09/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Russia and the West Under Clinton and Bush

The guns of August are heard again.

The unexpected, sudden and brutal incursion by Russian troops into the small, former Soviet Republic of Georgia, has provided hawkish voices in both the US and Russia with an opportunity to talk tough. Republican nominee John McCain has had a field day, asserting that "We are all Geogrians,l" and calling for strong measures to throw Russia out of international institutions. Russians leaders have barked back about protecting the country's national interest, and showing that Russia can no longer be pushed around by the US. Russia seems to be back on the scene, emboldened by its oil wealth and a revived nationalist ethos.

Is a new Cold War brewing? Will US-Russia relations be a determining issue in the upcoming Presidential race?

I first studied Russian my senior year in high school, and went on to take an intensive course in the language at Yale. When asked why I chose to study Russian, I have always answered, "Because I wanted to end the Cold War." And then I joking add, "And, of course, I did, but it look longer than I thought." As a child who grew up with "light drills" in grammar school--we had to hide under our desks when the alarm bell sounded and close our eyes so as not to be blinded by the nuclear blast--I never thought the Cold War would end. After the Russians successfully launched Sputnik, I was one of a group of six graders in my school sent for special summer classes in math and science--and I continued in the "Beat The Russians" program in junior high and high school, designed to help the country catch up and surpass the Soviet Union. And I can remember gathering in the Culver City high school quad during the Cuban Missile Crisis, convinced that world leaders were about to cause a nuclear armageddon.

At university in the 1960s, I studied Russian, took courses in Russian history and politics, and had the opportunity, courtesy of the National Defense Education Act, to go on a study tour of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. I traveled the country, meeting Russian students, and seeing first hand the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of the Soviet system on the Russian people. I liked the people, but hated the system they had to live under.

I found the Cold War depressing, not exhilarating, and the proxy wars fought under its global system like Vietnam were a cause for deep sadness because they brought out the worst sides of our own country. When the Cold War finally ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, I was overjoyed. I don't want to see it start up again, even an ersatz version.

When I need a reality check on things Russian, I talk to a Russian--my friend Sergei Plekhanov, now a distinguished professor of politics and international affairs at York University in Toronto. Back in the day, Sergei was deputy director of the Institute for the Study of USA and Canada, the leading "liberal" think tank in Moscow, and he served as one of Gorbachev's top advisors on reforming and opening up the Soviet Union. When Yeltsin came to power, Sergei was squeezed out, and like many Russian democrats he found a home abroad--first at Occidental College, and then permanently at York in Canada where he is a regular commentator on Canadian television and an advisor to the Canadian parliament.

In summers, Sergei guest teaches at UC Irvine in the OC (I call him the smartest man in Orange County, at least for three months a year). Yesterday we spent the day together, walking along the beach at Corona Del Mar, and sitting on his porch over neo-Russian cuisine--a light vegetarian borscht and grilled salmon--and talked about the current crisis in Georgia. I recalled that the hero of Mikhail Lermontov's famous novel Hero of Our Time--the cool Russian dude Pechorin-- found the Caucasus region remote and strange. Sergei agreed. It is not a land of simple black and white, nor of right and wrong.

Sergei told me that the Russian and international media is rife with conspiracy theories about why Russia attacked Georgia now. One theory is that hawks in both the US and Russia wanted it to happen, to justify their own positions. As one storyline goes: Dick Cheney encouraged the Georgians, telling them that they would soon be welcomed into NATO and that the US would protect them. Emboldened, the Georgians try to take back South Ossetia, the Russians respond harshly and play the bad guy, and then the US responds with heated rhetoric (but not military action), giving the Republican Party a hot button issue for the presidential race. The hawks in the Kremlin don't mind obliging. They would prefer McCain in the White House to Obama.

As President, McCain would come out swinging against Russia, justifying the analysis that the Kremlin hardliners have of US motives--to keep a weakened Russia down forever and encricle it with new NATO states. Facing off against President McCain would make it easier for Russia to suppress its own liberal voices, increase military funding, and take a tougher stance on their "near abroad"--ie the former Soviet states on Russia's border.

Obama as US President would be more problematical for Russian hawks. His election might stir democratic yearnings throughout Russian civil society, and his administration would use more carrots than sticks in engaging Russia. It would be much harder for the Kremlin tough guys to paint an Obama administration as simply anti-Russian.

Russians love conspiracies, even my learned friend Sergei. After he had related the above explanation and even more unlikely scenarios, I countered with my argument of Bush incompetence and lack of interest. To be sure, Cheney and Bush have enjoyed rubbing Russia's nose in the dirt, and have pushed every advantage--negating the ABM treay, trying to build an anti-missile system first in the Czech Republic and now Poland, luring former Soviet States into token troop support for Iraq, and pushing NATO expansion as rapidly as possible.At the same time, Bush says Putin is a guy he can work with, and then ignores the continuing suppression of civil society in Russia, including the gangsterization of the economy. Bush lets Russia get rich on oil while making no effort to change US energy policy. The so-called Russia expert in the Bush adminstration Condi Rice turns out to be one of the worst national security advisors in post-war history, and as Secretary of State, doesn't seem to have a clue how the Russians would react in Georgia.

Sergei added some evidence to my case by pointing out that Rice had done her Phd thesis on the Czech military in the Warsaw Pact, not exactly heavy lifting. As Sergei noted, the role of the Czech military was to get out of the way when the Russian army moved in (as the world saw in Prague in 1968).

I argued that Bush and company don't care what happens inside Russia, and haven't bothered to see Russia as a threat (until now, perhaps). It's not a conspiracy, just gross incompetence.

Sergei and I also found ourselves, as 60 somethings do, reminiscing about the early reform days in Moscow when I would visit his Institute and we would talk about transforming the Soviet Union into a democratic society. We recalled that I had brought Ralph Nader to Moscow for meetings that Sergei organized with leading Russian reformers like Anatoli Sobchak, and that Nader had advised Sobchak and other Russian liberals not to go overboard for Shock Therapy. Ralph was saner then (before his Presidential aspirations turned him weird), and gave good advice that they needed to have a competent and honest government in Russia to go along with a transition to a market economy. If you simply marched down the Milton Friedman path of markets argued Nader, then you would would end up with Wild Capitalism, or worse, the kind of gangsterism that plagues the Russian economy today, The Russians dismissed Nader's warnings, and the subsequent US govenments in Washington, DC did little to assist in the process of change that was to come in Russa. For many Russians, the Shock Theraphy and the subsequent rise of the oligarchs that came under Yeltsin have been viewed as punishment that the West metted out to them for being Communists all those years.

I did what I could myself to help Russia towards a more democratic path. In the 1992 Presidential race, I arranged for Bill Clinton to deliver a major speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on the West's responsibility to provide economic assistance to Russia. In fact, Clinton's speech forced then President Bush to announce a major aid package to Russia that he had been resisting. However, once in office the Clinton administration did not do enough to provide Russia with economic and technical assistance. There was no Marshall plan for Russia, as I had argued for during the campaign. Hampered by Republican opposition in Congress, Clinton chose to focus first on getting the nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union under control (an important and necessary step), and then on expanding NATO, an issue that still rankles with Russia today. NATO expansion came not because Clinton wanted to surround a weakened Russia. It happened, I believe, for two reasons. One was the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and European inaction at the ethnic cleansing that took place afterwards. Clinton needed an international vehicle to use in the crisis and NATO was it. The other reason was the personal interventions of Eastern European dissidents turned presidents who had great moral standing--namely, Lech Walesca and Vaclav Havel. Both made impassioned pleas to Clinton not to let their countries remain outside western institutions like NATO and the EU.

I and others in the Clinton administration worked hard to make it clear that Russia was not NATO's enemy (I wanted to extend NATO membership to Russia herself, but could find little support for that position inside the administration). At the Clinton-Yeltsin summit in Helsinki that I initiated and organized, Russia agreed to join in a Russia-NATO council at NATO headquarters in Brussels. As US Ambassador in Finland, I took every opportunity to develop closer US-Russian ties. I hosted conferences on western economic investment in Russia, promoted environmental clean up projects in Murmansk, and went out of my way to be friendly to the Russian ambassador. I also arranged NATO fellowships for young Russian thinkers who had worked at Sergei's Institute (one of them is now the Russian charge d'affaire in Washington, DC; he is an Ossetian.)

Vice President Gore co-chaired the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission during the Clinton years, and he worked hard on a number of civil society projects. But during the 2000 campaign, the Republican critique of Clinton-Gore was simply that Clinton and Gore had been "too close" to Yelstin and the Russians--whatever that meant. With Bush's election, we found that it meant the US should treat the Russians like losers and bad guys and not to pay much attention to what happens inside Russia, which is now turning out to be a self fulfilling prophecy.

What happens now?

The good news is that Russia is no longer governed by an expansionist ideology, and in fact, it is not a strong country, but still a weak one. Outside of the gleaming new hotels in Moscow, the country's economy is a one trick pony. It has oil and natural gas, but produces little else that the world wants or needs. It's economy is ridden with corruption, and will only get worse. Western investment continues to be scared off (my friend Bill Browder who ran the largest western investment fund in Russia had his visa revoked and his companies illegally seized), and even western energy firms are being driven out. This is not a recipe for real long term economic growth. And its civil society continues to be weakened not strengthened by the authoritarian governing ethos in the Kremlin. Health and environmental problems are extreme, and go unaddressed. Keeping the public quiet with nationalist military outings like the recent one in Georgia do work for awhile, but they don't make Russia into an authentic super power. Of course, Russia has nuclear weapons, but so does Pakistan and it is not a super power nor will it be in the near future.

The bad news is that John McCain might be able to use Russia's military adventure in Georgia to help him win the presidency. If so, this will move us closer to making Russia (and sadly, the Russian people) back into our enemy. Only hawks and the military industrialists in both countries will be served by such an outcome. An Obama administration would try to find a way to resolve the Georgian crisis without turning Russia into a permanent enemy--and it would re-engage with Russia at all levels.

The guns in far off Georgia this August are one more reason why so much is at stake in the fall election.