Excluded, Encircled and Threatened: Stephen Cohen Puts the US Under the Spotlight For Its Treatment of Russia In The 1990s

An explosive text

In Failed Crusade: America and the tragedy of post-communist Russia (2001), the late Russian scholar Stephen Cohen has written an explosive text that, understood, can provide the necessary critical historiography of Russia’s “time of troubles” from 1985-2000. Cohen enables his readers to see two things clearly: the direct link between the current NATO-backed and cultivated war in Ukraine and profoundly disturbing evidence piled to the heavens that the US took advantage of Russia when it was “on its knees” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Failed Crusade puts the spotlight on one of the great catastrophes of the twentieth century: the deceptive and cruel “shock therapy” applied to the great “civilizational and cultural space known as the Russian world” (Sergei Lavrov) in the 1990s.

Reading this text is almost emotionally unbearable. Most of us, I think, do not have much of a clue about the extent and depth of the suffering of the Russian people after the collapse of communism as well as the significance of the Russian loss of dignity and civilizational esteem. The US “missionary crusade” – to impose a “market economy” and “democracy” on the poor, immature Russians – was aimed at turning Russia into a second-rate Eurasian country without great power status. Once its back was broken, the US could use NATO as a bludgeoning instrument to expand its membership to countries bordering Russia. The US deceived Russia – Gorbachev had received US commitment to not move NATO “an inch” closer to his country’s borders. Once defanged, the US must have simply assumed that Russia would be their plaything, a kind of eternal Yeltsin puppet. Flattery and head-pats would suffice.

Russia-watchers commit malpractice

The book is packed with details. In this article, let me focus on selected themes. But first, it is important to point out that a major theme running like a hot current through the text is America’s failure to understand Russia. “America’s Russian-watchers, with only a few exceptions, committed malpractice throughout the 1990s. In significant ways, many of them continue to do so today. The results have undermined our values and jeopardized our nation’s security” (p. 7). Cohen observes that after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, four American professions – government policymakers, economic and financial advisers, journalists and scholars – all professed to know the cure for Russia’s ailments. “In reality, their prescriptions, reports, and prognoses were fundamentally and predictably wrong” (ibid.). They are also predicably wrong twenty years later, though now Russophobia and cancel culture have intensified. Apparently, the US and dreary allies are trying to cast Russia out of western civilization.

These Russia-watchers committed malpractice as they hitched their minds to the “grand policy”—a “virtual crusade to transform post-Communist Russia (along with several other former Soviet republics) into some facsimile of the American democratic and capitalist system. Moreover, it was not only an official project; it captivated investors, journalists and scholars as well” (p. 8). Under the Clinton administration, a large gaggle of government, business, media and academics flocked into Russia. His experts met shortly after Clinton’s inauguration in 1992.

What plan emerged? Nothing short of the “domestic transformation of Russia” (a State Department official’s comment). “In effect,” Cohen avers, “the United States was to teach ex-Communist Russia how to become a capitalist and democratic country and oversee the process of conversion known as a ‘transition.’ Certainly, Russia was not to be trusted to find its own kinds of change, lest it wander off, as a media enthusiast of the crusade warned, on ‘a strange, ambivalent path of its own confused devising’” (pp. 8-9).

Teaching lessons to the hapless Russians

Throughout this remarkable book, Cohen provides excruciating illustrations of the consequences of the “simple but stern” lessons to be taught to the hapless and helpless Russians. Conceiving of Russia as a blank canvas, the self-important missionaries pressed ahead with a two-pronged strategy of economic and political reform. Economic reform meant “shock therapy” and “tight-fisted monetarism” (especially severe budgetary austerity), the abolition of Soviet-era consumer and welfare subsidies, sweeping whole-sale privatization of state enterprises and other assets, tossing unprepared producers into the lion’s den of foreign competition, and kicking the government out of running the economy. The ground under foot had caved in.

Another word for “economic reform” is ransacking. Political reform ended up meaning “fulsome support” for President Boris Yeltsin: Clinton cronies explained, “Yeltsin represents the direction toward the kind of Russia we want.” The US administration offered free instructions (dictating national policy) and promised to assist with financing the transition, mostly through IMF loans. Cohen reminds us repeatedly that the US never delivered the financial support that Russia needed to build a dynamic post-communist society. They were hung out to dry.

Hordes of American “political missionaries and evangelists, usually called ‘advisers,’ spread across Russia in the early and mid-1990s. Funded by the US government, ideological organizations, foundations, and educational institutions, they encamped wherever the ‘Russia we want’ might be proselytized, from political movements, trade unions, media, and schools to Moscow offices of the Russian government itself. Among other missionary deeds, US citizens gave money to favored Russian politicians, instructed ministers, drafted legislation and presidential decrees, underwrote textbooks, and served at Yeltsin’s reelection headquarters in 1996” (p. 10). On the glittering surface, the Clinton administration proclaimed that Russians had to decide. “But we can’t do it for them.” But Cohen observes scathingly that beneath the froth they believed that Russia’s “democratic recovery” was in the US hands. As Vice President Al Gore expressed it, “Our policy toward Russia must be that of a lighthouse … They can locate themselves against this light” (pp. 10-11).

The US missionary crusade crashes on the rocks

This crusade, Cohen reminds us, has long since “crashed on the rocks of Russian reality” (p. 11). In fact, he states that the Russian crusade was the “worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam, and its consequences more long-term and perilous” (ibid.). The American failure can be judged by exact criteria” (ibid.). First, the US policy-makers should have created the conditions for prosperity, political stability, peacefulness and with full cooperation on the urgent international problems. The main reason, Cohen argues, is that Russia has enormous quantities of nuclear weapons. Russia-US relations over the past thirty years have, rather, got decidedly worse.

The US unipolar steam-roller is trying to crush Russia – to isolate, marginalize and suppress it. This hypocritical fanaticism, however, has made our world less safe than it was at the Soviet Union’s end. As I write these words, I am reminded that Jeremy Kuzmarov and John Marciano (The Russians are coming, again [2018]) provide devastating evidence that the US has been at war with Russia since they invaded Russia to fight the Bolsheviks in 1918. And Jeremy and John make it mighty clear that they have been fighting and subverting them ever since.

Second, Cohen states that the jazzy American financial specialists on post-Communist Russia also “failed spectacularly, and for related reasons. They bought zealously into the great crusade, which for them meant ‘Russia’s emerging market.’ They too set out to build a neo-America on the Moscow River by using the ‘best minds that Wall Street and Washington could muster’” (p. 12). And “so legions of Western profit seekers also invaded Russia ‘with American investors leading the charge” (ibid.). However, Cohen informs us that these investors lost billions; the financial specialists entered the twenty-first century “mired in charges that their ventures had resulted in huge money-laundering schemes and other dubious transactions” (ibid.).

Third, Cohen targets American journalists, accusing them of “journalistic malpractice.” Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz published an analysis of US press coverage of the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing civil war between Reds and Whites. They argued that the reporting was “nothing short of disaster” and that the “net effect was almost always misleading.” The reason: “American correspondents and editors believed fervently in their government’s anti-Red crusade and had thus “not seen what was, but what men wished to see” (p. 13). Cohen observes that journalists reported on what they hoped to see, accepting “appearances for reality and desire for fact” (ibid.).

Cohen digs into how the press exalted Yeltsin as the “sole bulwark against ‘extremists of both left and right’” (p. 15). They also created a “Yeltsin cult”: he was praised and feted because he was obeying American commands to destroy communism. Cohen writes about the ignominious case of a Harvard historian who encouraged Yeltsin to carry out his “coup” against the elected parliament in 1993. “Lest anyone think Yeltsin lacked sufficient legitimacy, a Yale constitutional scholar compared him favorably to George Washington” (p. 23).

American journalists don’t like “doom and gloom” stories

American correspondents did not like “doom and gloom” stories about “unpaid wages and pensions, malnutrition, and decaying provinces, where, a Russian journalist tells us, ‘Desperation touches everyone’” (p. 19).  Stephen also tells us that: “Nor did they report more than a few of the desperate acts of protest taking place around the country, and virtually none of the ways the ‘reform’ government was depriving workers of whatever rights and protection they had had in the Soviet system. American journalists found instead preferable ‘metaphors for Russia’s metamorphosis’ – usually in a tiny segment of Moscow society that had prospered, from financial oligarchs to yuppies spawned by the temporary proliferation of Western enterprises” (ibid.).

Some American correspondents lauded the new Russia where Russians could sit outside the cavernous McDonald’s and observe affluent young arriving in Cherokees and Toyota Land cruisers, telephones in hand. “In the new Russia at that time,” Cohen laments, “the average monthly wage, when actually paid, was about sixty dollars, and rapidly falling” (p. 20). The bitter truth of Russia between 1992 and 1998 was the primary “political struggle between different groups trying to take control of state assets. It was not about democracy or market reform” (ibid.). Failed crusade is loaded with detail about the suffering of the Russian people as American crusaders shocked and smashed the foundations of Russian society: leaving the great Slavic country in shreds, all the while praising her movement to the American model.

Let me conclude these disturbing comments with Cohen’s warnings to the world. He states: “The US-led expansion of NATO eastward, which broke a promise made by the first President Bush in 1990-1 to the Gorbachev leadership must stop. The inclusion of three former Soviet bloc countries in 1998—the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland—persuaded Moscow that Russia, post-Communist or not, was neither truly wanted nor trusted in the West, at least not by the United States. Believing that it was not only being excluded from Western security arrangements after the Cold War but again being made their primary target, the Kremlin intensified its search for strategic partners elsewhere and accelerated plans to build new nuclear weapons” (p 249).

Gazing into his crystal ball, Cohen admonished all Russia-watchers. “If NATO moves farther toward Russia, acting on Washington’s statements about including the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and possibly even Ukraine, it will cross a read-line fraught with even greater perils. If nothing else, Moscow is likely to redeploy missiles in Belarus, now in a Union with Russia, on the border of NATO Poland. The result would be a renewed nuclear confrontation in Europe, this time with Moscow in considerably less control of its hair-trigger weapons” (p. 250). Those of us in the West (I reside in the US compliant client state Canada) do not realize profoundly enough the “US-led bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999,” following on the heels of the alliance’s expansion, “inflicted a ‘deep psychological wound’ on Russian political life. Its consequences, all of them bad, continue to unfold” (ibid.).

Hostile encirclement

The US’s aggressive pursuit of pipeline arrangements with several former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia was “designed to limit or even shut off Moscow’s traditional access to these deposits. Cohen invites us to “Imagine how this encroachment by faraway America is seen from Moscow. Coupled with NATO’s movement toward the country’s western borders, it has revived the specter of a ‘hostile encirclement’ of Russia…. Because of US policy, the old Stalin-era fear of ‘hostile encirclement” has returned” (p. 251). Cohen thinks that the reprehensible Clinton administration has “treated Russia as a vanquished nation. How else to understand the administration’s winner-take-all statements that the United States as ‘vital interests’ and therefore entitlements throughout the former Soviet Union, from the Baltics and Ukraine to Central Asia and the Transcaucasus?” (ibid.).

The present US/NATO treatment of Russia through using Ukraine as a battering ram—after repeatedly rejecting Russian security claims and demands—reflects the egregious treatment of Russia post-1991. It was assumed that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of its republics, that Russia no longer had “any legitimate claims, national concerns, or zones of special interest—not even in neighbouring Slav nations, judging by US protests against the new Russia-Belarus Union” (p. 252). Cohen warns us against treating Russia as sharing the tragic fate of Weimar Germany—the doomed republic.

We conclude with this assessment: “Nor have these unwise policies toward Russia brought any real compensatory gains. NATO expansion has not, and cannot solve a single serious problem emanating from the former Soviet Union—not economic collapse, nuclear threats, terrorism, environmental dangers, drug and arms trafficking, international money laundering or others” (p. 252). “Real co-operation—a cliched and abused word in international relations—is, of course, what has been missing towards post-Communist Russia…. Ideology, militarized thinking, and zero-sum assumptions were the policy hallmarks” of the Clinton era. They still are as the brain-dead Biden bids farewell to a peaceable world as the arms keep flowing into the smouldering wreckage of Ukrainian society.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.