“We have to take the threat posed by Putin's Russia quite seriously,” William J. Burns says. Burns came to know Vladimir Putin as well as just about any American over a decades-long career in American diplomacy. Today he reflects on the lessons and missed opportunities of those decades in U.S.-Russia relations.
Burns looked back at the British author Anatol Lieven’s 1996 warning about Russian risks, “A New Iron Curtain,” for an episode of the Masthead’s podcast.
This issue sums up Burns’s review of U.S.-Russian history. You can hear him go into detail in our podcast feed. The audio is available on SoundCloud, or you can get it directly in your podcast player.
By Matt Peterson
Anyone caught flat-footed by Russia’s global aggression in recent years missed a lot of warning signs. That’s the inescapable conclusion I’ve reached after reading through The Atlantic’s archives for our Masthead podcast series. A careful reader will find worryingly accurate predictions in our pages of how the next couple of decades would play out. To name just a few from the turbulent end of the Soviet Union:
Moscow’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan foretold more, not fewer, military operations in the coming years. It will “continue to rely on—and reliably be influenced by—the threat or use of force,” Robert Kaplan wrote in 1989.
Russia was primed for a Vladimir Putin. “The system of robber capitalism that has taken hold in Russia is so iniquitous that people may well turn to a charismatic leader promising national revival at the cost of civil liberties,” George Soros wrote in 1999.
Russians were never prepared to let Ukraine join the West. “If NATO expansion were to aim at ultimate membership for the Baltic States and Ukraine, without Russia, that would be utterly unacceptable,” a senior Russian politician told Anatol Lieven in his 1996 piece.
Saying that Americans should have listened to these warnings is too glib. After all, some American officials understood what was happening at the time. The career diplomat William J. Burns is one of them. He was the American ambassador to Russia early in the Putin era and a deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama. He recently wrote a memoir about his work, The Back Channel, so I took the opportunity to ask him to revisit an earlier era of U.S.-Russian relations. I wanted him to answer one big question: Can Americans do any better at reading the warning signs next time?
Not even Burns was sharp-eyed enough to spot Putin’s meteoric ascent to the height of Russian politics before it happened. Within just a few years in the 1990s, Putin went from deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to Russian president. Burns has said he met Putin in the early 1990s but didn’t know who he’d become. But, like Soros, Burns could see the opportunity for an autocrat’s rise in the wreckage of the Soviet economy. “I’ve always thought it’s hard to understand the smoldering aggressiveness of Putin’s Russia unless you appreciate the sense of disorder and humiliation that lots of Russians felt,” he told me.
Putin has come to personify the Russian state, but understanding the state’s actions requires reading deeper into Russian society. Take the problems that came with NATO’s eastward enlargement. After the Soviet Union fell, NATO’s eastern border expanded in waves to include the Baltic states and Poland. The alliance allowed Ukraine and Georgia to publicly request membership. Lieven warned well before Putin’s rise that extending NATO’s borders toward Ukraine, in particular, would put that state in terrible danger. Moscow’s message to keep clear of Ukraine reflected a sentiment within the Russian elite that Putin couldn’t ignore even if he had wanted to. According to Burns, Putin told him, “I hope you’re making clear to Washington that this isn’t just about me, that even my sharpest oppositionist critics in Russia are going to take the same position with regard to Ukrainian membership in NATO.”
Burns warned Washington that Ukrainian membership in NATO was a red line for Russia. (WikiLeaks published the memos.) But successive presidents’ desire to consolidate European democracy, among other factors, kept the process going through the 2000s. “I think what happened in later years was we sort of stayed on autopilot with regard to NATO expansion,” Burns said.
“You Americans need to listen more,” Putin told Burns in 2005. Easy for the autocrat to say, but as Burns’s experience shows, senior American officials don’t always listen to their own diplomats. “We’ve each had our illusions,” Burns said. “On our side, it was the sense that, born of the experience of the early 1990s when Russia was flat on its back, that we could always maneuver over or around, you know, any Russian leadership.” Obama’s famous hot-mic incident in 2012 with then-President Dmitry Medvedev is remembered for Obama’s promise of dealings after the election, but Medvedev’s response—“I will transmit this information to Vladimir”—underscored that the American president was speaking to the less important Russian.
Burns didn’t have a simple answer for how to get Russia right next time. “What senior policy makers need, just as the audiences for good journalism require, is a sense of perspective,” Burns said. Civilians in the diplomatic corps are supposed to provide that perspective within the U.S. government. But that capability is being degraded as State Department roles go unfilled. Burns said he’s an optimist. He told the diplomat turned journalist Ronan Farrow, “The Foreign Service has often gotten the shit beat out of it”—but it’s still bounced back. Former diplomats have argued that what the Foreign Service needs is precisely more of Burns. His history suggests another question: If it finds another one of him, will Washington listen this time?
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