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Can We Escape A Second Cold War With Russia?


Recently, I brought Peter Conradi’s “Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War” to a dialogue between American, European, and Russian experts convened at the Kozmetsky Center at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

This book could have served as the script of our conversations—the bill of particulars from Russian participants on all the alleged and actual Western slights, mistakes, and betrayals; Western concerns over troubling Russian domestic and international behavior; the different assessments of what “partnership” should look like; whether Russia should take its place within the structures of the Euro-Atlantic world (and what leadership role it ought to play) or needs to strike out on its own as an independent pole of power in the international system; whether Russia even qualifies as a great power and global player or needs to accept a diminished role in world events; the re-litigation of the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

For readers and interested parties who cannot attend such conclaves of specialists, Who Lost Russia? is a concise, accessible, and focused narrative of the tangled, complicated, and ultimately unfulfilled relationship between Russia and the West over the past 25 years. Conradi makes sure to present a wide array of Russian, European, and American voices—policymakers and politicians, statesmen, experts and analysts—and lets them speak. The foreign editor of the Sunday Times, Conradi is less interested in dazzling the reader with his own expertise and opinions (although he is not a passive relater of the events he chronicles), and instead crafted a book resting on the principle of he reports, and you, the reader, adjudicate.

In chronicling the events of the past three decades, Conradi does not break new ground with breathtaking revelations from hitherto secret archives, but what makes his work all the more important—and why his narrative needs to be read—is that he has no legacy to defend, no need to use his prose to insist on the rightness of his analysis or the policy choices made by his preferred politicians. Because he carries no water for any particular administration or country, he is not shy in calling out mistakes and missteps but also does not rush to assume the worst (or best) possible interpretation of a leader’s motives or intentions.

Contradictory Imperatives

As a veteran reporter and observer, he concentrates on providing the facts of the matter and how everyone around the table understood and perceived those facts. In his treatment of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include new members from the former Soviet bloc—perhaps one of the most contentious issues in the post-Cold War relationship between Russia and the United States—Conradi deftly sets forward the objections of Russia, the concerns of the new member states (including the reasons impelling them to seek refuge in the alliance) and U.S. efforts at legerdemain.

This last part involved American leadership juggling the contradictory imperatives of reassuring Russia that the alliance posed no threat to Moscow, while conveying to the new members that their security would not be neglected, and that Russia could be given a substantive role in Western security matters without somehow involving an actual veto over decisions. Conradi allows those voices who supported expansion and those that did not to appear and debate on his pages. A fair and balanced treatment of other critical issues likewise characterizes his prose.

But Conradi does not simply passively chronicle events. He is critical across the board, particularly how political elites clung to their illusions and looked for ways to avoid making hard choices or bearing serious costs. On the Russian side, Conradi is unsparing in depicting a Russian leadership, especially under Boris Yeltsin, who embraced a fantastically unrealistic belief that the West would preserve a post-Soviet Russia’s great power status during its period of weakness.

Another consistent theme is Moscow’s unwillingness to reconcile the image of the role it wanted to play in the world—still as a near-peer power to the United States, in some regards—with what Russia could actually mobilize in terms of economic and military power. Likewise, Vladimir Putin’s plans to make Russia great again may end up being unrealizable, while many of his actions over the last several years have proven counterproductive to his ultimate geopolitical aims—notably how the Putin threat has helped to rejuvenate the NATO alliance.

America’s Delusions

The U.S. policy community will be more than happy with Conradi’s accounting of Russia’s missteps in the relationship, but may be less likely to take the opportunity provided by this book to take a good hard look in the mirror. Conradi is unsparing in his assessment that the United States, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, deluded itself into believing it could achieve grand geopolitical goals with a minimum of effort—essentially hoping they could build a Porsche for the price of a Ford Taurus. The United States was unprepared to underwrite the costs of a true post-Communist rehabilitation of Russia or invest in building up the capacities of the other post-Soviet states to contain a resurgent Russia. Often, in Conradi’s narratives, U.S. efforts seemed more focused on box-checking rather than on achieving sustainable results.

In particular, the United States was prepared to write checks that it fervently hoped would never be cashed, whether making what ultimately turned out to be empty pledges to Ukraine that Washington would safeguard its territorial integrity in return for giving up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union (the so-called Budapest Memorandum) or hoping that the conundrum of NATO expansion would somehow solve itself over time. There is a clear sense that U.S. policy tended to be reactive rather than proactive, aided by the fact that the Washington policy establishment could never firmly resolve the ongoing disputes between the Russia-engagers or the Russia-skeptics, between those who saw good relations with Moscow as the key versus those who prioritized expanding the Euro-Atlantic community into the former Soviet bloc.

The stalemate between what Conradi describes as the “Putin lovers” versus the “democracy lovers” in the George W. Bush administration meant that the United States did just enough to anger the Kremlin while failing to really change the geopolitical realities of the post-Soviet space. Thus, while the United States trained and equipped the Georgian armed forces and dangled eventual membership in NATO, little was done to prevent Russia from effectively crushing the Georgian military or dismembering the Georgian state once Moscow decided that its red lines in the Caucasus had been crossed.

Indeed, the conclusion that one reaches from Conradi’s narrative is of a U.S. policy establishment that found it hard to prioritize U.S. goals and was unprepared to say “no” when confronted with competing preferences. Therefore, the United States sought to square a number of unpleasant circles—trying to come up with a Russia-NATO relationship alongside admitting new members, for instance—and usually failing at making such contortions in policy work.

The alternative was to hope that others would get the United States out of the jam, so that the U.S.-Russia reset under the Obama administration could only take off once Viktor Yanukovych himself took Ukraine out of geopolitical contention by announcing in 2010 that Ukraine would not seek NATO membership, thus allowing the Obama team to claim that the United States had not rescinded its invitation, but that Ukraine itself had “voluntarily” stopped its NATO bid. But the Ukraine issue returned front and center in 2014 when a new government indicated that it wanted to restart the process of joining the alliance, and Russia chose to directly intervene on Ukrainian soil.

Two Unpleasant Realities Converge

It also becomes clear from Conradi’s narrative that the United States did not want to consider the possibility that two unpleasant realities might converge: one, that there would never be good relations between the United States and Russia, even a post-Soviet, post-Communist one; and that Russian weakness would prove to be temporary and a resurgent Moscow would become the dominant power in Eurasia. Instead, the early assumption was that, after the Cold War, Russia would no longer have any significant differences of opinion with Washington on any international issue—and if it did, it would not matter, because Russia had ceased to be a great power in any meaningful sense.

By not taking into account these possibilities in the 1990s and 2000s, the United States failed to either create an accommodation with Russia when they would have more amenable to certain compromises that are now off the table, or to push harder to secure the destinies of the post-Soviet region by creating incontestable facts on the ground. Today, of course, much of that room to manuever is now gone, and the United States must now consider how it plans to adhere to the commitments it made, such as Article 5 defense guarantees to the Baltic States, without stumbling into a war with Russia.

Yet Conradi’s lessons still seem to be unheard in Washington policy circles. I hope that those charged with Russia and Eurasia policy read closely his chapters dealing with the “Trap” (how Moscow baited Georgia into the disastrous 2008 war) and the Ukraine crisis. In both cases, Conradi details how Russia took decisive steps before U.S. plans reached fruition.

It is a reminder that along Russia’s periphery, the United States does not control the timetable of events. No doubt there are plenty of powerpoint presentations in Washington detailing how the United States will reconstruct the Ukrainian army and make the Ukrainian government more effective; what will be lacking will be what to do when Russia intervenes again to frustrate those plans.

Conradi’s work was written as the Donald Trump administration was just taking office, and some of the assumptions about Trump’s likely policies towards Russia have been upended over the last several months, most notably with the departure of Michael Flynn as national security advisor. But even if the composition of the Trump national security team changes, and begins to favor Russia-skeptics over Trump’s initial instinct to engage the Kremlin, his administration must still deal with the Russia that has emerged in 2017.

Conradi shows why we cannot continue discussing the past 25 years and lamenting missed opportunities of the past while holding out the hope of “resetting” to some past point in time, just as Russians cannot keep complaining about NATO expansion, the Kosovo operation, and the Iraq and Afghan wars. The post-Cold War relationship did not work out as a Russian-American partnership as many had hoped for, starting with what veteran Cold War warrior and Reagan administration defense official Fred Iklé articulated for in 1990. There is no point in lamenting this past. We have to consider what opportunities—if any—lie in the future.