by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
I haven't always liked everything that came from Bill Burns -- he was the implementer of the ill-advised re-set, after all, and didn't quit in protest. Finally he did leave the Administration, early, and strangely went to Carnegie. Strangely, because I thought he was more critical of Russia than that, and would be better suited somewhere else. But where? He's not so critical to be at the McCain Institute. He's a liberal, and couldn't go to Heritage or AEI. I don't know if those academic think tanks like CSIS had a place for him that was worthy of his stature. The thing is, Carnegie remains prestigious, even if it tilts to Moscow and is at times shameful, as Jamie Kirchick has aptly chronicled.
Even so, William Burns knows more about Russia than you or me. He's been there many more times, and met with much higher-up leaders. I've lived in Russia for long periods in the past, but have not been there in recent years. I've met Yeltsin, and some other top officials, but so what? That's nothing like negotiating with them, and having high-level talks with them in private. I haven't always had the luxury to spend all day, every day, studying and interacting on Russia. He has done all these things, and more, so I respect that. He's one of those experts and former officials you simply need to respect.
I still think he is too gingerly on Russia. He doesn't provide enough of a quick recipe in this piece about DETERRENCE which is the only thing that makes sense with Russia. He mentions how we have to respond to the hacking -- so I take it he approves of the expulsions, which are pretty thorough and I think warranted. We need to hear more from him on deterrence -- would he be for getting involved with this grand bargain of a "new architecture" crap the Russians are trying to foist on Europe? Hope not! I don't think so.
But here's what's smart:
o he says the US has lurched between wanting Russia as a partner to treating it as a sullen, declining power (which is what it is, and which is how it does in fact need to be treated in my view. I'm glad he's put the description "out there". I once said Russia was behaving "like a sullen teenager" when I gave a briefing to a room full of ambassadors at the UN, and while the Russian was not among them, I still felt that the Europeans didn't like that frank talk and some didn't ask me back after that. But "sullen" is how to understand it. Amb. Samantha Power, in an essay that later became a book I believe*, talked about the role of spite in understanding the Serbians. Serbians do spite even worse than Russians, but spite is big. Spite, rooted in that inferiority complex they have, is indeed what they are all about.
o Burns is right that the US can't make up its mind and be consistent -- and this is because it becomes a political platform for each successive administration -- Putin has ensured havoc for generations to come by making pro-Kremlin policy a preserve of the right as well as the left. But Burns' caution against making friends with Russia through personal rapport and a "grand bargain" is aimed at Trump -- it won't work because there are too many other issues.
o the issues are Putin mainly, but not only, as he believes Putin has a spiteful agenda to do damage on every single issue he can't get success on -- if he can't stop the war in Syria, he will degrade the rebels and prop up Assad; if he can't keep Ukraine from turning West, he will grab Crimea and invade Donbass and so on. As Burn says:
The ultimate realist, Mr. Putin understands Russia’s relative weakness, but regularly demonstrates that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising powers. He sees a target-rich environment all around him.
o Burns is particularly smart on Ukraine -- which is rare in a Russian hand, or rare as a positive thing, since too many are awful on Ukraine:
A third step is to stay sharply focused on Ukraine, a country whose fate will be critical to the future of Europe, and Russia, over the next generation. This is not about NATO or European Union membership, both distant aspirations. It is about helping Ukrainian leaders build the successful political system that Russia seeks to subvert.
That's an interesting take, although of course arming Ukraine would be better. But it does mean we should do more to give aid and trade to Ukraine. There's all those eggs that Andrew Kramer says don't have buyers. Couldn't some cake batter manufacturer use these? Or somebody? McDonalds? We should be trying to help. Ukraine is the "Un-Russia". That's more important than being in NATO as a weak junior partner. What we need to show is a way for Soviet states to reform in such a way that not only are they acceptable partners to the West, they bring prosperity and security to their citizens without the Soviet ideology or economic model (which the Donbass represents). That's a help to reformers within Russia, too, although Burns doesn't say that. I seem to recall that when he was penning or at least signing cables at the US Embassy, he wasn't very positive about the Russian opposition.
The second step before this was "reassure our allies of a commitment to NATO". But..what? Continue the same aid for the military, even if some countries can't pay up? Of course we should. We need more than battalions. There are already some good EU disinformation shops. But we really should have some kind of center or clearing house that examines each and every incident of Russian encroachment, near-miss, provocation etc on land, air, and sea. And Russian claims of same from NATO's side. Each time one of these things happen, I struggle to find some statement on it, it's often late in coming from the specific country involved. It would be great if some center immediately filled the air waves with the truthful story of these incidents.
There's more, but I think basically, William Burns is telling Trump not to give away the store with Russia and to keep our allies close, and that's important. He doesn't have to mention "Trump" or "Tillerson" because there are scores of Kremlinologists in his world saying the same thing as those elected or appointed leaders. So it's good he represents in fact a non-Carnegie line on this score.
Of course, he's padded these insights with lots of stuff about how we need to "respect" Russia. But he's actually also added that he has learned the hard way to do this -- as in respect that a bully in your schoolyard may knock you over, and to give him a wide berth.
This idea that we've "ignored" Russia just doesn't sit well with me because as long as I can remember (40 years plus), we've obsessed about Russia at every turn. It's never been "taken for granted" even after the coup. I don't think Obama has said anything disparaging about it. Or has he? What is that about?
If he said Russia is a declining power, well, it is. We're learning how vicious that decline can be...
*I recall this as a piece in the New Republic, but I don't see that among her 3 pieces in the New Republic archives -- or anywhere. To be continued....