Former Foreign Service officer Louis Sell reflects on the past and future of US-Russian relations in this op-ed inspired by the anniversary of 1991’s failed coup that ultimately led to the end of the USSR. Sell’s new book is From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR. You can also read a Q&A with him.
Twenty-five years ago this month retrograde Communists failed to overthrow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, hastening the disappearance of the USSR four months later and the onset of Russia’s tragically brief experiment with democracy under Boris Yeltsin. It was a heady time in Moscow. The former Soviet media exploded with exuberant freedom. People assumed that with Communism gone it would be easy to graft democratic institutions onto the Russian body politic. An outpouring of positive feeling toward the US accompanied the post-coup euphoria. Russia and the United States would remain the world’s two leading nations but now as friends, not rivals. To walk into a Russian office as an American was to be greeted by smiles and often a warm embrace.
A quarter century later Vladimir Putin rests his appeal on a narrative of Western perfidy. Many Russians believe that the US objective was to humiliate their proud country and keep it weak. In reality, Russians and foreigners alike underestimated the difficulties that needed to be overcome to usher in democracy. 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. Russian reformers and their Western supporters over promised and under performed. Russians received a lot of well-meaning advice but too much of it amounted to applying formulaic outside models to stubborn Russian reality.
Now, when hopes for US-Russian global partnership have been replaced by almost equally unrealistic fears of a new Cold War, it is important to keep in proper perspective the scope of the Russian challenge and the scale of the US response. Russia remains far behind the US in almost every measure of global power. Its declining population is less than half the US while its economy is roughly one-quarter the size of the American. Putin’s impressive modernization revitalized the Russian military after decades of post-Cold War neglect but Russia lags the US in almost every category of armed might. On the other hand, aided by disarray in Washington and Europe, Putin is moving against the US on many fronts — in Ukraine and Syria, through disinformation and cyber subversion, and encouraging a global coalition of authoritarian, anti-Western regimes.
The US needs to protect its genuine interests while also seeking to understand Russia’s legitimate concerns. We should provide Ukraine aid to rebuild its economy and the real military assistance it needs to defeat pro-Russian rebels in the east — as long as it demonstrates it can use the aid effectively and according to democratic standards. A long-visible deal involving autonomy for eastern Ukraine will not become possible until Moscow is convinced it cannot achieve its aims through force. Similarly, in the murky world of cyber conflict, we need to be prepared to inflict equivalent damage on Moscow, as a first step toward regulating actions in this area.
The historical record provides no support for the claim, widely believed in Russia, that NATO expansion violated pledges made at the end of the Cold War. NATO membership helped integrate Eastern Europe into the West but it is time to acknowledge that expanding NATO into former Soviet republics was a bridge too far. NATO cannot honorably step away from the commitment it made to the Baltics. But NATO should acknowledge the obvious truth that no additional former Soviet republic, including Ukraine, will become NATO members even as we make clear that we will hold Moscow to its obligations to respect their independence.
Moving beyond confrontation would allow the US and Russia to cooperate in areas where they have common interests. Russia faces a far greater threat from radical Islam than does the US and both wish to minimize regional instability when the US finally withdraws from Afghanistan. Cooperation with Russia in Syria is pointless as long as Putin views the conflict there as a way to humiliate the US, but over the longer term a more effective US policy there could help Moscow understand the broader dangers it faces from violence across the Middle East.
It is unlikely that the US and Russia will ever return to the partnership that many in both countries desired after the end of the Cold War, at least as long as Putin and his cronies remain in power, but a measured US stance combining firm resistance to Russian offensive moves with a willingness to talk in areas where cooperation may be possible offers hope of eventually ending pointless antagonism.
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%!