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Understanding the history behind US policy toward Russia since the end of the Cold War has taken on renewed urgency in light of current events. As of this writing, the war in Ukraine, begun on February 24, 2022 has taken the lives of tens of thousands of people and has displaced million others in the largest wave of refugees on the European continent since the end of the Second World War. An understanding of how we arrived at this perilous moment takes on an even greater urgency in light of the real, if distant, possibility of nuclear war. International relations experts, including the realist scholar John J. Mearsheimer and the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock (1987-1991) agree that today’s crisis surpasses the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in its potential to bring the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.
A review of American policy towards Russia in the immediate post-Soviet decade of the 1990s suggests that things didn’t have to be this way: Specific American policy choices (made with the acquiescence of America’s NATO allies in Europe) pursued over the course of that decade have led us to where we are today.
What we will find is that American policy wasn’t always marked by the hubris that later became its hallmark. In the years following the end of the Cold War (which Matlock has convincingly argued Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev ended in his address on December 7, 1988 before the UN General Assembly) the US had an opportunity to pursue a policy towards Russia that was both magnanimous and prudential.
As was noted at the time by Princeton University scholar Stephen F. Cohen, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Union Treaty at a covert meeting in the forests of Belarus between the presidents of the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in December 1991, did not end the problems within the Soviet space, nor did it end the manifold issues between Russia and the United States.
For one thing, the wrapping up of Moscow’s politico-military domination of Eastern Europe and the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union was bound to be a messy business. The sudden end of the Union Treaty left millions of Russian citizens within the borders of what were now foreign, often unfriendly countries. As Cohen observed in November 1992, there was “the combustible combination of 25 million Russians living in former Soviet republics outside Russia and a Russian Army still encamped throughout those territories.”
“In one way or another,” wrote Cohen, “that army has already been involved in at least four civil wars outside Russia-in Moldova, Georgia, Tajikistan and the Armenian enclave of Nagorno- Karabakh in Azerbaijan.” Cohen went on to observe that, “Elsewhere, elements of the Russian military in Estonia and Latvia, where large Russian minorities have been disenfranchised, are itching for a fight. Meanwhile, none of the potentially explosive conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, the second largest former republic, have yet been resolved oreven defused.”
So, as Cohen pointed out, within a year of the dissolution of the Union Treaty, the situation in Ukraine was already showing potential for conflict, after all, millions of ethnic Russians in Crimea and the Donbas now found themselves citizens of an entirely different country – and it was one which harbored rather different historical and cultural views from that of the Soviet Union.
The situation in Ukraine grated on the nerves of Russian nationalists who blamed Russian president Boris Yeltsin for his inept handling of the Soviet breakup. Russian nationalists in Crimea began to assert themselves as early as 1992, when the regional Crimean parliament declared independence from the new Ukrainian state. Russian Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn believed Yeltsin was duped by Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk’s promise during the negotiations in the Belavezha Forest that after the dissolution of the Union Treaty, a new kind of Union with “invisible borders, a single army and currency” would replace the old USSR.
Solzhenitsyn denounced the leaders of the new Ukrainian state for deceiving Yeltsin noting that the Ukraine nationalists now in charge “who in the past so staunchly opposed Communism, and…cursed Lenin” now, in an about-face, eagerly accepted “the false Leninist borders of Ukraine” including what he called “the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchev.”
Indeed, the disagreement over borders and the treatment of the ethnic Russian minority population within the new Ukrainian borders remains at the heart of the current controversy between the two nations.
Given the unstable and indeed volatile situation on the ground in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the administration of US president George H.W. Bush crafted a Soviet-, and later, Russia- policy based on two pillars consisting of 1) a refusal to rub Russia’s diminished fortunes in its face and 2) an effort to avoid exacerbating the latent ethnic tensions within the former Soviet republics.
As Bush’s secretary of state James A. Baker later wrote: “Time and again, President Bush demanded that we not dance on the ruins of the Berlin Wall. He simply wouldn’t hear of it.”
Concretely, Bush’s “go slow” policy meant that the US would not push one way or another with regard to the direction post-Soviet politics took. Bush’s emphasis was on avoiding a crisis rather than shaping the new reality.
Bush and his team recognized the world US and Soviet leaders had operated in since the end of the Second World War had changed irrevocably after Gorbachev’s UN Speech of December 7, 1988. Gorbachev abandoned the Marxist class struggle that for decades served as the basis for Soviet foreign policy. In place of that, Gorbachev declared that Eastern European states were free to choose their own paths, declaring “the compelling necessity of the principle of freedom of choice” as “a universal principle to which there should be no exceptions.”
…The next U.S. administration, headed by President-elect George Bush, will find in us a partner who is ready – without long pauses or backtracking – to continue the dialogue in a spirit of realism, openness and good will, with a willingness to achieve concrete results working on the agenda which covers the main issues of Soviet-U.S. relations and world politics.”
Initially, Bush and his team were skeptical of Gorbachev. In his memoirs Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft dismissed the historic import of Gorbachev’s speech, writing that the speech “had established, with a largely rhetorical flourish, a heady atmosphere of optimism.” Scowcroft worried that Gorbachev would then be able to “exploit an early meeting with a new president as evidence to declare the Cold War over without providing substantive actions from a ‘new’ Soviet Union.”
The caution with which Bush and his team treated Gorbachev was likewise extended to the newly or soon-to-be independent states in Eastern Europe. There was to be no dancing on the ruins of the Berlin Wall. The diplomatic historian James Graham Wilson noted that Bush realized that a triumphalist approach on the part of the Americans might backfire. “Ok, so long as the programs do not smack of fomenting revolution,” Scowcroft wrote on a paper proposing ‘democratic dialogue’ in Eastern Europe.
Eventually, Bush accepted that Gorbachev was serious about reform and came to see him, as Reagan, Shultz and Matlock did: As a partner in ending the 40 year division of Europe.
A little known episode that took place at Camp David in November 1989, a month before the first summit meeting between Bush and Gorbachev may have played a role in convincing Bush to overcome the skepticism of his advisers.
A young national security council aide named Condoleezza Rice invited two Russian specialists to Camp David to meet the Bush: Harvard University’s Richard Pipes, a leading neoconservative hardliner, and Princeton University’s Stephen F. Cohen, a leader of the “revisionist” school of Soviet history and author of a biography of Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin that Gorbachev had admired. Pipes and Cohen had a long, public history of opposing views and were frequent sparring partners on television and radio. At Camp David, Pipes and Cohen debated how the president might best approach Gorbachev at the upcoming summit in Malta. Pipes was, like Bush, a Republican and had served as an advisor on Soviet affairs to President Reagan. Cohen was a left-of-center critic of US policy and a longtime advocate for detente. Many years later, Cohen told me that after the debate, Bush asked that he sit next to him at lunch, and, seemingly rejecting Pipe’s hardline advice, told the room “Steve is my kind of Russianist.”
Subsequent events at Malta show that Bush took Cohen’s advice to heart. As Graham-Wilson notes, at Malta, “Bush wanted to avoid the impression that he was issuing orders to a defeated rival.” And according to the historian Joshua Shifrinson “Rather than trumpeting the collapse of the Soviet system for political points, the American transcript [of the meeting] suggests that Bush was willing to downplay changes in Soviet ideology if doing so would help maintain U.S.-Soviet relations writ large.”
Once the USSR fell, Bush and his team recognized the combustible reality on the ground. The most well-known expression of Bush’s policy towards the emerging post-Soviet states was made on August 1, 1991, during a speech to the Ukrainian Rada where he pledged that the US would take a hands off approach. Bush told the audience that the US “cannot tell you how to reform your society. We will not try to pick winners and losers in political competitions between Republics or between Republics and the center. That is your business; that’s not the business of the United States of America.”
Bush also warned he would “not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”
Bush was bitterly criticized by Cold Warriors within his own party. William Safire, a neoconservative columnist for the New York Times, famously dubbed the speech “Chicken Kiev.” Yet, and tragically, nationalist impulses drove Kiev, in both 2004 and 2014, to ignore the votes cast by the Russian speaking citizens in the south and eastern parts of Ukraine. And more dangerously, political elites in Kiev also embarked on a mission to join the NATO alliance.
Matlock has said that he was “quite convinced that if Bush had been reelected he would not have [expanded NATO].”
But we will never know, because on Tuesday, November 3, 1992, Bush lost the presidency to Arkansas governor Bill Clinton.
I want to make one final point regarding Bush’s foreign policy. The wariness he evinced over stirring up the cauldron of parochial nationalism in the former USSR also manifested itself in his policy toward an emerging, analogous situation in the Balkans.
Yugoslavia, like the USSR, was a communist, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state that was, after 70 years, descending – thanks to nationalist tensions in Croatian, Bosnia, Slovenia and Serbia – into chaos. In Baker’s judgment, the war in the Balkans did not merit American intervention: “We don’t,” Baker once family quipped, “have a dog in this fight.” Baker also no doubt also understood the close historic, cultural and religious ties between Serbia and Russia and rightly felt that American attempts at shaping the post-Yugoslav reality on the ground would inevitably mean choosing sides and violating Bush’s cardinal rule against rubbing Russia’s diminished position in its face.
As we will see, the Bush approach toward both Russia and Yugoslavia was entirely rejected by the incoming Clinton administration – with disastrous results.
In the years following the 1992 US presidential election, Bush’s policy of respectful non-interference in post-Soviet affairs was replaced by a policy of micromanagement from Washington. The problem started early on. Clinton’s choice of foreign policy advisors proved the truth of the old dictum that “personnel is policy.” An old Clinton friend from his days at Oxford, Strobe Talbott, became the president’s principal advisor on Russia. And in short order, Talbott, and a team of officials from the State Department, CIA, Treasury and the National Security Council embarked on a series of trips throughout the former Soviet Union.
Dubbed “hello-goodbye” tours, Talbott and a team which included the young foreign service officer Victoria Nuland, a member of the most influential neoconservative family in Washington, currently serving in the Biden administration as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. The Talbott team traveled to 14 of the former Soviet republics. Talbott has written that his job was “to deliver to leaders of all the new independent states messages of American support for their sovereignty and willingness to help them resolve their disputes with each other and with Moscow.”
Their first trip to Kiev was in May 1993.
What was behind all this?
The answer is as sad and it is unsurprising: Votes. Clinton’s policy to expand NATO was calibrated to appeal to voters of Polish and Ukrainian descent in the American Rust Belt. It was politics that drove the policy – not US national security interests.
In a recent interview, Ambassador Matlock revealed that…
The real reason that Clinton went for it [NATO expansion] was domestic politics. I testified in Congress against NATO expansion, saying that it would be a great mistake, and that if it continued, that certainly it would have to stop before it reached countries like Ukraine and Georgia, that this would be unacceptable to any Russian government, and that furthermore, that the expansion of NATO would undermine any chance for the development of democracy in Russia.
But why, when I came out of that testimony, a couple of people who were observing said, “Jack, why are you fighting against this?” And I said, “Because I think it’s a bad idea.” They said, “Look, Clinton wants to get reelected. He needs Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois; they all have a very strong East European…” Many of these had become Reagan Democrats on East- West issues. They’re insisting that the Ukraine [NATO] expand to include Poland and eventually Ukraine. So, Clinton needs those to get reelected.
Clearly then, NATO expansion was driven by Clinton’s political agenda. US national security interests didn’t enter into the equation. Clinton’s rejection of Bush’s “go slow” policy was a fateful error, and one that has helped to bring about the current proxy war between Russia and the West in Ukraine.
But if Clinton’s major mistake was pushing NATO expansion, a close runner up would be his policy toward the former Yugoslavia. Here again Clinton failed to take heed of Bush’s warning regarding “suicidal nationalism.” And indeed it might be fair to say that Clinton’s policy towards Serbia set the stage for what we are seeing in Ukraine.
Writing at the end of the 1990s, the late foreign affairs columnist William Pfaff observed that “The end of Soviet power encouraged Americans to think that history itself had validated American virtues and given the country a new mandate to improve the world, not by providing it with an edifying example, as once believed, but through action.”
And the hawkish ‘New Democrats’ who staffed and advised the Clinton administration found many an opportunity to flex American muscle in the new ‘unipolar world.’ Clinton and his national security team came quickly – after NATO’s intervention in Bosnia in 1995 – to take the efficacy and rightness of humanitarian intervention as an article of faith. The success of the Dayton Accords seemed to cement the idea that America was, after all, the indispensable nation.
As the historian David P. Calleo observed, the Clinton administration “had always sported a low-grade Wilsonian rhetoric that implied hegemonic ambitions,” it was only after Dayton that “the policy began to imitate the rhetoric.”
Clinton’s second intervention in the Balkans in 1999 set the template for what George W. Bush attempted in Iraq, and, later, what Barack Obama attempted in Libya and Syria. In the absence of U.N. sanction, Clinton launched a 78-day bombardment of Serbia, ostensibly undertaken to prevent what was said to be the looming slaughter of Albanian Kosovars by Serbian forces.
Kosovo, and later American interventions in Iraq, Syria, Libya, combined with the American-sponsored “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe in the 2000s, all fed Vladimir Putin’s paranoia about American intentions – and his fears of American-sponsored regime change in Moscow. As the novelist Joseph Heller once wrote: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Russia’s reaction to Clinton’s policy, particularly with regard to its illegal bombing campaign over Serbia helped to feed the crisis from the other end: It is useful to recall that the precedent for Russia’s unilateral recognition of the breakaway republics of Dontesk and Luhansk made this past February was set by the US in February 2008 when the it unilaterally recognized the independence of Kosovo.
The “suicidal nationalism,” of which George HW Bush warned us, has long haunted Ukrainian politics, and in recent years has become its most dominant force thanks in no small part to the rhetorical financial and military assistance provided by presidents Clinton, Bush II, Obama and Trump.
Ukrainian nationalism bared its teeth during the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, and then again during the violent coup d’etat of February 22, 2014. This last led directly toan 8 year war (April 6, 2014 – February 24, 2022) against the Russian speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk which killed over 13,000 people and displaced 1.3 million. The primary victims of that war, Russian speaking non-combatants, received little in the way of sympathy in the West.
In post-Maidan Ukraine, discriminatory language laws were instituted and an “anti-terror operation” aimed at the Donbas commenced under the direction the Washington’s hand picked prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
These moves by Kiev directly challenged Putin’s policy of protecting Russian minority populations abroad. The later refusal by Ukrainian presidents Poroshenko and Zelensky to implement the Minsk Protocols of 2015 was yet another sign that “suicidal nationalism” had taken hold in Kiev.
It then seems clear, in the light of history, that Bush’s prudential and cautious policy toward Russia was the correct one. Unfortunately, Clinton and his advisers, many of whom, worryingly, continue to hold sway over the policymaking process in Washington all these years later, rejected Bush’s approach.
The results speak for themselves.
James W. Carden is a member of the board of ACURA. Parts of this essay previously appeared in the Italian journal Limes – Rivista Italiana di geopolitica.