The road from dilettantism to war
A review of Andrei Kozyrev’s political memoir
Russia is remarkably ill-starred by having had very incompetent leaders. They have done the opposite of what they intended to accomplish. Brezhnev planned to introduce a degree of predictability in domestic and foreign policy; he presided over a long period of technological decline of the Soviet economy. Gorbachev wanted to create a democratic federation; he ended by having to accept the break-up of the Union and the rise of nationalism everywhere. Yeltsin set out to create a democratic Russia; he oversaw the greatest plunder of assets in history and in the end could rely on old KGB hands only. Putin’s objective was to overturn the decay of Russia, but when he leaves the office, Russia will be weaker, smaller, and more isolated than it has been in at least 250 years.
Andrei Kozyrev was Yeltsin’s minister of foreign affairs between 1990 (when Russia was still part of the USSR) and 1996. He was the most pro-American foreign minister in Russia’s history, dubbed the “Mr Da” as a contrast to Andrei Gromyko, the long-serving Soviet minister of foreign affairs, who was called by the Western press “Mr. Nyet”. In “The Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy”, Kozyrev has written the political reminiscences of his ministry. They are well-written and easy to read. (The subtitle is misleading: the book has hardly anything to do with democracy, but a lot with Russia’s foreign policy.) The book however lacks any analytic framework whether regarding diplomacy or international relations, and has none of the usual scientific “apparatus”: there is not a single footnote in the book, nor reference to anything –article or book—except various Russian and American newspapers. One has the feeling that Russian foreign policy was conducted unencumbered by any theory of international relations. (Compared to similar political memoirs by Henry Kissinger “On China”, reviewed here, and Soviet diplomat’s Ivan Maisky’s extraordinary wartime diaries, Kozyrev’s book is much inferior.)
And whatever “theory” existed was an incredibly naive view that Kozyrev held throughout the first half of the 1990s, that “democracies” have a specific “friendly” relations amongst themselves, and “totalitarian” counties like the Soviet Union have an entirely different, imperialist foreign policy. It was, unawares of Kozyrev, just the same old Soviet theory, except that the absence of contradictions that was supposed to adorn communist regimes, was now transposed to democratic regimes. Kozyrev uses the same “boxes” but just fills them with a different content. Both “theories” were, of course, unrealistic: countries have interests and fight for them regardless of the domestic political set-up. Kozyrev was soon, if grudgingly, to realize this in face of American intransigence and contemptuous treatment of all Russian demands. The second part of the book is thus much darker.
All the problems that have led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine are already there—and one somehow feels that the current war was almost preordained. (That was not the objective of the book, published in 2019, however. And Kozyrev has been scathingly critical of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.) The Russian-Ukrainian problem emerges from the moment No. 1 of the Belovezha accords that dissolved the USSR (Kravchuk’s aides, while being in Belovezha, refused to participate in the drafting of the accords, and the Ukrainian parliament passed the version of the accords that included an additional amendment regarding inviolability of the republican borders). The accords themselves were of the most dubious legality: not least because presidents of the three republics made a decision that properly should have been made by the presidents of all fifteen republics. (Predictably, Kazakhstan’s president was not amused by having to read that the USSR was dissolved, and that his republic became independent, in a morning paper.)
The NATO expansion takes the center-stage commencing from the second year of the Clinton administration and never leaves its role of the most important issue in the US-Russian relations all the way to 1996 (when Kozyrev resigns). It becomes clear that the conflict over NATO expansion cannot be thought of as originating in Putin’s 2007 Munich speech nor in George W. Bush 2008 invitation to Ukraine and Georgia to join the military alliance, but at the very beginning of the debates as to how to transform/expand NATO, i.e. basically to the early- to mid-1990s.
That history is full of bizarre details, related by Kozyrev, including Lech Wałęsa’s sly organization of a tête-a-tête meeting with Yeltsin where the Russian president is supplied by endless quantities of vodka so that he accepts a sentence to the Polish-Russian communiqué agreeing to Poland’s NATO membership. Alarmed Kozyrev (having seen an earlier similar “treatment by vodka” of Yeltsin by Nursultan Nazarbayev) walks into Yeltsin’s room to find him incapable of rational conversation. The next day, the Russian ministry tries (so to speak) to water down the sentence, but most of the damage has already been done.
Other than by the absence any analytic framework, and thus the realization that the Russian foreign policy was conducted by dilettantism, the reader is also surprised that Kozyrev does not seem to realize the main contradiction which is at the heart of the US-Russian misunderstanding. Once the Bush administration that treated the USSR (and Russia) with respect gone, for the Clinton administration Russia was a supplicant country that would beg for financial help while asking to be treated as a global power. The gap between the two “roles” widened even further as Russia declined economically in the 1990s. Neither Yeltsin nor Kozyrev could expect that, while in the first part of the conversation, they would beg Clinton for money, their pretenses as to the global power status would, in the second part of the conversation, be taken seriously.
If Russia wanted to “punch in its desired weight” it had not to make meaningless claims as to its democratic status, but to strengthen its economy, introduce order in its political system, reduce corruption, begin producing useful things that the world wants to buy, and cease being a petro-state. Had Russia done so in the next two decades, it would have been regarded entirely differently by the US. The US might not have ceased to see Russia as a strategic competitor (a thing which it did apparently since 1991), but it would have treated it with respect, the way that the US treated China until Trump came to power. But this simple truth seems inaccessible to Kozyrev who (explicitly) evinces no interest in economics, nor in corruption that was at the same time destroying the fabric of the Russian society and the foundations of Yeltsin’s regime.
Since Russia could not accept not to be treated as a great power, and was unable under either Yeltsin or Putin to transform itself into a meaningfully important international player, it could rely on only one type of power where it was indeed a force to be reckoned with: nuclear arms and the ability to annihilate half of the world. It thus had to rely on this “negative” power, that is, the power of destruction, because economically or ideologically (unlike during the Soviet times) it could provide very little even in the areas of the world where historically its cultural influence, language, and exposure to the great Russian art of the 19th century was common.
Kozyrev does not acknowledge, or perhaps realize, this main issue. His memoirs are interesting to read, but, above all, they illustrate, despite the author’s wishes, the amateurish nature of the Russian diplomacy as it was conducted in the 1990s.