The Generation of ’91

Incredible as it seems, it was only a year ago that US relations with Russia began their serious slide downhill. The first sign of trouble that I noticed was the cover of The New Yorker for February 3, 2014, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics.  A figure-skating Vladimir Putin leaps while five little Putin lookalikes feign disinterest from the judges’ stand.

A month later, after a series of increasingly violent demonstrations in Kiev, the recently-elected Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Moscow.

I still don’t know what to believe about those events. Were they a “revolution,” or  “coup?” Whatever the case, there is ample evidence that the US was in the midst of things, in the form of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s famous phone call to the American ambassador to Ukraine, conveniently taped and made public by the Russians. .

At least I had watched enough of the Olympics to know that there was something off about the New Yorker cover. It was the kind of demonization of a foreign leader deemed wicked that had accompanied the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. In fact, Russia ran those Olympics pretty well, especially for a nation struggling mightily to find its footing among the community of nations.

Events have spiraled dangerously since. The flight of Yanukovich from Kiev set in motion the Russian annexation of the Crimea, with its Russian naval  base in Sevastopol, which in turn was followed by a civil war in eastern Ukraine. The US and its European allies imposed sanctions on Russia which, in combination with sharply lower oil prices, have sent the Russian economy into a severe recession. Ukrainian government forces attacked the separatists in the east, calling them “terrorists,” imposing a brutal toll on civilians in the cities. (The Ukrainian forces claim the separatists are shelling themselves.) Last month Russian forces began reinforcing the separatists.  The aims of the new campaign are not yet clear.

My most-trusted source of news all along has been Johnson’s Russia List. I’ve written before about this remarkable digest of news about Russia. Every few days David Johnson collects The full text of thirty or forty articles from the English- language press, as well as things the Russians write about themselves, often quite interesting. For $50, I receive an email edition — 266 of them last year. (Usually, I let them stack up and then scan four or five at a time.)

Recently, I have begun to regularly read Bloomberg News columnist Leonid Bershidsky as well, for his insider perspective, even in exile in Berlin. (He was  founding editor of Vedomosti, the Russian business daily, a joint project of the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, and the first publisher of the Russian edition of Forbes.)

I’ve also found Stephen Cohen a reliable guide. An emeritus professor of Russian Studies at New York University and Princeton, Cohen writes regularly in The Nation (which his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, edits and partly owns).  He was a friend and admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev, and consistently interprets Putin on Putin’s own terms.

Cohen is often attacked  by Russia hawks, but it was an especially bilious article about him that brought Julia Ioffe onto my screen. An energetic and perapatetic journalist, Ioffe was born in Moscow in 1982 and emigrated to the US in 1990. In 2005 she graduated from Princeton and went to work as a fact-checker for The New Yorker.  Since then she’s made a name for herself as a vigorous critic of Putin, mostly recently in The New Republic.

Court Jester: Putin’s American Toady at The Nation Gets Even Toadier (May 1, 2014) made me think that perhaps the demise of the once-great TNR was not such a bad thing after all, Whereupon The New York Times Magazine hired her as a contributing writer and The New Yorker ran her profile of Mikhail Khodorkovsky:  Remote Control: Can an Exiled Oligarch Prove to Russias that Putin Must Go?

What’s going on here?

The explanation that makes sense to me involves thinking in generational terms, in this case, the generation of US policy makers and journalists that took shape in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved.  The years before were so much  prologue:  the return to Europe of the satellite nations; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany; Tiananmen Square; the Gulf War; the August ‘91 coup attempt to wrest control from Gorbachev; Ukrainian independence;  and the election of Boris Yeltsin:  the beginnings of a Second Russian Revolution, or so it was said. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and resolved to make it so.

The Clinton administration put in place the policies towards Russia that George W. Bush and Barack Obama have continued since: support for privatization and the extension of membership in the Group of Eight, but NATO expansion as a precaution. For the Russians, however, eight years of Boris Yeltsin were enough.  Vladimir Putin succeeded him, in 2000, and Russia turned in a different direction.  What that direction may be surely continues to be a very complicated story.

But the direction of US policy remains unchanged. Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s Rhodes scholarship classmate at Oxford, was at the center of US policy towards Russia throughout the ’90s. A one-time Time magazine journalist, Talbott served as  Ambassador-at-Large to the New Independent States before becoming Deputy Secretary of State in 1994.Today he is president of the Brooking Institution.

Last week in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, Talbott urged the Obama administration to begin supplying weapons to the Ukrainian army, anti-tank missiles and counter-battery radar in particular. (That elicited a brave – and telling – counterargument from Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe of the Brookings Institution and Brookings fellow Clifford Gaddy.)

Talbott’s State Department chief of staff, Nuland, is at the helm of the State Department’s Eurasian affairs today.  During the Bush administration she advised Vice President Dick Cheney on the eve of the Iraq invasion and served as US ambassador to NATO.

Similarly, members of the generation of  ’91 in the press remain influential today.  To name just one; David Remnick had become Washington Post bureau chief in Moscow in 1988; in 1994 he published Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize); he became editor of The New Yorker in 1998.

Last week three major papers in the US editorialized in favor of sending lethal aid to the Ukrainians, and so beginning a proxy war with Russia – The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times, albeit the last-named in an especially weasel-worded way (“But if the evidence continues to accumulate that Mr. Putin and the rebels are carving out a permanent rebel-held enclave in eastern Ukraine, à la Transdniestria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia, he must know that the United States and Europe will be compelled to increase the cost”). Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter on Wednesday told a Senate committee that he, too, favors sending weapons to Ukraine.

Let’s hope that President Obama has the sense and strength to resist this widespread but heedless itch to escalate a war that only Putin can win. Aiding Ukraine economically is one thing; almost everyone agrees on that. But Hill and Gaddy of Brookings get it right when they say, “if we plunge headlong into sending weapons, we may lose our allies, and we may never have the opportunity to get things right.”  The alternative is better news-gathering and more European diplomacy.

Ultimately, only a generation replaces a generation.  The thing that will halt this slide towards war is regime change – in Washington, D.C. Counterintuitive though it may seem, electing Jeb Bush, if he is able to gain his party’s nomination, may be the best way to break the mood of self-infatuation, often dangerous, that began with Bill Clinton and which for twenty-four years has afflicted Democrats and Republicans alike.

5 responses to “The Generation of ’91”

  1. Mr Warsh:

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter here. I read your weekly column chiefly for your sober take on international affairs. I share your reticence about the prospect of escalating our war with Russia. My wariness has not yet, however, sufficiently twisted my mind into a place in which I could imagine that a Bush is our best hope to avoid all-out war. To do so would require an ability to forget history that I’ve fortunately avoided to date.

    One other small point: You tagged this post “demonization of Putin.” As a man with few fans not on his payroll, some criticism of Putin may occasionally rise to the level of “demonization,” but no one paints a better picture of Vladimir Putin as a “demon” than Mr Putin himself.

  2. I understand that a Clinton presidency might not alter “the mood of self-infatuation, often dangerous”.

    But is Jeb Bush—the quieter, and perhaps most conservative of the Bush clan—more or less likely to alter that mood? Given the errancy of the Bush White House, the 2 trillion plus spent on an ill-advised adventure in Iraq and the likelihood that a Jeb Bush presidency would use some staff from the previous George Bush presidency, how likely is it that a Jeb Bush presidency would be *less* likely to militarize the Ukraine? And how likely is it that a Republican party that has moved ever rightward would press for moderation in conduct with Putin?

    Your aims may be laudable, but your premises are questionable.

  3. 6 points, Dave.

    Sort of Favorable to Putin:

    1) I agree that treatment of the Olympics was bad from the West. It has now been largely forgotten that the surface and public reason for Obama, Merkel, Cameron, and Hollande not showing up in Sochi for the opening ceremony was their objecting to Putin’s (admittedly awful) policy on gays. This now looks pretty silly.

    2) Nuland is an embarrassment, and I am really wondering why she is currently in the position she is in. Did Kerry pick her or Obama? She seems far more neoconnishly aggressive than either of them, and she has certainly caused a lot of trouble.

    3) I do not think this has appeared on Johnson List, but the old inside view on why Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 was at least partly to please his then mistress, Yekaterina Fursevaa, who had been the local CP party leader in Crimea until Stalin died, after when K made her Moscow Party Chief (timne of the transfer) and in 1956 the first woman on the Soviet Politburo. They would later fall out, and she died of alcoholism in 1974.

    On the other side:

    4) In 1993 Russia signed the Budapest Accords that involved Ukraine giving its nuclear arsenal to Russia (which it did) in return for a promise that Russia would respect Ukraininan “territorial integrity.” The other signatories, the US and UK, are clearly making no effort to enforce that one.

    5) There never was any promise made not to expand NATO “eastward” (and it already bordered Russia in several locations,including at Norway and also with the US in the Bering Strait). What was promised was that no military equipment or troops of NATO would be put in the former East Germany once Germany became reunified. That promise has been kept. At the time, not only was there a USSR, there was still a Warsaw Pact. There was no discussion of what NATO might do if the WP dissolved and former members began requesting to join NATO, which was exactly what happened, with the US resisting these requests for several years before finally going along with them.

    6) Russian commentary on the current situation in “Novorossiya” has simply been an astounding pack of lies. Reportedly Merkel lost her patience and took a hard line (not as hard as US right now) after Putin outright lied to her on the phone about Russian activities, regarding which she had satellite intel data directly contradicting his statements. While the issue has faded, the official Russian commentary on the downing of the commercial Malaysian jet was a sign of what was going on, with Russian media actually for a time seriously reporting the theory that the plane was full of dead bodies from the former missing jet. Really. Like the story on Furtseva, that is another one that did not make it to the Johnson List.

  4. There’s another generation of ’91, all the old Russia hands who actually understood the place retiring or dying. I knew several of these guys and sort of wish we had more folks in public life with their knowledge, calm and sense of perspective today.

  5. Stephen Cohen has been a weekly guest on the John Batchelor radio program, during which period he and the host have discussed the evolving Ukraine crisis in, as they say, near-real time. I grew up thinking of Cohen as a Soviet apologist, but exposure to these weekly hour-long broadcasts has been a revelation. I know of no other venue that has provided as textured and as rounded an account–especially of the interplay between Ukraine, Russia, the US, and a fractured Europe/NATO led–if unsteadily–by Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *