National Security

Russia: Back to the Zero Sum Game

By Thomas Armbruster:

“You destroyed us.”

That assessment by a senior Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy official summed up the feeling in Moscow during the immediate post-Cold War period.  Working as a “Nuclear Affairs Officer” in the Embassy in Moscow, I made regular visits to the Ministry of Atomic Energy.  With my Russian counterparts we coordinated expert and Congressional visits to the “Nuclear Cities,” the once super-secret jewels in the Soviet nuclear archipelago.  After seeing those cities, it was hard to disagree with him.  Curtains hung in disrepair, dusty pianos sat silently in formerly elegant ballrooms, and the general feeling in cities like Sarov, or Arzamas-16, was one of directionless despair.  The U.S. came up with an ambitious plan to take Russia’s nuclear weapons and nuclear expertise and render it less dangerous.  The U.S. created programs to safeguard nuclear materials, to upgrade security and accountability at weapons factories and nuclear repositories, programs to blend highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium for burning in U.S. nuclear plants, and programs to encourage weapons scientists to find other, peaceful pursuits, rather than selling out to rogue countries.  There were even plans to help the Nuclear Cities themselves thrive economically in a globalized world, using the scientific talent already there.  Now, one of the last vestiges of that effort has been discarded as Vladimir Putin withdraws Russia from the Plutonium agreement. It was a good plan for U.S. security and the U.S. Department of Energy deserves credit.

The plutonium deal that just fell through was not well known.  There was little political support on either side, nor did it fit into some larger picture… 

The swords to plowshares effort should have been a piece of the larger puzzle to put Russia back on track.  But Russia never turned the corner.  The problem was the assistance, as good as it was for U.S. security and as helpful as it was to Russian government fiscal balances, did nothing for the average Russian.  It was invisible.  And Public Diplomacy counts.  How many Germans remember acts of kindness from American GI’s?  A bar of chocolate given to a hungry child was remembered and treasured for years.  We followed up with the Marshall Plan.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States needed to consolidate the security gains, surely, but also do more to put Russia on the right path.  How?  Leadership, a plan, and public diplomacy. Easy to say now I know.  But there are enough conflicts out there for the lesson to still be pertinent.  We need to work on our end game to win the war and then the peace and to know when quiet diplomacy should be a little bit louder.

The nuclear programs were a classic example of quiet diplomacy.  The plutonium deal that just fell through was not well known.  There was little political support on either side, nor did it fit into some larger picture.  President Reagan was a master at crafting a narrative.  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  But when the Soviet Union fell, after trillions in resources had been spent on both sides, the U.S. had little to say.   A major policy speech by then President Bush, outlining our hopes for a Russia integrated into the world economy and welcoming Russia back to the table would have been helpful for both public audiences and could have built support for a real Marshall Plan that would have helped Russia rebuild and integrate into European and world institutions.  Our intentions were good.

Instead, the narrative that Putin has written has been a West hostile to Russia from the start and determined to encircle it.  Given the invasions of the Mongols, French, and Germans, that xenophobic mentality is in the DNA of most Russians.  A Marshall Plan for Russia could have found ways to reach the average Russian by building roads, schools and hospitals.  What could be more powerful than to say ‘my kid was born in the American hospital.’  Not that providing assistance was ever easy.  The Russian motto seemed to be ‘We are not going to just roll over and take your money.’

At the State Department I wrote a paper for the Russia Desk urging assistance in the environment.  Cleaning up a Russian river or taking on a local project would be visible and make a difference which Russians could see.  The Russia Desk sent it up to the assistance people, those with the money, and the idea was vehemently shot down.  The U.S. did have and still maintains cooperative programs in space, and we helped Russia get its banking system on track with technical assistance, but we should have done more, with an effort to secure the peace as vigorously conducted as the Cold War rivalry itself and with American leaders building a case for assistance and garnering needed public support.

People wonder if we are back to the Cold War.  Not exactly.  But we are back to a Zero Sum Game in Putin’s mind.  Our economic and cultural interaction is not enough to attenuate Putin’s aggressiveness.   He wants more than anything to rewrite the narrative.  In his narrative, NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War and NATO’s expansion were proof of the West’s intention to encircle and permanently weaken Russia.  Putin envisions something like Russia’s World War II comeback.  With its back to the wall, the Russians beat back the Nazis and survived.  Tenacity is not something that the Russians need to learn; they are a people filled to the brim with it. They know it well. Putin will continue to push to make Russia respected and a great power on its own terms.  It is an easier narrative rather than admitting communism was a failed experiment and that the road back to being a responsible contributing member of the international community is a long and hard one.  But it is the road we wanted Russia to take.  We simply did not give them direction.  Starting a new narrative with a “reset” did not work either.  History is history, and all we can really do now is meet each new Russian challenge on its own terms, know that Russia’s long delayed entry into the community of responsible countries is still some ways off, and be ready to really engage when Russia finds itself at a crossroads again.  Putin will not last forever, and while he may have crafted a new narrative, he has not built a sustainable new system, nor one worthy of the intellect, culture, and ability of the Russian people.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.

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