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The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century

The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century

by Angela E. StentAngela E. Stent
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A gripping account of U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Soviet Union

The Limits of Partnership offers a riveting narrative on U.S.-Russian relations since the Soviet collapse and on the challenges ahead. It reflects the unique perspective of an insider who is also recognized as a leading expert on this troubled relationship. American presidents have repeatedly attempted to forge a strong and productive partnership only to be held hostage to the deep mistrust born of the Cold War. For the United States, Russia remains a priority because of its nuclear weapons arsenal, its strategic location bordering Europe and Asia, and its ability to support—or thwart—American interests. Why has it been so difficult to move the relationship forward? What are the prospects for doing so in the future? Is the effort doomed to fail again and again?

Angela Stent served as an adviser on Russia under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and maintains close ties with key policymakers in both countries. Here, she argues that the same contentious issues—terrorism, missile defense, Iran, nuclear proliferation, Afghanistan, the former Soviet space, the greater Middle East—have been in every president's inbox, Democrat and Republican alike, since the collapse of the USSR. Stent vividly describes how Clinton and Bush sought inroads with Russia and staked much on their personal ties to Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin—only to leave office with relations at a low point—and how Barack Obama managed to restore ties only to see them undermined by a Putin regime resentful of American dominance and determined to restore Russia's great power status.

The Limits of Partnership calls for a fundamental reassessment of the principles and practices that drive U.S.-Russian relations, and offers a path forward to meet the urgent challenges facing both countries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691152974
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/05/2014
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Angela E. Stent is professor of government and foreign service and director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Her books include Russia and Germany Reborn: Unification, the Soviet Collapse, and the New Europe (Princeton).

Read an Excerpt

The Limits of Partnership

U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century

By Angela E. Stent


Copyright © 2014 Angela E. Stent
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6615-1


The Bill and Boris Show

Shortly before taking the oath of office in January 1993, Bill Clinton declared that what was happening in Russia was "the biggest and toughest thing out there. It's not just the end of communism, the end of the cold war. That's what's over and done with. There's also stuff starting-stuff that's new. Figuring out what it is, how we work with it, how we keep it moving in the right direction: that's what we've got to do." Indeed, the challenge of supporting Russia's postcommunist transition and defining its new international role consumed much of the Clinton administration's foreign policy energy during its eight years in office. Along the way, the intense and often turbulent personal ties between the American and Russian presidents came to define U.S.-Russian ties.

The Clinton administration initially raised high expectations about re-creating the U.S.-Russian relationship in what became the second—and more ambitious—reset since the Soviet collapse. By the end of Clinton's two terms, however, these expectations had not been met. They probably could never have been. It became clear that the relationship was, at best, a selective partnership, where cooperation and competition coexisted, albeit in fluctuating proportions. Whatever happened, Russia would not evolve as a Western-style democracy, and American influence on Russia's internal evolution would be circumscribed.

The bilateral framework that was established in these years has in many ways defined how Washington and Moscow have dealt with each other ever since then, in both process and substance. Many of the issues over which Clinton and Yeltsin sparred remain problematic today. Indeed, there has been far more continuity in U.S.-Russian relations over the past two decades than either Democrats or Republicans might admit. That is because, as an official who served in the administrations of Bush 41 and 43 noted, "You can't choose your inbox."

Nevertheless, the outcome of Clinton's policies is still hotly debated. Did the Clinton administration play a major role in bringing democracy and the market to Russia? Or did it, as the Republicans (supported by some on the left) claimed in 2000, "fail the Russian people" and turn a blind eye as the system became increasingly corrupt? Should Washington have promoted less "shock" and more "therapy" for the economy, as Clinton's chief Russia advisor and former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott himself at one point suggested? Was it right to enlarge NATO to include Russia's former Warsaw Pact allies and the Baltic states? Should the United States have focused instead on designing a post-Cold War Euro-Atlantic security system that included Russia? Could that have even been done?


Bill Clinton seized the unique opportunity to reshape the landscape of U.S.-Russian relations when he entered the White House. It became one of the defining themes of his eight years in office, a relationship beset by constant challenges, yet one in which, despite all the controversy, there were notable achievements. As Strobe Talbott writes, the president quickly became "the U.S. government's principal Russia hand" and remained so for the rest of his presidency. Clinton appointed a team of expert advisors on Russia led by his Rhodes Scholar roommate Talbott, whose knowledge of Russia and its culture was extensive—and to whom Clinton had served tea in their Oxford digs while Talbott was translating the memoirs of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Talbott persuaded the secretary of state-designate, Warren Christopher, to create a special office that dealt with the post-Soviet states (minus the Baltics) in order to ensure that they received the attention they needed, and he became the first ambassador-at-large for the Newly Independent States (S/NIS). Previously, the Soviet Union had been part of the State Department's European Bureau.

Moreover, the new administration came into office promoting a liberal-internationalist view of foreign policy, one that held that the more democracies there were, the safer the world would be. This required an active U.S. commitment to influencing Russia's domestic transformation. The Clinton administration adopted a far more interventionist policy than did the preceding Bush administration because it believed that Russia's domestic democratic evolution was a prerequisite for a more benign foreign policy. In a 1993 speech on Russia at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Clinton set out the basic premise. He called for a "strategic alliance with Russian reform," warning that "the danger is clear if Russia's reforms turn sour—if it reverts to authoritarianism or disintegrates into chaos. The world cannot afford the strife of the former Yugoslavia replicated in a nation as big as Russia, spanning eleven time zones with an armed arsenal of nuclear weapons."

The defining idea behind the Clinton policy was that democracies do not go to war with each other. Hence it was imperative for the United States to do as much as it could to nurture the growth of Russian democracy. Moreover, economic and political liberties are inextricably linked, and a market society based on private property would ultimately produce a more democratic polity. The third premise was that the West should promote an American market-oriented economic model, as opposed to a European social democratic one (a view shared by economic liberals in Yeltsin's government). That meant that Russia should move rapidly toward privatization of the economy, greatly reducing the government's role. The Clinton administration believed that the return to power of the communists was the major danger threatening Russia's successful transformation—hence the unquestioning support for Boris Yeltsin, irrespective of his idiosyncrasies.

One issue stood out ahead of all the others. The White House understood that the greatest security danger remained Russia's large arsenal of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials not under the full control of the central authorities and vulnerable to theft and sale to rogue nations. Hence Washington had to focus on enhancing the Bush administration's nuclear nonproliferation programs and the Nunn-Lugar initiatives. The Clinton administration was committed to supporting continuing sovereignty and independence of the post-Soviet states and encouraging Moscow to move toward a post-imperial foreign policy. Finally, it recognized that it had to offer Russia incentives to accept its diminished international role. The United States led the West in offering Russia some of the trappings of a major power, including association with the G-7—the group of major industrialized nations—along with membership in what became the G-8, and later a partnership with NATO.

Yet Washington may well have overestimated how much influence the United States could have on Russia's economic development. The Clinton economic team supported a prescription for Russia macroeconomic stabilization based on shock therapy, a policy favored by Yelstin's chief economic advisor Yegor Gaidar and his small group of liberal reformers, who believed that a gradual road to capitalism was impossible in Russia's unique circumstances of total state ownership. "We had no money, no gold, and no grain to last through the next harvest," said Gaidar, "It was a time when you do everything you can do, and as rapidly as you can. There was no time for reflection." Yet Russian-style capitalism turned out to be very different from what the American team envisaged. It became apparent as the decade wore on that Russia was developing a form of "Wild East" capitalism that was sui generis, opaque, and involved levels of corruption and patronage unanticipated by Washington. Some American critics have accused the Clinton administration of knowingly aiding and abetting the rise of a form of capitalism that left most Russians impoverished, while a few corrupt oligarchs became stunningly wealthy. However, these charges vastly overestimate the impact of outside agents in determining the unique way in which the Russian economy developed.

Underpinning the Clinton administration's philosophy was a belief in the possibility of a large-scale transformation of Russian society. It was a belief that contradicted much of the Russian and Soviet historical record. For a millennium, Russia had been ruled by men, not laws. Individuals were always more important than institutions, and informal mechanisms were more important than official structures. Historians of Russia—be they Russian or Western-pointed to centuries of authoritarian rule by competing clans who paid obeisance to an all-powerful tsar or Soviet general secretary, even if at some periods the ruler's powers were more virtual than real and groups around the ruler wielded considerable influence. The tsarist patrimonial state, where the aristocracy was dependent on the ruler's goodwill to maintain its status and property, was replaced by a Soviet patrimonial state, where the Communist Party was in charge of patronage. In neither system were property rights or the rule of law much respected—or even recognized.

The Russia experts in the Clinton administration understood well these persistent factors in Russian history. But they thought that the Soviet collapse offered an opportunity to break with these traditions and to modernize Russia in a democratic way-- for the first time in its history. Given the cycles of the American political system, their time horizon was short—particularly when viewed through the prism of Russian history. They had, at best, eight years to help encourage the beginning of a radical transformation in Russia. Even if they recognized that this was a major challenge, without a bold vision and dogged persistence, they might have accomplished much less.


The greatest successes of the Clinton reset, from an American point of view, were in foreign policy: denuclearizing Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, securing Russia's cooperation in the Balkans(albeit at considerable cost in Kosovo), neutralizing Russian opposition to NATO enlargement, and bringing Russia into the G-7 as a stakeholder. Iran remained a significant area of disagreement. But all of the successes were on issues where Washington had persuaded Moscow to take actions it initially resisted.

One of the Clinton administration's first challenges was to tackle the stakeholder problem. The number of American stakeholders in the U.S.-Russian relationship has always been limited—unlike the situation with China—in part because the bilateral economic relationship was very modest. In the more than two decades since the collapse of communism, there have rarely been substantial groups on either side who have consistently pressed for improved relations. This contrasts sharply with the European relationship with Russia, where the number of stakeholders in Western Europe and Russia rapidly grew during the 1990s because of their burgeoning economic relations. Early in its tenure, the Clinton administration came up with an idea about how to build a group of stakeholders. In 1993 it established a binational commission cochaired by the U.S. vice president Al Gore and the Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The idea initially came from Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, who saw it as a way to create a more organized interagency process on the Russian side. This binational commission, which lasted until George W. Bush came into office and was subsequently reincarnated under Barack Obama, set up working groups that dealt with a range of issues—including space, energy, and economics—and was designed to create networks of officials that ensured a continuing dialogue and had a vested interest in the success of the relationship.

Another challenge for America and Russia in the 1990s was dealing with their different visions of the post-Soviet space. The United States consistently supported the independence and sovereignty of the countries in the area that, for the first decade, it referred to as the Newly Independent States. It refused to recognize the Commonwealth of Independent States because it viewed the organization as a Russian attempt to continue to exercise undue influence in its neighborhood. Immediately after the Soviet collapse, as already noted, it dispatched officials to open embassies in every new state, which no other Western country had the resources to do. Because a number of these countries had had independence thrust upon them, they were eager for advice on how to set up their own constitutions and solicited American assistance. The United States insisted that Russia had no right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. The Russian view, even during the early 1990s, was that these countries were part of what they dubbed the "near abroad," as opposed to real foreign countries that constituted the "far abroad," and that Russia had the right to a special relationship with them. In January 1993 Vladimir Lukin, the first post-Soviet ambassador to the United States, said that relations between Russia and the former Soviet states "should be treated as identical to those between New York and New Jersey."

But Washington also remained preoccupied by what would happen inside Russia, from nuclear weapons to a democratic transition, to the risk of violence or starvation. So Clinton focused on cultivating his relationship with Yeltsin. Personal ties between Russian and American leaders have always been disproportionately important, given the existential challenges that the two nuclear superpowers faced and because of the absence of strong institutional ties between the countries. But the Yeltsin-Clinton relationship acquired an intensity and significance all its own, in part because of the outsized personalities of the two men. Yet what comes through in the pages of their autobiographies is that Clinton left office with a more positive view of his Russian counterpart than vice versa—perhaps inevitably, given the disparity in the power and influence of the two countries. "Yeltsin had complicated feelings toward the United States," says one senior Yeltsin-era official, "that were a product of the Soviet times." Clinton said he felt "more confidence in Yeltsin" after their first official meeting in Vancouver in April 1993. "I liked him. He was a big bear of a man, full of contradictions—Compared with the realistic alternatives, Russia was lucky to have him at the helm."

Individuals inevitably interpret other peoples' behavior and motivations through the prism of their own experiences. Clinton often dealt with Yeltsin—particularly in the most difficult moments—by interpreting Yeltsin's actions through the prism of his own stepfather's alcoholism, comparing his relationship with Yeltsin favorably to the one he had with his stepfather. While his willingness to humor Yeltsin no doubt succeeded in avoiding several major showdowns, he may also have underestimated other factors that lay behind Yeltsin's often unpredictable behavior, including the competing domestic political pressures that the Russian president faced. Clinton's concluding assessment of Yeltsin is generous: "For all his physical problems and occasional unpredictability, he had been a courageous and visionary leader. We trusted each other and had accomplished a lot together."

Yeltsin's assessment of Clinton is less fulsome. "Bill Clinton is a notable figure in U.S. history," he writes, admitting that when he first met him, "I was completely amazed by this young, eternally smiling man who was powerful, energetic, and handsome." His chief bodyguard and drinking companion Alexander Korzhakov reports that Yeltsin saw Clinton as a younger brother. He viewed Clinton's struggles with the Congress over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment through the prism of his own struggles with the Duma (the Russian parliament), which likewise tried to impeach him. Indeed, he claims that his intelligence services reported as early as 1996 that the Republicans planned to plant a beautiful young woman in the ^White House to seduce Clinton and then create a scandal that would depose him—a piece of information that Yeltsin says he decided not to share with Clinton. Nevertheless, as he became increasingly embattled domestically, Yeltsin became more estranged from the United States. By the end of his presidency, he felt betrayed by the Clinton administration because of its bombing campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo war, its enlargement of NATO, and its treatment of Russia—in Moscow's eyes, as a defeated power rather than as an equal. Western observers today often attribute the Russian narrative about condescending and unequal treatment by the United States to Vladimir Putin. But the complaints originated in the Yeltsin era, and indeed with Yeltsin himself, and were widespread by the end of his tenure in office.


Excerpted from The Limits of Partnership by Angela E. Stent. Copyright © 2014 Angela E. Stent. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction ix

List of Acronyms xvii


George H. W. Bush and Russia Reborn 1

Chapter One The Bill and Boris Show 13

Chapter Two Rethinking Euro-Atlantic Security 35

Chapter Three Bush and Putin in the Age of Terror 49

Chapter Four The Iraq War 82

Chapter Five The Color Revolutions 97

Illustrations following page 123

Chapter Six The Munich Speech 135

Chapter Seven From Kosovo to Georgia: Things Fall Apart 159

Chapter Eight Economics and Energy: The Stakeholder Challenge 177

Chapter Nine Reset or Overload? The Obama Initiative 211

Chapter Ten From Berlin to Damascus: Disagreements Old and New 235

Chapter Eleven The Limits of Partnership 255

Acknowledgments 275

List of Interviewees 279

Chronology of Major Events in U.S.-Russian Relations 283

Notes 293

Bibliography 321

Credits for Illustration Section 327

Index 329

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Angela Stent has written a comprehensive, thoughtful, and tremendously useful study of post-Cold War relations between Russia and the United States. She uses interviews with key actors in Russia and the United States and a host of other fresh sources to examine the unpredictable ups and downs of what remains the most important bilateral relationship in international relations in the twenty-first century. This is a must-read for anyone concerned about global affairs now and in the future."—Kathryn Stoner, Stanford University

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