US-Russian Relations in Post-Cold War Retrospective: Could the United States have won Russia over?

Whether the United States “won” the Cold War by spending the USSR into the ground, or whether it was won for them by the great awakening that spread across Eastern Europe in the 1980s is a matter of continuing debate; that the end of the Cold War was a complete shock to exactly that group of scholars which now embraces the former theory is not. Whichever is the case, one thing that is clear in retrospect about that historical moment is that the United States and its European allies failed to secure the peace as well as they should have.

US in Russia: Enabling Paranoia

By now, we are all used to seeing the weekly Russian-American spat. Yes, there are historical and psychological factors behind this, going back as far as Ivan the Terrible, who taught his successors to unite Russia through fear of the West. And yes, Putin is a masterful manipulator of this psychological tendency. But the West made it easy. How many Russians after the humiliating decline and poverty of the 1990s looked back to the Soviet Union with nostalgia, the good old days when poverty at least had a defined bottom? And how easy to blame the change on the West, which gained everything by Russia’s decline and no doubt stood by laughing. And then, how tempting to look back on the military might of the Soviet Union and say, as many Russians do, “They were afraid of us then!”

From there, militarisation and nationalist bellicosity become embedded in Russian politics, and with them the price that Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great and Lenin and Stalin have all taught their people to accept: a strong boss at the top of a strong state which will tax the people in order to defend them and spy on them and repress undesirable elements in order to keep them safe.

Consider the Following

Could this regression have been prevented? Could the West have prevented it? No one can answer that question. But the West certainly could have done more. Consider the following scenario:

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Union, American economic advisors were sent to advise Russia on how to manage the transition to capitalism. From the perspective of these advisors, the Russian political establishment was so caught up in its internal problems that it implemented their advice haphazardly and clumsily. From the Russian perspective, the Americans were suspect representatives of a foreign ideology who gave a lot of advice and did little besides.

Suppose the United States had sent a high-level envoy to Russia with a whole package of economic incentives, including trade concessions and widespread industrial collaboration. Many Russian industries which simply could not compete on an open market could have been easily updated through industrial partnerships rather than sold off in bulk to corrupt predators. Above all, the United States should have tried to sustain the existing economic structure, and advised the Yeltsin government to do so, until it could be consciously and carefully privatised, rather than the disastrously rapid sell-off that actually occurred. The concessions on offer would have been the guarantee of the government’s attention.

Defence Industry

The United States, realising that Russia’s massive military industrial complex represented its only sound manufacturing industry and that it could easily represent a threat to the peace if left to itself, could have invested in industrial partnerships designed to convert large parts of this sector to civilian use, giving Russia the incentive of access to up-to-date computers and electronics. The remainder of this sector could have been safely sustained by giving it US defence contracts (in partnership with US firms). This would have benefitted the US military enormously by giving them cheap access to the systems they are most likely to face in future conflicts, as well as advances in areas such as ground-based surface-to-air and supersonic anti-ship missiles, artillery and so on in which the United States has always lagged behind. Imagine a defence establishment with the insight to redirect the billions of dollars wasted in the past two decades on cancelled and overbudget programs into partnerships with Russian industry, which had the foresight to buy Su-30s to supplement the USAF’s ageing F-15 fleet, which bought Sovremenny-class destroyers before China could get to them, which for a fraction of today’s defence budget had unlimited access to cheap, highly-effective systems. Russia would gain access to the world’s biggest defence market, all for the low, low price of first crack at every product they made and the occasional under-the-table veto of a purchase to a hostile country.

All of the above could have meant that American aid dollars, rather than doping the Russian economy, could have been used to sustain it until it reached profitability. Even if the project failed (and since trying to keep a lid on Yeltsin, let alone his various governments, would at best have been an exercise in bull-riding, it very likely would have), the United States could have bought itself enormous capital, and given Russia enormous face, by placing such importance in the project. Blame for any failure would have more than likely landed in Yeltsin’s lap, as long as the US were smart enough to make a point of deferring to him on a regular basis.


Face is the important quantity here. Russia’s abiding inferiority/superiority complex is one of the more prominent and remarked-upon aspects of its national character. The country that built the world’s biggest submarine, biggest nuclear-powered cruiser, biggest ICBM, biggest strategic rocket force and biggest bomber has a burning need to be recognised as an equal among equals, to be respected. That is precisely what it did not feel during the 1990s, and it is that omission for which we are now paying.

It Couldn’t Have Happened

Of course, very little of the above would have been politically possible. Asking the US Congress to abandon pork-barrel politics long enough to place major defence orders overseas, asking the US to actually build up an economic competitor, asking France and Germany to risk adding Russia to the list of their competitors for EU leadership- it’s all quite impossible. So, you may ask, what is the point of this indulgence in counterfactual history if it couldn’t have happened?

Short-Term Thinking

The point is that the sort of strategic short-sightedness demonstrated by the United States in its relationship with Russia arises from the same political defects that continue to diminish its position in the world today. Anyone remember the Asian Financial Crisis back at the turn of the millennium? That was America’s golden opportunity to make friends in Asia. The US wasn’t paying attention, and it was China that swooped in and bailed out its neighbours, gaining very substantial goodwill and laying the groundwork for the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. That agreement came about because China was willing to make substantial unilateral economic concessions, tailored country by country, on the basis of a principle called “giving six, taking four.” It was about the long game.

The entire scenario spelled out above was inspired by the strategies of the Chinese Communist Party, both in its internal economic policies and in its so-called “Charm Offensive.” These people are incredibly smart, enjoying the world’s oldest and most sophisticated strategic culture, and unlike the United States political establishment, they play the long game as a matter of habit. And yet, the West remains predisposed through political dogma to regard the Party as a relic, an impediment to China’s progress, rather than the architect thereof. All that the Party needs to continue winning in international politics is to continue being underestimated. It has found a basic weakness of the American system, and is both exploiting it directly, and profiting by the fruits of it- the Sino-Russian arms relationship has been a prime example. So long as the United States lacks the political will to address the strategic shortcomings of its current lucre-greased electoral system, any great power lacking that liability will be able to exploit it.