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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Soelistyo

Reading "Who Lost Russia?" by Peter Conradi

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

Sunday Times editor Peter Conradi has written an accessible, engaging and comprehensive account of U.S.-Russian relations from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to today. In a savvy marketing move, Conradi, who originally wrote the book in the aftermath of 2014 Ukraine crisis, has since updated it after Vladimir Putin's Russia formally invaded the country in February this year. The book hence poses the question, "why did Putin decide to invade Ukraine in 2022?"as part of the wider question, "how did relations between Russia and the West deteriorate to the depths we see today?". Conradi achieves this largely by sketching a narrative arc across thirty years, from the birth of a post-Soviet Russia in December 1991 right up to the current war.

The phrase "Who Lost Russia?" is itself a reference to the earlier "loss of China", as U.S. policymakers called the 1949 victory of the Communists in China's civil war. The assumption here is of course that China somehow "belonged" or was meant to be in the U.S.-led world, so its deviation from that path can be considered a "loss" by the United States. In the same way, post-1991 hopes that Russia could become a U.S. ally, a junior partner, a fellow liberal democracy, have all collapsed in the decades since, allowing us to speak of the "loss" of Russia.

Incidentally, the phrase itself finds its origin in the economic tumult of new Russia's early years; the lifting of price controls had unleashed rampant inflation, and the standard of living deteriorated, while corruption flourished and the seeds of the oligarchical system were planted with the dubious fire-sale of former Soviet state assets. Despite Western efforts to ameliorate the shortages, including airdrops of food and medicine, there was little the United States and its allies could do under financial and political constraints. Nevertheless, the administration of George H.W. Bush drew criticism from former president Richard Nixon, who berated the "pathetically inadequate response" of the U.S. to the deteriorating situation with Russia, which might push Russians away from the U.S.-led order. He counselled that "what seems politically profitable in the short term may prove costly in the long term". He noted ominously that "the hot-button issue in the 1950s was 'Who lost China?' If [Russia's reformer president Boris] Yeltsin goes down, the question 'Who lost Russia?' will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s" (p.33).

However, Conradi's subsequent narrative makes clear that economics was only part of modern Russia's turn against the West. The fundamental driver of this antagonism was the incompatibility of their visions of the world, and in particular, Russia's place in it. While Russia, a proud and imperial nation, sought to retain control over its neighbourhood, the United States and its allies sought to manage the world under their own set of rules. This latter vision inevitably saw Russia reduced to the status of a "normal" power in world affairs, without the right or means to run roughshod over its neighbours.

However, this did not prevent cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in key areas; primarily arms control, combatting Islamist terrorism, and in initiatives such as the Iran nuclear deal. The Islamist terrorism case interesting because it simultaneously shows the potential extent of U.S.-Russian cooperation, as well as the fact that even such instances fail to overcome the more fundamental factors at play in this relationship between great powers.

I. Combatting Islamist terrorism

The struggle against Islamist armed groups is one domain that in some way served as a point of commonality between the United States and the Russia. After all, the United States did end up embroiling itself in a two-decade war in Afghanistan against an enemy motivated in large part by jihadism, only a decade after the Soviet Union itself found itself in a similar position*. In post-Soviet Russia, the main hotspot was Chechnya, a constituent republic of Russia, in which separatism drove the Chechens to seek independence from the Russian Federation. The result was two wars fought between the Russian military and Chechen forces, one from 1994-96, under Yeltsin, and one from 1999-2009, predominantly under Vladimir Putin.

*In that case, the Americans were enthusiastically arming the Afghan resistance against the Soviets.

The fact that Chechnya is a predominantly Sunni Muslim region has given the conflict a religious inflection (indeed, Chechnya proclaimed itself an Islamic Republic in 1997, embracing sharia law). One further point of commonality with the challenge the United States faced in the late-90s onward was that the Chechens resorted to terrorist attacks, one of the most serious being a Moscow theatre siege in 2002 that saw Chechen militants hold 850 hostages in the theatre.

The siege occurred, of course, only a year after perhaps the most devastating Islamist terror attack in recent history; the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The first world leader to attempt to call President Bush after the attacks was none other than Russia's Vladimir Putin. In a televised address soon after, he said "Russia knows directly what terrorism means ... and because of this we, more than anyone, understand the feelings of the American people. In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people - we are with you" (p.140).

In fact, even before the attacks, the Russians had attempted to warn the Americans that a serious plan was in motion; however, Bush "did not fully grasp the seriousness of the issue", according to one of Putin's advisors. After the attacks, Putin was to recall, "I said [the threat in Afghanistan is] not only a threat of us because the training camps there are sending terrorists to Chechnya. It threatened the whole world". Upon learning that Bush was planning to strike al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Putin offered to provide America with intelligence about the infrastructure and location of Islamist terrorists there (p.140).

Putin even provided logistical support for the Americans' war in Afghanistan. Faced with the issue of how to transport ground troops there, Bush phoned Putin on September 22nd, 2001, to ask for help. Putin agreed to open Russian airspace to U.S. transport aircraft, as well as "use his influence" with the presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to convince them to allow American forces to station there in the way to Afghanistan. He even instructed Russian generals to inform their American counterpoints on their experiences in Afghanistan in the 1980s (when, of course, the Americans were actively helping the Afghans hunt Russian soldiers) (p.141).

The 9/11 attacks undeniably brought Russia and the United States closer together. Not only did the Russians provide support, but there was a sense in the Kremlin that "now the Americans finally realised what kind of problem this was", according to chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin. In return, the West quietened its criticism of Russian brutality in Chechnya (which in any case had been quiet beforehand). The rapprochement in the post-9/11 moment is conveniently captured in a call between Putin and U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice in the immediately aftermath of the attack, in which Putin pledged his support. The thought that flashed through Rice's head was, "The Cold War really is over" (p.130).

II. Sphere of influence

However, the fundamental issues at stake remained intractable. Those issues concerned the balance of power between Russia and the United States. Russia was keen to recover the status of a great power that it had enjoyed in the Soviet days, and the United States was keen to prevent this from happening. Russia attempted (and continues to attempt) to do this by imposing control over its traditional sphere of influence, including the former states of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The Americans, meanwhile, want to prevent this. At the same time, since 1991 they have enjoyed their status as the world's sole superpower and exercised the use of force around the globe in a manner which the Russians oppose. In the Kremlin's former sphere of influence, these two forces clash. It is this fundamental clash that has precluded warm relations between Russia and the United States, no matter who sits in office.

The two aspects of U.S. foreign policy that have most concerned the Russians are, 1) support for the expansion of NATO to former Warsaw Pact and Soviet countries, and 2) a penchant for regime change around the world.

NATO expansion is so concerning to the Russians because they the Kremlin believes it has a right of control over the territories on which NATO is encroaching. This right of control is completely nullified by these territories' incorporation into a military alliance whose central pole is the strongest military power on Earth: the United States. Indeed, a 1993 Russian foreign policy document states that "Eastern Europe retains its significance for Russia as a historically evolved sphere of interest". It adds that "dislodgement of Russia from the Central European region by the Western states ... cannot be permitted" (p.59).

Hence, when the Clinton administration lent its support to Central European requests to join NATO in the 1990s, Yeltsin issued a warning. During a summit in March 1996, Clinton told Yeltsin, "Boris, do you really think I would allow NATO to attack Russia from bases in Poland?", to which Yeltsin replied, "I don't, but a lot of older people who live in the western part of Russia and listen to [nationalist firebrand Gennady] Zyuganov do". Clinton would later tell British prime minister Tony Blair that "[the Russians] are still affected by Napoleon, Hitler and the way the Cold War came to an end", and this lent much importance and sensitivity to Russia's western flank (p.81).

Thus, opposition to NATO expansion was built right into Russia's political thinking, encompassing not only Putin but his predecessors, and others along the political spectrum, including Boris Nemtsov, a fierce Putin critic and relatively pro-Western politician, who decried the move as a mistake that would "unite communists and other opponents of democracy" (p.89).

Matters came to a head in 1999 when NATO flexed its military muscle by launching a bombing campaign on Yugoslavia, at the time ruled by Slobodan Milošević and engaged in a fierce assault against separatist Kosovo. Russians were appalled by NATO's unilateral action against what was a Russian ally. Demonstrators attacked the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and the Russian parliament passed resolution after resolution condemning the bombing. Yeltsin himself denounced the action as "an attempt by NATO to enter the twenty-first century in the uniform of the world policeman" (p.96). With NATO expanding further eastward, what did this mean for Russia?

Indeed, the bombing provoked a wide rift in U.S.-Russian relations. Aleksandr Oslon, a pollster whose job it was to monitor Russian public opinion, noted that "The bombing of Yugoslavia caused a big reaction against the West ... Firstly, because this represented the use of military force not somewhere far away but here in Europe. And secondly because we had always had close relations with the Serbs". Then-foreign minister of Russia Igor Ivanov similarly asserted that "Yugoslavia was the first practical demonstration of [the Clinton administration's] intention to create a unipolar world led by the US and their allies and with a strong military presence of NATO" (p.97).

Nothing could have accentuated this point better than the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003, which virtually obliterated the vast global support garnered by the United States after 9/11. Bush declared that "the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world", which Putin interpreted as the United States "giving itself a licence to support regime change wherever it wished" - potentially in Russia's allies, or even in Russia itself (p.174). Such possibilities found expression in the financial and organisation support given by the United States to revolutionary movements in Ukraine and Georgia, both within the Kremlin's perceived sphere of influence.

It was in this context that Putin railed in the February 2007 Munich Security Conference against the "unipolar world" sought by American foreign policy, accusing the United States of "overstepp[ing] its borders in all spheres - economic, political and humanitarian - and impos[ing] itself on other states" (p.176). Likewise, after the intervention of Western states against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Putin noted that regime chance was "becoming a persistent tendency in US policy ... During the Clinton era they bombed Belgrade. Bush sent forces into Afghanistan, then under an invented, false pretext they sent forces into Iraq ... Now it is Libya's turn ... Where is the logic and the conscience?"* (p.227).

*At this point, Putin was prime minister and thus not in formal charge of Russian foreign policy. President Dmitri Medvedev, less hawkish than Putin, oversaw Russia's decision at the U.N. Security Council to abstain rather than exercise its veto against U.N. intervention in Libya.

Hence, by April 2015, after the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, the Russian liberal commentator Leonid Gozman could say, "It may astonish my friends in the West, but the attitude of Russians today toward the United States and Americans is worse than it was for most of the Cold War". Indeed, one poll showed that the proportion of Russians who described U.S.-Russian relations as "hostile" increased from 4% in January 2014 to 42% a year later (p.275). Many Americans, including Condoleezza Rice, were perfectly cognisant of why this happened. In her memoirs, Rice wrote, "Moscow believed that it still had special privileges on the territory of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact" while "We believed that the newly independent states had the right to choose their friends and their allies". That turned out to be an "irreconcilable difference" (p.202).

Much has been made of the sense of national humiliation felt by Russians after the Soviet Union collapsed and their economy crumbled under shock market reforms in the 1990s. For instance, Charles Gati, a Hungarian-born professor at Johns Hopkins, noted in a Washington Post article that "Russia is a humiliated country in search of a direction without a compass". Russia was "smaller than it has been in three centuries"; with its "outer empire" in the Warsaw Pact and its "inner empire" in the Soviet Union gone, Russia must now "use force to keep even ... itself together". Russia was "deprived of pride and self-respect" (p.99).

In his article, titled "Weimar Russia", he invited American readers to "imagine that our currency became all but worthless ... that our stores identified some of their wares in the Cyrillic rather than the Roman alphabet, showing prices in roubles; that our political and economic life were guided by made-in-Moscow standards; and that our leaders were lectured by patronising foreign commissars about the need to stay the course in order to join their "progressive", which is to say the communist, world". Then, Americans may appreciate what Russians were feeling (p.99).

Is it any surprise then, that in Russia's first free parliamentary elections in December 1993, almost a quarter of the electorate voted for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a right-wing nationalist who demanded the forcible reconquest of Alaska, and dreamt of a time when Russian soldiers could "wash their boots in the warm water of the Indian Ocean"? Clinton claimed not to find the result surprising, given the Russian people's "high level of anger because they've been through a lot of tough times" (p.63). If Clinton's conclusion was correct, then as soon as the new Russia was born, its collision course with the West was already set in motion.

Hence, the new "hot peace" was the product of the clash between a resurgent Russian nationalism that sought Russia's reemergence as a great power by imposing dominance over the "near abroad", and America's strident efforts to prevent that outcome, not least by throwing its military weight behind some of those states over which Russia sought control. Nowhere was this clash more potentially explosive than in Ukraine.

III. Ukraine

To Russia, the most important country in the near abroad is Ukraine, given its size, resources, population, agriculture, industrial capacity, and the strong traditional links between Russian and Ukrainian people, which include many intertwined families. Hence, as Ukraine shifted closer to the West over the past decade, Russia responded with force.

The trouble arguably began at the April 2008 Bucharest summit of NATO states. The matter on the table was whether to extend a Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia - essentially a roadmap to prepare them for NATO membership. While the Central Europeans were insistent, the French and Germans were skeptical. In the end, a comprise was struck, in which no Plan would be given, however, the Alliance would state plainly that Ukraine and George would become members of NATO. At a press conference, Condoleezza Rice asserted that "it's a matter of when, not whether" (p.192).

Then, in early 2014, street demonstrations in Kyiv forced out the government of Viktor Yanukovych, who had refused an associated agreement with the European Union in order to "renew dialogue" in an effort to join the Eurasian Customs Union, an alternative organisation dominated by Russia. Amid the conflict, Ukraine became a propaganda battleground between Russia and the West, both of whom provided financial aid to their chosen groups in the country (p.259). U.S. interest in the situation was undeniable, especially after the release of a taped conversation between assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, in which they discussed who they would like to see in the new post-Yanukovych government. For example, Nuland opposed including former boxer Vitali Klitschko, saying, "Just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff" (p.255).

U.S. support for Western-learning governments in the near abroad was not new. After all, in 2003-2005, it had supported friendly political candidates in Georgia and Ukraine, who eventually rose to power after contesting the results of (rigged) elections. In Ukraine, the West had backed Viktor Yushchenko over his opponent, Viktor Yanukovych. After Yanukovych won the election (in which, it turned out, his team had tampered with election commission servers), the West refused to recognise him, and the United States also threatened the Ukrainian government (then under Leonid Kuchma) not to take violent action against the anti-Yanukovych protests then brewing in Kyiv. When Yushchenko won the re-election, he was treated to rapturous praise by the United States.

The lessons that Putin gleaned from the Orange Revolution of 2004 were that 1) he could not take the "near abroad" for granted, 2) the Americans were trying to detach Ukraine from the Russian orbit, and 3) they were trying to unseat Putin by propping up Ukraine and Georgia to serve as "compelling model[s]" of successful, democratic states that could provide ordinary Russians with a vision of a democratic future (p.173).

In any case, it was the reality of regime change in Kyiv that eventually pushed Putin to order the seizure and annexation of Crimea in February/March. The peninsula held strategic importance for Russia, given the presence there of its Black Sea fleet. A pro-Western government in Kyiv might evict the Russian navy from its base, or even worse, invite NATO forces to take its place. Hence, as political scientist Daniel Treisman wrote in Foreign Affairs, "Putin's seizure of Crimea appears to have been an improvised gambit, developed under pressure, that was triggered by the fear of losing Russia's strategically important naval base in Sevastopol" (p.266). Concomitantly, Putin began supporting separatist militants in the Donbas, sparking a civil war that ended up killing more than ten thousand people.

These moves pushed Ukraine closer to the West and further from Russia. This dynamic was seen in increased military cooperation between the West and Ukraine, which included exercises, as well as the transfer of military equipment to Ukraine (non-lethal under Obama; both lethal and non-lethal under Trump). In February 2019, the Ukrainian parliament even voted overwhelmingly to make membership in NATO and the EU a "strategic" long-term objective. That same day, a majority even voted for a resolution calling on NATO members to draw up a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine (p.363).

Meanwhile, Kyiv was taking steps to dissociate itself from Russia and Russia's cultural sphere. In December 2018, the leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church agreed (in tandem with President Petro Poroshenko) that they would no longer answer to the Patriarch in Moscow, ending a 332-year-old tradition (p.363). Similarly, in April 2019, the parliament passed a new language law mandating the use of Ukrainian in many areas of public life, including government, the media, education etc.; this effectively reversed a law passed in 2012 under Yanukovych extending the rights of regional languages. Inevitably, this law affected the country's many Russian speakers, and it drew predictable condemnation from the Kremlin (p.364).

Putin's suspicions of the West seemed to have peaked during his self-imposed isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Writing in the New York Times, Russian opposition journalist Mikhail Zygar claimed that Putin spent a lot of this time in the company of Yuri Kovalchuk, a longtime friend who was also an "ideologue, subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism". An aide to French president Emmanuel Macron, who continued to phone call Putin, likewise noted that "he tended to talk in circles, rewriting history" (p.379).

IV. Reflections

Sadly, all of us know how this story ends. The question, however, remains. "Who lost Russia?" Conradi does not give a solid answer, but given the complexity of his narrative, that is perhaps prudent. He notes that it is "difficult to pinpoint the moment at which relations between Russia and the West went wrong" (p.425). Indeed, there probably was never one moment; though several stand out, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq, NATO expansion to former Warsaw Pact states, the Bucharest summit declaration, Russian aggression in 2008, 2014 and 2022, and so on. Likewise, the deterioration of relations was overseen by three Russian presidents and five (or six, including Bush I) American presidents. The problem does not stem with any particular administration. Even Obama, with his famous "reset" policy, had to deal with a sharp deterioration of relations.

The explanation I find perhaps most satisfying is also the most simple: Russia is committed to being a great power with great influence in the world (and especially its near abroad), and the United States cannot tolerate co-existing with another peer in its ranks. Hence as Russia attempts to assert its strength, the United States will attempt to beat it back, primarily by casting its military shield around countries in the near abroad. Both Russia and the United States are propelled by an "abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission", in historian Stephen Kotkin's phrase*. This means the grand strategies of both great powers cannot overlap, and thus they are locked in conflict for as long as their exceptionalist world-views remain.

Conradi likewise contends that "Russia's size, imperial past and military make it unlikely that it will ever be content to be a junior member of anyone else's alliance", i.e., adopt the role that the United States intended for it in the 1990s (p.427). While it is true that the Americans welcomed the new Russia into the West, it was never willing to let Russia forget who was actually in charge.

As long as these structural constraints remain, the dangerous geopolitics between Russia and the West may for the foreseeable future be mired in the violence and mistrust into which they have descended today. Russia and the West may be able to cooperate on many fronts, including arms control and counter-terrorism. However, as long as they embrace competing exceptionalisms, conflict will endure. Whether that circle can still be squared remains to be seen.



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