties of the 1950s. The impact of that is a different topic, not for this piece.
After presenting himself in a series of interviews (which PublicAffairs published as First Person complete with a portfolio of family photographs) to be a modern Russian everyman, Putin gradually started to reinvent post-Soviet Russia. I only met him once at a dinner for a group of journalists in New York. I remember his chilly dismissal of the fate of Russian sailors in a submarine accident. And at the mention of Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch, Putin hissed, “he doesn’t pay taxes to us” adding that the Jewish billionaire “doesn’t pay taxes to Israel” either. Berezovsky soon went into exile and ended up dead in a London hotel room.
Very bad things happened to other 1990s oligarchs who for one reason or another fell out of Putin’s favor.
The developments in Russia in the last 18 years are well known. The Putin era has made Russia into a petro-state ready to throw its elbows into all manner of conflicts at home and abroad without mercy. The country has its small group of the very rich, its KGB-style police and far less freedom of expression. Remnants of past doctrines have been replaced by the practice of up-to-date autocracy.
So now the United States is once again confronted with Russia in the first rank of American adversaries. There are those who argue that both Democratic and Republican presidents mismanaged Russia policy in the aftermath of the collapse. They may have a point, but the consequences reflect more about the deep-roots of Russian traditions than the faults of outsiders.
China today is a much bigger and potentially vastly more formidable nation than contemporary Russia, but American attitudes toward Beijing tend to be a mixture of awe, admiration and appropriate wariness rather than the pronounced hostility towards Putin’s Russia.
Russia’s aggressive role in Syria, support for Iran and its undermining as much as it can the countries of the former Soviet Union is unquestionable. What’s new is the sense that Russia has mastered the craft of cyber warfare, a 21st century phenomenon.
I have no idea how advanced the Russians really are in this field. But the feeling seems to be much like it was when the Soviets sent Sputnik into space in the 1950s. “Good grief,” Americans said then, ‘they are so far ahead of us…” That may or may not be true now. The U.S. capacity is doubtless also considerable. Yet there is no doubt that the Russians are causing trouble here and elsewhere and that is definitely their objective and our problem.
Putin should be taken seriously. He is much more effective than the geriatrics who ran the U.S.S.R. from the 1970s to the 1990s. But there is a question worth asking based on history. Behind the façade of power and dark skills, Russians weren’t as good in the communist years as we thought they were in many ways which is why the system eventually fell apart.
My friend and fellow former Moscow correspondent, Robert Kaiser, once described the Soviet Union as “a superpower with clay feet.” Today’s Russia is certainly nasty. It is still armed with nuclear weapons. It should not be underestimated as an “enemy.” But Russia, a country with weaknesses in the economy and no meaningful political fabric other than Putin’s rules, may be more vulnerable than it seems.
When it comes to Russia policy, the United States did better in the past when we had more faith in our democracy and institutions than our belief in what turned out to be Kremlin-led threats, real and exaggerated.