How the U.S. Lost Russia—and How We Can Restore Relations

Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry looks back at our relationship with Russia and charts a way forward for peace.

The hostility between the United States and Russia has reached heights not seen since the dark days of the Cold War. How have we found ourselves back here?

Former After the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Russian Federation in the early 90s, our two nations began working together towards building a cooperative alliance. Today, it feels as if that era of positive dialogue has been forgotten. Yet as we look at the terrible events unfolding with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, it is worth trying to understand how we found ourselves so far from those heady early days; not just to manage the current situation but also in the hopes that we can restore the relationship to something beyond open antagonism.

Many have pointed to the expansion of NATO in the mid-1990s as a critical provocation. At the time, I opposed that expansion, in part for fear of the effect on Russian-U.S. relations. But the larger issue was not just NATO expansion but what it represented: a general failure by Western governments to respect the vital importance of this nuclear power to the world order.

Before NATO expansion, our two nations were on track toward developing a relationship that could have resulted in a true global partnership. When I was Secretary of Defense in the early and mid-90s, I had a cooperative and cordial rapport with the Russian Minister of Defense, Pavel Grachev. We both made a concerted effort to build on this emerging relationship; I hosted Minister Grachev on visits to U.S. military bases, and he, in turn, hosted me at Russian bases. We conducted collaborative military and disaster relief exercises in Europe and Hawaii. I even brought Minister Grachev as a guest to several NATO meetings. We recognized that communication was critical between our two nations; each of us had a hotline on our desks that we could use to quickly work out any defense issues that might arise.

As a result of these efforts to build a sense of trust and respect between our countries, we were able to collaborate on reducing much of the massive nuclear stockpile left over from the Cold War. As the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we viewed nuclear weapons stewardship as a joint responsibility. As part of this responsibility, we collectively dismantled approximately 9,000 nuclear weapons in both countries. Despite leftover bitterness from the Cold War, the U.S. government recognized that it was in the best interest of national security to provide financial support for this denuclearization effort.

But unfortunately, our economic aid has only extended so far. In the early ‘90s, as Russians were attempting to convert from a communist economy to a market-driven one, they suffered through a severe depression. Just as they were beginning to recover, the global financial crisis of 1998 wiped out the ruble’s value. Throughout these crises, the main message from the West seemed to be “just tough it out.”  Our failure to provide substantive relief sowed bitterness in many Russians that remains today.

Also, during this period, we began joint programs with all Eastern European nations through a NATO program called the Partnership for Peace. Partnership for Peace allowed Russia and other Eastern European countries to work with NATO without becoming  NATO members. This included joint peacekeeping operations that allowed Eastern European military units to work cooperatively with NATO military units.

However, many Eastern European members were eager to attain actual NATO membership, so the Clinton administration initiated discussions on NATO expansion. Russia expressed its objections to the proposed changes on its borders, but its views were ignored. As a result, Russia began to withdraw from its cooperative programs with NATO.

The combination of the West failing to act during Russia’s financial crisis, and ignoring their strongly-held views on NATO expansion, reinforced a prevailing Russian belief that we didn’t take them seriously. Indeed, many in the West saw Russia only as the loser of the Cold War, not worthy of our respect.

Defense Ministers from the United States, Russia, and Ukraine join hands before a discussion in Kiev, Ukraine, on January 4, 1996.

he bitterness that emerged from dismissing Russia as irrelevant created a climate ripe for the rise of an autocratic leader who would instead demand respect and power through force. And there is no force greater than possessing a nuclear arsenal capable of bringing about the end of humanity. For those who had asked, “what could this defeated nation do to us?” the newly installed President Vladimir Putin would soon have an answer.

We are now facing a hostile, aggressive Russia conducting a hazardous military attack on Ukraine and threatening to use nuclear weapons if another nation interferes. Putin has not only taken these actions, but he seems to have many Russian people on his side, having convinced them that the U.S. is once again their enemy. Even though his armed forces are no match for those of the U.S. or NATO, he does not need to fear them: they will be deterred from interfering by the threat that he will go nuclear. And he has made that threat clear.

In a televised address in February, Putin said of his invasion of Ukraine: “No matter who tries to stand in our way…they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Today, we are confronted with a Russia at least as hostile as the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This dangerous problem does not have a simple solution. Still, the first step in finding a solution is acknowledging the problem and recognizing that our actions have contributed to that hostility. It also reminds us that even during times of tension and hostility, it remains crucial to maintain constructive lines of communication with Russia and other nuclear-armed adversaries to decrease the chances of a misunderstanding that could trigger a nuclear conflict.

There is no organic reason why Russia should be our enemy. Putin is the enemy, not Russia. We must work to rebuild connections with Russia,  treat the Russian people with respect, and rebuild our relationships, in the hopes that we can once again return to the path of friendship.

William J. Perry was the U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton. He is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor (emeritus) at Stanford University and the founder of The William J. Perry Project.