This article is adapted from the new epilogue for the paperback edition of Stephen F. Cohen’s book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, which will be published by Columbia University Press in July.
An enduring existential reality has been lost in Washington’s post–cold war illusions and the fog of subsequent US wars: the road to American national security still runs through Moscow.
Despite the Soviet breakup twenty years ago, only Russia still possesses devices of mass destruction capable of destroying the United States and tempting international terrorists for years to come. Russia also remains the world’s largest territorial country, a crucial Eurasian frontline in the conflict between Western and Islamic civilizations, with a vastly disproportionate share of the planet’s essential resources including oil, natural gas, iron ore, nickel, gold, timber, fertile land and fresh water. In addition, Moscow’s military and diplomatic reach can still thwart, or abet, vital US interests around the globe, from Afghanistan, Iran, China and North Korea to Europe and Latin America. In short, without an expansive cooperative relationship with Russia, there can be no real US national security.
And yet, when President Obama took office in January 2009, relations between Washington and Moscow were so bad that some close observers, myself included, characterized them as a new cold war. Almost all cooperation, even decades-long agreements regulating nuclear weapons, had been displaced by increasingly acrimonious conflicts. Indeed, the relationship had led to a military confrontation potentially as dangerous as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Georgian-Russian War of August 2008 was also a proxy American-Russian war, the Georgian forces having been supplied and trained by Washington.
What happened to the “strategic partnership and friendship” between post-Soviet Moscow and Washington promised by leaders on both sides after 1991? For more than a decade, the American political and media establishments have maintained that such a relationship was achieved by President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s but destroyed by the “antidemocratic and neo-imperialist agenda” of Vladimir Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin in 2000.
In reality, the historic opportunity for a post–cold war partnership was lost in Washington, not Moscow, when the Clinton administration, in the early 1990s, adopted an approach based on the false premise that Russia, having “lost” the cold war, could be treated as a defeated nation. (The cold war actually ended through negotiations sometime between 1988 and 1990, well before the end of Soviet Russia in December 1991, as all the leading participants—Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush—agreed.)
The result was the Clinton administration’s triumphalist, winner-take-all approach, including an intrusive crusade to dictate Russia’s internal political and economic development; broken strategic promises, most importantly Bush’s assurance to Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO would not expand eastward beyond a reunited Germany; and double-standard policies impinging on Russia (along with sermons) that presumed Moscow no longer had any legitimate security concerns abroad apart from those of the United States, even in its own neighborhood. The backlash came with Putin, but it would have come with any Kremlin leader more self-confident, more sober and less reliant on Washington than was Yeltsin.