"Failed Crusade" is a jeremiad of a book, a bitter lament about America's treatment of Russia in the years of Boris Yeltsin and a prophecy of doom unless U.S. policy is changed. Stephen F. Cohen writes that the United States, by backing Yeltsin wholeheartedly, brutally forced Russia toward an American-style capitalism for which it was neither suited nor ready. His indictment falls most heavily on the Clinton administration, especially Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Vice President Al Gore. But he also excoriates a large cast of economic and financial advisors, journalists and scholars for "malpractice" throughout the 1990s in this angry book.
"The Clinton Administration put America on the wrong side of history in post-Communist Russia," he writes. "For this, most historians will judge it very harshly, and some of us already do. . . . The indictment will include not merely missed opportunities but politically reckless and even immoral policy conduct that helped create a Frankenstein's monster system in Russia today . . ."--the monster being the reawakening of Russia's ancient anger toward the outside world and its tendency toward absolutism in government.
He charges that the U.S. government actively encouraged "a Yeltsin regime that enabled a small clique of predatory insiders to plunder Russia's most valuable 20th-century assets, a process that continued during the early months of [President Vladimir] Putin's rule, while most of its people were being impoverished and millions of them dying prematurely for lack of elementary resources." The White House, Cohen continues, applauded and egged on the so-called reformers in the Kremlin who showed the same neglect of, and contempt for, the masses as did their Communist predecessors.
Cohen's views will be familiar to readers of the nation's opinion pages and especially to those who peruse the pages of the proudly leftist Nation magazine, where he regularly writes and of which his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, is the editor. A professor at New York University, Cohen was for years at Princeton University, where he was director of the Russian studies program.
America's flawed policy toward Russia, Cohen argues in "Failed Crusade," has resulted in a Russia that is not only deeply wounded--it is in the deepest recession in its history, Cohen says--but also profoundly dangerous to the world, for it is a severely unstable country in possession of a nuclear arsenal.
What is to be done? The United States must acknowledge its mistakes and take a more moderate course, recognizing that, at best, the Russia that will emerge is not going to be an American-style democracy or practice an American brand of capitalism. Economic assistance must be given, Cohen writes, with the awareness that Russia has its own history and its own conditions and must be allowed to develop in its own way.
If something less than full democracy in Russia turns out to be the price that America and the world must pay for nuclear stability, it will be worth it, Cohen argues. The United States should immediately give Russia the money it needs--"probably less than $1 billion" he writes--to pay all the wages and pensions it owes to its people. And the U.S. should give Russia enough money to raise the many pensions and salaries that are below the subsistence rate of between $30 and $35 per month.
With its allies, the United States should also pay off the $7 billion that the former republics owe to Russia, mostly for energy, and then cancel a large part of Russia's $168-billion foreign debt and defer payment on the remainder. The United States must help Russia repair its nuclear arsenal to make it less vulnerable to accident and sabotage. And America should reduce its own nuclear arsenal and renounce first-use of nuclear weapons.
To persuade the Russians that they are not being dangerously encircled, Cohen argues, the United States should refrain from pushing NATO membership farther to the east and give up attempts to bring oil from the Caspian Sea area and its former Soviet republics.
Cohen is not alone in his criticism of American policy toward Russia. As he somewhat ruefully notes, some conservative commentators, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, warned American policymakers not to depend too much on Yeltsin and to respect Russia's history and culture. Kissinger and others used more moderate language, though. Cohen's constantly shrill overstatements undercut the common sense of many of his arguments. His vitriolic attacks on the media and other scholars betray the habit of mind of a person who is more bent on finding fault with others than on making a case for his own ideas.
All that said, however, Cohen has a message in "Failed Crusade" that must be taken seriously. The very newspapers he takes issue with present his case almost daily. The new Russia that the West believed Yeltsin would lead into the post-communist world has arrived, and it is in deep trouble.
"The Clinton Administration put America on the wrong side of history in post-Communist Russia. For this, most historians will judge it very harshly, and some of us already do."