Dear Partners in thought,
My new book note is not about a novel this time but given the backdrop Leo Tolstoy would have written one.
As Moscow is home to the current World Cup, it seemed only fair to look for a book about Russia today. With “From Cold War to Hot Peace” a catchy title that says it all, Michael McFaul, the 7th U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from a breezy January 2012 to February 2014 provided us with a great opportunity through his vivid account of the great relational shift between Moscow and the West that took place during his tenure. More than about MacFaul’s tenure this book is about the Russian Federation, the new Russia that had aspirations to be like us (or what we were) but gradually got back to its eternal roots as if the colour of the snow had never left it.
This book is not like any other for some of us, to paraphrase Dean Rusk for another time, who were “present at the creation” doing our bit to help change after seventy years of darkness but not really understanding what we were doing or actually not doing. Many of you will recognise themselves in this book and will wonder again at the speed of time. Thirty years already, a blip in history, a life for us.
Prior to his ambassadorship, McFaul worked in the Obama Administration for Tom Donilon in the U.S. National Security Council as Special Assistant to the President and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs. He was no Russian affairs novice and likely the best ever prepared U.S. Ambassador to Moscow as he has started promoting a rapprochement between Moscow and the West in his high school in native Montana in 1979 – quite a challenging proposition at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His direct exposure and involvement started in 1983 when as a sophomore at Stanford he went on to his first journey to Russia, discovering Leningrad and the Soviet Empire. He then later spent a semester abroad in Moscow, mingling with the Refuseniks and getting a first hand exposure to the system’s doomed features. He then witnessed Gorbachev’s rise, Glasnost and Perestroika and irreversibly the gradual country’s demise. Back as a Fulbright scholar and working with the National Democracy Institute, a pro-democracy promotion NGO, he celebrated the birth of new Russia that he wanted to help becoming like another country, espousing capitalism and the Western ways on the way. Following the Soviet Union’s chaotic collapse and the start of the bumpy Yeltsin era, McFaul helped found the Carnegie Moscow Center in 1994, today one of the best if not the best Moscow-based international relations think tank (now ran by the excellent Dmitri Trenin) that has maintained an invaluable conduit between two different worlds that have kept growing apart since 2012. Known to have been one of the artisans of the famed “reset” (even if it was once poorly translated when Hillary Clinton first gave her “box” to Sergei Lavrov in 2009), he saw his dreams as a young man coming true when both Russia and the U.S., putting behind thorny issues such as the Iraq war and NATO expansion, were increasingly working together on solving world issues, such as with the signing in Prague in 2010 of New START to limit nuclear weapons. These were the times of President Medvedev, who seemed like a pro-Western moderniser, even if a cautious one. There were solid majorities in both countries convinced that the possibilities for further cooperation were only the natural way forward. Russia was popular in America and America was popular in Russia. Such a description seems today hard to believe so the picture changed rapidly and deeply from a nascent partnership to a state of intense rivalry, even if Russia is not the Soviet Union of old. This book is about understanding the road traveled from the viewpoint of a man – a true believer – who had always believed in working with Russia and came to be thoroughly disheartened as he hoped to crown his long life passion and cement the reset process.
Before going into the Obama period and the “reset” and its subsequent setbacks, McFaul covers the 1991-2008 period so we get a refresher of the major events of the period. He first goes into the first elections in the late 1980s that changed the Soviet Union forever and introduced figures that became familiar such as Yeltsin, the boss of the Communist Party in Russia but also the soon to be known nationalist firebrand, Zhirinovsky and many others. We go rapidly through the August 1991 coup and the official and technical demise of the Soviet apparatus starting on December 31, 1991. Interestingly, he goes as an NDI representative into early exchanges with “our new Russian partners” that started revealing even then their frustrations with the U.S. focus on democratic consolidation or how the West, and not the Russians, knew what was best for them – a feature hat those of us who were in the trenches of transition (*) did not realise the impact then. He then goes on through Yegor Gaidar’s economic liberalisation reforms (known as sick therapy by his detractors) accompanied by voucher privatisations creating the most massive transfer of public wealth to individuals (a few it turned out, with the rise of the Oligarchs, underpinned by corrupted system that tainted Russia like an original sin). Then came the replacement of Gaidar by the more conservative Chernomyrdin, the December 2013 electoral backlash and the “fascist” threat embodied by the misnamed Liberal Democrats (LDRP) of Zhirinovsky, the elections of December 1995 and the rise of Genady Zyuganov’s Communist Party, the appearance of the nationalist General Lebed and resulting weakening of the Lib-Dems, the presidential elections of 1996 and rise of the top Oligarchs though the loan for “campaign funding programme” and their increasing control of Russian natural assets and media and then the deliquescence of the Yeltsin era, helped by the Russian financial crisis of August 1998 with more confrontational matters such as the bombing of Milosevic’s Serbia and the second “invasion” of Chechnya in 1999. In December 2000, Yeltsin resigned as President making McFaul struggling as to his reasons, most likely linked to cementing the future election of his unknown prime minister, Vladimir Putin, he’d oaf the Security Council, before being head of the KGB rising as a low level Kremlin bureaucrat who had been out of job following Sobchak’s reelection loss as Mayor of St Petersburg.
The nineties were an epic time for Russia, which McFaul describes well. There was a focus of form and not substance in the nascent democratic process and clearly the supporting West, while knowing that, wanted to preserve the gains of a Cold War victory and not let Russia slip into chaos, which was very possible, or an adversarial stance. This cautious Western approach, crafted on the way, allowed for side effects that with time became major events fraught with systemic corruption in reshaping a country like the transfer of Russian state assets to so-called oligarchs first though the voucher privatisation process, which they ended up managing artfully and then the 1996 loan for shares programme to allow a very embattled Yeltsin to be reelected. The West was not happy about these developments but made what it perceived to be the less bad choice, still supporting Russian authorities, in order to preserve stability at a time when the U.S. and the world were largely basking in a strong economic environment devoid of major political or military threats. It is therefore difficult, as McFaul points out, to take a view on whether Yeltsin had a positive or negative impact on its country depending on a number of features. Some of the constitutional changes that took place and strengthened the presidency, made for Yeltsin, certainly help Putin to keep strengthening executive power in Russia once President.
Putin’s era is seen by McFaul as Russia’s Thermidor (the French revolutionary month that put a decisive end to the era known as “the Terror” in the mid-1790s). He had been a carrer KGB professional with postings in East Germany, notably in Dresden where he saw first end of the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event that deeply marked him. He kept deepening market reforms with debt restructuring, a 13% flat tax rate on individual income (to make sure fraud was erased) and Andrei Illarionov, his chief economic adviser and his team were both pro-market and pro- Western liberals. He even considered the possibility of Russia joining NATO when asked by Western media, though this was never seriously tested. While pursuing reforms and staying nominally close to the West, Putin decided within year in office to control the media, forcing in exile moguls Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, the latter his godfather in Russian politics. He later arrested Russia’s richest man and owner of Yukos on fraud charges as he was getting into more support for NGOs and independent candidates in the Russia electoral process. While those developments took place, the focus of the U.S. was squarely on post-9- 11 matters and soon the Iraq war triggering a benign neglect for Russia which was not deemed to really matter anymore (Colin Power thought that Putin “had restored a sense of order in the country and moved in a democratic way” which surprised the expert McFaul). George W. Bush having met Putin early on in his presidency claimed he had been able to get a sense of his soul and that all was fine, making his own foreign policy team and Dick Cheney’s, as well as experts like McFaul, worry that he might have missed that Putin had been train to lie (after he expressed his doubts in the New York Times, McFaul was never reinvented by GW to provide his views on Russia). 9-11 definitely led to a warming up of the U.S.-Russia relationship as Putin was quick to support the U.S. and offered assistance in many areas such as the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, intelligence sharing on terrorist networks ad support opening U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In spite of some conflicts on missile defence and the ABM treaty, cooperation was deemed to at the level of WW2 by Igor Ivanov, Putin’s foreign minister. GW in turn was calling Putin an “ally”, a term not used for a Kremlin leader since FDR did. While the U.S. rejoiced about this new state of affairs, they still admitted Bulgaria, the three Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to join the alliance which they did formally in 2004. While the initial invitation did not break the relation (the Baltic states were a particular strain), the Iraq invasion broke the camel’s back as Russia was not consulted and Putin thought that such an initiative with likely drastic consequences on te stability of the Middle East would have been better handled (with hindsight he was right even if his motivations were Russian-focused). McFaul rightly states that this issue of not being involved in global affairs went back to the core of Putin’s grievances that Russia had been relegated to a secondary, if that, power which only mattered due to a remaining nuclear arsenal. This was all about regaining respect and been back at the table, which will explain other developments in later years. Then on top of Iraq occurred two revolutions, Pink in Georgia in November 2003 and Orange in Ukraine 2004, where the West, and the U.S. in particular, was seen as the winner behind the scenes while Russia was the loser given its proximity to those countries, former Soviet brethren, that went markedly closer to the other side. The Orange revolution made Putin more anti-American in his rhetorics and policies, marking a clear shift away from any cooperation with the West. While McFaul points out that the six-day war between Russia and Georgia (thankfully limited as Tbilissi was not seized) of August 2008 remains a point of contention as to who started it (not for him and most observers), it was clearly a way for Russia to reassert its power in the Near Abroad and restarts counting as a great power.
McFaul who joined the Obama campaign after Tony Lake and Stanford undergrad pal Susan Rice asked him to (the latter in typical campus mode: “Get your shit together”) started to organise Russian briefings for the campaign team on a subject that nobody cared about – until Georgia August 2008 came around. America started to react with more criticism to Putin’s Russia and allowed for a carefully crafted policy towards Russia. As Obama phrased it “Improved relations with Russia should not be the goal of U.S. policy but a possible strategy for achieving American security and economic objectives in dealing with Russia”. The multi-facetted reset button was on its way, ready to be pushed, though with awareness that Russia actually mattered and could be disruptive to world affairs (there is a long chapter about all the facets which make for good reading). MacFaul goes deeply on his constant fight for democratisation and struggle to push forward “universal values” in Russia as he was a member of the Obama Administration. We are taken to the first and last Moscow summit where New START, denying Iran the nom, missile defence cooperation, repealing of Jackson-Vanick…all of which are covered by a few chapters that sound a bit technical at times, if of course very key in terms of policy- making. One part “burgers and spies” depicts what could be an episode of the Americans with spies or “illegals” being posted in America.
In March 2012, Vladimir Putin came back as President, having taken a break as prime mister for four years and somehow adapting if not rewriting the constitution. McFaul had arrived in Moscow, taking his Ambassadorial post, two months before Putin’s return as President (even if it is argued that he never ceased been one). While McFaul’s version is extremely valuable, it should never be forgotten, as we in the West may have in the 1990s, the deep shock and humiliation represented by the loss of Empire and relegation of Russia as a secondary power, all while the West and particularly the U.S. likely lacked consideration for that traumatic experience and focused on teaching Russia how to be a market. I will let you enjoy the rest of the book, which I found a bit boring as McFaul was too much of an aunt and less of a principal, displaying too much of an NGO ethos in the job.
The rest and doubtless crux of McFaul’s book is about his ambassadorial travails in Moscow and his engaged and complex relationship with the Kremlin and the Putin Administration especially following the Crimean and Ukrainian developments of 2014. This is the climax of his enjoyable if at times slightly long and personal account-settling book of what could have been titled the right man at the wrong times and location which I will let you discover without letting the Siberian cat out of the bag of tricks.
(*) I was at EBRD at the time – the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the public international financial development institution set up in early 1991 to facilitate “market transition” in the former Soviet sphere. While my Russian experience was limited to one investment due to most of my focus on Central Europe, my ultimate boss (and later unwitting mentor) and I concurred only a couple of months ago that we were very “naive” during those days and, I think, when it came to Russia, oblivious to the traumas of loss of empire and their impact to come, so much the world in the nineties seemed naturally rosy and can-do-no- wrong unipolar to us, leading to a benign and victory-based arrogance, devoid of understanding of local history, in terms of leading the way. While busy on ensuring that our Western model took roots, we were also oblivious to the rise of the oligarchic class in Russia and to some extent throughout the region and the rampant corruption and illicit control of assets that went with it (and is at times totally forgotten locally in some countries, even part of the EU, as now seen as “old money”).
Serge Desprat- June 2018 (Prague)