Seeing Russia Plain: The Russian Crisis and American Intelligence

By Ermarth, Fritz W. | The National Interest, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Seeing Russia Plain: The Russian Crisis and American Intelligence


Ermarth, Fritz W., The National Interest


Whenever the CIA is accused of spinning its intelligence analysis to fit policy preferences, it replies tartly that it "tells it like it is." For the most part, it really does. But in the case of Russia, telling it like it is, and seeing it like it really is, are both very difficult. This article explores some of these difficulties.

The saddest disappointment of the post-Cold War era has been the failure of Russia to find and follow the path of political and economic democracy. In the long run, this disappointment may also be the most dangerous: Russia is a country that spans ten time zones and contains thousands of nuclear weapons and other deadly materials besides.

Most troubling of all the effects of the Russian crisis is its impact on Russian hearts and minds. When hammer and sickle gave way to Russia's tricolor in 1991, Russians believed themselves destined for democracy and a free-market economy, the two key constituents of what they called simply a "normal society." They also exhibited admiration for the United States unequaled by any other of America's adversaries after the great conflicts of this century. Such attitudes are now hardly perceptible. They have been replaced by hostility toward what has been foisted on them in the name of democracy and capitalism, and toward the United States, which most believe to have been in some degree responsible for the failures and perversions of "reform."

The hostility to reform now ascendant in Russia stimulates forces that could for generations hence take the country on another detour into the swamp of authoritarianism, muddled etatism and social stagnation. Neither Stalin's nor Brezhnev's Soviet Union can be restored. But some form of weak, irresponsible state authority over a disordered society could sink roots that would corrupt the capacity of new generations to truly govern themselves.

At the bottom of this reflection lies a most disturbing thought. What if the Russians simply cannot make it? What if the post-communist experience of Russia means that the "self-evident" truths of Jefferson and Lincoln are not for all people, but only for some? In its aspirations, Russia has been oriented toward Europe and the Atlantic world for a thousand years. Its failure at a time of high promise finally to enter that world would not only be a tragedy for Russia itself but a deep injury to Euro-Atlantic values. The perils of nuclear and other junk emanating from Russia are frightening enough. But the grim possibility at stake in the Russian experience - that civilized self-government is not for all people - is more frightening still.

Where is Russia at the moment? The Moscow media pundit Igor Malashenko recently characterized its present situation as "the dead end of the beginning", the complete failure of a false start.(1) Russia's perennial democrat-in-opposition, Grigory Yavlinsky, has characterized the Yeltsin period and its misfired reforms as the true end of the Soviet era, citing in particular how it has been dominated by Soviet nomenklaturchiki of various stripes.(2) Yavlinsky sees the prospect for a fresh start, grounded on post-communist generations and ignited by victories for sensible democrats, notably himself, in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Whatever else it is, the present moment of fading Yeltsin and aging Primakov, a kind of interregnum, should be a moment for stock-taking. We, too, have a bit of an interregnum on our hands.

Aspects of the Russian Crisis

Russia's crisis is widely identified with the financial meltdown of August and the replacement of the reformist Kiriyenko government by one whose top figures, Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Maslyukov, are Soviet-era functionaries evidently committed to achieving political stability by not doing much of anything, at least at the time of writing. These developments are but symptoms of more long-lived disorders.

The revolution of 1991 was not as revolutionary as it seemed.

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