Peter Conradi, Who Lost Russia?
How the World Entered a New Cold War
In Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, Peter Conradi, formerly Moscow-based correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times and presently its foreign editor, looks at Russian history over the past quarter of a century, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “through the prism of [Russia’s] relations with the West” (p.x). Given his somewhat overly dramatic title, there is an odd suspense to this otherwise straightforward, solidly written work, as the reader asks along the way, “Well, who really did ‘lose’ Russia?” Conradi’s narrative invites readers to proffer their own nominees for the person or entity that “lost” Russia. Only in the final pages does he inform us of his nominee – and no way will I reveal his selection here. But the real question is not who “lost” Russia — that’s fine for a catchy title, evoking the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the question of the 1950s, who lost China.
Rather, the questions at the heart of Conradi’s methodical study are why the once promising relationship between Russia and the West evolved into one best described today as adversarial; and, relatedly, why Russia did not follow the path toward Western-style liberal democracy after what looked like an earnest start in the 1990s. There are no simple or single answers to these questions but, by looking at post-Communist Russia’s relationship with the West during the years 1991-2016, Conradi manages to tease out a host of partial answers. His book went to press in January 2017, during the earliest days of the Trump administration. He alludes in an afterthought to the possibility of links between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and the Russian state. With much on this subject having come to light since the book first appeared, Conradi’s observations are not a reason to read his book. But the book does provide much needed context to help understand why Russia’s relationship with the West deteriorated to the point where no one should be surprised that Russia deliberately sought to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Conradi dedicates a substantial portion of his work to the personal interactions between the leaders of the United States and Russia over the 25-year period: George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton with Boris Yeltsin; George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin; Barack Obama and first Dimitri Medvedev, then Obama and Putin. He further includes speculation toward the end about how the relationship between Trump and Putin might unfold. Numerous substantive issues bedeviled the leaders of the two countries between 1991 and 2016, but foremost among them were the intertwined questions of eastward expansion of NATO and Russia’s relationship with Ukraine.
Throughout the quarter century, Russia and the West maintained entirely different perspectives on NATO’s embrace of the former Warsaw Pact countries once under Soviet control, and its potential embrace of several former Soviet Republics, most notably Ukraine. While the West regarded NATO expansion as a benign extension of universal democratic values to newly independent states, Russia construed expansion as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and geopolitical interests. And although the Soviet Union dissolved peaceably, Ukraine’s independence proved particularly vexing for Russia from the earliest post-Soviet days.
During the presidency of Vladimir Putin, differences between Russia and the West over these and related issues transformed an uneven and sometimes uneasy partnership between Russia and the West into an adversarial one. Western triumphalism of the early 1990s, when both Western Europe and the United States basked in their Cold War “victory” over the Soviet Union, plainly fueled Russian resentment. The breakdown of the partnership finds its roots, Conradi contends, in the “inability of both sides to agree on what happened in 1991 . . . and, in particular, [in] Russian resentment at being treated as a vanquished foe” (p.341). The West underestimated how badly the loses that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union “rankled with Moscow, and how much the Kremlin continued to consider the former Soviet republics as part of its sphere of influence” (p.161).
By the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, ending Dimitri Medvedev’s four-year interregnum, Russia had abandoned any pretense of striving for Western style liberal democracy. It was now, Conradi writes, “positioning itself as a beacon of traditional, conservative values in a decadent, liberal world” (p,235). The official narrative was that it had been “duped to believe in the promises of democracy . . . [which] did not work for Russia; the nation was corrupted by Western values and [was] under constant attack from those who would seek to dismantle it” (p.236). Borrowing from the other portion of Conradi’s title, the world in the 21st century’s second decade had thus entered a “new Cold War,” with a level of hostility between Russia and the West “not seen even at the height of Soviet rule” (p.xiii).
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Conradi ably captures the momentous changes that ensued in Russia after the Soviet Union abruptly dissolved in December 1991. He describes January 2, 1992, the first day of Russia’s transition to a free market, as a “life-defining moment. The previous six months had a seen a series of political events, each more dramatic than the last, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet none had such a direct and immediate impact as the Yeltsin government’s decision to end the price controls that had been a feature of Soviet life since the 1920s” (p.20). The end of price controls was part of a broader process that “challenged everything the Soviets had been brought up to believe in. Buying and selling for a profit had once been denounced as speculation and been punishable with jail. Now it was the foundation of the economy. Money-changing used to be conducted by shady characters on street corners; now it was carried out by financial experts sitting at rows of computer screens in swanky offices” (p.21).
The early post-Soviet years were a wild and woolly time in Russia, with a mad grab for ownership and control of previously state-owned property. During the 1990s, Russia’s famous oligarchs emerged, some of the richest and, in many cases, most ruthless, businessmen on the planet. Yet, Conradi notes, the early post-Soviet years also “created more losers than winners, and it took years before living standards drew level even with the last years of the Soviet era. Many people, especially members of the older generations, still felt a sense not so much of liberation but rather of disorientation after so much of what they had been brought up to believe in had been denounced as a lie. There was a feeling of wasted lives, of humiliation and wounded pride” (p.98).
Conradi nonetheless gives Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin — a “charismatic larger-than-life figure whose ruddy cheeks betrayed his weakness for alcohol” (p.3) — high marks for avoiding the type of ethnic and nationalist violence that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Yeltsin also steered a new constitution through to adoption by referendum, representing a “break with Soviet practice by, among other things, abolishing the leading role of the Communist (or indeed, any other) Party and guaranteeing a pluralistic political system” (p.47). Although George H.W. Bush was the American president when the Soviet Union dissolved and Yeltsin rose to power, most of the Yeltsin years corresponded to the Clinton years.
In a chapter entitled “Bill and Ol’ Boris,” Conradi shows how the two leaders struck up what seemed from the outside to have been a productive relationship between the two countries, with the United States providing substantial assistance to Russia in the hope of establishing a framework for a functioning democracy with a market economy. Ol’ Boris sometimes chaffed at the nature of the American-Russian partnership, with America always the dominant partner and Russia reduced to a supplicant. He saw a special role for Russia as a regional peacekeeper in the other former Soviet republics – what the Russians termed the “near abroad” — an idea that fell flat with Bill. More than a little uneasy about Ukraine’s drive for independence, Ol’ Bois periodically objected to Bill’s dogged determination to bring the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe under the NATO umbrella. NATO’s eastward expansion looked to the Russian president like a “brazen attempt by the West to exploit [Russian] weakness to take over countries formerly part of Moscow’s sphere of influence” (p.64). “Got to get over it, Boris,” seemed to be Bill’s response. “We don’t mean ya’ll no harm.”
In his 1999 televised New Year’s address to the Russia people, six months prior to the expiration of his second term, Yeltsin stunned his viewers and the rest of the world by announcing, “in a characteristic piece of theater” (p.106), that he was resigning immediately. Previously, there had been speculation that he might seek to change the constitution to pursue a third presidential term. Yeltsin announced that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, appointed Prime Minister the preceding August, would be his replacement. Yeltsin was not obligated to anoint a successor. He could have “played the true democrat and not nominated anyone at all, instead creating a level playing field on which rival candidates could compete for votes”(p.322). Conradi suggests that Yeltsin had three candidates in mind; the other two in retrospect seem to have been more likely to continue the country along the road toward liberal democracy. Yeltsin chose Putin, Conradi argues, because he, Yeltsin, was “obsessed with securing a guarantee of immunity for himself and the ‘family’ from prosecution for their past misdemeanors” (p.322).
As a 36 year old KGB agent based in Dresden in 1989, Putin had watched East Germany disintegrate and disappear, demonstrating for him the “frailty of political elites and the ease with which they can be toppled by ‘people power’”(p.110). Prior to his appointment as Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin had served as an assistant city administrator in his native St. Petersburg. The literature on Putin in English seems to be growing on an almost daily basis, with many works seeking to probe Putin’s psyche to find psychological explanations for why he steered Russia in a direction outwardly different from that of Yeltsin. This is not one of them. Instead, Conradi systematically shows how more than why the former KGB officer, unlike his predecessor, “pursued policies both at home and abroad that would inevitably challenge the West” (p.322).
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In the early years of his presidency, Putin, like Yeltsin, said many things that the West wanted to hear about Russia’s quest for democracy and its belief in individual freedom after years of Soviet oppression. There was even talk about possible Russian membership in the EU and NATO, with Putin recommending that NATO’s focus be shifted to terrorism, piracy and cybercrime. The initial meetings between Putin and George W. Bush, who had succeeded Clinton in 2001, augured well for the US-Russia partnership. Bush tried to avoid what he considered Clinton’s tendency to hector his Russian counterpart about free markets and attempts to curb freedom of speech. He famously told reporters after his first meeting with Putin that he had been able to get a sense of the Russian leader’s “soul.” Having “looked the man in the eye,” Bush said, he found his counterpart to be “straight-forward and trustworthy,” and “deeply committed to his country” (p.137)
Yet, for all the warm talk, the Bush administration recurrently sent out signals of its “intention to treat Russia as a mid-ranking country rather than a superpower” (p.132-33). Although Putin was the first world leader to express solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 did incalculable damage to U.S.-Russia relations. “A really strong, anti-terrorist international coalition was created after September 2001,” Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister, said. “It was destroyed in 2003 when the Americans decided to start their war in Iraq” (p.203). In Putin’s view, Washington had given itself a “license to support regime change wherever it wished,” with countries closest to Russia geographically and economically “at the top of its hit list”(p.174).
American support for the pro-Western “Rose” demonstrations in Georgia in 2003 and “Orange” in Ukraine in 2004 — the so-called “Color Revolutions” – aroused Putin’s fury because of the “existential threat” which they appeared to pose to the Kremlin (p.173). Georgians and Ukrainians had:
provided a compelling model of how ordinary people could mobilize in a post-Soviet society to prevent a discredited regime from clinging to office – with more than a helping hand from the CIA, in Putin’s view. Putin’s concern was that Bush, with his determination to promote democracy around the world, might now try to encourage similar such forces in Russia to challenge Putin’s own hold on power (p.173).
Conradi perceives a “growing assertiveness” to Putin’s governance after the Color Revolutions, in which he “consolidated political and economic power in his hand and marginalized his opponents” (p.177).
Barred from running for a third consecutive term, Putin stepped aside in 2008 and his Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, was elected president. Medvedev, trained as a lawyer and a decade younger than Putin, was more polished and less paranoid. But he was without an independent power base and thus dependent for support upon Putin, who became Prime Minister. The Medvedev years, 2008-2012, overlapped with the last year of George W. Bush’s term and Barack Obama’s first term. Obama assumed the presidency with the idea of a “reset” in Russian-American relations. But neither administration in Conradi’s view ever fully figured out who was in control in Moscow during these years, Medvedev or Putin.
Conradi observes a discernible shift in Putin’s style of governance when he was re-elected president in 2012. During his first eight years, Putin had governed according to an unwritten pact: “citizens stayed out of the state’s business, and in return it guaranteed them growing prosperity, underwritten by surging oil revenues” (p.234). After 2012, Putin sought a “new source of legitimacy,” described as “‘patriotic mobilization.’ This new direction was accompanied by tighter control of television and a tougher line against opposition parties and civil society. The move was given greater urgency by the Arab Spring, which provided a salutary reminder of the ease with which regimes could be toppled if popular protests were allowed to get out of hand” (p.234).
The 2013-14 crises in Ukraine and Crimea marked the end of the last glimmer of hope for a workable general partnership between Russia and the West. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly backed out of an assistance agreement with the European Union in November 2013, massive pro-Western demonstrations erupted in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Yanukovych fled to Russia and sought Russian assistance. Putin followed in March 2014 with the boldest move of his presidency: military invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, a largely autonomous region within Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population and several Russian naval bases. The purported basis of the intervention was to protect beleaguered ethnic Russians.
Conradi cautions against considering Putin’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine as the “first staging in a carefully thought-out plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union” (p.301). His actions appear instead to have been prompted more by fear that Ukraine, a country still considered part of the Russian homeland, was “in danger of drifting into the Western camp. He was also counting on a warm reception from the locals and gambled, rightly, that the West would do nothing to stop him” (p.303). The 2013-2014 crises “put a definitive end to any further expansion of NATO” and “allowed Putin to reassert his right of veto over any change in the ‘near abroad’” (p.295).
If Russian governance today might be considered “Putinism,” it is based “neither on Soviet nostalgia nor on integration with the West” (p.235). Its distinctly anti-Western appeals are to an emotive Russian nationalism and ethnicity as the “backbone of the Russian state” (p.234); and to a social conservatism that is blatantly anti-homosexual, reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church as “arbiter and enforcer of national mores” (p.234). Oppressed during the Soviet era, the Orthodox Church saw a resurgence after the fall of communism and, as in Tsarist times, is once again “intimately woven into the affairs of state,” wielding “extraordinary power” (p.235).
Putinism sees foreign policy as a “zero sum game” (p.339), where plots and conspiracies against Russia abound. Yet Russia’s role on the world stage, Conradi argues, is that of a “wrecker of the established order rather than as a positive force . . . The attempt to position Russia as a socially conservative rival to the liberal democracies of the West [has] attracted few takers in Europe beyond backers of the fringe parties on the right” (p.295).
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Conradi alludes to a common understanding of Russian history and culture divided between two camps: “Europhiles,” who look to the West for models; and “Slavophiles,” who look inward, rejecting Western values and celebrating Russian culture and history (a more elaborate discussion may be found in Steven Marks’ How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December 2014). The interplay between these competing camps was largely kept below the surface during the Soviet regime. When Putin came to power in the year 2000, he appeared to have a foot in each camp. But at some point in the new century’s first decade, both Putin feet moved firmly into the Slavophile camp. Setting aside Conradi’s answer to his question who lost Russia — you will have to read the book to find that answer – Conradi’s astute analysis leads to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin “found” or “refound” the traditional Slavophile Russia, a Russia that the West in the 1990s too readily assumed had disappeared altogether.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
September 8, 2017