Q&A with Louis Sell

Sell F16 Author PhotoLouis Sell is a retired Foreign Service officer who served twenty seven years with the US Department of State, specializing in Soviet and Balkan affairs. Sell also helped establish the American University in Kosovo and served as the Executive Director of the American University in Kosovo Foundation (AUKF). He has taught at the University of Maine at Farmington and is the author of Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (2002). His new book is From Washington to Moscow:  US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR, which draws archival sources and memoirs—many in Russian—as well as his own experiences to trace the history of US–Soviet relations between 1972 and 1991 and to explain what caused the Soviet Union’s collapse.

There are a lot of books about the Cold War. What’s different about yours?

From Washington to MoscowBooks about the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the USSR would fill a good sized library but mine fills a niche occupied by few others. Many books discuss Soviet internal developments. Many others deal with the end of the Cold War. My book puts together in one narrative domestic and international affairs over the final decades of the USSR from the perspective of players on both sides. This is how history actually unfolds. Tip O’Neill once famously said “All politics is local” and my corollary is that all international politics are at least partially domestic. It is impossible to make sense of Gorbachev’s efforts to reduce Cold War tensions without understanding that escaping the crisis the USSR faced required sweeping internal changes which could only be accomplished if Moscow’s confrontation with Washington were relaxed. Similarly, the often debated question of why Gorbachev did not intervene in 1989 to block the collapse of neighboring Communist regimes is impossible to answer without understanding that by 1989 the Soviet leader was losing control of events inside the USSR and that ordering the tanks to roll in Eastern Europe would have played into the hands of Gorbachev’s hard-line domestic opponents and blocked any chance of Western economic assistance which by then had become Gorbachev’s only hope for rescuing perestroika at home.

What new, significant, or controversial material can readers find in your book?

Since the book is drawn largely from archival holdings and memoirs of participants on both sides, most of which in the Soviet case at least are not available in English, it contains a lot of material which is either new or not widely known in the general literature.  I include, for example, a discussion of the 1986 Reykjavik US-Soviet summit, drawn from official records on both sides and previously unpublished accounts of some key participants, that reveals the actual content of the deal on the table when the meeting collapsed, something that US accounts have obscured.  I also include a discussion of the facts around the 1983 Soviet shoot-down of the Korean civil airliner and Moscow’s subsequent cover-up; an informed discussion of the Soviet approach toward nuclear negotiations with the US, based on memoirs of Soviet participants and interviews with senior Soviet military officers conducted around the time of the end of the Cold War but which were not declassified until recently; a discussion of the politics and personalities around the Soviet human rights movements of the 1970s based on my experience working that beat at the US embassy; and new material on the scandal of the “bugged” US embassy in Moscow. Drawing on interviews with senior US officials in the US Embassy at the time of the August 1991 coup, the book dispels widely cited allegations that the US offered asylum and intelligence support to Boris Yeltsin. Finally, the book draws on official records from both sides to provide a detailed inside account of secret US-Soviet negotiations in the Nixon era, including on Vietnam where, in a meeting with Kissinger at the May 1972 US-Soviet summit in Moscow Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko finally understood just how cynical was what he called the “rather strange” US position and how, after this conversation, the Soviets began to encourage temporary flexibility by the North, one factor leading to the January 1973 agreement on US withdrawal.

In the first chapter, you note that with regard to the USSR, “things were not always the way they seemed.” What do you mean by that?

Visitors to the USSR were inevitably struck by the contrast between the image of the USSR as a nuclear-armed superpower and the reality of living standards that lagged far behind most other developed countries, a contrast that led German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to describe the USSR as “Upper Volta with missiles.” Secrecy shrouded almost everything in the USSR, often to absurd lengths. In 1983 General Secretary Andropov refused Gorbachev’s request to see the secret Soviet state budget, even though Gorbachev was by then the second-ranking official in the country and had been tasked by Andropov to write a report on the true state of the Soviet economy. It also shows how a visit to a US grocery supermarket led Boris Yeltsin, who had been a senior Soviet official for decades, to understand how badly the Soviet system had failed in providing the basic needs of its citizens. When Gorbachev’s glasnost opened the floodgates of truth, the flow of honest information undermined the foundations of the Communist system he was trying to reform not destroy.

During the early 1980s, tensions between the US and USSR seemed to be high enough that many Americans were fearful there would be a nuclear war. Were the two countries ever actually close to war?

In the early 1980s tensions between the two countries were high but actual conflict was never close. In September 1983, in response to the annual Able Archer staff exercise on the release of nuclear weapons, a few Soviet aircraft went onto heightened alert status. But after the end of the Cold War, senior Soviet military and civilian officials denied that conflict was considered imminent, in part because Soviet intelligence had good information on US military actions which would have accompanied any move toward war. As special assistant to the chief US nuclear arms negotiator in 1983 I was in a position to see virtually all US diplomatic and intelligence material relating to the USSR and there was never belief on the US side that war was close, no matter how heated was the rhetoric.

2016 is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the USSR. What was it like to be there in 1991?

The August 1991 coup in Moscow was aimed at rolling back Gorbachev’s reforms but it ended by destroying the Communist system and the USSR itself four months later. Despite the turmoil and hardship which accompanied Gorbachev’s final years, Moscow after the August coup was a place of hope and positive feelings towards the United States. Many Russians assumed their country and the United States would remain the world’s two leading nations but as partners. To be introduced as an American diplomat at this time was to be greeted by smiles, enthusiastic handshakes and often a warm embrace.

How did the way the USSR collapsed end up leading to the rise of authoritarianism with Vladimir Putin at the helm of Russia?

Vladimir Putin famously described the collapse of the USSR as “the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the [twentieth] century.” His remark illustrates why it is impossible to understand Putin and the country he leads without also understanding how Russians view the collapse of the USSR and its aftermath.

The Soviet Union fell in 1991 without any of the events which have generally accompanied imperial collapse in the past — military defeat, foreign invasion, internal revolution and the like. It came, moreover, only a short time after the country appeared to be at the pinnacle of international power and prestige. After he took office Putin constructed a narrative of Western perfidy which is the foundation of his appeal to the Russian people. In reality, plenty of mistakes were made in Moscow and abroad. Almost everyone involved in Russia after the Soviet fall—Russians as well as foreigners—underestimated the extent of the political, economic, and social difficulties that needed to be overcome. Similarly, everyone underestimated the difficulty in establishing a viable democratic culture in a society where it had never existed before. Institutions were created and elections were held but a genuine democratic culture, founded on toleration, transparency, and rule of law could not be created overnight.

Both Russian reformers and their Western supporters over promised and under performed. Largely for domestic political reasons US administrations exaggerated the size and significance of American assistance. Russians received a lot of advice—almost all of it well-meaning and some of it good—but too much of it amounted to applying outside models to stubborn Russian reality.

Where do you see US-Russian relations going in the next decade?

Alarmed warnings of a new Cold War between the US and Russia overstate the potential threat posed by Putin’s regime at the same time they underestimate the complexity of the current global situation. Putin’s regime is incapable of mounting the kind of broad global challenge to Western interests the USSR did over the nearly half a century of the Cold War. Russia holds important cards in many—but not all—geopolitical arenas but in most of these it will be only one of numerous players and seldom the most powerful.

With a declining population less than half that of the US and an economy roughly one-quarter the size of the American Russia’s underlying political and economic strength remains far below that of its former Cold war rival. In recent years Putin has invested heavily in modernizing the Russian military but this push comes after two decades of post-Soviet neglect and Moscow remains well behind the US in almost every quantitative measure of military power. Only in the nuclear arena does Russia truly stand on more or less equal military terms with the US, a sign of how little it has changed in some ways from the Cold War era where the USSR was, in fact, a superpower only in the military sense.

The application of countervailing power in every area of where genuine Western interest comes up against Russia is the only sure way to deter Moscow. Having in effect chosen to draw a line in Ukraine we must support Kiev politically, economically, and militarily to the extent it shows itself capable of using Western aid in ways consistent with democratic reform and Western interest. It makes no sense to provide only non-lethal military aid. Once Moscow recognizes that its aggression will not succeed the outlines of a deal involving autonomy for the east within a united Ukraine are already present in the framework of the Minsk accord currently on the table.

Over the longer haul, we need to find some way to show Russia that we are prepared to recognize its legitimate interests. If Moscow truly ceases its aggression and shows itself willing to treat Ukraine as a genuinely independent state, there is really no reason why we should persist in promoting the illusion that Ukraine will ever become a member of NATO. As for Crimea, the chances of it ever returning to Ukraine are as close to zero as anything is in the field of national security although no Western leader can say so openly. Probably the most that can be expected is for the US to formally refuse to recognize its forcible and illegal incorporation into Russia, in the same way that for half a century we refused to recognize Stalin’s forcible seizure of the Baltic states and hope that in the intervening period something will turn up – as it eventually did with the Baltics.

It is important to hold open a hand of cooperation in areas where working together with Moscow may be possible. Ultimately, the fight against radical Islam, a far greater potential threat to Russia than to the US, may well be one such area. Eventually, if Russia stops its dangerous meddling in the affairs of neighbors and stops its anti-Western global probes it may be possible to find some way to cooperate more broadly. The critical post-Cold War failure, for which both sides share some blame, was in not finding some way to incorporate Russia into the security system that emerged after 1991. The search for an alternative to endless confrontation will not be easy but given good will on both sides it should not be an impossible task.

You can order From Washington to Moscow from your favorite local or online bookstore (print and e-editions available) or order directly from Duke University Press. Use coupon code E16LSELLto save 30%!


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