U.S. Russia Relations: How Did We Get Here?

If only we had followed Reagan's approach to Russia, just imagine how different the world would be today.

Ronald Reagan was my role model and my inspiration as I proudly served in the US Congress during the last two years of his tenure. I took Reagan’s words, and admonitions, seriously. In my opinion, no one had established more credibility in dealing with the collapse of the Soviet Union than Ronald Reagan.

It was Reagan who inspired me to author my first legislation in the US Congress which passed unanimously as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act formally acknowledging that the USSR was in violation of the ABM Treaty – the strategic Holy Grail of the liberal left. The ABM Treaty had been based upon the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction/Deterrence) Theory that we embraced for 30 years.

I also remember a group of three US House Members who were escorted to the site of the Krasnoyarsk Radar ABM violation and who naively labelled the violation a minor oversight – despite Soviet General Nikolai Ogarkov’s later public admission that the Krasnoyarsk deployment had been ordered by the Politburo in ‘direct’ violation of the ABM Treaty.

If only we had followed Ronald Reagan’s common sense approach to US-Russia relations just imagine how different the world would be today. Dealing with Russia required the same diplomatic policy as in dealing with China, Iran, or any other international challenge – strength, consistency and candor.

Yet somehow, for some reason, we just haven’t gotten it. And so, as we approach a new Administration controlled by the political inheritors of the Reagan legacy, It serves us well to look back over the last 30 years of missed opportunities. The late 1980s and 1990s were filled with aggressive efforts in the Congress to demonstrate a strong, consistent and candid message to the failing Soviet state and the emerging proud Russian nation. We supported a strong deterrence through a robust military, a consistent standard of exposing Soviet/Russian actions and a candid acknowledgement of realities that would prevent our two nations from ever enjoying long-term peaceful collaboration.

In my view, successive administrations (Republican and Democratic) just never got it. In the Congress, we saw new opportunities for strategic collaboration when the Soviet Union collapsed, but White Houses remained stuck in the old US/Soviet mindset using the right words but not embracing the right strategies and actions. All of us were excited as Boris Yeltsin took office as the newly elected leader of a free Russia – I remember well his historic speech in the House of Representatives. But, in our rush to embrace Yeltsin we lost sight of Reagan’s admonition for consistency and candor.

In the Congress, we held hearings regarding the continued proliferation by Russia of weapons in violation of arms control agreements; hearings to document the fact that the Soviets had  preplaced military equipment and hardware strategically throughout the US and Europe as documented by Dr. Christopher Andrews and Chief Archivist for the KGB and in testimony by former KGB operatives Oleg Gordievsky and Stanislev Lunev; hearings to understand continued human rights abuses as documented by leaders like Galina Starovoitova, Lev Rokhlin and Alexander Lebed. Time and again in the 1990s the administration simply denied reality and showed the Russian people that we didn’t embrace the Reagan agenda of consistency and candor. When Starovoitova was murdered in her St. Petersburg apartment building, our State Department barely uttered a word.

When my friend General Lev Rokhlin was gunned down in in his own Moscow home, our administration quietly accepted the ridiculous story from the Yeltsin Kremlin that his wife was deranged and shot him – tens of thousands of ordinary Russian people marching through the streets of Moscow weren’t afraid to be “candid” and publicly acknowledged what they knew to be factual by proclaiming that Duma Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rokhlin had been assassinated in his own home because he dared to “embarrass” his Party leader/President Boris Yeltsin by demanding proper benefits for Russia’s Veterans.

And when General Lebed, who had visited the US numerous times and had testified before my Sub-Committee that “loose nukes” could not be accounted for just as renowned Russian Academician Dr. Alexei Yablokov had said in a previous Hearing – Congress took note and expressed outrage – while the White House tried to change the story. Lebed died in a mysterious helicopter crash as his momentum was building to become President of Russia.

The internal financial scandals in Moscow under Yeltsin were largely ignored in the White House for fear of embarrassing Yeltsin, even though the State Duma came within a handful of votes necessary to impeach Yeltsin. International Headlines screamed about the allegations of US and European Banks misappropriating funds earmarked for new infrastructure improvements throughout Russia as investigations emerged in the US and abroad.

As Congress attempted to examine these very allegations, American embassy officials in Moscow lied to a Congressional Delegation in an attempt to prevent a face-to-face meeting with top Russian Prosecutor Yuri Skuratov – who anxiously met with Members when contacted directly through Russian Duma Leadership. Ultimately, US Banking Officials were indicted by our Justice Department for massive diversions of Russian financial assets.

As Reagan had suggested, Congress had serious and candid discussions with Duma counterparts regarding the ABM Treaty and Ballistic Missile Defense. When my legislation was scheduled for a floor vote that mandated a National Missile Defense for America, colleagues from both parties and I travelled to Moscow days in advance (with Rumsfeld, Woolsey and Schneider as our guests) to candidly explain to our Moscow associates the reasons for our actions being to protect our citizens just as the Missile Defense System around Moscow deployed years earlier by the Soviet regime protected their citizens.

Even though our mandate for National Missile Defense called for bilateral cooperation with the Russians, the White House tried to cancel funding for the only cooperative missile defense program between our two nations (RAMOS). Duma Chairman Vladimir Lukin pleaded with me to restore funding for the program – with the unwavering support of my Senate Colleague Carl Levin we succeeded.

While we in the Congress held Russia accountable for stupid, and sometimes dangerous actions, we aggressively pursued bilateral programs to solidify friendships between the Russian and American people and build an institutional foundation for Russia’s stability.

Having represented the US in legislative exchanges focusing on the environment, energy and oceans with Russian Duma counter-parts, I was eager to convince new House Speaker Newt Gingrich and new Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin to formally empower a bi-lateral Duma/Congress relationship. On the very day that Speaker Rybkin took his oath of Office, a group of House Members joined me in cementing that bilateral relationship with my good friend Steny Hoyer as co-chair. Dozens of Duma Deputies regularly travelled to the US (Graham Allison and the Harvard JFK School conducted an annual workshop for new Duma Deputies) and dozens and dozens of House and Senate Members travelled to Moscow and throughout Russia and the FSU nations.

Enabling Russian families to purchase a home we believed would help develop a middle class in Russia for long-term stability. Unfortunately, no underlying mortgage system existed in Russia because Communism denied private property ownership. Banker/Congressman Charles Taylor and Philadelphia Attorney John Gallagher boldly developed a strategy with Duma Leader Valentin Tsoi to implement a western style mortgage program entitled “Our House is Russia”. Communist Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov publicly endorsed the plan and signatures were obtained from every Regional Leader in Russia pledging support. Charles arranged a one-time appropriation to initiate the Plan only to have the White House re-allocate the funding for another purpose. Disgusted by White House actions, Charles self-funded a new program at Brevard College to train young Russians with the skills necessary for community banking and mortgage lending with the requirement that every student had to return to Russia after being trained.

Time and again in the 90’s we sent mixed signals, denied reality and pretended that things weren’t really what they were. I remember well the CIA Report that outlined illegal activities by Viktor Chernomyrdin – partner in the Gore/Chernomyrdin Commission. When Gore read the report about his colleague and partner, undenied press reports indicated Gore’s actions when he scribbled the word “bulls—“ across the cover.

And amazingly, in Yeltin’s 1996 re-election to a second term, when polls showed his popularity was amazingly low and that he was headed for a loss, American political operatives with the highest level US political connections, took up shop in the Moscow Presidential Hotel to guide Yeltsin’s re-election victory.

Russian people are not stupid – and they recognized that while they had concerns with Yeltsin’s instability and drinking problems, the US wanted “our” President re-elected to lead “their” country – and so it was!

The denials of reality in the 90’s by the Administration were historic – DOE Russian Fission Program Manager Jay Stewart fired for telling the truth about Russia’s nuclear build-up, Navy Intel Officer Jack Daly’s career ruined simply because he had demanded health treatment after he had been lasered in the eyes originating from a Russian trawler in the Port of Seattle, gravely ill Penn State Professor Ed Pope illegally detained in a Moscow prison while our embassy did little to release him for fear of embarrassing the Yeltsin Administration, removal of senior intelligence analysts like Fred Fleitz and Gordon Oehlers who simply told the truth to Congress about administration efforts to distort and deny reality to suit pro-Yeltsin political strategies.

And the famous NIE 95-19 (regarding Emerging Missile Threats to US Security) provided to the Congress in such a politicized manner that CIA Director John Deutch had to publicly apologize and in one of the only times in American history an NIE was redone largely because Congress created the bi-partisan Rumsfeld Commission to independently assess emerging threats to the US mainland.

While doing everything possible to keep Yeltsin in power, the Clinton/Blair NATO ‘air-deployment bombing debacle’ to remove Milosovic from power in Serbia in the late 90’s caused Europe to erupt by its dismal failure to succeed and arrogance in denying any role for Russia in the effort. At the exact same time as Yeltsin was being impeached in Moscow, a bipartisan group of 11 Members of Congress joined a similar bipartisan group of Russian lawmakers in Vienna, to do what neither White House could do – lay out a bilateral approach with Russia’s support to end the Balkan War and remove Milosevic from power.

With a decade of White House denial, denial, denial and appeasement in our US/Russia relationship, Congress was the steadfast follower of the Reagan approach to US/Russia relations – Be Strong, Be Consistent and Be Candid!

As the new decade approached and new hopes for US/Russia cooperation were energized by the new leadership of Vladimir Putin – again Congress went into action, especially after witnessing Putin’s outreach to Bush – even before Bush won the Republican nomination from the Republican Party.

In July of 2000, then Leader of the State Duma and Russian Chair of Duma/Congress (who also happened to be Putin’s Campaign Manager) Boris Grzyzlov, called me and asked if I could assist him in having a Putin Delegation attend the Republican National Convention. Putin wanted to show support for his desire and top priority to dramatically change the relationship between Russia and the US for the better.

Requests to obtain official credentials for the new Russian Leader’s Representative fell on deaf ears as the RNC instead handpicked Russian Leaders who had no stature and who were not in power. Because the RNC Convention in 2000 was in Philadelphia (my hometown) and because we had created a Mustin Congressional Village (directly adjacent to the Convention site) where 100 Members of Congress and their families were going to reside the entire week of the Convention, I invited Gryzlov and his 6 Member entourage to join us for the entire week. Gryzlov, Federation Council Leader Misha Margelov and the Number One Russian TV Station Crew lived with 100 Members of Congress and our families for the entire week – eating meals together, recreating together and reporting back daily to the Russian people that Putin wanted a new US/Russia relationship.

Putin took a risk, and I am certain ‘hardliners’ back in Moscow were admonishing him for being stupid and naïve to think that America – and Bush – wanted a new positive bilateral collaboration. For those of in Congress, we were ecstatic – a new opportunity was emerging that offered a new hope for a bilateral relationship with Russia based on the Reagan doctrine of strength, consistency and candor.

One must remember that, at this point in time, Putin was a political novice – strong on KGB traits – but who desperately desired political guidance and a partnership with the man and Party whom he thought would control our country in 2001. The opportunity was enormous because at this very same time, the Russian economy was stagnant and struggling.

We, in the Congress, were elated and excited to show our support for these two new leaders who could really ‘change the world’. As a Republican who had campaigned hard for Bush, I was excited about our prospects for a new era in US/Russia relations and a new era in world stability.

Putin jumped in immediately — and was quickly joined by Bush – as summits occurred in America and Russia. Putin did the unthinkable – the first world leader to call Bush after 9/11 was Vladimir Putin and his offer left cold warriors speechless. This former KGB Officer offered us unequivocal support – intelligence, assets and the use of former Soviet military bases for our work to be done against the 9/11 aggressors. It really struck me when I stayed with our troops forward deployed at bases in Uzbekistan and met with our troops in an old Soviet base in Georgia.

I remember asking the State Department for a listing of all programs that had been operating between the people of the US and Russia for the previous 30 years, including the Soviet days. To my surprise and chagrin, the State Department had no such list, so we in the Congress did what we had been doing for the previous 13 years.

We assembled a group of the most distinguished US/Russian experts to assemble an inventory of US/Russia formal initiatives focusing on 11 key areas including agriculture, energy, environment, security, health care, education, natural resources, etc. The experts included the likes of Sam Nunn, Dick Lugar, Graham Allison, Bruce Weinrod, Sven Kramer, Leon Aron, Ariel Cohen and organizations including the Carnegie Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations, Jamestown Foundation, Aspen Institute, Eurasia Institute, East/West Institute and the Woodrow Wilson Center among others.

Within two months we completed a comprehensive 8 page inventory listing over 100 NGO’s and long-standing organizations focused on one or more of the 11 key areas of US/Russia people to people cooperation. From this list, the Group developed a 48-page document listing over 100 recommendations for new or expanded programs bringing the people and the institutions of the US and Russia together – most requiring no new public funding just vocal support from the White House. Entitled ‘New Time – New Beginning’ the document was printed and funded with private money – no public funds were used. At the same time, our Russian Colleagues reviewed, added and developed the same document printed in Russian.

One week before the first meeting of Bush and Putin in Texas, I went to the Senate floor seeking support for the document. With the Senate controlled by the Democrats, I only sought (and received) three signatures of support that first day – Chairman Joe Biden, Ranking Republican Dick Lugar and Chairman Carl Levin. Back to the House Floor I received overwhelming support from both Parties – almost 1/3 of the House signed in just two days including Dick Armey, Henry Hyde, Jack Murtha, Ellen Tauscher, Chris Cox, Dennis Kucinich, John Spratt but also current Members of the House and Senate including Bernie Sanders, Mike Pence, Mac Thornberry, Roger Wicker, John Thune, Fred Upton, Ed Royce, Shelley Moore Capito, Bob Goodlatte, Marci Kaptur, Alcie Hastings, Ed Markey, Sam Farr, Susan Davis, John Larson, Danny Davis and Frank Pallone among others.

In Moscow, the Russian Leaders bought in overwhelmingly – resolutions of support from the State Duma and Federation Council were joined by a unanimous Resolution passed by the Russian Academy of Social Sciences. I remember well the vote in the Academy of Social Sciences after vigorous questioning of me by the likes of former Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh and longtime Communist Party leader Gennady Zuganov.

We had made a strong statement that the legislative bodies and leaders in both nations were ready for a substantive change. But that change required committed and substantive White House and Administration support. Putin and Russia were so enamored with the possibility of a new US/Russia collaboration that Putin’s Representative to the State Duma and Federation Council Alexander Kotenkov proposed a new second tier bilateral initiative to implement the strategic plan. Working with Congressman/Senator David Vitter’s lifelong local DA friend, we engaged with Kotenkov to create a new platform – I steered them to DC Attorney Charles Peterson (who had worked with our agencies) to develop an acceptable working model.

To test the sincerity and legitimacy of the Putin/Kotenkov Initiative and to test the ability to obtain our desired results through this Initiative, I set up three challenges for the Kotenkov Team. Our first request was a meeting in the Lubyanka Office of Felix Dzerzhinsky, longtime feared Director of the KGB. State Department Officials laughed at my staff when they were informed that we might have a meeting in the Lubyanka in Dzerzhinsky’s Office.

On our next Delegation visit to Moscow, our ambassador called me in my hotel room and asked if he could attend the meeting at Lubyanka as his office had been informed would occur. The next day the ambassador picked me up in his car and my Delegation followed us into the Lubyanka and proceeded to the Office of the Director of the FSB. Our meetings in the Lubyanka with Russian Leaders were substantive as we were told that if we followed the process offered by Kotenkov and ultimately agreed to by American attorney Charles Peterson, the US would receive access to all security concerns. The Kotenkov Team had passed the first test.

Our second challenge was to visit a top secret Russian facility (that we would name) involved in chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and technology. We were provided signed approvals for our Delegation to visit dozens of Russian Chemical and biological sites. After conferring with US Intel leaders, we requested permission instead to visit the most sensitive underground nuclear site inside a mountain at the closed city of Zalezhnogorsk along the Yenessee River where the USSR had constructed three large plutonium producing reactors as well as a massive storage site for weapons grade plutonium.

As requested, my Delegation of 5 Members of Congress and two staffers (one from the Office of Naval Research) were flown from Moscow to Zalezhnogorsk to meet with city leaders and were guided into the mountain where we received full briefings on the reactors (two of which had been shut down as part of negotiations with the US) as well as the massive underground storage site for weapons grade plutonium. Our Russian hosts pleaded for the US to assist in securing the storage complex. The second challenge had been met.

The third challenge was the result of discussions that I had with Ballistic Missile Defense CEO General Ron Kadish. General Kadish explained to me that he was moving to kill US/Russia cooperation on Missile Defense – partly because he could not secure a meeting with his counterpart in Russia. I requested that Kadish send a BMDO Representative to Moscow with my Congressional Delegation where we would request a meeting through Kotenkov – which he did. Sure enough, in Kotenkov’s Office in the Russian White House, Chief of the General Staff Balyuevsky committed to provide all cooperation with our Missile Defense Agency and ultimately signed a document with our BMDO – ultimately negated by the US side. I maintain a copy of that document.

Having been convinced that Russia was serious as evidenced by the three challenges, I approached two US trusted leaders who could bring bipartisan leadership to this new Initiative based on our “New Time/New Beginning” Document. As Founder/Chair of the National Fire Caucus leading 1 million American First Responders I had known and worked with FEMA Directors Joe Albaugh (Bush) and James Lee Witt (Clinton). In calls with both men they expressed interest in jointly leading the new bilateral Initiative.

Many, including myself, witnessed each of these actions and maintain additional documentation to support the incidents. For reasons unbeknownst to me, our efforts were ignored and opportunity lost.

Putin had taken the lead and did what few expected. Unfortunately, US Administration Policy did not. As a political novice who had defied the Moscow “hardliners” Putin needed some ‘wins’, some evidence to show his success in creating a new US/Russia relationship – but that didn’t happen.

I remember well my conversation with President George W. Bush while on an Air Force One trip. Having summoned me to the Air Force One “Oval Office’ the President asked me about US-Russia relations. I candidly told the President that, in my opinion, we were losing Putin, and losing Russia, as our partner.  When the President asked me to be specific and to provide an example, I quickly brought up Jackson-Vanik, which was a trade restriction imposed by Congress in support of Soviet Jews during the Soviet era.

As a strong supporter of the National Conference of Soviet Jewry, I told the President that I had secured support from DC based Jewish groups in support of elevating Russia (and Ukraine) out of this status – which at this time was more symbolic – but extremely sensitive and important in Russia. The President interrupted me and proclaimed his equal support for ending Jackson-Vanik and reminded me that such a change required Congressional action. How embarrassed the President was when I explained to him that Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas had not acted on this matter because the President’s own staff had verbally opposed the measure. Thomas acknowledged this fact at a meeting of the House Committee (of which I was a Member) selecting new Chairmen of Committees for our Republican Conference.

History (and my Archives) shows that Putin made historic overtures to the US Administration in the 2000’s – all of which were rejected. When Rosonboronexport CEO Sergei Chemesev came to DC offering to establish a new US/Russia bilateral that would mandate consultation anytime one of our enemies attempted to purchase weapons from Russia – we turned away. I attended the meetings with Chemesev at the State Department and Pentagon and I was reminded after I left the Congress by a former White House Russia NSC expert who had been denied approval (at the last-minute) to attend the meeting with Chemesev that in his mind had been a mistake.

When the most well know Academician and Kurchatov Institute Chairman Dr. Yevgeny Velikhov was sent to DC to offer a new US-Russia bilateral to oversee all nuclear fuel destined for Iran – we turned away. Velikhov knew that I was outraged with Russia’s approval and support of the Bushehr Nuclear Reactor and was advocating for this new bi-lateral directly with Putin. Velikhov restated his efforts in an interview for my Archives Oral History last summer.

And, as it was under the Clinton Administration, when we wanted something – the situation changed. When the CEO of Rosoboronexport was ‘blacklisted’ the first time for legitimate reasons, it was interesting that his ‘backlist’ was removed when a US Aerospace Company needed to purchase titanium – which was under his control. A former State Department Official was hired by the Company, the ‘blacklist’ was removed and our Aerospace Company acquired its needed Titanium. And, once again, the Russians saw the duplicity of US policy and decision making.

Our legitimate calls for human rights saw similar contradictions. Russian 20-year-old student Alexander Kashin was made a quadriplegic when a car driven by US Embassy official Douglas Kent broadsided Kashin’s vehicle. Because Kashin had relatives living in Philadelphia, local attorney John Gallagher took the case pro bono asking only for re-training and rehabilitation of Kashin – not one dime for pain or suffering! The White House response was to deny any responsibility and ignore the violation of Kashin’s most basic human right to life.

When Putin realized that the new bilateral relationship that he sought with the US was not going to occur, he developed a strategy to re-create the power of the Motherland. Only this time, it would not initially be through military means – but would rather occur through energy dominance. We, in the Congress, warned the White House that this was occurring in 2003/04/05 but our leaders blinked and allowed this dominance to crystallize. One by one former Soviet States and EU nations were forced to rely on Russian Energy – and one by one the current energy domination of Putin and Russia emerged and solidified.

Understand, I do not support many of the decisions that have been made by Putin in many areas – just as I did not support inept and dangerous decisions that were made by Russian leaders in the 90’s and 00’s. As a strong supporter of Ukraine throughout my entire public career, I was offended and outraged by Russia’s actions against Kiev and the people of Ukraine. But I clearly remember our lack of aggressive White House support for Orange Revolution Leader Viktor Yuschenko when he and Yulia Timoschenko brought a new day to Ukraine.

Having co-chaired the Rada-Congress relationship, many of us in the Congress were saddened by the lack of public support for Yuschenko and Ukraine. Even Ukraine was not immediately removed from Jackson-Vanik unlike the other 13 former FSU nations when the USSR dissolved. Ukraine and its leaders have been so dismayed by our lack of support and inactions that current President Petro Poroshenko called Ukraine’s 1994 decision to give up all nukes a “mistake” that would send negative signals to nations around the world.

How embarrassing it is that the current leader of one of our strong allies under siege would feel the necessity to publicly express his nation’s “regrets” for having given up nuclear weapons in 1994 at the request of the US! As a twenty year Member of Congress, I am obviously prejudiced in support of the institution of the Congress. I saw first-hand the bipartisan work of the Congress in holding the USSR and Russia fully accountable for their stupidity and for violations in our relationship as well as international obligations.

Repeatedly, I witnessed the House and the Senate implement the Reagan doctrine of strength, consistency and candor in our dealings with the USSR and Russia. I cannot say the same for American administrations over the past 30 years.

But, as the youngest of nine, I am an eternal optimist. I welcome the leadership of President-elect Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that energy production and distribution has had (and will continue to have) a profound impact on international security worldwide – Iran, Syria, China, North Korea, Libya and every other hot spot is impacted by energy concerns. I am absolutely convinced that we will finally achieve the goal that Putin (and the US Congress) originally tried to obtain 17 years ago in achieving a new cooperative working relationship with Russia.

It won’t be easy, because this is a different Russia – and a different Putin – and the world is much more complicated and much more dangerous, but this new relationship is achievable.

Reagan’s words were never more applicable – Strength, Consistency and Candor – whether in dealing with Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Pyongyang.  And, once again the Congress must play (and drive) a leadership role in support of this new agenda – as well as our new President.

We know how we got here – now it’s time for us collectively as Democrats and Republicans, House Members and Senators, and ordinary citizens to join together to create this new relationship. Our people, our children and our world are depending upon us collectively through our new President to make this happen.

Curt Weldon served in the US House for 20 years and retired as Vice Chairman of the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committee. Weldon conceived, initiated and Co-Chaired the Duma/Congress Initiative and led dozens of bi-partisan Congressional Delegations to Russia (as he did with other nations).