During two decades, on and off, reporting in Russia and the post-Soviet states — in the turbulent ’90s, the wealthy but depressing aughts and finally during the eruption of violence in Ukraine — I occasionally heard people talk about how “the Americans” wanted this or that political outcome. The events in Ukraine demonstrated, or seemed to demonstrate, that behind the visible facade of changing presidents and changing policy statements and changing styles, “the Americans” were actually a small core of officials who not only executed policy but also effectively determined it. The continuing wars in Ukraine and Syria, the apparent Russian campaign of targeted assassinations on foreign soil, the widening gyre of sanctions and countersanctions and the still-festering question of Russian meddling in the 2016 election have made for the worst relations between the two countries since the 1980s. Understanding how to get out of this mess will require understanding how we got into it. There may be no better place to start than with the people inside the American government who have been working on the subject since 1991 — the Russia hands.
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.
Some Russia observers argue that this pattern of failure is a result of Russian intransigence and revisionism. But others believe that the intransigent and unchanging one in the relationship is the United States — that the country has never gotten past the idea that it “won” the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life.
Last summer, a few months after the inauguration of President Trump, I began 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. I interviewed 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.
The government, as a rule, discourages specialization: Military officers and diplomats are constantly transferred from one post to another, from one region to the next. Still, specialists do emerge. Many but not all Russia hands have Ph.D.’s — in Russian history or political science or security studies. Others got their graduate education on the job. Nuland worked on the Soviet fishing trawler; Daniel Fried, her eventual close collaborator at the State Department, spent a semester as a live-in babysitter for an American Embassy family in Moscow. “Seeing Communism up close cures you of all your left-liberal illusions that the Cold War is a misunderstanding that can be cured through arms control and détente,” Fried says. “Communism up close is very ugly.” Some Russia hands started out as civil servants or military officers, others as academics pulled into government service after working as advisers on political campaigns.
The Russia hands have clear generational characteristics. Those who came of age at the height of the Cold War worked on Russia because it was America’s most important foreign-policy problem. Many of those who finished graduate school or officer-training school in the late ’80s or early ’90s bear the scars of having studied a subject that became seemingly irrelevant overnight. In 1989, Peter Zwack, now a retired brigadier general, was a young military-intelligence officer stationed in Germany, taking Russian language and politics courses. “I was waiting for them to come through the Fulda Gap,” he says, referring to a section of West Germany through which NATO planners expected the Soviets to push large mechanized formations. “We were outmanned. I thought we were outgunned.” But the Soviets never came, and for the next 20 years Zwack worked in the Balkans, then Afghanistan and South Korea, before finally returning to Russia in 2012 as defense attaché to the American Embassy.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had to staff 14 new embassies in the post-Soviet republics. Many of the Foreign Service officers who emerged from these postings did so with a somewhat jaundiced view of Russia. “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.”
Finally, there is the younger generation, those 40 and under. These Russia hands are for the moment a rarer species. “If you were an ambitious young Foreign Service officer after 9/11, you wanted to get sent to some reconstruction team in Afghanistan or Iraq,” says Andrew Weiss, who worked on Russia at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and now runs the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You wanted to learn Arabic. If you were ambitious, you did not want to go to the embassy in Ukraine.”
As in other foreign-policy sectors, the Russia hands divide less along party lines than along foreign-policy philosophies: They are either “realists” or “internationalists.” Realists tend to be cautious about American overseas commitments and deferential toward state sovereignty; internationalists tend to be more inclined to universalist ideals like democracy and human rights, even where these are forced to cross borders. But the two supposed categories are blurred by a thousand factors, not least of which being that realists don’t like being called realists, because it suggests that they have no values, and internationalists don’t like to be called internationalists, as opposed to realists, because it suggests that they have no common sense. In the end, a vast internationalist middle, consisting of neoconservative Republicans and interventionist Democrats, predominates, with tiny slices of hard realists on the right and soft realists, or “neorealists,” on the left. And there are many shades of difference among all these people.
The longtime Russia hand Stephen Sestanovich, a veteran of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, says there are two kinds of Russia hands — those who came to Russia through political science and those who came to it through literature. The literature hands, he suggests, sometimes let their emotions get the best of them, while the political-science hands, like Sestanovich, are more cool and collected. Fried, who served in every administration from Carter to Obama, also thinks there are two kinds of Russia hands, though he draws a different dividing line: There are those, like himself, who “put Russia in context, held up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” These people tend to be tough on Russia. And then there are those “who take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization.” These people tend to give Russia what Fried would consider a pass.
Then there are those, like Michael Kofman, a young Kiev-born military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va., who say that there only appear to be two kinds of Russia hands. “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”
There are two kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there are six kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there is an infinite variety of Russia hands. And yet the mystery is this: After all the many different Russia hands who have served in the United States government, the country’s relations with Russia are as they have always been — bad.
The Cold War ended with a bang in the U.S.S.R. — new countries were forged, the ghosts of the past were confronted, a McDonald’s opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. In the United States, there was also much hope. A sometime Russia hand named Francis Fukuyama, then deputy director of policy planning at the State Department, even wrote an essay in which he wondered if we were entering a new post-historical era, when the great questions of how to order society had been settled and all would live in a stable, if boring, peace.
The first high-level Russia hand of the post-Cold War era was a man named Nelson Strobridge Talbott III, or Strobe for short. The scion of a prosperous Ohio family (his grandfather, the first Nelson Strobridge Talbott, was captain of the Yale football team in 1914), Talbott followed his forefathers to Yale, where he studied Russian literature and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. There he found himself rooming with a wonky, gregarious Georgetown graduate named Bill Clinton. Talbott remained interested in Russia, writing his master’s thesis on Mayakovsky, translating Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs and then becoming a foreign correspondent — and eventually a columnist — for Time magazine. He was the first journalist to track down and interview Joseph Brodsky upon his exile to the West in 1972. “Looks like we lucked out,” Brodsky wrote in his diary. “He’s read me.” Talbott’s fundamental view of the U.S.S.R. was that it could be reasoned with; in the pages of Time, he regularly praised the virtues of arms control and détente, and was despised for it by more ardent Cold Warriors. When Clinton was elected president, Talbott came on to advise his old roommate on what Clinton believed to be his most pressing foreign-policy concern: the transformation of Russia into a viable, American-friendly democracy on the eastern edge of Europe.
Things did not turn out that way, and most of the reasons were internal to Russia. But the United States was not without its share of blame. The economic advice dispensed by the gurus of what was known as the Washington Consensus weakened an already vulnerable Russian state. Average Russian citizens saw their living standards and life expectancies drop. It was Talbott who offered one of the pithier critiques of the doctrine known as “shock therapy”: What the Russian people wanted, Talbott said, “was less shock and more therapy.” The remark led to one of the stormiest passages of his political career.
But he weathered it. During his tenure, the United States made one of the most momentous foreign-policy choices of the post-1991 era: the decision to expand NATO eastward, first into the former countries of the Warsaw Pact, then into the former republics of the Soviet Union itself. Talbott at first was opposed, or at least, as he now puts it, “deeply riven.” On one hand, the Eastern European countries, some of which were now led by heroic former dissidents, wanted very much to join the military alliance; on the other, the Russians warned Talbott — “with a mirthless smile,” as he later recalled — that NATO was to them a “four-letter word.” If the Cold War was really over, as the Americans kept saying it was, why expand a Cold War military alliance set up expressly to deter and contain the Soviet Union? But as much as Talbott loved Russia, there were clear advantages to securing the West’s gains. “If the leadership of a country has any view but the following,” Talbott told me last summer, “it’s not going to be the leadership of that county for very long. And that is: We do what we can in our own interest.” But the NATO question, Talbott admitted, was complicated. “Should we have had a higher, wiser concept of our real interests that would require us to hold back on what many people would say is our own current interest?”
At the time the debate was taking place — 1993 and 1994 — much of the State Department and the Pentagon took the anti-expansion view, arguing that it would needlessly antagonize Russia at a difficult moment in its post-Communist journey and that the alliance was unwieldy enough without incorporating three fledgling Eastern European democracies (not to mention, eventually, Romania). But there were some who disagreed. A small working group at RAND produced a report arguing for NATO expansion as key to the future of Eastern Europe. “We talked to the Poles, and they said: ‘If you don’t let us into NATO, we’re getting nuclear weapons. We don’t trust the Russians,’ ” one of the report’s authors, a former Air Force officer and Pentagon strategist named Richard L. Kugler, told me. “Then we talked to the Germans. They said: ‘The line of contact with the Russians now runs through Warsaw. If you don’t defend it, we will.’ We had a vision of a nuclear-armed Poland being fortified by German troops facing off with the Russians — I don’t think anyone wanted that!” The report was laughed at and rejected in some quarters — a State Department official supposedly threw it in the trash in front of one of its authors — but Fried, then at the National Security Council, started using it to lobby inside the administration for a more robust approach to expansion. Talbott initially resisted, but he and Clinton soon came around.
The decision on NATO was essentially made by early 1994, but it would take some years before the first countries joined the alliance, and in the meantime, relations between Russia and the United States steadily declined: Russia was angered by the NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb positions in 1995, by the American insistence that the Russians stop the sale of nuclear technology to Iran and especially by the 1999 NATO bombing — just a few weeks after the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland finally joined the alliance — of Belgrade. That conflict almost expanded when a small contingent of Russian troops seized the Pristina airport in Kosovo. If a British officer named James Blunt had not refused to act on an order from Gen. Wesley Clark to clear the airport, things might have turned out a lot worse. Blunt went on to fame as a rock musician with the hit song “You’re Beautiful,” but the Russia-United States relationship remained precarious.
The damage, in any case, was done. “We were so excited about the spread of democracy and the collapse of Communism,” says Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There were all these countries saying, ‘Yes, please, take us into NATO with weapons that you’ll give us to defend ourselves from the Russians, who are going to be coming like they always do.’ And we said, ‘Well, the Russians aren’t coming, but yes, please, join us in democracy.’
“But the Russians took it as a sign that we were still against them. It was really hard to walk back from. From there on out, we were doing things that we kept saying, ‘We’re not doing this to hurt you,’ and that the Russians felt hurt them. We didn’t do it because we wanted to hurt them. We did it because we didn’t care if it hurt them.”
In the case of the centrist, Democratic Clinton administration, you might say that it was always going to be torn between hard internationalists like Fried and soft internationalists like Talbott. But what about the George W. Bush administration, which staffed itself with self-described realists? The answer turned out to be: more of the same. The main Russia hand in the Bush White House was Thomas Graham, a quiet, intense, scholarly former State Department official who was described by a colleague as “the smartest Russia hand ever produced by the Foreign Service.” Graham was known for his prickly independence. As a political officer at the United States Embassy in Moscow in the 1990s, he became so frustrated with the White House’s approach to Russia that he published a repudiation of it in a Russian newspaper, under his own name. But on Graham’s watch, the relationship soured even more. The United States invaded Iraq despite Russian objections; vocally supported the popular uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, known as the Rose and Orange Revolutions; and then, in Georgia, gave moral and material support to the flamboyantly anti-Russian administration of Mikheil Saakashvili, who in turn sent troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the coalition in Iraq.
Factors external to Russia played a role here: The Sept. 11 attacks refocused American foreign policy around counterterrorism. “We had a long period of inattention because of the war on terror,” Weiss says. “It was a long period where anyone who banged his fist on the table and said: ‘Mr. President! Mr. President! Drop everything you’re doing killing bin Laden’s inner circle! We need to talk to you because Vladimir Putin is mad about blah blah blah!’ You can imagine how that did not rate.”
But it wasn’t just the fight against terrorism. The Soviet Union’s collapse and Russia’s subsequent weakness reconfigured the entire process of American decision-making. When I asked Graham about the decline in relations on his watch, he delivered a soliloquy about bureaucracy.
“The way the N.S.C. is structured,” he began, “the way the State Department is structured, is through a series of regional and functional bureaus. The question is always, Who takes the lead?” In Soviet times, when the entire foreign policy of the United States was oriented around countering the Soviet threat, the Russia hands frequently took the lead. In the post-Soviet era, with an increasingly irrelevant Russia, the reverse was true. “Russia was unique in that it’s a country that was a factor in almost all the major things the U.S. government did, but it wasn’t in any place the most important factor. So you’re working on missile defense: Russia is clearly an important player in missile defense. But that process is not led by the person who’s responsible for Russia policy; it’s led by the person who’s responsible for nonproliferation policy. If you come to energy, Russia is obviously an important player in global energy markets, but Russia is not the most important player in global energy markets. That’s the Saudis and OPEC. So when you come to an energy issue, the people who are in charge of energy run that.”
The same was true of the states of the former Soviet Union, which were now independent and the province of different regional desks at the State Department and the N.S.C. The most damaging episode in United States-Russia relations during Graham’s time at the N.S.C. was American cheerleading for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004 and early 2005. Graham argued that the Russians saw the “color revolutions,” as the Rose and Orange Revolutions were known, as an outgrowth of American policy and feared that regime change would be coming to Russia next. But freedom was on the march, Graham was told: “ ‘All we’re doing is promoting democracy.’ ”
“But you’re the Russia expert,” I said.
“But Ukraine is not a Russia issue,” he said. “It’s a Ukrainian issue. There’s a bureau for European affairs that overseas Ukrainian issues.”
During the Orange Revolution, the Europe desk at the N.S.C. was run by Fried.
“My main contribution,” Graham summed up, “was preventing things from being worse than they could have been.”
Credit Photo illustration by John Gall. Source photos from Getty Images.
Graham left government in 2007. Fried, his sometime nemesis, had become assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia and continued to push vocal American support of Western-leaning governments in former Soviet states, Georgia in particular. Nuland was the American ambassador to NATO. In April 2008, at a NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, the alliance announced over strong Russian objections that it intended to eventually admit Georgia and Ukraine. Four months later, deteriorating security conditions in South Ossetia, Georgia, provoked an emboldened Saakashvili into an attack on the breakaway region. Russian forces intervened, crushing the Georgian Army in less than a week.
The Georgian debacle — in which a non-NATO American ally was defeated by Russia and the United States was left with no plausible response — represented a low point. But the relationship was about to get much worse.
The next president, Barack Obama, was the rare American politician with a sense of the fallibility of American power. He opposed the Iraq war and spoke honestly about the crimes of the American empire. Yet he was also divided in his mind. A realist in most of his foreign-policy leanings, Obama chose as his chief Russia hand a Stanford political-science professor named Michael McFaul.
McFaul had spent years visiting Russia and writing about it. He was a Russophile, an advocate of more cooperative relations and a critic of the Bush administration’s unilateralism: in all this, a good fit for Obama. But he was also an avid internationalist and democracy promoter, who had speculated in a widely circulated 2005 essay on the seven “factors for success” required for color revolution — the implication being that more such revolutions were necessary and desirable. In 2008, McFaul proposed a “reset” in relations between the two countries. This became the administration’s policy, and for a while it worked. A new arms-control agreement was negotiated. Dmitri Medvedev, who succeeded Putin as president in early 2008, toured Silicon Valley. Russia joined the World Trade Organization. And a sprawling supply chain, called the Northern Distribution Network, was established to move supplies through Russia to NATO troops in Afghanistan. The existence of an alternate route gave the United States some leeway in its dealings with Pakistan. When Pakistan cut off the supply route in Afghanistan not long after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, NATO simply sent more through Russia.
But relations with Russia soon soured. The more liberal Medvedev years created an expectation on the part of some Russians that the country would open up; when Medvedev announced in 2011 that he was stepping aside, that Putin would be returning to the presidency and that this is what they had planned all along, there was a feeling of grievous disappointment. Three months later, spurred by a number of blatant falsifications in the national Duma elections, this disappointment erupted into the largest protests of the post-Soviet period. Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, voiced approval for the protests and expressed “serious concerns” about the voting irregularities. Her comments fed the Kremlin’s fears that the United States was somehow behind the demonstrations. McFaul, who arrived as ambassador to Russia in the midst of the protest wave, inflamed the situation further by taking a meeting with opposition leaders. He was never forgiven by the Russian authorities, who proceeded to harass him and his family and denounce him whenever possible as a foreign spy.
From there, the relationship grew increasingly strained. In the words of Paul Stronski, a Russia hand who joined the N.S.C. in 2012: “I was brought in to do reset, Part 2. Instead, I got Magnitsky, Snowden and Ukraine.” Magnitsky was the Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on individuals engaged in human rights violations and corruption and was inspired by the death in prison of a Russian tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested after uncovering a huge corruption scheme. Snowden was Edward Snowden, who turned up in Moscow after orchestrating perhaps the most significant leak of American government documents since the Pentagon Papers. And Ukraine was, of course, Ukraine.
Ukraine was a catastrophe two decades in the making. Its government was as corrupt and ineffectual as any in the post-Soviet space; it produced neither oil nor gas to serve as a financial cushion, and it was divided between a Russian-leaning east and a Europe-leaning west. To make matters worse, it was also the host, at Sevastopol, of the Russian Black Sea fleet, whose long-term lease, during times of tension, tended to become a political football.
In the summer of 2013, with the shock of Snowden’s turning up in Moscow still fresh, Russian officials started making noise about an “association agreement” that Ukraine was about to sign with the European Union. To the Russians, the proposed agreement was a rejection of their own cherished customs’ union, the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as a concrete step toward European integration for a country with which it had profound, centuries-old connections. And European integration, the Russians believed, would eventually mean NATO membership: hostile troops on the Russian border and an end to the lease for the Russian fleet.
McFaul, still in Moscow, was one of the people to whom the Russians took these complaints. By his own account, he was dismissive of their concerns. First of all, he said, it wasn’t Russia’s business what Ukraine signed or didn’t sign. And second, he didn’t think the Russians should get all worked up. “We’re talking about an association agreement,” he told me. “That’s expansion of the E.U. maybe in the year 2040, 2050? Ask the Turks about their association agreement.” (Turkey signed a similar agreement with the E.U. in 1963 and still has not become a member.) It was just a piece of paper. But the Russians didn’t seem to think so. And neither, it would turn out, did the Ukrainians. When Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, under intense Russian pressure, pulled out of the accord with the Europeans, people took to the streets.
Ukraine was a Ukraine issue, not a Russia issue, and so the burden of dealing with the expanding crisis there fell in the laps of a newly appointed ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, and the newly appointed assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, the old Russia hand Victoria Nuland.
The daughter of Sherwin Nuland, the surgeon and Yale bioethicist, she fell in love with Russian culture after seeing a performance of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” when she was 12; she studied Russian history and politics at Brown, worked at a Soviet children’s camp and after that for an embassy family in Moscow. Then, eager for adventure and contact with real-live Russians, she did her tour on the Soviet fishing vessel (for seven months, not one). That experience taught her something about the planned economy: After 25 days of drinking and card-playing, the crew did five days of hard work to meet their monthly targets. She also says she learned “how to drink 10 shots of vodka and still get back to my cabin and put a chair under the doorknob. Things could get a little hairy when the boys were drunk.”
She entered the Foreign Service in 1984. Over a long and eventful career, she witnessed the defense of the Russian White House during the attempted hard-line coup against Mikhail Gorbachev; served as Talbott’s chief of staff during the chaotic ’90s; worked as Dick Cheney’s deputy national security adviser in the years after Sept. 11 but “before Cheney became Cheney,” as she put it; and served as the State Department spokeswoman under Hillary Clinton. She was known inside successive administrations as a Russia hawk, but when asked if she hated the country, she drew a distinction between “Russian culture and the Russian people,” which she loves, and the Soviet strain she sees in Putin’s Russia, which she does not. “I deplore the way successive governments in Moscow — Soviet and Russian — have abused their own people, ripped them off, constrained their choices and made us the enemy to mask their own failings,” Nuland says. Hearing her speak with such conviction about governments that, in at least one case, no longer existed, you could understand how she had been over the years a very effective advocate inside several American administrations for her point of view.
In December 2013, with the protests in the center of Kiev just a few weeks old, Nuland traveled to Moscow and then to Kiev to try to defuse the crisis that had engulfed the Yanukovych government. She made little progress with the Kremlin, which was of the opinion that Yanukovych should simply clear the protesters from the streets. On her first night in Kiev, she was woken by members of her staff. The riot police brought out to contain the protests had formed a ring around them and were closing in. The demonstrators were desperately singing patriotic songs to keep up their spirits, but they were in mortal danger. Nuland got on the phone with Washington and worked to release a statement in Secretary of State John Kerry’s name, expressing “disgust” at the move on peaceful protesters. “After that,” Nuland says, “the singing grew louder”; the demonstrators on the square, she told me, were holding their phones in the air, “displaying the Kerry statement in Ukrainian and Russian.” The riot troops backed off.
The next morning, Nuland was to meet with Yanukovych. But first she wanted to visit the protest encampment, which, two weeks into its existence, had grown in both scope and moral authority. “In accordance with Slavic tradition, I wanted to bring something,” Nuland says. She took a large plastic bag filled with treats. Alongside Pyatt, she handed them out to the protesters, and thus was born one of the iconic images of the Ukraine crisis, immediately and widely circulated by the Kremlin’s media apparatuses — a powerful official, not a famous politician like Senator John McCain or Secretary of State John Kerry but a representative of the supposedly more neutral American policymaking bureaucracy, succoring revolutionaries in the center of Kiev. (Nuland points out that they also gave food to the riot police.) Two months later, as the Yanukovych government entered its terminal phase, Nuland’s “[Expletive] the E.U.” comment leaked out. For many Russians and Europeans, the line became emblematic of American arrogance.
A few weeks later, Yanukovych fled the country, and Russian troops annexed Crimea. In tandem with Fried, who had taken the newly established position of sanctions coordinator at the State Department, Nuland began drafting harsh sanctions against Putin’s inner circle, individuals involved in the invasion of Ukraine and eventually large Russian companies and banks. Fried told me that one senior State Department official thought this was pretty funny. He said to Fried, “Do the Russians realize that the two hardest-line people in the entire U.S. government are now in a position to go after them?”
The Russians may have realized this perfectly well. According to American intelligence agencies, two years after the sanctions went into effect, the Russians started feeding emails stolen from the servers of the Democratic National Committee to WikiLeaks and helping with their distribution.
Michael Kimmage is a soft-spoken professor of American intellectual history with a focus on the Cold War and an interest in Russia. In 2014, seized by what he says his wife still calls a midlife crisis, he left academia for a two-year fellowship on the policy-planning staff at the State Department. “I imagined showing up there and writing a memo that would change the course of history,” Kimmage recalls. “Then when I got there, I learned it wasn’t really like that. It’s much more like a Stendhal novel.” That is to say, both grand and comically banal. “You might have a brilliant idea, but then you have to go find out if it’s already being done. That takes a while. Then you find out it’s already being done. And it doesn’t work.”
Kimmage nonetheless found the experience enlightening, and he came away with the feeling that a lot of what the American government did had deep and sometimes invisible ideological sources. The apparent final triumph of liberal democracy in Europe in 1989 produced two powerful strains in American internationalist foreign-policy thinking, according to Kimmage — one radical, the other moderate. The radical strain, associated with the neocons, called for a universal democratization, by force if need be. This strain was (mostly) discredited in Iraq. But the other strain, which aimed to spread American-style democracy as far east as possible into Eurasia, has never been discredited. It is close to being the conventional wisdom in Washington, and it is carried forth, Kimmage suggests, by a certain sort of young person, typically a graduate of Yale or Georgetown, “who believes — perhaps by definition — in the virtues of American power.”
And yet there is, within the Russia-hand community, a small countervailing tendency. This new generation of Russia hands is deeply skeptical of the missionary impulse that has characterized American policy toward Russia for so long. Oliker is one, Kimmage another. There is also the military analyst Michael Kofman, at the Center for Naval Analyses, and Samuel Charap, at RAND, whose recent book on the events leading to the war in Ukraine, “Everyone Loses,” written with the Harvard political scientist Timothy Colton, lays out week by week the way in which American, European and Russian policy in 2012 and 2013 pushed Ukraine into a zero-sum choice, leading eventually to the collapse of the government and the dismemberment of the country. And there are others, some who prefer not to be named.
Despite some differences in politics, all are seeking a less chauvinistic approach to Russia policy. They are disgusted by American failures and want them to end. “I find the past 17 years of continuous warfare to be abnormal and abhorrent,” one of them wrote in an email. “It’s a real reflection on our policy community that they have placed their nation in this position.” In the harsh climate of Washington opinion, where an errant editorial could come back in the form of an angry senator reading it aloud at your confirmation hearing, they do what they can to push back. As a group, they have opposed sending weapons to Ukraine as an unnecessary escalation of the proxy war there — “We just lost a proxy war in Syria!” Kofman cried. “Why do we expect to do better in Ukraine?” — and are concerned about the current hype over a potential Russian incursion into the Baltics. Kofman compared American worries about a Russian invasion of the Baltics to equally far-fetched Russian worries about an American move into Belarus. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’ve never heard anyone in Washington say: ‘Wow, Belarus. That’s real prime real estate. We should get that.’ By the same token, the Russians are amazed that we think they want to take the Baltics. They just find it incredible. They’re going to go into the Baltics — which they have no use for — and take on the world’s pre-eminent military alliance? It’s crazy.”
There is also a strong bureaucratic incentive to exaggerate the threat. “You might say it’s provided a new imperative to parts of the Pentagon that used to be focused on counterinsurgency in unpleasant places like Helmand Province” in Afghanistan, one skeptical Russia hand said. “Sitting in the Baltic States or Poland or Germany is a lot more pleasant. It’s kayf,” he said, using a Russian word meaning, approximately, “bliss.”
Kofman believes that some form of conventional deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank is useful, but he worries that it can turn into what international relations theorists call a “security dilemma,” wherein the actions you take to increase your security cause your adversary to feel threatened, so that it takes steps to increase its security, forcing you in turn to take further steps to increase yours, and so on, until war. “You have to be very careful where you put forces,” Kofman said. “You can’t start stacking units 20 minutes from St. Petersburg. Keep in mind Russia is the world’s pre-eminent Eurasian land power. They can put more ground forces in Russia, because that’s where they happen to live, than you can put in the Baltics, because that’s not where you live. That’s not a tough competition.”
These young Russia hands find the current political and news attention to Russia deeply frustrating, even as its sources are no mystery to them.
“I’m a Democrat,” said one Russia hand who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that he could comment openly. “And Russia contributed to the defeat of Secretary Clinton and, frankly, to our current national tragedy. It’s hard for me not to think about that.
“But the Democrats see this as a political opening. And the conversation has moved into politics. They don’t want to know what’s actually happening or what we should actually do. They want to beat Trump with this Russia thing.”
Oliker, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, makes a similar point: “It used to be you could explain things to people at great length and with nuance, and they would say: ‘Oh, how interesting. You’ve explained it so well, and now I understand better where the Russians are coming from.’ Of course,” she added, “they wouldn’t do any of it, because Russia was secondary or tertiary, and no one cared about Russia.
“Now everyone cares about Russia, and there’s no nuance.”
Charap, at RAND, says that the postelection political climate has made it impossible to work with Russia even on issues that would benefit both sides. “When the U.S. and Russia work together, they can accomplish things no two other countries can. The only reason we were able to kill bin Laden is that the Northern Distribution Network was set up! McFaul did that. And he had to deal with a lot of people saying: ‘Why are we talking to these people? They’re never going to stick to their agreements.’
“Even I was told once: ‘We don’t want to be chasing Russia.’ What is this, dating?”
The difference between these Russia hands and most others is less their analysis of Russia than their analysis of America. According to Oliker, what the United States should be focusing on is “managing hegemonic decline.” America’s vast overseas commitments need to be scaled down bit by bit, in a slow and responsible process. The amount of money spent on the United States military should be brought in line with historical norms and recalibrated to the country’s actual defense needs. Diplomacy (cheap, effective), rather than military might (expensive, deadly, counterproductive), needs to become America’s primary means of interacting with the world. So far, Oliker points out, the Trump administration is largely doing the opposite.
As for Russia, it’s a threat that needs to be handled, not exaggerated. “We have to talk to them,” Oliker says. “If we don’t talk to them, things are going to get a lot worse. Yes, they hacked our election. Did they invade Ukraine? Yup, they did that. But we talk to countries that do bad things all the time. We have to talk to them, and as we’re talking to them, we have to understand that they don’t think they’re evil. I was testifying on the Hill not long ago, and I was saying, ‘The Russians think they’re acting defensively.’ And the senators were like, ‘But we’ve explained to them over and over that we’re not a threat.’ Like, are you serious?”
Zwack, the retired brigadier general who once waited for the Soviets to break through the Fulda Gap and now teaches at the National Defense University, agrees. “Short of a shooting war, you have to find bridges,” he says. “Some people say, ‘It’s not business as usual with the Russians.’ But it’s never business as usual with the Russians! They’re the one nation on the planet that, on a bad day — they’ll go away, too — but they can take us off that planet.
“The crisis might not happen in the Baltics or over Syria. It could happen in the Sea of Okhotsk. You’ve got all kinds of Russian military stuff out there; we’ve got military stuff; the Japanese have stuff. It takes one incident — an accident that, to someone threat-inclined, looks like a deliberate action. If those commanders can’t get on the phone or on email to say, ‘This is what it is,’ if the crisis has to now be resolved in Washington or Moscow, it may be too late.”
Charap, at RAND, puts it most succinctly: “The threshold for bad stuff happening in the Russia-U.S. relationship is pretty high. Like, nuclear Armageddon. That’s low probability,” he says. “But high impact.”
With Trump, the Russia relationship has taken some unprecedented turns: No other president has come into office suspected of being subject to blackmail by the Kremlin. Nor has any other presidential campaign been investigated for colluding with Russia to undermine American elections. But in other ways, the Trump presidency fits perfectly the pattern identified by the longtime Russia hand and Georgetown professor Angela Stent: an initial attempt to mend relations with Russia, followed by a plunge into a deeper crisis.
For the past year, the administration’s top Russia hand has been a British-born, Harvard-educated historian and policy analyst named Fiona Hill. A longtime fellow at the Brookings Institution, of which Strobe Talbott became president after the end of the Clinton administration, Hill is the author of “Mr. Putin,” a probing and not entirely unsympathetic biography of the Russian president. In that book, Hill and her co-author, Clifford Gaddy, advocate what another historian has called “strategic empathy,” trying to see the situation from the perspective of your adversary — in this case, Putin. This is the sort of move that more hawkish Russia hands like Fried have long counseled against. But it is unclear how much influence Hill has had on current policy. One report in The Washington Post indicated that the president at one point mistook her for administrative staff and yelled at her; another report in the same paper described her as heading up the recent American expulsion of Russian diplomatic personnel in response to the nerve-agent poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England.
There isn’t, in any case, much room to maneuver. Fried reached retirement age and left the State Department a few weeks into the Trump administration; Nuland, not yet of retirement age, stepped down the day before Trump’s inauguration. “To show up for work on Inauguration Day and have to do a 180 on U.S. policy toward NATO, Russia, Germany, Brexit — I just couldn’t do it,” she said. But their legacy lives on. Over the summer, and partly in response to the investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, Congress voted overwhelmingly to strip the president of his authority to release Russia from Fried’s and Nuland’s sanctions. Only Congress can now end the sanctions. In the words of one Russia hand, the congressional bill makes the United States-Russia confrontation “structural.” “The president is like a captain holding a wheel that isn’t attached to anything,” said the Russia hand.
In early March, I met to talk about Russia policy with a senior official in the current administration, who was not authorized to speak to the press and thus asked not to be identified. Nastya Rybka, the Instagramming Belarusian escort, had just been arrested in Thailand, but to my chagrin the official hadn’t even heard of her; instead, the official was focused on a speech Putin had just delivered in which he announced that Russia had supermissiles that could elude American defenses. “He is putting us on notice that we are not listening to him,” the official said of Putin and cautioned that we were at an inflection point in American relations with Russia. “We can’t just have half-cocked sanctions legislation. We can’t go around sanctioning everybody without thinking through the implications.
“We’re in a period where the Russians’ threat perception is causing them to think that they need to take pre-emptive, preventive, very aggressive action to get us to back off, or to make us incapable of having a concerted effort to be able to push back,” the official went on. “And if we don’t get our act together and try to tackle that, we’re not going to be able to change the trajectory of our relationship.” The word “trajectory” had a particularly resonant ring in the wake of Putin’s missile video.
Our time was over, and I walked back out onto the streets of the capital. A strong nor’easter had knocked out power and grounded flights all along the Eastern Seaboard. Schools, many businesses and parts of the federal government were shut down; the capital looked deserted. I wasn’t sure what to make of my meeting with the administration official. That the official was deeply knowledgeable and highly competent was without any doubt. But it was hard not to feel that in terms of the United States-Russia relationship, it was too little, too late. The official stressed to me that the decision to join the administration came out of wanting to head off a crisis: “When your house is on fire, you go put it out.” But this was now a fire that was going to burn for a very long time. In the Russia-hands community, some who had once been doves had become hawks, and those who had been hawks all along felt vindicated. The small contingent of dissidents was keeping a low profile. I asked one of them if he felt lonely. “I do feel lonely,” he said. “But I am not alone. It’s just that we have to speak more quietly.”
One of the first Russia hands trained by the United States government back in the 1920s was George Kennan. The government paid for his Russian lessons in Berlin, then posted him to Riga, the capital of newly independent Latvia, where he mixed with Russian émigrés and studied economic reports from the Soviet Union. When diplomatic relations were finally established between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s, he helped set up the embassy in Moscow, and in the postwar era he was among the first to articulate clearly the nature of the Soviet threat. But he was also concerned that his home country not freak out. “Much depends,” he cautioned in his famous “long telegram” from 1946, “on health and vigor of our own society.”
That society now looks sick. The absence of nuance on the Russia question — the embrace of Russia as America’s new-old supervillain — is probably best understood as a symptom of that sickness. And even as both parties gnash their teeth over Russia, politicians and experts alike seem to be in denial about mistakes made in the past and the lessons to be learned from them. Many foreign-policy hands are eager to return to the Obama-era status quo, as if American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War had, until the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, been doing just fine. “I would give anything to have that world back,” said a Russia hand who has been critical of the old interventionist paradigm. But chances are, that world will come back soon enough. Wasn’t the idea, in the end, to change it?