Former U.S. ambassador to Poland Daniel Fried discussed relations between the U.S. and Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse at Levering’s Arellano Theater on Thursday, Nov. 9. The International Studies Leadership Council and HopMUN co-hosted the event.
Fried criticized the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations for failing to build a new relationship with Russia. According to Fried, the U.S. was mistaken in thinking that the fall of the Soviet Union would liberate Russia from communism and help it flourish.
“More profoundly, it was a national trauma,” Fried said. “Russia went back to its borders not of pre-revolutionary Russia, but of mid-17th century Russia. That’s a long way back.”
However, he believes that the U.S. had good intentions when offering assistance, saying that the Clinton administration understood the Russians were experiencing difficulties and reached out accordingly, in good faith.
“What Bill Clinton did as he was embracing Boris Yeltsin was also to open the doors to the [North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)] and the [European Union (EU)] to allow the hundred million Europeans... to join the institutions of a united Europe if they were capable of meeting the conditions,” Fried said.
He noted that the U.S. offered aid to other nations newly freed from Soviet domination. These offers included stronger economic cooperation and even military alliances under NATO for some nations like Poland, Estonia and Romania.
According to Fried, Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely accuses the U.S. of taking advantage of Russia’s weakness at the time of Soviet dissolution. He says that the U.S. offering aid to other countries was what generated this myth.
“During the ‘90s we treated the countries of central and eastern Europe as if they had a right to determine their own future, as if their vote counted for themselves,” Fried said. “This was not what Russia wanted. The deal they were offering us was basically to treat them like a great power that had temporarily fallen upon hard times, and we were unwilling to do it.”
He went on to say that during the ‘90s, Russia underwent insufficient domestic reforms compounded by severe corruption and a precarious economic situation. International gaffes, he said, paved the way for an authoritarian, hyper-masculine figure to grab the reins of Russian power.
Fried then discussed policies under the Bush administration. He said that former U.S. President George W. Bush was optimistic and cordial with Putin’s Russia upon assuming office.
“After the chaos of the ‘90s, restoring order was legitimate, and the early Bush administration recognized that [Putin] had an argument,” Fried said. “They weren’t going to walk back what Clinton had done by enlarging NATO, but they were going to embrace Putin, and George W. Bush was going to reach out to Putin with just as much energy as Bill Clinton embraced Boris Yeltsin.”
Though the Bush administration did try to include Russia in established systems of power — admitting them into the G-7, a group of countries with the largest industrial economies, for instance — Fried said that the embrace was not reciprocated. Bush continued and enlarged Western support to former Soviet-bloc countries that his predecessor had begun, infuriating Putin.
“Bush personally made the decision to bring the Baltic countries into NATO,” he said. “He wanted to reach out to Russia and simultaneously to the people between the West and Russia just as Bill Clinton did. Vladimir Putin was having none of it.”
In the midst of the American involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin denounced the West and touted Russian might, campaigning to prove his power.
“They believed that we had grabbed from them their rightful possessions in central and eastern Europe and believed that we were trying to grab from them their rightful possessions of Ukraine and Georgia,” Fried said.
Under the Obama administration, these tensions continued.
“Obama offered a reset but basically on the same terms that Bush had reached out to Putin — that is, we will work with Russia, but we are not going to abandon our interests in the countries in between Russia and the West,” Fried said.
When Ukraine experienced another pro-Western revolution in 2014 after years under Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, Obama made it clear that the U.S. sided with the victorious revolutionaries.
This came in conjunction with strict sanctions laid on Russia as Obama led the West in condemning the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, a province of Ukraine for decades.
“Clinton, Bush and Obama — all three tried in their own ways to reach out to Russia. All three failed,” Fried said. “The failure by all three was an honorable failure... they did not offer up third countries on the altar of U.S.-Russia relations.”
He also pointed out how Putin formally combatted the “Westernization” of nations well within the Iron Curtain. Fried explained that this process is in keeping with a centuries-old Russian tradition of alternating Westernization followed by an aggressive backlash to prove the uniqueness and power of the Russian way.
Fried went on to discuss the impact of the Trump administration on U.S.-Russia relations. During his campaign, Trump praised Putin on multiple occasions and called for stronger ties between the two countries.
However, Fried believes that there is more continuity than change in U.S. policies on Russia, possibly due to increased scrutiny that these concerns have placed on the Trump administration in regards to its actions towards Russia.
“It shouldn’t surprise you that the Russia policy that has emerged... is not all that different from what preceded it. The sanctions have been maintained,” he said. “If you were in a political position in the Trump White House, would you want to be the person to make a phone call over to State or Treasury telling them to cut back, to put the brakes on implementation of a Russia sanctions law? I wouldn’t want to be that guy.”
He termed the current state of U.S.-Russia relations as “Cold War II,” and said that Trump’s hands seem tied by ongoing investigations into connections between his campaign and Russia.
As he wrapped up his lecture, Fried reflected on the lessons he learned from decades of experience in mediating between American and Russian interests.
“Don’t be in a hurry,” he said. “Don’t run after a grand bargain... Be patient.”
After his lecture, Fried engaged in a discussion with Steven David, professor of political science, who challenged Fried on some of his points. A Q&A session followed the discussion.
Students like sophomore Renee Robinson appreciated the structure of the talk and said that Fried offered unique insight into the history of post-Cold War U.S.-Russia relations.
“I definitely feel like I have more context,” said Robinson. “He made a great case about why we should be concerned about it.”
Senior and International Studies major Matthieu Ortiz also talked about Fried’s unique perspective as an active participant in shaping U.S. policy towards Russia in the last few decades.
“It’s definitely interesting to hear from the perspective of somebody who’s worked in the American foreign service,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz emphasized the importance of considering different viewpoints.
“Imagine if Russia had soldiers in Mexico and Canada. That would freak us out,” Oritz said. “At the same time, Russia has no place annexing Ukrainian territory and propping up rebel groups that aren’t even fully legitimate to begin with.”