There perhaps could not be a more timely and relevant book to see publication than Who Lost Russia: How the World Entered a New Cold War, by Peter Conradi. As this review is written, friction between the United States and Russia is currently at levels not witnessed since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The sound of saber-rattling echoes from potential flashpoints across the globe. Russia has annexed Crimea–which resulted in loud condemnation from the West as well as crippling economic sanctions–and actively sponsors civil war in Ukraine through its support of two breakaway self-proclaimed republics, much as it has done in Georgia, another former Soviet state, but with greater vigor and less restraint.
President Vladimir Putin has remade his role as an elected official in an emerging democracy into that of an iron-fisted old-style autocrat, and seeks to refashion Russia into a key actor in the global arena once more. Relying on a toolkit that includes political and economic intimidation, misinformation campaigns and election meddling, a newly resurgent Russia is actively reasserting itself with states once part of the Soviet Union, with former allies, and in efforts directed at destabilizing the Western alliance. Russia has intervened in Syria, a traditional Soviet ally, ostensibly to fight ISIL but in fact to prop up the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, putting it at direct odds with US interests in a highly unstable region. A new American President won the White House under a cloud of suspicion as it has become increasingly clear not only that Russia intervened in the election, but that it did so to promote Donald Trump. Twin committees in both houses of Congress are currently investigating whether there was active collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump himself seems struck with a kind of boyhood admiration of Putin and his brand of authoritarianism, which may or may not have been put to the test when he ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase. Russia seems unfazed, brandishing its military might, leaving spy ships lingering off the American coast, and buzzing American fighter jets. It’s almost like a flashback to the 1960s.
But, as Peter Conradi reminds us with this insightful and well-written study, it did not start off that way, and perhaps it did not have to come to this. Conradi, foreign editor of the UK’s The Sunday Times, and thus absent the bias that seems to inform the outlook of Americans from all ends of the political spectrum, revisits the collapse of the Soviet Union–which he witnessed first-hand as a foreign correspondent in Moscow–and the heady optimism that came along with it in Europe and the United States. The world marveled at unfolding events then, cheering on first Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, as the fear of nuclear annihilation gave way to the welcoming of Russia to a community of nations predicated upon democracy and a market economy. Few in the West paid much attention as a similar, initial buoyancy within Russia itself rapidly deteriorated into a growing sense of humiliation as shell-shocked citizens came to grips with their new status. No longer a superpower, stripped of vast territories–including Ukraine and the Central Asian republics–that were historically part of Greater Russia, the dawn of democracy and capitalism brought to a much-diminished state political uncertainty and economic chaos, along with crime and corruption. It was this Russia that with a mixture of hope and shame held out its hands to a West that championed its rebirth and rewarded it with … a loan package insufficient to truly stabilize the economy, thunderous encouragement, and very little else.
In a fast-moving, highly articulate narrative that neatly blends the arts of historian and journalist, Conradi recounts events and assigns historical context that is frequently overlooked, with an eye for analysis that is largely unblemished by typical Western bias. The author underscores that it was the USSR–in its manic attempt to create fictional Soviet republics with faux autonomy within the historic Greater Russia–that encouraged secession when the Soviet Union dissolved. Ukraine had been a part of Russia for hundreds of years. So too was Crimea, which was only ceremoniously gifted to Ukraine in 1954, when it had almost no practical significance. Today Russian nationalists look upon these former territories and others as the “near abroad,” and demand to have a say in their respective destinies. These points are not made to justify recent Russian aggression, but to place them in the appropriate context, something often conspicuous in its absence in media coverage.
I noted before the advantage of Conradi as a non-American observer. I am reminded of the distorted perspective in the United States every time a partisan or pundit acclaims Reagan for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which in fact he had little to do with. (Historian Richard Reeves credits Reagan only for insisting, against the advice of his inner circle, that Gorbachev’s reforms were genuine and that he deserved to be reckoned with. While that certainly merits significance, it hardly translates into winning the Cold War.) Conradi’s thesis, which he argues convincingly, is that it was this kind of loud triumphalism in the West, coupled with an aggressive expansion of NATO to the edges of the Russian border, that drove the relationship in the last two and a half decades to its current state of confrontation. He does not speak as an apologist of Putin and his increasing belligerence. Far from it. He recognizes Putin as the amoral autocrat that he is, murdering or jailing rivals and opponents alike, presiding over the dismantling of democratic institutions and–as the emerging agent of realpolitik projecting power over a reasserted Russian sphere of influence–a true threat to the Western community of nations. But he also suggests that it was the various missteps by the West–and the mishandling of the fledgling new Russia that emerged from the ashes of the USSR–that set the stage for someone like Putin to seize power and sustain overwhelming support from the populace.
I am old enough to recall the terror that gripped our home during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “duck-and-cover” drills in elementary school, and the flawed domino theory that led to the tragedy of Vietnam. We all expected that Iron Curtain to define the next century, but then one day it turned out that the Soviet Union was simply one massive Potemkin Village, a fact that had somehow eluded us all along despite billions of dollars spent on intelligence gathering, and only made manifest as it imploded before our wondering eyes. One day, unexpectedly, the USSR simply went out of business.
I watched that happen too, and what followed, through the pages of the New York Times. I recall bemoaning that such momentous historical events–the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the rise of new states from the ashes of the old Soviet Union and its dramatic aftermath–unfolded with Oval Office occupants, first George H.W. Bush and then Bill Clinton, who seemed to lack the vision to shape the future that lay ahead. Who Lost Russia appears to underscore my anecdotal observations as the author points to a series of lost opportunities under a succession of American Presidents. He also notes that along with tone-deaf triumphalism there was a consistent, pronounced arrogance that failed to accord proper respect to Russia and its security concerns. This was, of course, evident in the expansion of NATO to include not only former Warsaw Pact allies but also former Soviet Republics in the Baltic states, the unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and the very real possibility that what were once integral parts of Russia–Georgia, Ukraine, and especially the critically strategic Crimean Peninsula–were lining up as NATO candidates that could serve as hosts to missiles pointed at Moscow. It was within this context that Putin acted on the Crimea.
Conradi also reminds us that initially Putin’s Russia objected but largely accepted NATO expansion. That Putin himself offered strategic airspace as support to George W. Bush in the aftermath of 911, and did not balk when the US invaded Afghanistan, a site of the last foreign adventure of the USSR where much blood and treasure was expended. It was only the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States that finally cut a deep fault line in Russian-American relations, as Putin branded this a calculated act of foreign aggression. Few outside of the United States would disagree with this characterization.
Conradi goes on to objectively chronicle the failed “reset” efforts by President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, noting that Obama, like those before him, seemed plainly unaware of what really went to the heart of Russia’s concerns. The author appears to disapprove of Obama’s absence of decisive action in Syria, which no doubt signaled weakness to Putin, yet he neglects to advance an available option that would have avoided exacerbating the multiplicity of competing conflicts on the ground there. Perhaps, I would suggest, doing nothing is better than decisively doing the wrong thing.
It is disconcerting that an unschooled and unpredictable man now sits in the White House as the prospect of nuclear war again looms before us. Conradi’s account of the wrong turns taken by his better qualified predecessors leaves us little room for optimism. Who Lost Russia is a brilliant book that should be required reading for those who have the current President’s ear. Our only opportunity to offset disaster is to carefully review what has once again set us on the brink.
[Note: I read an ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, but the book is hot off the press as of April 11, 2017. Buy it and read it!]