"Hmmm ..."

The Russia Hand

"Hmmm ..."

The Russia Hand

"Hmmm ..."
New books dissected over email.
June 12 2002 11:40 AM

The Russia Hand

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Dear Anne,

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As I head into the bottom of the third inning with you, a couple of general thoughts come to mind (and, yes, before heading to the showers, I'll answer your last specific question with a single word of one syllable).

Part of the explanation for your unease with—and, on quite a few points, disapproval of—Clinton administration policy toward Russia seems to be what sounds like a bottom-line judgment that the guys we were dealing with were, when all is said and done, scoundrels. More specifically, they were greedy, grasping, venal, cynical scoundrels, whose principal project in life was to rob their country blind (or, in Yeltsin's case, to help others do so in exchange for political support and raw power). Whatever their good qualities, human and political, those were far outweighed by their bad ones, which were most manifest in the economic ruination of the country.

I can tell you exactly when this thought popped into my mind: It was when you said you found the Gore-Chernomyrdin connection "unfathomable." You go on to say that Cherno (as we called him behind his back) was not just the prime minister of Russia—he was also the big shot of Gazprom and, as such, the ultimate oligarch, with all the opprobrium that that word connotes.

You feel, as you put it, that our policy (and hence my book) miss the "main story," which was (and continues to be, perhaps) the story of personal and systemic corruption as the latest chapter in the ongoing tragedy of Russia.

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I think that's the fault line between your view and mine. I believe that the main story of what's happened in Russia over the past 15 years or so (I'm taking it back to late Gorbachev) is that country's abandonment of Soviet communism and its transformation (painful to experience and unpretty to behold) toward (I repeat toward, as opposed to into) a "normal, modern country"—the phrase that Russians keep using to express their aspiration.

As for the individual leaders, Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin were part of the whole process in all its aspects—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Clinton (and Gore) saw the full package they were dealing with pretty clearly. But theirs was a more generous view. A lot of critics translate "generous" as "naive." I think that, in context, generosity was analytically defensible, tactically useful, and strategically wise. By treating their counterparts as political partners and personal friends, with whom they had human affinity and strategic goals and interests in common, Clinton and Gore were able to instill trust, lay the ground for more successful suasion, and thus, generally, develop leverage on the policies of the Russian government.

Where this paid off was more in the area where Russian and American foreign policies intersected than in that of Russia's internal development. We haven't spent much time in our correspondence on subjects like nonproliferation and arms control, Russian troop withdrawals from the Baltics, war and peace in the Balkans, NATO enlargement, and NATO-Russia cooperation.

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But don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining about the focus of our back-and-forth or crying foul. I think you're absolutely justified to concentrate on the economy and the internal stuff. It is there, not in the Russian foreign ministry, that Russia's future is being shaped, for good or ill. Only if Russia does mature as a democracy—a "normal, modern country" with a genuinely free press and law-abiding elites and accountable politicians and a social safety net and empowered citizens who feel like winners in the revolution that started with Gorbachev and continued with Yeltsin—only then will Russia be a state that'll be easier for us and everyone else to share the planet with in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

While my book acknowledges both the importance of the internal agenda with Russia and the difficulties we had in accomplishing what we hoped to there, there's no question it concentrates on the external one for the simple reason that there's more to report—i.e., we were able to get a whole lot more done.

We weren't able to get a handle on the problem of the Russian economy and the rule-of-law/civil-society issues in the same way that we were foreign policy and security issues. Reading your critique (and others' critiques), I keep asking myself, was there a better way that would have given us more traction on those internal issues? What would the Applebaum Doctrine have been—not as a thesis for analysis, but as the basis for policy? How would it have worked, and what would the results have been?

You won't be surprised that I'm skeptical about the alternative policies implied by your critique. They might have made us feel more righteous and perhaps, to some modest degree, made us more popular with some sectors in Russia (ones where we'd want to be more popular). But I'm not sure the policies I believe you'd have preferred would have given us more influence over events—and over the guys who made the decisions.

That said, I wish that there were a bit more of the Applebaum Doctrine laced into the Bush administration's policy toward Russia. One of my concerns about our successors in the executive branch is that,while they've come around to a lot of continuity with us on the external agenda, they seem to have downgraded the internal one considerably by comparison with us. They've let Chechnya (especially since 9/11) become largely a nonissue, while I think it should have remained front and center from Inauguration Day forward. Ditto the crackdown on the media. (You indicate that the press today is not much less independent than it was during the Yeltsin period. I see and hear from a lot of Russian editors and reporters, and believe me: They feel the difference is huge and ominous.)

You conclude your last message asking whether we provided the Russians with the gizmo they used to trick Dudayev, the Chechen warlord/president, into making a cell-phone call that gave a Russian air-launched missile a target so that it could home in on him and blow him to smithereens. And you ask for a one-word answer, preferably "yes" or "no." I'm afraid the best I can do is: "hmmmmmm …" That means: I just don't know. I doubt very much that our spooks provided their spooks with this technology with this objective in mind. Nor am I sure it would have been necessary. Vladimir Putin's alma mater is pretty well equipped and clever in these things ("wet affairs," in the jargon of the KGB). But your question is intriguing—and suggests the plot for what might be a helluva good detective novel.

Regards,
Strobe

Strobe Talbott was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and will become the president of the Brookings Institution next month.