Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi

Peter Conradi's "Who Lost Russia?" asks a question many have pondered for the past decade (at least).  In the wake of the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union it appeared that the United States had "won" the Cold War and Russia looked with hope toward the West for understanding where their future might be found.  Unfortunately, much of the goodwill, from both sides, was squandered during the 1990s and led to the eventual ascension of Vladimir Putin to power at the turn of the century.  The terrorist attack against NYC on 9/11 offered another chance to a working partnership between the US and Russia but that was hardly the direction Bush, Cheney, and Co. wanted to take the country.  Thus, Putin as President of Russia, decided on an "alternative" approach by becoming more belligerent with "near abroad" territories and thanks to the surplus created as a result of previously rising oil prices much of the country was happy to follow someone they believed had altered their living conditions for the better while US actions in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world continually portrayed an America that many Russians no longer view with the same respect and appreciation they once did.

Conradi gets a lot right.  I was very surprised by how much ground he was able to cover in some 340 pages of text.  For those familiar with Russian/Soviet history, there won't be too much that's new or original within these pages, but for those new to the subject this is definitely a great starting point for beginning to understand the differences in how the US and Russia viewed events that took place throughout the 1990s up through the recent presidential election.  Where Conradi falls short is his reliance on a few select sources to tell his story.  He creates a compelling narrative but his own voice is often lost and not enough analysis is offered to better explain and fully contextualize all the issues he discusses, including how they influenced future developments.  That's the biggest drawback to a text that lacks primary source research (which in the author's defense is mostly impossible due to the recent nature of many of the events being portrayed).  However, more could have also have been done with other "players" who've been caught between the US and Russia.  That is, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, the Baltic states, and other Central/Eastern European nations have played a role in how Russia views the United States and vice versa.  There were a few instances when Conradi brought them into the equation and made sure to emphasize that their interests should not be ignored and do have an impact on how these larger regional and world powers behave but he did not offer enough analysis to drive home that fact often enough.

By the end of the text I appears Conradi could not come up with a clear-cut answer to the question in the title of his book.  He placed blame on both sides (which is often quite deserved) but in that respect I think he partly ignores one of his own points in that Russian thinking simply does not match that of the West that has lived under "democratic" and "capitalistic" conditions far longer than Russians.  If one believes the above, then the author's conclusions rely on "Western thinking" and omit much of what he discussed from the Russian point of view thus skewing his conclusion(s).  Western attitudes toward Russia in the 1990s reinforced Russian beliefs of those who were wary of Western "experts" who came over to help in that they were more interested in Russian resources than helping Russia convert into a democratic power while building an economic system that relied on capitalist ideas.  Future Russian oligarchs worked with the system at their disposal to the detriment of both their country and the Russian people in general while politicians like Yeltsin tried to steer the country into a democratic direction as NATO, an organization that existed to thwart Soviet aggression, decided it was time not to reorganize and include Russia but more so placate their previous adversary while allowing former Eastern bloc members to join.  These actions might seem unimportant to many in the West, but a Russian narrative has been created based on this type of thinking and has been reinforced by many other actions that has degraded the reputation of the United States throughout the world.  Suffice it to say that this is hardly the endpoint in the question Conradi raises, it is just the start.

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