Why Did Putin Do It?

That Russia interfered with the 2016 US election is now established beyond a reasonable doubt. Special Counsel Robert Mueller  and the Justice Department last year indicted a dozen Russian intelligence officers who were said to be responsible for the hacks of Democratic National Committee emails subsequently given to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who published them.  Last week the Senate’s Select Intelligence Committee published the first of what are expected to be five volumes documenting various Russian state-sponsored “active measures” in the run-up to the election.

I doubt very much that the Russian campaigns changed the election result. Other, more powerful forces were at work. The interesting question is, why did Vladimir Putin want it to be done.

I’ve long argued, at intervals in this space, and at book-length here, that the seeds of today’s bad relationship with Russia were sown during the Clinton administration by the American president and his team’s cavalier attitude towards Russian concerns in the aftermath of the Cold War, especially over NATO expansion.

The first tranche of new members was admitted (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) and a second one planned under Clinton.  Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were admitted under George W. Bush, and a third tranche planned (Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia/Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and, eventually, Georgia and Ukraine). The agenda was pursued under Barack Obama, chiefly by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

So I have been reading with great interest The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal (Random House, 2019), by William F. Burns, who retired in 2014 after 33 years in the Foreign Service.  A former ambassador to Russia under Bush (2005-08), Burns became Deputy Secretary of State under Obama (2011-2014). He graduated from LaSalle College in 1977 and Oxford University (as a Marshall Scholar) in 1980.  Today he is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and widely regarded as “simply one of the finest American diplomats of the past half-century,” in former Secretary of State James Baker’s description.

As a young political officer in Moscow in 1994, Burns observed the situation close up.  Secretary Baker had promised, in Moscow in 1990, that, in exchange for Soviet acquiescence to the reunification of Germany, NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift “one inch to the east” of the German border. Yeltsin and the Russian elite had assumed, he writes, “with considerable justification,” that his commitment could be depended on. But it had never been written down, Bill Clinton had defeated Bush, and the Clinton administration’s interpretation of the inherited promise was “fairly ambiguous.”  Two years after taking office, with the heads of state of Poland, Hungary and then-Czechoslovakia clamoring for admission – but over the objections of Defense Secretary William Perry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Clinton announced in a speech that the question of NATO enlargement was “not if but when.” (The story of deliberations within NATO has yet to be told.)

After the American president visited Moscow in 1995 to celebrate the USSR’s contribution to the defeat of Germany in World War II, the embassy cabled, “There is a solid consensus within the Russian elite that NATO expansion is a bad idea, period.” Clinton deferred formal invitations to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic until Yeltsin was re-elected in the summer of 1996, then, after his own re-election in November, went ahead.  On the eve of the decision, George Kennan, the architect of the policy of containment fifty years before, called it “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.”

Clinton asked Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott about Kennan’s speech. Talbott, who had been Clinton’s roommate at Oxford twenty years before, replied (as recorded in The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy [Random House 2002]) that polls showed that US opposition to enlargement was not broad-based; it was confined, he said, “mainly to the foreign policy elite.”  He believed “something similar was true on the Russian side,” he told Clinton.

Burns writes, “Sitting in the embassy in the mid-990s, it seemed to me that NATO expansion was premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.”  Applied to the first wave of Central European admissions, “Kennan’s comments struck me as a little hyperbolic,” he continued, “damaging to the prospects for future relations, but not fatally.

“Where we made a serious strategic mistake – and where Kennan was prescient – was in later letting inertia drive us to push for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, despite Russia’s deep historical attachments to both states and even stronger protestation. That did indelible damage and fed the appetite of future Russian leadership for getting even.”

The Russian hacking of 2016 also did indelible damage to the relationship and, for that matter, to Russia’s reputation around the world.  Who know what – besides exasperation – the Russian president was thinking? Putin’s overture, in the spring of 2017, to make amends with cyberwar-limitation talks was dead on arrival.

Clinton initiated what would become the slow train wreck of great power relations; Bush accelerated it; Obama permitted it to finally occur, first in Libya, next in Ukraine. Then Putin burned the bridge. It will be the work of generations to restore the atmosphere of cautious mutual trust in which the Cold War ended.

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