The underlying problem is that the Cold War generation of U.S. Russian experts has been supplanted by the post-Cold War generation, now grown to maturity and authority.
If the Cold warriors were forged in the 1960s, the post-Cold warriors are forever caught in the 1990s. They believed that the 1990s represented a stable platform from which to reform Russia, and that the grumbling of Russians plunged into poverty and international irrelevancy at that time is simply part of the post-Cold War order. They believe that without economic power, Russia cannot hope to be an important player on the international stage. That Russia has never been an economic power even at the height of its influence but has frequently been a military power doesn’t register. Therefore, they are constantly expecting Russia to revert to its 1990s patterns, and believe that if Moscow doesn’t, it will collapse — which explains U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s interview in The Wall Street Journal where he discussed Russia’s decline in terms of its economic and demographic challenges. Obama’s key advisers come from the Clinton administration, and their view of Russia — like that of the Bush administration — was forged in the 1990s. ~George Friedman
Friedman gets to the heart of the problem with these observations. He has correctly identified that the “reset” the administration had in mind was a reversion to America’s Clinton-era dealings with Russia, which is hardly a “reset” at all when one considers how badly Clinton handled Russia in connection with NATO expansion and intervention in the Balkans. The ’90s serve as a model that American policymakers find desirable because Russia was on the defensive and in retreat, which therefore made Russia easier to ignore and overrule with impunity. For some time, I have assumed that our Russia policy is so insane because we remain mired in Cold War-era suspicions and hostilities, but I am seeing now that this was not right. To a great degree, our Russia policy is so maddeningly foolish and misguided because our policymakers remain stuck in the immediate post-Cold War period. This is very similar to the way many Iraq war advocates were so certain (or so naive) in their conviction that democratization in the Near East would succeed just as it had in central and eastern Europe in the late ’80s and early ’90s. These represent two colossal errors that a large part of our political and policy establishment have made in the last decade, and both stem from incorrectly applying the lessons of the collapse of communism to entirely new and different situations.
This helps explain why Washington pushed ahead with Kosovo independence and new rounds of NATO expansion at a time when Russia was economically and militarily as strong as it had been in two decades. Even though it was a near-certainty that these moves would drive Russia into a more and more confrontational posture vis-a-vis its neighbors, especially Georgia, Washington continued to push on the assumption that, as in the ’90s, Moscow could never effectively push back. Indeed, Washington had become so accustomed to Russian complacency and impotence that the only way it could understand and describe Russian resistance was in terms of aggression and imperialism. If the ’90s represent the normal state of affairs, any Russian behavior that does not fit the description of the prone suppliant will be defined as an unprovoked outburst. It may be the case that policymakers and pundits accustomed to seeing Russia through the lens of the experience of the ’90s are actually incapable of understanding that these definitions are very wrong. If that is the case, there is not much hope for correcting our Russia policy anytime soon, because it means that the constant effort to portray Russia as an “aggressive” or “revisionist” power is not merely propaganda or intellectual dishonesty. Far worse, this effort stems from a fundamental inability to understand that the ’90s in Russia (and around the world) represented an exceptional, unrepeatable period and it is far from what we should expect in the future. If this is right, the “reset” is not just an attempt to revive Clinton-era Russia policy, but it is instead an attempt to live in the past and pretend that an exceptional period in history is the way everything is supposed to be.
Daniel Larison is a columnist and contributing editor at The American Conservative. This essay previously appeared at his blog, Eunomia.