By 2012, relations were frosty.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's Role in Losing Russia

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, and the Russia expert Kathryn Stoner say U.S. foreign policy has had a relatively neutral effect in determining Russia's course. In an article published last week, they argued that President Vladimir Putin's virulent anti-Americanism was driven by domestic, tactical considerations, allowing us to put to rest any concern the U.S. was doing too little or too much vis-a-vis Russia.

It's an appealing theory, but it's probably wrong. Although Russia always has been quick to blame external enemies, the U.S. provoked Putin by appeasing him and then abruptly reversing course. The damage won't be easily undone. 

Here's the story as McFaul and Stoner tell it. The U.S.-Russian relationship was fine during the so-called reset (pushed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and McFaul himself as ambassador), when President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, collaborated on a broad international agenda. Russia didn't object to the West's use of military force against Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya, and the U.S. helped Russia join the World Trade Organization. Visa rules between the countries were eased, there was increased cooperation in oil and gas, and Russia had all but stopped griping about North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion. 

Putin, who served as prime minister under Medvedev, began to feel his power slipping away. In September 2011, when Putin announced his intention to run for president again, his support dropped to 63 percent, the lowest since 2000. The economy was no longer expanding as fast because oil price growth slowed. Then the pro-Putin United Russian party barely managed to eke out a victory in parliamentary elections,  despite widespread falsification, and popular protests erupted in Moscow.  

"To counter this new wave of social mobilization, Putin revived an old Soviet-era argument as his new source of legitimacy -- defense of the motherland against the evil West, and especially the imperial, conniving, threatening United States," McFaul and Stoner wrote. "In particular, Putin argued that the United States was seeking to topple his regime."

In other words, Putin needed an external enemy to lift his popularity, and the U.S. fit the bill. Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine are part of this policy aimed at showing Russians that their country is at war with the West, particularly with the U.S. There's nothing the U.S. can do about it -- just stay the course of "neo-containment, selective engagement," maintain economic sanctions, support Ukraine and wait. "Containment -- a policy now celebrated as strategic wisdom -- did not produce results a year after its adoption, or even a decade later, or even several decades later," McFaul and Stoner noted.

This view, however, ignores the (probably unwitting but decisive) U.S. role in Putin's domestically motivated shift. 

The "reset" was effectively an appeasement policy. The West, including the U.S., let Russia get away with invading Georgia in 2008. It tolerated the internationalization of Russian corruption, which spread to Europe via London. It overlooked rigged elections, as well as the growing influence of state-enterprises (McFaul and Stoner cite negotiations on a potential link-up between one of them, Rosneft, and Exxon Mobil as one of the reset's most promising aspects). The U.S., and the West as a whole, was willing to let Putin's team govern Russia and rule the neighborhood as it pleased. In return, it got cooperation on Libya and the military operation in Afghanistan.

Then, when Russians protested against the rigged parliamentary vote in 2011, Clinton suddenly was no longer willing to appease Putin, though, as McFaul and Stoner noted, "the extent of falsification was probably no more than previous Russian elections." She expressed "serious concerns about the conduct of the elections" and called for a "full investigation of all reports of fraud and intimidation." Putin reacted vehemently, accusing the secretary of state of fomenting the protests.  

The U.S. could have kept silent, and it could have privately sought to convince Putin it had nothing to do with the protests (which I, as a participant, know to be true). It chose a different tack: Clinton stood by her remarks, adding, "We are supportive of the rights and aspirations of the Russian people to be able to make progress and realize a better future for themselves." That only made Putin more certain that Western leaders had been leading on Russia, lulling it into complacency, while planning regime change. Trust evaporated, and when the Ukraine crisis began in 2013, Putin was convinced the U.S. was fomenting the protests that led to the downfall of the regime in Kiev.

Now, the distrust has developed into full-blown paranoia. Consider this article by Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the Russian parliament's lower house, in the Sunday edition of the government-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta:

You will ask what goal the U.S. is pursuing? The answer is the same as before: their external debt is huge, and ruining other countries is their customary method. Even ownership of the global 'printing press' is no longer helping. Nor is full control over NATO, the surveillance and blackmail of the European Union's upper echelon. None of that if enough for the 21st century colonizers. They don't just need to preserve the dollar as the only global currency but also to get their hands on the economic wealth of other large powers and regions.

This sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it's also an expression of personal hurt. Naryshkin is subject to both U.S. and EU sanctions because of the Ukraine crisis, and he has been denied entry to Bulgaria and Finland. He sees that as hostility toward both himself and his country. Putin and his entourage are calculating politicians, but their shift away from the West was born of deep, personal emotions -- which they have been able to convey to ordinary Russians.

The emotion stems from the inconsistency of U.S. policy. Had there been no reset, had corrupt Russian businessmen and state companies been shunned in the West, had sanctions been imposed after the war with Georgia, there would have been no surprises. The U.S. and Russia probably would have returned to Cold War-era protocols designed to prevent military incidents, which would have made both sides more careful about a potential conflict in Ukraine. Bloodshed and the annexation of Crimea might have been prevented.

On the other hand, had the U.S. proved willing to continue appeasing Putin after 2011, he and his men wouldn't have grown as paranoid about U.S. conspiracies. They would have been allowed to subdue Ukraine, and a cynical West would have accepted it.

Either option -- cynical acquiescence or a stand-off with teeth bared -- would have meant more clarity and stability. The abrupt shift from one to the other engendered a psychosis in Russia. Medvedev, who gets praise from McFaul and Stoner for his role in the reset, is now one of the harshest critics of the U.S. The Russian government is now contaminated by a stronger mistrust of the West than the Soviet elite was under Mikhail Gorbachev. Maybe that's because the current leaders once experienced the benefits of coexistence. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net