What is a sound U.S. policy toward Russia? I started to think about this 25 years ago when, in October 1988, I received an invitation from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s science adviser, Yuri Ossipyan, to visit Moscow. This was quite unexpected, as only a few months earlier the official government newspaper denounced me and a few other exiled dissidents for trying to undermine Mr. Gorbachev’s initiatives by presenting them as part of a sinister KGB ruse to fool the naive West.
During our first nearly secret meeting at the Oktyabrskaya, now the President Hotel, Mr. Ossipyan introduced me to Alexander Yakovlev, at the time Mr. Gorbachev’s right-hand man. Mr. Yakovlev went straight to the point by asking what in my opinion could be done to make Americans believe that “perestroika” and “glasnost” were not a Potemkin show, but a very serious process aiming to transform the USSR into a free and democratic society.
I said that I did not buy their story any more than Americans would, since no one in their right mind would believe that Communist Party would voluntarily give up its absolute power and lead Soviet society from dictatorship to freedom.
Still, I told him that I was willing to try, should I be allowed to bring over to Moscow a group of American experts to participate in free and open discussions with Soviet counterparts. To my great surprise, Mr. Yakovlev agreed and many U.S. delegations, including members of Congress, foreign-policy experts, businessmen, university presidents and students indeed had the opportunity for absolutely open and frank discussions with both officials in high places, ordinary folks and the media. One of the high points came in April 1989 when Mr. Yakovlev told our group that any Warsaw Pact country that wanted to leave this bloc was free to do just that.
Most of us were convinced that whether or not Mr. Gorbachev was actually behind this policy, communism would very soon go straight to the dustbin of history, just as Ronald Reagan had predicted, as it was simply impossible to have all those freedoms in a communist society. A prominent Washington insider, Paul Weyrich, who became a frequent participant in these exchanges had direct access to President Bush, and after one of these trips in 1990 he went to the White House to hand the president the report on the imminent collapse of the USSR, urging the president to develop a plan for Russia’s integration with the West.
According to Mr. Weyrich, Mr. Bush listened attentively until Condoleezza Rice had walked into the room and practically dismissed this report. According to the information she had, supposedly more reliable than our own, we were all wrong. What happened afterwards is only too well known.
On Aug. 1, 1991, Mr. Bush went to Ukraine and made his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech, saying that “we will maintain the strongest possible relationship with the Soviet government of President Gorbachev.” Less than five months later, the Soviet Union was no more, but the United States was not prepared for that and was not sure what to do. A historic, one-in-a-century chance to bring Russia into the Western fold was lost.
Clinton administration policy took the turn from bad to worse. It was marked by hundreds of American advisers who rushed to Moscow to “help” Boris Yeltsin’s team to perform a miracle of transforming Russia’s (inherited from USSR) planned economy to market. The result of their advice was so devastating that, according to a congressional report commissioned by then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, they lead Russia to an economic collapse and the financial default of 1998. President Clinton also started a process of NATO expansion that many experts, including U.S. Ambassador George Kennan, denounced as a tragic mistake and the start of a new Cold War.
George W. Bush’s Russia policy was no less devastating. He ungratefully repaid Vladimir Putin’s enormous help during the 2001 U.S. invasion into Afghanistan with unilateral abrogation of the ABM treaty, promotion of “color” revolutions in post-Soviet space and a push for further NATO expansion, including into Ukraine and Georgia.
President Obama’s first term “reset” policy brought some positive changes, but now we are practically back to square one with the current “battle for Ukraine” bringing us to the most troubling times since the collapse of the USSR.
Imagine how Americans would react if Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made public appeals not to sign up for Obamacare, while his deputy served vodka and caviar to Tea Party activists during their protest marches in Washington.
However, Secretary of State John F. Kerry felt he had the right to tell Ukrainians to choose Europe over Russia while his deputy, Victoria Nuland, has been schmoozing with anti-government protesters and has been seen serving cookies to the crowd in Kiev’s “Maidan Square” in a dubious PR stunt. Predictably enough, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, could not resist the temptation either and rushed to Kiev to poke his finger in the Russian bear’s eye.
Does such a policy serve America best? Don’t we have enough trouble in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the constantly growing geopolitical challenge there?
The right policy is to bring the United States and Russia closer together to work on many global and regional issues, the most existential one being the threat coming from the jihadists.
The bad news is that it is highly unlikely that this administration is ready to change course, but the good news is that we have about three years to work on the new foreign-policy agenda for the next White House team that, hopefully, will be more beneficial for the United States and our allies.
Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow and professor of world politics at Moscow State University.