This question has been asked many times over since, at the very latest, driving the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. By then, Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed the United States as a disingenuous rival proactively pursuing his downfall and brazenly intervening in Russia's spheres of interest, such as Ukraine. As for the US, Washington had concluded that Putin was a ruthless autocrat who assassinated and jailed political opponents, and flouted international law with strong-arm geopolitical power plays, such as the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and then Ukraine. The Cold War was on again, if comparatively less menacing than East-West relations at their postwar prickliest.
How could things between Moscow and Washington sour so quickly and perhaps even irrevocably? After all, rapprochement began on an almost giddy note in the late 1980s and early 1990s, first with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then his successor, Russian president Boris Yeltsin. It read like an entirely new script: Russia’s embrace of democracy and US-Russian friendship going hand-in-hand. Russia would segue with the rest of Europe, many hoped, erasing rigid East-West distinctions on the continent. After a rough patch, the Obama administration “reset” relations with Moscow in 2009 and got them back on track, boosting hopes again.
But that's ancient history now. In 2014, the US and the EU slapped hard sanctions on Russia for moving against Ukraine; Moscow was suspended from the G8; and Russian trolls did their best to destabilise US and European politics through fake news and other tricks.
American historian and Obama-era diplomat Michael McFaul, a Russia expert by profession, has pondered this conundrum long and hard. In his detailed, thoughtful memoir From Cold War to Hot Peace, he tells of his involvement with the Soviet Union, and then Russia, since the early 1990s.
When communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, he was on an academic fellowship in Moscow and volunteered for a US NGO working on democratisation. Later, as a scholar at Stanford University, Democratic Party foreign policy adviser, and then finally as National Security Council adviser and US Ambassador to Russia 2012 to 2014, he was involved in US policymaking and implementation.
As insiders’ books go, this one is searching and self-critical, though only to a point. It stops short at some of the bigger-picture questions that establishment figures rarely pose, and that cast the question of who lost Russia and why in another light. McFaul tells of the excitement and enthusiasm that he felt and observed in the 1990s as Soviet communism was cast off and Russians took baby steps toward democracy and a market economy. Russia, he felt, could and wanted to “integrate” into the West and its institutions.
Although McFaul’s observations are no doubt accurate and telling, he doesn’t for a moment question the validity of postwar Western systems and their institutions as the ones that a democratic Russia should replicate and join. McFaul doesn’t mention, for example, that Gorbachev had another idea, namely one of a “common European house.” This, though, only vaguely sketched out by the Soviet leader, was to be a Europe with a pan-European security architecture and democratic structures – one with neither “East” nor “West” stamped on it, but a new order for all Europeans: a Europe “from the Urals to the Atlantic,” as Gorbachev put it.
But the West's victorious Cold Warriors never took it seriously. Nato, the US-led transatlantic security organisation, would remain intact, accepting new members that it deemed appropriate, despite the fact that the Russians were obviously extremely wary of it as an alliance directed against them.
But neither the George H W Bush nor the Clinton administrations had a convincing vision for a new united Europe (more pathetic still, neither did the Western Europeans). It seemed obvious to them that the losers would line-up gratefully behind the winners and have them show the way forward – the only way.
McFaul is not a belligerent Cold Warrior. In fact, he’s very sensitive about Russian feelings, whims and interests. He criticises the West’s weak resolution in helping Russia early on. He seems to recognise that the “shock therapy” economic policies pushed by the US, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund hit the Russians very hard and disillusioned many about Western-style democracy. But he doesn’t go as far as to suggest an alternative – that’s beyond an insiders’ purview.
There were plenty of bumps and even trainwrecks along the way, such as Nato's expansion eastward to include Central Europe and the Baltics states. (McFaul tacitly admits that the Russians were duped on this, having indeed received informal promises by the Clinton administration that Nato wouldn't expand past Germany.)
Also, the Russians vehemently protested Nato's bombing of Serbia in order to stop the mass persecution of Kosovo's Albanians in 1999, just as they objected to the US-led war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which like the Kosovo intervention, didn't have UN Security Council backing. And then in 2008, Russia marched into Georgia, which led to outcry in the West and sanctions.
But despite everything, there was still a chance to get it right when Barack Obama took office in 2009, claims McFaul. He was one of the architects of the “reset” strategy, namely a calling off of all grudges and heralding a fresh start that could reinvigorate US-Russia relations. The new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, was much more open to the US, democratic pluralism, and East-West co-operation than Putin, who because of constitutional term limits served as prime minister for four years, before reassuming the presidency.
It was Putin, argues McFaul, who threw it away by using US involvement in Russia and its near abroad as a pretence to clamp down on the political opposition in Russia, strengthen his powers as president, and beef up a military that put Russia’s narrowly defined interests first. Putin, argues McFaul, “believed that we were out to get him. In his view, we always sought to overthrow regimes we didn’t like. He believed that we funded colour revolutions [early 2000s] in Eastern Europe, supported uprisings in the Middle East, and now were targeting him.”
McFaul doesn't believe that they'll be a chill in US-Russia relations as long as Putin remains in power. But, he remains convinced that Russia can internalise democracy and that the US and Russia can be allies again. He's right that we've missed historic opportunities to do so, the likes of which won't transpire again so easily.
But when they do, geostrategic thinkers like McFaul could be better prepared, and be ready to think outside the beltway. The American way was never the only way – and these days its cache has never been so meagre.
‘From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia’ is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt