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The Biggest Nation-Building Failure of the Last 30 Years Isn’t Afghanistan—It’s Russia

Posted on Wednesday, September 22, 2021
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AMAC Exclusive – by Daniel Roman

Russia

Under the shadow of the collapse of America’s 20-year nation building project in Afghanistan, and suggestions from American allies around the world that the US is no longer even a superpower, there has been extensive discussion of where American foreign policy went wrong. There have been plenty of answers too, some quite easy. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the mishandling of the war in Afghanistan, appeasement of China on trade and IP theft, all seem in hindsight to be horrible mistakes. But perhaps it is worth going back another decade. For although all these conflicts were mismanaged, America’s position today is a consequence of a failure to consolidate its victory in the Cold War in the only way that would have been sustainable: by building a capitalist and democratic Russia. That failure, which both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations contributed to, is one we are still paying for today—in the Middle East, in Europe, and in the Far East.

Just over ten years before the 9/11 attacks and 9,000 miles away, tanks suddenly appeared in another city of ten million. It was August 18th, 1991, and in Moscow troops took up positions around public buildings as a drunken gang of Soviet politicians appeared on television to declare that Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned as Soviet president due to “ill health.” Their effort to seize power was resisted by the people of Moscow, who flocked to join Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the “Russian White House,” resisting Soviet tanks until the coup collapsed several days later.

When contrasted with how brutally, not to mention easily, Vladimir Putin’s regime breaks up protests and silences dissent, it is almost shocking how bravely the Russian people acted in resisting the Coup. They were not crushed, but on the contrary crushed the plotters. Bringing about the effective end of the Soviet Union is even more incredible when it is recalled how little international support they had. Rather than rallying to the support of Yeltsin or the Soviet people, foreign leaders hesitated, showing a shocking willingness to work with the new hardline leaders. Even the United States only mustered an observation from the President that “coups can fail” — far short of doing anything to promote that outcome.

In fact, this inaction was representative of the Western attitude toward the democratic and capitalist movement within Russia throughout the 1990s. While favorable to the concept of a democratic and capitalist Russia, Western leaders were so enmeshed in a world view in which a hostile, Communist, totalitarian Russia was an inevitable fixture that they could not bring themselves to believe that those calling for a different Russia could succeed. While they paid lip service to resistance figures, there was always an element of contempt, viewing them as “flakes.” The White House, for example, blocked any official reception of Yeltsin in the United States for years, apparently believing his very liberalism made him “unserious.” His victory in August of 1991 did not change this attitude.

Throughout the 1990s, Western politicians repeatedly wrote off Russian liberals, predicting their demise repeatedly, whether in a military coup in 1993 or the 1996 Presidential election. At the same time, they constantly sought out “serious” figures from the old security forces they could deal with, in the hope the “adults” would retake power. Before Putin, that included figures such as former Soviet Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. When a “strongman” rose to power in 2000 in the form of Vladimir Putin, he was only providing what Western leaders believed Russia had needed all along, and it was only then that investors began taking renewed interest in Russia. Tragically, they were to be proven far too late.

The investment which poured into Putin’s Russia in the early 2000s could have been of invaluable assistance in 1992. Unlike in 2000, Russia was then for a brief period ruled by committed capitalists who wished to bury Communism more than many American politicians. In the wake of the August Coup, Russia had banned the Communist Party outright, and there was a desire to become like the West as quickly as possible.

We know now that this failed amidst corruption, but just because something failed did not mean that it had to. Many of the problems with privatization were related to the effective bankruptcy of the Russian state, which needed money quick, and was unable to sell investments at their real value, or afford to modernize them before selling. This was not a uniquely Russian problem. Similar issues bedeviled Germany’s recovery from the First World War and contributed to the rise of the Nazis.

Learning from that lesson, American policymakers realized after the Second World War that the best way of safeguarding democracy and American alliances in Europe was to help those countries rebuild quickly. The result was the Marshall Plan, which pumped billions of American dollars into Europe. While it could have been portrayed as welfare, American farmers and manufacturers needed customers, and European states needed to be able to defend themselves. In the end, the U.S. economy made a substantial profit. The total cost of the plan, in 2021 dollars, was $140 billion, one fifteenth that of the Afghan war.

There were those, such as Secretary of State James Baker, who saw a similar opportunity in Russia. There were tens of thousands of factories and oil refineries which were effectively worthless because there was no money to purchase spare parts to operate them. They could neither generate revenue directly, nor be sold for much. But with an influx of dollars, Russia’s energy sector could have been turned into a profitable powerhouse, reducing American dependence on Middle Eastern oil and making Russia’s recovery self-funding. Baker argued that not only would providing funds for such a project on a loan likely pay for itself, with American taxpayers earning a profit, but it would serve a wider geopolitical end.

For Baker, there was no more vital U.S. foreign policy objective than making the Russian transition to capitalism and democracy a success. A democratic Russia would be key to solving domestic disputes in the Ukraine, the Caucuses, and Central Asia, where linguistic and ethnic conflicts could be contained if they did not become proxies for ideological competition. A democratic Russia would be a key ally within international bodies, able to pressure Iran, Syria, and Iraq. By contrast, other U.S. interests, such as the effort to expand the EU and NATO into the former Soviet bloc, isolate or overthrow the Iranian regime, and press for peace in the Middle East, would be under constant threat if there was a resentful, authoritarian Russia out for revenge.

With China rising as a potential American rival, a successful transition in Russia would have vindicated those who called for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989 by fulfilling the dream of those who took to the streets of Moscow in August 1991. By contrast, the disastrous failure of the Russian transition would, as it has, serve to vindicate Deng Xiaoping and those who acted to crush the nascent democracy movement in China. 

Baker asked for at most $100 billion in the form of loans. With hindsight and knowledge of the trillions of dollars that would be spent in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, $100 billion now appears to have been a shockingly cheap bargain.

Unfortunately, at the time, American politicians were in no mood to build, or more accurately to help others build. They wanted a peace dividend, and if there would be money spent abroad, it would be on wars. If there was to be construction, it would be reconstruction in nations the U.S. was seeking to build, not helping people who wanted to build their own nations.

Russia, in the end, received no money. At most it received assistance in taking out more IMF loans at ruinous interest rates, not any actual investment. The U.S. would spend trillions in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, only to have the Taliban ultimately regain power and a hostile Russia wielding as much influence in those places as the United States.

Would engagement and funding have produced a democratic Russia? Maybe. Maybe not. But the tragedy is that the United States did not try. The Afghanistan debacle was a catastrophe, and an embarrassment of historic proportions. But the failed nation building mission was not America’s worst blunder since the end of the Cold War. It was only a very expensive runner up.

Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

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Max
Max
2 years ago

Interesting but V Putin is what he is— a DICTATOR with the similar goals of conquest as any man with power desires. He has been patient with his dealings with the West getting what he wants at the West’s expense. He brutally suppresses all who oppose him and doesn’t blink an eye. It would not have mattered if the West helped Russia earlier, the result would have been accelerated.

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
2 years ago

We tried that in 1918-19 Op Archangel in Russia then post Russian Rev 1917

PaulE
PaulE
2 years ago

Neither Bush 1 nor Clinton were focused on true, long-term world geopolitics as it pertains to then Russia. Their administrations had very specific objectives, which did NOT include a large scale engagement to facilitate pro-capitalism in post Soviet Union Russia. Bush was chiefly focused on facilitating expanded economic and diplomatic relations with China and Clinton was focused on trying to make the United States more European via social engineering efforts, along with easing the path to getting China into the World Trade Organization despite the many warnings of the dangers of doing so. A more interesting article would have been how would the world look today, if the both these U.S. Presidents had made more rational, clear-eyed decisions with respect to Communist China. However, that is a topic for another day.

Would a hypothetical engagement by either U.S. President have changed the ultimate outcome and rise of Putin? That is a coin toss at best. Just because the Soviet Union collapsed, it didn’t mean the societal damage of 70 years of repressive communism on the country would be magically wiped away. Yeltsin and his supporters ultimately giving way to old-style “strongmen” from the old Soviet Union high-lighted the push and pull between those in Russia wanting a better, more freedom oriented lifestyle (the generally younger people) and those that longed for the state imposed predictability of a dictatorship (the older people who spent their entire lives living where the state told them, doing the job the state told them, etc. etc.).

Ultimately, the Russian people made the fatal mistake of putting people like Putin back into power and like in all socialist governments, once elected socialists are very hard to remove. They change the voting rules. They use their power to change laws and whatever constitution or rules govern the country. They control who counts the votes in every election to ensure they win over and over again. They imprison or kill their political rivals to ensure they remain in power. So while this article presents a nice “what if” to ponder what a different set of priorities and actions from two past U.S. Presidents might have changed in Russia, none of it will change the fact that as of the last election Putin has cemented his life-long hold on power in Russia.

Tim Toroian
Tim Toroian
2 years ago

I always thought Afghanistan needed to be a cooperative occupation as Korea is for terrorist control rather than a “war” that could be “won”.

Henry Carney
Henry Carney
2 years ago

Would have loved to see James Baker as our President…

Elaine
Elaine
2 years ago

Too many politicians are focused on being elected and then re-elected without thought of why they are seeking a job in government. They want the job, but not the work that goes with the job…their goal is the election, not taking care of the country and doing what is best for the USA.

John / fix this mess
John / fix this mess
2 years ago

I respectfully “disagree”. The biggest failures of the last 30 years in rebuilding of livable,thriving societies are all of our large democrat-controlled cities; Chicago Baltimore, detroit , Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Fran.. You get the idea.

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