The Cold War is over. Why do we still treat Russia like the Evil Empire?
Both countries are locked in old battles. What if we just stopped fighting them?
Perspective by Joseph Weisberg
Joseph Weisberg is the author of “Russia Upside Down: An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War” and the creator of the FX television series “The Americans.”
December 17, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. EST
As U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Russia was moving troops close to the Ukrainian border this fall, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Cold War had never ended. President Biden sternly told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a two-hour call that the United States wouldn’t tolerate an invasion, the White House reported. Debate broke out among Washington pundits over how much military equipment the United States could send to Kyiv. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) even suggested that the United States could use nuclear weapons preemptively to keep Russian soldiers from crossing the border.
It all feels depressingly, pointlessly familiar.
In 1990, during the brief window between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was a CIA trainee in the division responsible for espionage against the Soviets. One day, I heard a group of senior officers having a loud argument about the KGB in the hallway (they were talking outside the secure vault, which I was pretty sure you weren’t supposed to do). Several were making the case that the weakened state of the Soviet Union was the opportunity we’d all been waiting for: The CIA should deal a death blow to its rival intelligence agency, should unabashedly, perhaps even gleefully, kick the KGB while it was down. The goal, of course, was to win the Cold War at last. But the Eastern Bloc was crumbling, and Mikhail Gorbachev was desperately trying to reform the Soviet Union. There was no serious geostrategic thought given to whether we should still be fighting with the barest shadow of our enemy.
Back then, I was fully on board for a one-sided brawl to the bitter end. Like so many of my colleagues at the CIA, I was dedicated to destroying the KGB and, more broadly, the Soviet goliath. That passion derived, in no small part, from the incessant anti-Soviet messages embedded in American Cold War culture. Years later, many of us are still under the influence of those messages, which now insist that modern-day Russia — an ordinary state with a typical, self-interested foreign policy — is in fact unusually aggressive and morally bankrupt.
So while the Soviet Union is gone, the fight between the United States and Russia somehow survives. It is no longer a contest between communism and democracy/freedom/capitalism, but is it a battle between an autocracy-spreading Russia and an America hanging onto democracy for dear life? A repressive oligarchical kleptocracy and a rich but possibly faltering example of extreme capitalism? A struggle between a couple of old adversaries? Yes, Russia has serious flaws. One need only look at its recent wars, its posturing with Ukraine, its harsh treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and its support for far-right parties in Europe to see that. Even so, the U.S.-Russia conflict has outlived virtually all of the issues that once animated it, a remarkable testament to our (and no doubt their) need to have a best enemy.
It was great to have an enemy. I could focus my intellectual and moral energy on how evil that enemy was: The Soviets didn’t allow freedom of speech! The Soviets didn’t have fair elections! The KGB force-fed dissidents psychotropic medications! If this was how my enemy behaved, there was no question that my country, and therefore I myself, was a pure embodiment of virtue. We were the good guys, and I was one of the good guys. I was not alone in seeing the world through this one-dimensional lens.
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was impossible to avoid depictions of nefarious Soviets in movies, TV shows and spy novels (John le Carré, James Bond, “Red Dawn,” Rocky, countless anonymous villains). In school, we hid under desks to prepare for a Soviet nuclear attack and read textbooks that omitted the fact that our Cold War enemy had done the lion’s share of the work — and suffered a wildly disproportionate share of the casualties — in defeating the Nazis. And perhaps most powerfully, there was the baked-in moral certainty of most newspapers, magazines and television journalism: An invisible assumption that the Soviet Union was evil and, therefore, the United States was good. All of that was abetted by a bipartisan political consensus that we were in a fight for our very survival against the communists.
A few brave souls did challenge the consensus, pointing to the social advancement of millions of Soviet peasants in the decades after the revolution, Soviet successes in education and health care, and the broad popular support that the system long enjoyed. But these outliers were relegated to the margins of journalism and academia, where I didn’t hear their ideas — or at least encountered them so rarely it was easy to look away.
I eventually came to reckon with how simplistic my views on the “evil empire” were. I had help. After I spent a few years at the CIA in my 20s, therapy in my 30s started to loosen the grip of rigid thinking. In academia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, more complex and nuanced views of Soviet history and politics increasingly flourished. And the flood of new ideas and perspectives coming out of post-Soviet Russia profoundly challenged the old certainties about matters from Stalinism to the role of the Soviet press. After reading the memoir “Spy Handler” by the former KGB officer Victor Cherkashin, it was clear to me that the KGB was far more similar to the CIA than I had ever imagined. Among other things, the people it employed (particularly in the branch devoted to foreign espionage) seemed like me and my friends from Langley, just transported into a different political system. They were mostly bright, patriotic, fundamentally decent. This was part of what inspired me to create “The Americans,” a TV show about relatable KGB officers. Of course, Cherkashin and his friends in the KGB, like me and my friends at the CIA, also had a binary worldview. To them, they were the good guys, and we were the bad guys.
In America, we seem to be collectively stuck in the past. Just as we did during the Cold War, we see ourselves as the good-guy victims of an immoral opponent. This time, the Russian state, personified by Vladimir Putin, is the one-dimensional enemy. The common narrative begins with basic truths: Putin wants to reclaim past Soviet glory, is a politically repressive dictator and is determined to spread Russia’s autocratic system abroad. This is all accurate. But instead of adding complexity to the picture by trying to understand Putin’s point of view, we reduce him to a wholly malevolent force that is attacking our nation out of spite, using propaganda and lies to turn our citizens against one another.
Absent from this narrative, as it was in Soviet times, is our own role in the conflict. Having reappraised the two decades I spent as a stalwart cold warrior, I do not believe that Putin and his pals in the Kremlin are villainous anti-American autocrats who pose a grave danger to our stable, decent and humane democracy. Instead, I see the U.S.-Russia relationship under Putin as a back and forth, a collaboration in making enemies.
The history of this collaboration is complicated, but we are full participants in it. When Putin assumed office, he seemed somewhat open to the West. Some of the evidence for this was absence — the absence of anti-American rhetoric and activity in his first years in power. There was also a desire to strengthen Russia’s economy through trade with the West. And perhaps most convincingly, Putin was vocally supportive after 9/11, offering the United States use of Russian airspace and tacitly accepting the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia. This was no doubt in part because Russia was embroiled in another war in Chechnya and wanted partners in the fight against terrorism. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sincere.
Within a few years, though, the United States was trying to fully integrate some former Soviet republics into the West, bringing Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia into NATO, an organization specifically devoted to combating Moscow. (Some former Warsaw Pact members such as Poland and Hungary had been admitted earlier, and more were admitted later.) We began building a missile defense shield to protect Europe, placing it in countries formerly allied with the Soviet Union (the shield was ostensibly meant to protect against missiles fired from Iran, but given the sites we chose, Russia didn’t see it that way). Putin became increasingly hostile. We eventually leveled an endless series of sanctions against a broad array of Russians and Russian interests, seeing it as our role to punish Russian misbehavior, whether it related to internal corruption and political repression or military adventures abroad.
Whether you think these moves were justified or not, they were all aggressive acts that a reasonable person — or state — might consider threatening. Russia’s ongoing interference in our political system and electoral process, seen through a lens that includes not just their attacks on us but our attacks on them, starts to look more like a tit for tat. American financial support for election and human rights monitoring groups in Russia, after all, certainly constitutes a kind of interference in Russia’s internal affairs.
In recent years, the intensity of this conflict has occasionally waned, but never for long. There is just too much to fight about. We have involved ourselves heavily in Russia’s backyard, including Ukraine, where the possibility looms of another invasion we can’t do anything to prevent. Different priorities and alliances have pitted us against each other in Syria. Every U.S. election is a chance for Russia to intensify its propaganda war against us, while every act of political repression inside Russia provides an opportunity for us to attack them in the public arena.
What would it look like if we tried, by ourselves, to ratchet down this dangerous back and forth? We might, for example, rescind sanctions against Russia. Our government might stop making pronouncements on the Russians’ internal affairs and let them figure out their own problems without our unwelcome criticism (criticism better meted out to all countries by private individuals and organizations, not foreign governments). We could extend an olive branch by releasing Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, traitors who were directly responsible for the deaths of numerous Soviets spying for the United States and who have each spent more than two decades in American prisons. Typically, two nations in conflict try to negotiate mutual concessions along these lines, but we aren’t doing that successfully with Russia, and mutual concessions aren’t necessarily effective at addressing the roots of a conflict anyway. We’d be better off focusing on our own attitudes and policies and offering Russia some basic goodwill gestures.
I don’t know if this kind of unilateral action would prompt Russia to reciprocate. I don’t know if it would reduce tensions enough to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine — where it’s not at all clear Putin really wants to invade. Even if Russia does escalate its war in Ukraine, though, that would present the United States with an opportunity to respond differently: not with more threats and sanctions, but by honestly assessing how we have contributed over the years to Russian anxieties about encirclement and lost influence. We have played, at the very least, our own significant role in fueling the animosity between our two countries. Ultimately, we cannot control what Russia does in this long-running conflict. But we can at least try to pull back from the fight.