New U.S.-Russia Cold War?

I just finished an article by Stephen Cohen, arguing that U.S. relations with Russia have been veering toward a new Cold War for some time, and this time the U.S. is the clear aggressor. Key points:

  • Since 1991 the U.S. has insisted on treating Russia as a defeated enemy, even though it never was actually defeated in war and its armed forces, though pared down, remain intact.

  • U.S. leaders have been bent on acting as if America is now the “world’s only superpower,” disregarding that, by common consensus of historians, Russia, by virtue of its human and material endowments, has always been destined to be a great power.

  • U.S. leaders have consistently denied Russia has any legitimate interests outside its own borders, while aggressively pursuing U.S. interests all over the world, including in the former USSR.

  • In military terms, the U.S. has been steadily encircling Russia – expanding NATO eastward, and establishing bases in former union republics.

  • The U.S. has aggressively interfered in the politics of former union republics. One could argue we have been serving the cause of democracy by doing this; OTOH, we have simultaneously made alliances with remarkably loathsome dictators in Uzbekistan, etc. (just like we did throughout the Cold War).

  • American political and economic “missionary” work in Russia in the early '90s did the country more harm than good. “Economic shock therapy” gave the Russians a privatized economy – mostly, privatized into the hands of former Communist Party officials, plus plain gangsters and thugs; and until the past few years it wasn’t working at all well as an economy.* We supported Yeltsin when he shelled Parliament, ushering in absolutist presidential rule. The authoritarian Putin (almost the only popular person in the Russian government right now, perhaps because the people perceive he’s the only thing holding it all together) is a monster of our own making.

  • And now we’re making noises about establishing “democracy” in Russia itself, threatening to boycott the G-8 summit in Russia, etc.

And there are a whole lot of ways all this could come back to bite us.


  • Russian joke from about 1993:

What has two years of capitalism accomplished that 70 years of Communism failed to achieve?

It’s made Communism look good!

It was a defeated enemy. And frankly, we were a heck of a lot more generous than we had to be toward it. If we wanted to humiliate Russia, we could do much more to it.

What’s your point? Who cares what historians think? The Russians themselves more or less demolished their own country’s endowments. Regardless of what it could be, it ain’t.

[quote[* U.S. leaders have consistently denied Russia has any legitimate interests outside its own borders, while aggressively pursuing U.S. interests all over the world, including in the former USSR.[/quote]

Could this perhaps be because the Russians are diplomatically hostile, and their “foreign interests” largely comprises selling weaponry and technology to our enemies?

Yes. So? The fact that Russia doesn’t like it doesn;t mean it’s not the right thing. We want to push NATO eastward. It’s in our national interests and the interests of a heck of alot of good people in this world.

You may also note, if you pay close attention, that the U.S. has done a lot of pushing for liberalization in those states. Sure, Uzbekistan isn’t going to look like London next year, but political needs hasn’t stopped us from leaning. Of course, so what if we don’t? We can’t fix everything everywhere immediately.

That would be a misleading statement. It is ttrue that privatization didn’t work in Russia. However (to reverse the old saw about Communism) it was never fairly attempted. Selling off assets to the Russian version fo the Good Ole Boys wasn’t what the U.S. had in mind.

Secondly, I doubt there was a better way. The Russian economy was on the verge of collapse before privatization; the damage was inevitable, since the Russian state could no longer pay out what it had to. It’s recovered somewhat now, although it’s clearly unhealthy. I doubt that things will really improve until the next generation.

We supported Yeltsin because taking out the Russian parliament ended Soviet Communism. And you can hardly claim the Duma was democratic is any meaningful sense.


  • And now we’re making noises about establishing “democracy” in Russia itself, threatening to boycott the G-8 summit in Russia, etc.


Yes, it’s political pressure. What would be your point?

I don’t recall seeing U.S. troops march through Leningrad. All we did was out-produce the USSR. That doesn’t justify the degree of triumphalism we’ve displayed about it.

The point is that Russia is still a great power and may well be a far greater one in the near future and there’s nothing any foreigners can do to stop it and our leaders are stubbornly oblivious to all of that.

I think you’ll find the Russians are reacting to U.S. behavior WRT these matters, not the other way around as it so often was during the Cold War.

Why? What’s the point?

:dubious: Cite? (And I mean something relating to Uzbekistan, not Ukraine.)

Do you recall what plan actually was in the minds of the Americans who went over there in the early '90s?

:confused: Why not? And by then, hadn’t Soviet Communism already been two years dead?

Russian constitutional crisis of 1993

If you’ll read Cohen’s article, which my summary doesn’t really do justice, one point is that when we try to tell the Russian government what to do, that just makes the Russian people support it all that more. (This principle has been shoring up Castro’s popularity for decades.) Another and more important point is that Russia is in a much, much better position to resist and fight back, by means diplomatic and military, than the Bush Admin seems to appreciate.

We defeated it in a nation-to-nation conflict. It’s that the conflict was political and economic rather than military, but I’m not sure why anyone thinks it matters. We won the Cold War. It was a grim contest of survival and endurance, but it was no less psychologically and sociologically devastating than any other war. Perhaps more so: two generations grew up with this as a constant factor. In a practical way we probably destroyed the Soviets more thoroughly than if we had won a shooting war. Their culture was seriously altered by contact with ours. Ours much less so.

Second, I’m not quite certain what the issue here is. We won, we’re rpoud of it, and we’re happy about it. it would be a bald-faced lie to pretend that the continuation of the Soviet system would have been a good thing. At the same time, I see little insult to Russia generally. They lost, we won, but we display no hatred of the Russians per se.

I don’t think our leaders (left or right) are ignorant nor ignoring that fact. Indeed, they often treat Russia as if she were more potent than she really is. At the same time, the mere fact that Russia might become great again doesn’t change the fact that she is quasi-hostile to us now. Pretending she is a friend seems foolish to me.

I think I’d have to disagree with that assesment. Russia under Putin takes a very active role in diplomacy. They are certainly not merely reacting.

A lot of it does have to do with protecting those nations from a possibly resurgent Russia. They don’t deserve another century of Russian domination. And NATO itself is secondary concern. Joining the NATO pact is often an implicit statement of where that country sees its future: in a liberal democracy.


Sure, we couldn’t do much to push them; our influence is limited, but there’s a serious attempt to use what we had to show our displeasure.

Makin money, investments. Some of them actually did work out. What’s your point? That sometimes unscrupulous peple take advantage of others?

Formally. He dissolved the parliament in 1993 unconstitutionally. On the other hand, the spark for the whole affair was Yelstin’s plan to break up the old Communist state; this was when it was really being reformed. There was a rather messy situation, because they were largely Communist and nearly a double-coup: it was something of a people versus the oligarchs, and I don’t claim to wholly understand the situation. I do think supporting Yeltsin was probably the right thing to do, and there was little choice since the other side was our open enemy.

What happened afterward was problematic, but we had little influence: Yeltsin pretty much lined his friend’s pockets.

I assure you, given the actions of Russia over the past few years, no one paying the slightest attention could underestimate how far the Russians will go. Bush knows they can and will push. That is not an argument for rolling over and playing dead.

There’s more than one kind of defeat. Germany was defeated in WWI, in the sense that it was the first side to get exhausted and sue for peace on the enemy’s terms. Its government even collapsed. But it was not conquered or occupied. The Germans remained free to do their own thing – and we know how that worked out. Germany was defeated in WWII – devastated, conquered, occupied by foreign powers who were able to rebuild the country in ways suitable to them. Japan was defeated in WWII, and as a result it was not only democratized but demilitarized – quite a shocking break from the country’s centuries-old traditions.

The Soviet Union’s defeat in 1991 was more like Germany’s in 1918. The government fell, the official ideology and the Soviet economic model were discredited and discarded, the non-Russian union republics broke away – but Russia, even without the other 14 republics, is still the world’s largest nation in territory, the seventh-largest in population, the 14th largest by nominal GDP and the 10th largest by GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity. Its military remains substantially intact – not what it was during the Cold War, but still nothing to laugh at, even in terms of conventional forces – and it still has a nuclear arsenal. It still has enormous fossil fuel and mineral resources and total control over their use. And Russia remains entirely independent of any other country’s domination. It still has a seat (the old USSR seat) on the UN Security Council. It even rates membership in the G-7 (now G-8).

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But our leaders have been acting (and our people, for that matter, have been thinking) as if Russia were a defeated power in the sense Germany and Japan were after WWII.

Pretending we have any good reasons to treat them as enemies is even more foolish. So is pretending the U.S. has any legitimate national interests in Russia’s “near abroad” while Russia itself has not.

Russian “domination” in the Soviet or even tsarist sense is no longer an issue. Perhaps the Russians might aspire to dominate its neighbors in the sense the U.S. dominates Canada and Mexico (you know NAFTA is not a partnership between equals), but no more than that, and we should regard that as a tolerable situation. Even beneficial, perhaps. All those countries do, after all, have a long history of cultural and economic relations.

:dubious: NATO has always been a military alliance existing for purely strategic purposes. Turkey and Greece were NATO members even in periods when they were neither liberal democracies nor apparently on their way to becoming liberal democracies. Hell, right now, Bush is pushing to offer NATO membership to fucking Colombia! (Read that in Z Magazine today but can’t link to the article, subscription is required.) Colombia’s not exactly a dictatorship, but if it’s a “liberal democracy,” I’m the emperor of China!

I don’t see anything there about the U.S. “pushing for liberalization,” even impotently. In fact, we continued to negotiate for keeping our bases there despite the political situation.

The point is that our meddling in Russia in the early '90s, and the outcome of that meddling, provides yet another reason for the Russians (the people, that is) to hold a grudge against the U.S.

What has any of that to do with your incredibly preposterous assertion that the Duma was not “democratic in any meaningful sense”? Can you seriously believe that the Duma, even with a significant number of unreformed Communists in it (who were freely and fairly elected to their seats), would not have made a better job of the reform process than Yeltsin-as-an-absolute-ruler did?!

Remember, if we’re fighting for “democracy,” that necessarily includes, and is utterly meaningless without, leaving the people of the country concerned the option to choose any form of socialism they want! That might or might not be the wisest choice. The important thing is it’s their choice to make and not ours. That’s what democracy means! Democracy != capitalism.

How, exactly, has the U.S. treated Russia like a ‘defeated enemy’? The U.S. persues its own interests, as does Russia.

This is ridiculous. Countries don’t get to be a superpower based on the consensus of historians. Nor do you become a superpower by virtue of your ‘human and material endowments’. If that were the case, Canada would be a superpower.

In fact, Russia is a third-rate power that only has the clout it does because of its arsenal of creaking and degrading nuclear missiles left over from the cold war. Russia’s GDP of 1.6 trillion is about the same as Brazil’s, and puts it behind Italy, France, the UK, Germany, India, Japan, China, the EU, and the U.S. The U.S.'s GDP is 8 times bigger. India’s is twice as big. Economically speaking, Russia belongs in a large group of countries that includes Canada, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Indonesia, etc.

Brazil is actually a good comparison. Almost identical in population and economic power.

No, U.S. leaders have opposed Russias’s interests when they conflict with their own. For example, when Russia sells military weaponry to Iran or other dangerous regimes. The U.S. has done exactly the same thing against France. And Russia and France do the same thing to the U.S. Remember the problem the U.S. had with them over the Iraq war?

The U.S. has been encircling them? Or have newly minted Republics, tired of the threat of more despotic rule, moved towards the U.S. and NATO?

The U.S. has been taking the opportunity of a power vacuum to court new countries and move them into its sphere of influence. Exactly what the Russians would do if they could.

The transition to capitalism has not been easy, especially with all the ex-communist thugs running around the place. In the long run, it will be much better for Russia to ‘stay the course’, although with Putin in power all bets are off.

The worry is that Putin is taking Russia back into an authoritarian society where human rights are once again lost.

Yeah well, that’s what people are trying to stop. What’s your solution?

And do you think they still feel the same way today? Do you think the Russians are pining for a return to Stalinism? In the last election in Russia, only 13.7% of the people supported the Communists. Doesn’t sound like they’re pining too hard for those days.

Gorbachev sort of addressed this last week when he said:

Unfortunately the piece just riffs off of a short ABC news interview, so it’s pretty puffy.
I think all the serious kremlin watchers may have died over the last decade.

Maybe so. An even worse problem is that, as Cohen points out in the article, the peace and disarmament movement that fought against the Cold War in the '80s no longer exists, all its activists apparently moved on to other concerns; and we need that movement now more than ever.

Not at all. (Especially since few of them can even remember Stalinism, which is not what the USSR had from Khrushchev to Gorbachev. Mind your terminology!) But OTOH, I kind of wonder how interested they really are in democracy. As for capitalism, they probably have mixed feelings about it, growing very, very gradually more favorable as the economy very, very gradually improves.

Come to think of it, there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between Yeltsin’s armed dissolution of the Duma in 1993 and Lenin’s armed dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, for quite similar reasons (election didn’t produce the result he wanted), in 1918.

I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. The question is whether Putin will allow Capitalism enough time to really get the people on its side before the country reverts back to authoritarianism and a failed economy which then gets blamed on Capitalism.

Democracy might, under some circumstances, be incompatible with capitalism, but authoritarianism is not. Consider the Pinochet period in Chile. Wasn’t it known as a good business climate?