From the Archive: ACURA’s John E. Pepper: Russia-Ukraine-United States and the West (April 2014)

The most recent turn in the “up and down” relationship among Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the West has been a dismaying sight over the past month or so.  It is the culmination of a number of decisions that might have been different and some historical realities that won’t change.  And, as I reflect how this current situation might have been avoided, there is, I believe, “plenty of blame to go around.”

It is vital to view the situation from the perspectives of all sides, bearing the historical realities and current circumstances of all parties in mind.

Looking back at the almost 25 years of involvement I have had in Russia and the ex-Soviet Union since 1989, there have been many times when I believed the United States could have done things differently.

During the challenging ‘90s, we could have provide greater financial, technical and moral support.  We could have gone further in recognizing Russia as a partner.   We never did anything approximating what is now being offered to Ukraine (circa $20 billion; I only hope that it will happen; similar “promises” have gone wanting in the past) or what we did in the Marshall Plan.  As then-Ambassador Jack Matlock reflected on the United States’ role in the reconstruction of Russia’s economy*:  “My point is not that the Bush administration, or the Clinton administration that followed it, is responsible for the mistakes that were made as the Soviet Union abandoned the command economy and Russia subsequently created a market economy.  They are not.  However, it is clear that most of the assistance and advice given by the West was not particularly helpful.  It was based more on a free-market fundamentalism than on the real problems of creating a market economy out of a collapsed command economy, much of the initial advice was not only useless, but sometimes actually damaging.”

Following that, the West moved to expand NATO into the bordering regions around Russia, including Poland (1999), the Baltics (2004) and Romania (2004) and Bulgaria (1994).  Then, and of greatest concern to Russia, we advanced the idea of extending NATO to Ukraine and Georgia as well as installing ABM launchers in Poland and the Czech Republic.  With the animosity still overhanging from the Cold War era, this might have been seen in the U.S. as akin to the Soviet Union’s earlier extending the Warsaw Pact to Cuba or Central America.
*”Superpower Illusions” (pg. 110)
Yes, the expansion was done with a benign intention (defensive) but, to a country that had been attacked many times, it looked to many like a surrounding effort.   At a minimum, it fueled the animus of those who wanted to interpret it that way.  It fed the worst fears and allegations of those who wanted to “go back.”
As former Secretary of War, Robert Gates, says in his new book, “Duty:  Memoirs of a Secretary of War”:   “When I took office in 2007, I had shared with the president my belief that from 1993 onward, the West, and particularly the United States, had badly underestimated the magnitude of Russian humiliation in losing the Cold War and then in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which amounted to the end of the centuries-old Russian Empire.  The arrogance, after the collapse, of American government officials, academicians, businessmen, and politicians in telling the Russians how to conduct their domestic and international affairs (not to mention the internal psychological impact of their precipitous fall from superpower status) had led to deep and long-term resentment and bitterness.”
Gates continued:  “What I didn’t tell the president was that I believed the relationship with Russia had been badly mismanaged after Bush 41 left office in 1993.  Getting Gorbachev to acquiesce to a unified Germany as a member of NATO had been a huge accomplishment.  But moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake.  Including the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary quickly was the right thing to do, but I believe the process should then have slowed.  U.S. agreements with the Romanian and Bulgarian governments to rotate troops through bases in those countries was a needless provocation (especially since we virtually never deployed the 5,000 troops to either country).  The Russians had long historical ties to Serbia, which we largely ignored.  Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching.  The roots of the Russian Empire trace back to Kiev in the ninth century, so that was an especially monumental provocation.”

It was also natural for Putin to view the West’s strong support for Kosovo’s separating from Russia’s long-supported ally of Serbia as violating the rights of the Serbian state.  (To be clear, in my view, Kosovo’s achieving independence was the right outcome.)  And especially in hindsight, Russia viewed the invasion of Iraq as an unsanctioned act by the United States and by some Western countries to overthrow a sovereign leader based on weak, if not manufactured, allegations that Saddam Hussein was in the final stages of developing weapons of mass destruction.

These realities were combined with enormous and, for me, overblown sensitivity on Putin’s part, grown in part, I suspect, from his career in the KGB.  To say that he became paranoid about the intentions of the United States would not be an over-statement.  And he surely saw it as a means of strengthening his own popularity at a time when it was declining.

More recently, I believe Putin has greatly exaggerated the mistreatment of Russians in Ukraine, including Crimea.  Characterization of the folks who went into Maidan Square as “Russia-phobes and Neo-Nazis” has been hyperbolic.  Surely there were some such people there, but to define the entire group in these terms in ludicrous.  Most of them surely simply wanted release from a corrupt and ineffective government.

Finally, we should not be surprised at the reaction that Putin and others in Russia had to the overturning of the agreement that had been reached on February 22 by Yanukovych and other Western countries before the ink was scarcely dry.  This agreement would have probably led to an election by the end of the year which would have voted Yanukovych out of office.  If one believes, as Putin certainly does (and there are reasons for this belief), that the movement in Maidan Square which led to the ouster of Yanukovych was incited to some degree by the West, one could take it as license to act.
And that’s exactly what Putin did.  I believe he seized on this as an “excuse” to move into Crimea.  It is obviously a purely personal judgment, but I don’t believe if that agreement had been allowed to unfold through the end of the calendar year, Russia would have moved to have the referendum for independence in Crimea or have absorbed it as they have.

What’s more, I believe, Putin’s/Russia’s absorption of Crimea will prove to be a costly mistake for Russia and its people.  It will be a financial drain in its own right.  It has already produced sanctions, capital flight, a weaker ruble and it will, at least for a time, dampen foreign direct investment.  Nevertheless, we are where we are.

Stepping back, Russia has always had and always will have different interests than the United States and the West; some geographical, some ideological in nature.  For example, Russia is far more dedicated to the preservation of existing governments—to very strong governments–that are more autocratic than we believe is right.  The United States acclaims much greater allegiance to individual democracy, to individual rights, to everyone speaking up.

But, with all that, there are two things that are of paramount importance:

There are many critical issues such as nuclear proliferation, combating terrorism, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, on which it is absolutely critical that Russia, the United States and the West and the entire world work together on cooperatively.
Alienating and isolating Russia will significantly impede that cooperation.

So, what now?
We need to clearly define what we will not tolerate (e.g., any incursion into Ukraine or other independent country).
We should recognize that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is not going to be overturned.
We need to try to agree on what is in the common interest of our countries and the world.
We need to identify the specific agenda items which we need to work together.
We need quiet, tough-minded, no-nonsense, respectful interchanges among leaders in Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the West—leaders who understand each other’s history, culture and contemporary realities.(1)
I would like to add here the excellent perspective provided to me by a Professor of Russian History at the University of Cincinnati, Willard Sunderland.
“The only point I’d suggest adding to your piece is that we should do everything we can to de-emphasize the neo-Cold War rhetoric and casual anti-Russian prejudice that has crept into the way our politicians and journalists/pundits tend to describe Russia.  There are too many simplifications in the way we are representing things, and there’s the risk that our simplifications will work against us.

Russia today is not the Soviet Union.  We are not on the edge of a titanic global contest between “our way” and “their way.”  You are absolutely right – we have nothing to gain from isolating the country.  Likewise, though Putin is most definitely not a Western liberal or conservative, as all our TV talking heads are telling us, he’s also not a Brezhnev or an Andropov.  I see him as a Russian statist conservative in the mold of the last great tsarist premiere Petr Stolypin.  He wants a strong Russian state and a stable international neighborhood, while also supporting Russia’s full engagement with the world.  I do not think that there’s a plan afoot to gather up the lands of the old USSR motivated by some sort of imperial nostalgia.  He’s not interested in a lot of difficult and costly border changes.  He is a pragmatist more than he is an ideologue.  And he’s also, in my view, far from in charge of everything we’re seeing.  He’s hardly a grand master poring over a would-be chess board, moving every piece exactly where he wants it.  I think he and the Russian power establishment were as shocked by Yanukovich’s flight from Kiev as anyone else.  Much of what’s happened since then has been more opportunism than master strategy.  Putting all of this together, I see a situation in which there is every reason to work with Putin rather than to double-down against him.  To that end, I think your last point is dead on:  firm engagement is the key.  Quiet, persistent, firm engagement.
That is what we need now!


John E. Pepper, Jr.serves on the ACURA Board. He was CEO and Chairman of Procter & Gamble and introduced P&G to the USSR in 1991.


(1) I’d note this is the kind of interchange that in times past was conducted by leaders like
George Schultz and Eduard Shevardnadze.  I believe former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jack Matlock, was absolutely right in crediting the cultural sensitivity of certain U.S. leaders as a key factor in establishing good relations with their Russian counterparts:  “One of the keys to the success that Reagan, Schultz, Bush and Baker had in engaging the Soviet leaders,” Matlock writes, “was their attention to this factor [culture].  Reagan may not have mastered every detail of every arms control negotiation…but he spent as much time trying to understand Gorbachev’s thinking and the political constraints on his behavior as he did studying the ‘substance’ of the issues.  George Schultz was acutely aware that Eduard Shevardnadze, a Georgian, was immensely proud of this cultural heritage.  By showing interest in it and respect for it, Schultz was able to establish a degree of personal rapport with the Soviet Foreign Minister that helped them come to terms on issues that had resisted solution for decades.  James Baker picked up where Shultz left off and continued the relationship that benefitted both countries.”*

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