Russia, America, and the Biases Within Us

by Gordon M. Hahn

In a recent New York Times article Keith Gessen attempts to explain the long deterioration in post-Cold War US-Russian relations. With a few acknowledgements unusual but now safe for a US mainstream publication to mention given that US-Russian relations are now permanently damaged – Gessen’s attempt is a minimal success (www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/magazine/the-quiet-americans-behind-the-us-russia-imbroglio.html). Gessen’s focus and methodology predetermined the article’s limits and unwittingly reveal the very Washington and Western biases that helped to provoke Cold War 2.0. Gessen writes: “The abiding mystery of American policy toward Russia over the past 25 years can be put this way: Each administration has come into office with a stated commitment to improving relations with its former Cold War adversary, and each has failed in remarkably similar ways. The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo, the George W. Bush years with the Russian bombing of Georgia and the Obama years with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.” To answer this question, Gessen decided to begin “traveling to Washington to speak with Russia hands: those who had worked on Russia inside the State Department, the National Security Council or the Department of Defense’ and interview those “hands who served in the government as far back as Jimmy Carter and up to the current administration; some served Republican presidents, others served Democrats, but a vast majority served both parties.”

Any attempt to answer the question of what went wrong in US-Russian relations that relies solely on American voices and, moreover, solely those in Washington and, moreover still, solely those that have worked in the State and Defense Departments and National Security Council is bound to be deeply flawed. Most obvious, such an approach will suffer from the narrow spectrum of sources. Second, these voices’ views are lavishly colored with careerist perspectives and ambitions. After all, a certain type is driven to go to Washington—a type attracted more to power and, in this case, American power imperatives rather than the values such as the preservation of stability and peace. The Washington consensus, among its more rational adherents, assumes that expanding, indeed maximizing American military, political, economic and cultural power and influence is a moral goal because ostensibly it automatically ensures peace and stability. Among its less rational adherents, it is an end in itself, and for some the greater American power, the greater his or her own personal power in ‘shaping the world.’ Forced to choose between maximizing American power everywhere, at all times, and at almost all cost, on the one hand, or undermining one’s career prospects, on the other hand, such types are in almost all cases likely to choose the former. That is true whether they are performing their government functions, working in a ‘think tank’ or giving a media interview.

Gessen’s conclusions for the most part follow dutifully from his methodological bias. In his view, there have been several problems: first, the internal organizational structure of US government departments such as State and Defense; second, the defeat of those with a more realist and comparative soft approach to Russia at the hands of more hardline ‘internationalists’; and, third, NATO expansion, though no explicit mention of the causality is made (probably as a result of the editors’ intervention).  Regarding organizational-structural issues, Gessen first points to the government’s discouragement of specialization. A discussion which includes a certain conflation of ‘Russian’ and ‘Soviet’. This suggests a more interesting questions Gessen might have pursued: To what extent was the Soviet experience ‘Russian’? Which ‘Russian hands’ see continuity between pre-Soviet Russia, the USSR, and post-Soviet Russia? He then turns to the post-Cold War need to create 14 new embassies in the 14 non-Russian former union republics. Here, Daniel Fried is quoted regarding the value of viewing Russia through the eyes of its former colonies: “’When you start looking at the Russians by the people who have been visited by the Russians,’ says Fried, who spent a fair amount of time in Poland during his long career in the Foreign Service, ‘you tend to see it a different way.’ To his credit, Gessen acknowledges that these postings created among foreign service officers a “somewhat jaundiced view of Russia.” Gessen, however, fails to mention, the additional danger of even greater bias created by US government recruitment of nationalist and ultra-nationalist Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Georgians, etc (though this is not just a recent phenomenon but goes back to the end of World War II). This led in Georgia, the Baltic states and more ominously in Ukraine to the seizure of power by quasi-nationalist oligarchs and outright ultra-nationalists with no commitment to democracy but with an abiding, burning desire to destroy Russia.

I had an eye-opening experience at a party held at the residence of the Georgian ambassador circa 1995 when I was visiting professor at American University in DC. Attending with my now deceased, first wife along with a friend working in the State Department on Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, who invited us, we were introduced to a woman staffer at State. When I mentioned that my wife was from Moscow (she was born and grew up in Latvia, was Jewish, and attended college in Moscow), this ‘diplomat’ went into a rude imitation of a ‘new Russian’ Muscovite woman gabbing on a telephone in a direct attempt to insult my wife.

A third structural issue for Gessen, which he raises through the words of one of the few real Russia and Eurasia experts remaining in Washington, Thomas Graham, is that Ukraine became part of the European division at State, weakening the Department’s Russia hand perspective on the issue during the Orange and Maidan ‘revolutions.’ It remains a mystery that US policymakers could not foresee Putin’s countermove in Crimea after the West backed the illegal seizure of power in February 2014 in violation of an agreement hammered out by the EU, Russia and Ukraine’s opposing sides. However, the fact is that the organizational structure of the State Department and others is a reflection of biases — a symptom of the disease – of geopolitical-civilizationalist constructs that lie at the ideological heart of US and Western policymaking circles. The West’s reading of global politics is centered around the McKinderian idea of a struggle for control of the Eurasian heartland—a struggle the West is by definition destined to wage against those who control it. Russia at the heart of Eurasia makes it the other party to the conflict. In addition, a cultural or civilizational layer has been laid over the geographical element of the struggle. With the evolution of somewhat different civilizational, cultural and political identities, Russia and the West by the 17th century became each other’s ‘constituent Other’, each defining itself in comparison and contrast to the other, sometimes in competition or opposition, sometimes in imitation and cooperation. The underlying Western motif is that Russia and its allies are culturally undeveloped and inferior Eurasian lands standing in the way of global Westernization, democratization, marketization, modernization, etc. This is the reason Ukraine, as Gessen notes, was placed under the European desk rather than the Eurasian desk at State, despite the fact that present-day Ukraine was built by the Bolsheviks and Stalin, has strong eastern Slavic roots, and portions of which were part of the pre-eminent eastern Slavic state, Russia, for centuries. The geopolitical-civilizational imperative also is the reason there is a Eurasian desk at State rather than, say, a post-communist desk. Might it be logical to delegate a separate desk to great powers – for example, China, India, Germany, and Russia? According to Graham in Gessen’s interview, Moscow was already in the late 1990s and early 2000s “a factor in almost all the major things the U.S. government did”? He should have said that Russia was a major factor.

Gessen accurately depicts the defeat of Russia hands with a more realist and comparative soft line towards Moscow by more hardline ‘internationalists’ as pivotal. His interviewees from the hardline camp portray the softliners as Russophiles but do so using coded language. They “sometimes let their emotions get the best of them,” according to Stephen Sestanovich, and they “take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization,” according to Fried. Yet the few realists, Washington-based of course, interviewed for Gessen’s project are like Sestanovich and Fried political scientists not the ‘emotional’ literature scholars Sestanovich claims. The latter claim seems overwrought to say the least. Many of the less hardline experts have a strong history and political science background, which allows them, for example, to understand that along with Russian imperialism there have been dangerous Western-sponsored episodes of imperialist ‘Westernization’ and ‘democracy-promotion’ targeting Russia and its environs going back centuries. These episodes had disastrous results for Russians that have deeply impacted the course of Russian history and Russians’ views of the ‘altruistic’ West bearing democratic cookies from ambitious state agents like Victoria Nuland. The first such episode preceded any Russian imperialism and set Russian strategic culture on its formative path. In the early 17th century the Vatican and its Polish allies endeavored to colonize Orthodox Russia for Catholicism by way of inserting a puppet leader on the Muscovite throne, leading to Russia’s catastrophic ‘Time of Troubles’ in which perhaps as much as 30 percent of Russia’s population died followed by nearly a century of strenuous efforts to re-establish Russian statehood and stability. A major cause of Russian ‘backwardness’ that might have been avoided had Russia been left to its own devices. Indeed, the Polish invasion under the False Dmitrii coincided with the death of Tsar Boris Godunov, who began initiating a series of Western-style reforms, which he terminated upon news of the Polish-Vatican conspiracy. Two centuries later Napoleon Bonaparte ravaged Russia in an invasion designed to bring ‘democracy’ to heathen Russia but instead put an end to Tsar Alexander I’s liberalization efforts. These efforts at building empires of liberty influenced the formation of Russian political and strategic culture to the detriment of trust in Westerners. The cultural echoes of these campaigns influenced Russia’s turn away from the West in this century precisely because Western efforts like NATO and EU expansion and opposition-promotion against Russia-friendly regimes resembled the imprint of this history on the Russian mind.

It is here that Gessen’s discussion of the effect of NATO expansion post-Cold War Russian-Western relations is more to the point. He comes close to explicitly explaining the quandary he poses at the outset of the article after introducing his central question as to why US-Russian relations have deteriorated despite supposed efforts in Washington to improve them. Gessen writes: “The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo, the George W. Bush years with the Russian bombing of Georgia and the Obama years with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.”

To be sure, the policy decision to enlarge NATO is the ultimate real cause of the persistent spiraling down in not just US-Russian but also Western-Russian realtions. We can understand that by ding a somewhat different chronology of US administration efforts than the one Gessen provides above. Why did X years end with the Russians doing such and such? Gessen’s model or construct is the US wants better relations, but Russia ends each US administration’s “years” ‘behaving badly.’ What were the intervening variables left out of his construct? Did US policy actually follow a line that could have improved relations with Russia? A realist construct gives the West agency. The relationship is not a matter of Washington wanting and Russia acting. Moscow, Washington, and (though less so) Brussels all have agency. The parties react to one another’s actions. Their political leaderships and strategic cultures interpret the others’ actions and along with institutional and public interests decide policy responses, beginning the cycle again and again.

Let us turn Gessen’s ‘US wants better – Russia does bad’ construct around a bit by looking at what the US and the West did before Russia behaved badly.

GESSEN’S CONSTRUCT: “The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo.”

REALIST CONSTRUCT: The Clinton years included the decision to expand NATO beyond reunited Germany breaking a post-Cold War Western promise made to Moscow as part of the compromises ending the Cold War that this would not be US or NATO policy. Therefore, the Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo. Gessen’s discussion of NATO expansion provides minimal depth, without mentioning the promise not to expand, without directly stating that NATO expansion may have been a cause of Russian angst and ‘acting badly’, and without discussing the details and result of the Kosovo debacle, which included the West’s violation of its own UN resolution on the Kosovo peacekeeping mission which stipulated the inviolability of Serbia’s territorial integrity. The watershed nature of the Western decision to expand world history’s most powerful military alliance to Russia’s borders deserves some mention of its causes. Something Gessen avoids or his editors deleted. If these factors are considered they would have brought Gessen’s narative much closer to the place where perhaps the main causes of Russian ‘bad behavior’ and Cold War 2.0 lie.
So, why was NATO expanded? There are other explanations that go far beyond the simple victory of hardliners over soft-liners beginning with the decision to enlarge NATO beyond reunited Germany. There are numerous: (1) The West’s refusal to compromise in any substantive way whatsoever in order to take into account Russian interests as part of its greater play to control the Eurasian ‘Heartland’ (e.g., delaying expansion while trying to bring Russia into NATO in any first round, seeking a more comprehensive European security architecture that would go beyond sole reliance on NATO, pursuing a NATO-CSTO alliance); (2) the NATO bureaucracy’s search for a new mission after the reason for its existence – Cold War 1.0 – ended; (3) the lobbying of the defense (and energy) industry; (4) the lobbying of the ethnic Polish and Ukrainian diasporas; (5) Bill Clinton’s political need to compensate for his lack of national security credentials (he avoided the Vietnam War draft, was an anti-war protester, and a Democrat) left him open to expanding NATO as a domestic political lever; (6) some believed that NATO expansion would be an insurance policy against a resurgent Russia; (7) some sought to use NATO to avoid conflict in Europe which could be generated not just by Russia but by the Europeans (the only cause Gessen discusses); (8) Clinton’s lack of experience and a geostrategic vision, a vacuum filled by representatives of the NATO bureaucracy, defense industry, and ethnic diasporas who each in their own way needed NATO expansion for either pecuniary or vengeful interests; and (9) bureaucratic politics in a more comprehensive way than reflected in Gessen’s discussion.

GESSEN CONSTRUCT: “(T)he George W. Bush years (ended) with the Russian bombing of Georgia.”

REALIST CONSTRUCT: The Bush administration sought to improve relations with Russia solely on its own terms of continuing NATO expansion and democracy-promotion. It supported the Baltic states inclusion in NATO bringing NATO for the first time to Russia’s borders. Simultaneously, it supported anti-Russian opposition movements in Georgia and Ukraine and issued through NATO the pronouncement that Georgia and Ukraine will someday be NATO members, something that would bring NATO to Russia’s western and southwestern borders. As a result, Georgian and Ukrainian anti-Russian opposition groups seized power in street-backed revolts led by opposition regime factions. Washington and Brussels deepened Georgian cooperation with NATO and did little to deter Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from reintegrating Georgia’s breakaway republics of Ajaria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetiya. Saakashvili invaded South Ossetiya in August 2008. The ‘Russian bombing of Georgia’ followed. But Washington and Brussels falsely claimed that Russia had invaded first and blamed the war entirely on Russia. [PS – During the Obama administration, an EU commission report acknowledged Saakashvili started the war and that the NATO-tied Georgian army like the Russian army and Ossetian irregulars had committed war crimes. The Bush administration also pulled out of the ABM Treaty to build an anti-missile defense system around Russia’s perimeter. When the latter was claimed by Moscow, the US claimed the system was to target Iranian nuclear missiles.]

GESSEN CONSTRUCT: “(T)he Obama years (ended) with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.”

REALIST CONSTRUCT: During the Obama Administration, NATO repeatedly declared that Georgia and Ukraine will one day be NATO members. The Obama Administration and its private and non-profit sector allies in the US and Europe spent billions of dollars to organize opposition against the slightly Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych government in Ukraine; a regime that had stepped up Kiev’s participation in NATO programs. When Yanukovych delayed signing an EU association agreement, pro-EU demonstrations turned into a potential peaceful evolution, which was hijacked by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists with close ties to Ukrainian diaspora circles in the US and Canada. These ultra-nationalists organized a false flag snipers operation led by several Maidan regime officials that targeted both demonstrators and police in order to exacerbate tensions and chaos for their own violent overthrow of Yanukovych, which forced the legally elected Ukrainian president to flee for his life. Despite leaked statements of suspicions that the Maidan protesters were behind the massacre made by an EU and Estonian official, the issue has been swept under the rug and kept under tight wraps in Western mainstream and other media and Western governments continue to foster the lie that Yanukovych deployed the Berkut riot police to shoot at the demonstrators, killing over 100.

In terms of hacking to interfere in the other side’s domestic politics, there is still no proof Russians hacked the DNC or otherwise had any influence on the US presidential election whatsoever. Moreover, while the Obama Administration was putting in motion its ‘reset’ to improve relations, it was simultaneously not just supporting NATO and EU expansion and AMD deployments, it was also offering Russian opposition forces high technology means, such as the ‘Tor Project’ to fight the Putin regime. In 2008, weeks before the Russian presidential election and as the newly-minted Obama Administration was drafting its ‘reset’ with Russia, the US government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) got directly involved in opposition-promotion in Russia by attempting to deploy “the BBG’s most sophisticated Internet Freedom weapon” against Moscow [see Yasha Levine, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet (New York: Public Affairs, 2018), p. 236]. It did so through one of its fundees, Roger Dingledine – a long-time Silicon Valley, government-tied venture capitalist, whose projects often allowed US government law enforcement, intelligence and military agencies access to Americans’ and foreigners’ personal data. From its inception, Dingledine had been involved heavily in the Tor Project, which billed itself as an Internet freedom device. A former NSA intern, he shepherded the Tor project from its infancy as device to mask US government agencies’ monitoring of Internet activity. It was developed with Dingledine’s supervision under a US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) contract at the Naval Research Laboratory. However, the early version was flawed in that it was a system to the government and could not hide the fact that CIA or FBI operatives were the source. So in 2004 Dingledine spun the government encryption ‘onion’ routing project in a nonprofit corporation, the Tor Project and continued to receive Pentagon (DARPA and navy) funding while seeking private investors. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a Silicon advocacy group and “staunch critic of government surveillance programs” which oddly also had a long record of working with US law enforcement and the military and the co-founder of which, Perry Barlow, had long been consulting US intelligence agencies. In 1994 it had helped the FBI pass through Congress the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act requiring all telecommunications companies to construct their hardware so it can be wiretapped by the FBI. In 1999, EFF supported NATO’s bombing campaign in Kosovo with the “Kosovo Privacy Project” to keep the region’s Internet access open during the fighting. The EFF’s endorsement gave the Tor Project cover and failed to mention its government funding in its cooperation announcement. In February 2006, the BBG decided to fund the ‘independent’ Tor Project and promised Dingledine that Tor’s government funding would kept a cose secret. Tor came to be used and touted as a freedom weapon of encryption for blocking US government agencies from access to one’s presence on the Internet used by US radicals like Dread Pirate Roberts and Silk Road, later Edward Snowden, among many others. Although Tor was against foreign governments, it contained a design flaw that actually allowed it to be overcome by US government agencies [Levine, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, pp. 224-35].

In February 2008 at the BBG’s behest, Dingledine as part of his “Russian Deployment Plan” made an offer by email to a “Russian privacy activist named Vlad.” “Vlad was glad to hear from Dingledine. He knew about Tor and was a fan of the technology, but he had doubts about the plan. He explained that censorship was not currently an issue in Russia.” Rather, “self-censorship of many websites, especially of regional organizations” was the problem. Moreover, Vlad said that “he and others in Russia’s privacy community were concerned about what he described as Tor’s ‘dependence on “Uncle Sam’s” money’ and that ‘some sponsors of the Tor Project are associated with the US State Department.’” Tor, as Levine notes, “was operating as a de facto arm of the US government,” when it reached out to Russia’s opposition on the eve of the ‘reset’[Levine, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, pp. 236-7]. Vlad was right to be concerned. Internal Tor Project correspondence shows “strategy sessions and discussions of how to influence news coverage and control bad press.” Moreover, it shows “Tor employees taking orders from their handlers in the federal government, including plans to deploy their anonymity tool in countries deemed hostile to US interests: China, Iran, Vietnam, and, of course, Russia.” Moreover, it [Levine, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, pp. 238].

Therefore, not just with NATO expansion but in many other areas – EU expansion, color revolution opposition-promotion, arms control — the US bureaucracy continued to carry out policies ignoring Russian interests or intended to push Russia where Washington wanted it to go. In some cases, administrations’ right hands were working at cross purposes with their left hands. This was in part a result of the first cause and an attempt to mask it. It was also in part the result of anti-Russian hawks working the bureaucracy to carry out policies they preferred when the White House sought to avoid conflict. The contradictions appeared to the already cynical Kremlin as Western hypocrisy, deception and cleverness, given history’s lessons and the leadership’s own biases. In some cases, they were just that; in others, not. What mattered is that the reality was too close to Russians’ default perception of Western untrustworthiness. Putin became even more cynical and therefore dismissive of Western views and more brazen in his responses to Western slights.

Most of the causes of NATO expansion – particularly those relevant to staffing of US government departments and Washington think tanks that work with them — contributed and continue to contribute to the making of America’s Russia policy and the deepening of Cold War 2.0. Former NATO and defense industry officials as well as their ‘private sector’ fundees and biased diaspora scholars abound in these institutions and control the expert advice that shapes the US foreign policy agenda. Gessen needs to dig a bit deeper, but this is the New York Times and the NYT printing about ‘Putin’s Russia’ after all.

It is nevertheless a credit to Gessen and a surprise from the NYT’s typical practice of blaming the breakdown in US-Russian relations entirely on Moscow or in its usually childish fashion on Putin. The latter misnomer can be dismissed rather easily. The first open break over NATO expansion came on 1 December 1994, when Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev traveled to Brussels to sign a Partnership for Peace agreement with the alliance but instead refused to sign in protest of a NATO communique` released earlier that day proclaiming a policy of NATO expansion. Four days later, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin protested against attempts “from a single capitol”—(that is, Washington)—to decide “the destinies of whole continents and the world community as a whole” and warned this was pushing Europe “into a cold peace” [Coit D. Blacker, “Russia and the West,” in Michael Mandelbaum, ed., The New Russian Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.: Council of Foreign Relations, 1998), pp. 167-93, at pp. 179-80]. That Yeltsin sounded precisely like his successor would after the latter witnessed a decade more of NATO expansion demonstrates that the worsening of U.S.-Russian relations has more to do with that expansion than with Putin’s arrival to power.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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About Gordon M. Hahn