The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How did the end of the Cold War become today’s dangerous tensions with Russia?

Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as proof of America’s imperial intentions, Michael McFaul writes, and so positioned Russia as a counterbalance on the world stage. (Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Pool/Associated Press)

Archie Brown is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Oxford and author, most recently, of “The Rise and Fall of Communism” and of “The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age.”

Cold war can be a substitute for hot war, but it can also be a stepping-stone to armed conflict. There should, therefore, be no nostalgia for our earlier Cold War or complacency about slipping into another. The Cold War that lasted from 1945 to 1989 (beginning with the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe and ending when those countries became non-communist and independent) was a necessary standoff. Communism was an ideology with international aspirations and adherents on every continent. Its anti-imperialist rhetoric (as distinct from its own imperial practices) often made it attractive in parts of the world emerging from colonial rule. Even in European countries where support for communism was confined to a small minority of the population (such as Poland or Hungary), an indigenous communist government could be formed, consisting both of true believers and of careerists. Standing behind them, offering ideological guidance and the promise or threat of military intervention, stood the Soviet Union.

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Nothing comparable exists today. To the extent that Russia has an ideology, it is one of Russian nationalism and belief in a strong state. We could call it “Russia First.” By definition any such doctrine does not have international appeal. Russia no longer has such a distinctive politico-economic model as the communist system constituted (though with variation over the decades between oligarchical rule and personal dictatorship). The political divide today is very different from that in the first four decades after 1945. To slide into a comparable confrontation now would be to replace a real cold war, following a short interval, by an unnecessary cold war.

For Michael McFaul, in his vigorously argued political memoir, “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” there is a “new ideological struggle . . . between Russia and the West, not between communism and capitalism but between democracy and autocracy.” As a generalization, that is unconvincing. During the Cold War there were many people in the West who felt that what they were defending was precisely democracy. The tens of millions of people who voted for democratic socialist and social democratic parties in Western Europe would not have responded to a cry to defend capitalism. What stalwart Cold War allies of the United States and opponents of Soviet dictatorship — such as Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, in Britain’s first postwar Labour government — believed they were defending was democracy and freedom.

Likewise, it is hard to agree that the contemporary ideological struggle with Russia is one between democracy and autocracy. Russia has become substantially more authoritarian in the post-Soviet era than it was in the last years of the Soviet Union, but it retains far more freedom and elements of pluralism than were to be found in the pre-perestroika U.S.S.R. Creeping authoritarianism began in the 1990s and has become more marked during the years of Putin’s leadership. Yet autocracy does not in itself lead the United States to engage in ideological struggle with a country exhibiting it. Washington has embraced allies more autocratic than Russia, a contemporary example being Egypt under Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

McFaul is on surer ground when he describes the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and a coalition of the gullible as a “devastating blow” to U.S.-Russia relations. It played a significant part in bringing the Russian leadership to view the United States, in McFaul’s words, as “an imperial hegemon which uses force to achieve its objectives.” This, he observes, led Putin to conclude “that Russia had to resist and counterbalance American hegemony and defend state sovereignty.” Putin was among the many European leaders who, unlike Tony Blair, realized that an American invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein “would destabilize the country and the surrounding region.”

There is no shortage of Russian actions, both domestically and internationally, in recent years that have aroused criticism and sometimes outrage in most democracies. Many examples, great and small, are to be found in McFaul’s book. Whether we have in mind the use of administrative methods to prevent the most serious oppositional candidates from contesting Russian elections, cyber-intervention designed to influence votes in America or collaboration with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless onslaught on tens of thousands of civilians, they have been very fully described in the Western mass media.

What has been given far less attention is a question of fundamental importance: How did we get from the relative amity of the negotiated end of the Cold War to the mutual distrust and dangerous tensions of today? McFaul takes that issue seriously, and his contribution to the debate is significant, based on his experience as a political practitioner as well as an academic analyst. But I find it only partly convincing.

He notes three possible explanations: “the structure of international relations between great powers, our foreign policies, and Russian domestic politics.” By the first of these he means “normal balance-of-power politics between great powers.” On this interpretation, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin “did what we told them to do, because they had no other choice.” They accepted American hegemony not because they “shared American values or interests, but because these Russian leaders were weak.” McFaul is not fully satisfied with that explanation, and it is even more misleading than he indicates. From the mid-1940s to the end of the 1960s, when the United States had clear military superiority over the U.S.S.R., communist regimes proliferated. In contrast, by the mid-1980s, when there was rough military parity between the United States and the Soviet Union, Gorbachev took the initiative in trying to end the Cold War, disregarding the advice of those in Moscow who said he should sit out President Ronald Reagan’s second term, since dialogue with him would be pointless.

The achievement of military parity took a much larger share of Soviet resources than it did of the bigger American economy, but it was a price Soviet leaders individually and collectively were willing to pay. There was, moreover, widespread popular acceptance of a “peace through strength” policy. The philosophy of deterrence was influential on both sides of the Cold War divide. During most of these years, the Soviet military-industrial complex had even less difficulty than its American counterpart in convincing the political leadership that its interests coincided with the national interest.

At the outset of his general secretaryship, Gorbachev was virtually alone in the Politburo in believing that the Cold War could easily spill over into a hot war and that ending it, and radically reducing the weaponry on both sides, was in the interests of Soviet citizens and of all humanity. His most radical break with Marxism-Leninism was to embrace, especially explicitly from 1988 onward, the idea that there were universal values and interests that took precedence over those of any class, nation or group.

In the last two years of the Soviet Union’s existence, Gorbachev’s negotiating hand was weakened as a result of breakaway tendencies within the Soviet state. Their consequences meant that the balance-of-power argument has somewhat more purchase when it is applied to the 1990s. Yeltsin, during his presidency, was in a weaker position vis-a-vis the United States than was Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, and this weakness was partly of his own making. The transformation of the Soviet political system should not be conflated with the end of the Soviet Union, although the former (primarily Gorbachev’s achievement) created the preconditions for the latter (in which Yeltsin played a decisive part). Gorbachev’s effort to hold together a smaller, loosely federal union by voluntary consent was undone by Yeltsin’s demand for Russian independence from a union in which the Russian republic occupied three-quarters of the territory and its people constituted half the population. Most Russians subsequently experienced an emotional sense of loss as well as political and economic dislocation.

McFaul places the most weight on the third of his explanations for what has gone amiss, namely Russian domestic politics and, more specifically, the role of Putin. But these are more closely interlinked with his second explanation, American foreign policy, than he allows. Indeed, one might add the importance of U.S. domestic politics for American foreign policy. How else can one understand the formulation that President Barack Obama, in a speech in Moscow, was “not afraid,” as McFaul oddly puts it, “to acknowledge aspects of Russian greatness” and to “praise the essential role that Soviet soldiers played in defeating Hitler”? Other Western leaders have uttered the same obvious truths without being considered bold or having the slightest worry that their words would be ill received back home.

McFaul notes a number of American policies that have been criticized in Russia. They include U.S. help to get Yeltsin reelected as president in 1996; NATO expansion to east-central Europe and then into successor states of the former Soviet Union (decisions opposed at the time by the eminent diplomat-analysts George Kennan and Jack Matlock, who argued that they were likely to lead to a new cold war); the bombing of Serbia; the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002; the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the persuasion of Russia not to veto intervention to prevent atrocities in Libya in 2011, on the grounds that the action was not aimed at regime change, although the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi and a civil war followed; the creation of a U.S. missile defense system; and American support for regime change in Russia’s neighboring states, leading Putin to believe that Washington was intent on provoking similar upheaval in Russia.

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In some cases, the Kremlin concern was out of proportion with the reality. The limited U.S. missile defense system is not related to a hypothetical military conflict with Russia and would be helpless against a Russian strategic nuclear attack; the overthrow of governments in, for example, Georgia and Ukraine was an essentially indigenous development; and the Arab Spring revolutions were entirely so, although Moscow chose to see the hand of the CIA. In reality, those uprisings came as a surprise to Washington, and the American government was reactive rather than proactive.

Yet perceptions have political consequences. McFaul’s list of real and perceived Russian grievances adds up to a great deal. He underplays their collective significance in a question-begging way when he writes: “They were all manageable hiccups, bumps in the road of cooperation, had both sides desired to maintain the Reset’s momentum. But in 2012, one side did not.” Even the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, when she was offering Reagan advice on what he should say to Gorbachev at their first summit meeting in Geneva in 1985, wrote that he should tell the Soviet leader, “We know that you are entitled as we are to feel secure” and the United States accepts “that the world cannot be safe for one of us unless it is safe for both of us.”

The United States and Russia remain the two countries that have the military means utterly to destroy each other, incinerating or radioactively contaminating their populations. Long ago Reagan and Gorbachev agreed that a nuclear war between these powers could not be won and must never be fought. Earlier, however, in times of high tension, a war that neither side wanted could have broken out as a result of accident, miscalculation or technical malfunction. On occasion only the prudence and sober judgment of a few individuals saved the world from that catastrophe. This remains reason enough for prioritizing the U.S.-Russian relationship, for paying attention to perceptions on both sides as well as to their concrete behavior, and for not stumbling, blindly or fatalistically, into a second cold war — or worse.

By Michael McFaul

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 509 pp. $30