U.S.-Russia Relations: The More Things Change The More They Remain The Same
There has been one drearily reliable constant in U.S.-Russian relations over the past 25 years: The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have come into office committed to improving relations with Moscow and each has not merely failed, but failed spectacularly, while the Trump administration also is well on the way to going off the rails with America’s former Cold War nemesis.
Many journalists and Russia hands — the nickname for people who devote their public lives to trying to understand Russia — find this to be an abiding mystery, most recently Keith Gessen in a New York Times Magazine story that covers a lot of real estate but also fails — and fails at considerable length — to shed new light on the conundrum, let alone solve it. This at a time the Russia scandal investigation is entering its second year, the tug of war between Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Trump and his Vichy Republican allies is dominating headlines, and the longterm failure of U.S. Russia policy has taken on a new importance.
The prevailing theory about why relations between Washington and Moscow have been so poor is not without merit and goes something like this:
The U.S. has never gotten past the idea that it “won” the Cold War and as a result needs to spread, even at considerable diplomatic and geopolitical cost, the American way of life.
That is the big takeaway from the Gessen takeout and is echoed by the usual Russia hand suspects, all of whom are not exactly household names in the U.S. These suspects include Strobe Talbott (Bill Clinton administration), Thomas Graham (George W. Bush administration), Michael McFaul (Obama administration), and for our purposes most notably Victoria Nuland, who was assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during Barack Obama’s second term and his administration’s leading spokesperson on Russia.
As Gessen notes, these people are as well known in Russia as they are obscure in the U.S., and no one more so than Nuland.
So well known in Russia that when Nastya Rybka, a “professional sex coach” and former mistress of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum oligarch, Vladimir Putin pal and person of (considerable) interest to Mueller because of his ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, was busted in Thailand earlier this year, she claimed to have the “missing link” in proving collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to cyberscrew Hillary Clinton.
Rybka, in appealing to the U.S. to prevent her deportation to Russia, pointed to a video shot aboard Deripaska’s yacht in 2016 in which Deripaska discusses the sorry state of Washington-Moscow relations with Sergei Prikhodko, Putin’s deputy prime minister.
“Our relations with America are bad,” Deripaska tells Prikhodko as Nastya and other for-hire babes look on. “Why? Because the person in charge of them is . . . Nuland is what she is called. When she was young — about your age — she spent a month living on a Soviet whaling vessel. Ever since then, she’s hated our country.”
A BIG REASON THAT NULAND IS, IN TURN, HATED in Russia is that in 2013, as a newly confirmed assistant secretary of state under Putin arch nemesis Hillary Clinton, she became the most visible U.S. government representative when large street protests erupted in Kiev against the pro-Moscow president of Ukraine following his decision to pull out of an economic agreement with the European Union, which eventually would lead to his ouster and flight to Moscow aboard a helicopter arranged by Putin.
Nuland was videotaped handing out sandwiches, pastries and cookies to the protesters in what the Kremlin and everyday Russians viewed as a provocative show of American anti-Russian solidarity with the protesters. (Never mind that Nuland had done the same for government riot police.) And later, to add insult to injury, she said in a call to Washington most likely intercepted by Russian intelligence and then leaked that the U.S. should not work with the E.U. to resolve the crisis.
“F— the E.U.,” Nuland memorably said.
Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia by lowering tensions and focusing on an emergent China as a worrisome global player went pfft! Nuland’s hospitality was recast by Putin’s propaganda machine as yet another instance of an American president dictating policy to Moscow.
BUT THE PRIMARY FACTOR IN THE SORRY STATE of U.S.-Russian relations over the past 25 years is not Washington’s belief that it “won” the Cold War and can dictate the terms of the relationship, let alone Nuland’s cookie diplomacy. The U.S. indeed did “win” the Cold War, but it “won” by default. The Soviet Union was on the verge of a monumental collapse and nothing the hallowed Ronald Reagan did hastened that inevitability, the beliefs of conservative Republican myth makers aside. Nor were the actions of Bill Clinton and his successors particularly to blame.
The cause was, to a great extent, these presidents’ reactions, specifically to:
Boris Yeltsin catastrophically botching the dramatic shift from the centralized Soviet economy of state ownership to a market economy, which enabled cash-rich mobsters and corrupt government officials like Prikhodko to privatize and loot state-held assets.
And after Putin succeeded Yeltsin, Russia’s feared intelligence agencies joining forces with mobsters and oligarchs like Deripaska, whom Putin has given a free hand so long as they help enrich him and strengthen his grip on the country.
I know this view seems Cold Warriorish. It is not. And this is not to overlook Clinton’s Kosovo adventure, Bush’s response to the Russian bombing of Georgia, let alone Obama’s sanctions in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, all of which mightily ticked off Putin and everyday Russians, who get their news through that well-oiled propaganda machine.
This is what is called realistic, and the self-flagellation of many Russia hands over Who Lost Russia? is downright silly because Russia already was lost when Putin strongarmed his way to power and then rigged subsequent elections. Nothing any America president could do was going to change that.
Meanwhile, what is Trump’s Russia policy and who is his top Russia adviser?
Trump has no policy beyond making nice with Putin and issuing frequently nonsensical executive orders, while his top adviser is . . . Putin, whose views he has valued over his own national security and foreign policy hands, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose ouster by Tweet followed his break with Trump over the need to get tough with Russia after the poisoning in England of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
Trump has never criticized Putin and has long denied that Russia interfered in the election that plopped him in the Oval Office, while Putin is never going to acquiesce to accommodation with the U.S. no matter how benevolent Washington is. That collides with his goal of knocking the U.S. from its perch as the sole remaining global superpower and returning Russia . . . yes, to its former Cold War glory by any means necessary.
This includes undermining a bedrock of American democracy by helping elect Trump, whose Make America Great “vision” is as devoid of substance as Putin’s own vision. And no less dangerous.
and related developments.