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Review by Louis Sell

Getting Russia Right
by Thomas Graham
Polity, October 2023

In Getting Russia Right Thomas Graham provides a comprehensive and thoughtful explanation of Russia on its own terms. It is a task as important as it will be uncongenial to some in the current era, where relations between Russia and the West are dominated, as they must be, by Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Graham is well qualified for this mission, having spent decades of his life dealing with Russia from the perspective US Embassy in Moscow, the NSC, and the non-governmental world.

Graham does an outstanding job of describing how the permanently operating features of Russian history, geography, society, and government have shaped its approach to international affairs across the centuries of the Tsarist, Communist, and Putin rule. Chief among these is the perceived need for security against external threats, met by a relentless territorial expansion from the tiny forest principality of Muscovy to a massive empire spanning two continents.  In the process Russia developed a world view which sees the international system inevitably dominated by dog-eat-dog competition in which only the strong survive; and a concept of itself as a unique civilization. These factors converge in the conviction that a strong, centralized state is essential to Russia’s remaining a great power.

Understanding the other side is, of course, important in a conflict situation, where errors can have disastrous consequences, but the exercise can also be tricky especially where fundamental human values and national interests are involved. Graham generally avoids allowing explanation of Russia’s behavior to shade into justification of the unacceptable. At a certain point, however, choices have to be made.  Graham is certainly correct that for Putin one of the most egregious ways the US ignored legitimate Russian interests is in encouraging the independent development of former Soviet republics, the “near abroad” in Moscow’s telling parlance.  Yet the concept of legitimate interest can look different to a smaller nation that happens to fall within what a bigger power claims as its “security zone,” for example Eastern Europe after 1945 or Georgia and Ukraine in this century.

Graham gives an informed account of Western missteps over thirty years of dealing with post-Soviet Russia.  His description of the well-intentioned but often misguided efforts by streams of USAID-funded advisers aiming to teach US-style democracy to Russians will ring true to anyone who was there at the time. He avoids the often repeated but mistaken charge that NATO expansion violated assurances supposedly given by Western leaders after the Berlin Wall came down.

Graham, nevertheless, takes a strong position on American culpability for post-Cold War failures with Russia.  In his view, until Putin returned to the Kremlin as president in 2012, “it was US policy that enflamed relations, even as Washington talked of integration and partnership.” He cites as evidence a “triumphalist reaction to the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan,” an ambiguous US policy toward Chechen rebels, and NATO’s 2008 invitation to Georgia and Ukraine.

Graham believes that a more restrained US approach in these areas, which could have eased Moscow’s fears that the US was intent on regime change in Russia itself, might have produced different Russian behavior possibly including refraining from its campaign against Western-backed civil society, or even a Putin decision not to return as president in 2012 and allow a second term for Dmitry Medvedev. Historical might-have-beens are always speculative but the kinds of alternative policies Graham postulates seem sufficiently unlikely and at odds with the traditional Russian behavior that he describes elsewhere, that “hedges” against the revival of Russian power and influence look like reasonable Western precautions.

For Graham, Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution marked a break point, where “Putin’s burgeoning ambitions and messianic delusions” began to drive the deterioration in ties with what the Russian leader saw as an increasingly decadent West.  Putin’s quick seizure of Crimea, incursion into Syria, and flagrant interference in the 2016 US elections—all accomplished virtually cost-free—reinforced his conviction that Washington was adrift.

 Turning to the future, Graham forthrightly acknowledges that “a necessary first task” for the US to maintain its global position is to “get its own house in order.”  He refrains from going into detail on a subject outside the strict purview of his book, but readers interested in learning more would do well to read Robert Gates’ recent Foreign Affairs article where he describes what we need to do domestically to face current international challenges. (“The Dysfunctional Superpower: Can a Divided America Deter China and Russia?” Robert Gates, Foreign Affairs, September 29, 2023)

On the international front, Graham endorses the consensus that China, intent on using its growing political, economic, and technological capabilities to create a new world order, is Washington’s major strategic competitor.  Russia, nevertheless, will remain a significant challenge.  Graham posits three major tasks for future US policy toward Russia: peaceful coexistence to reduce the risk of nuclear cataclysm, managing the inevitable competition to prevent conflict, and cooperation to meet transnational threats such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism.  He also urges creation of an enhanced European pillar inside NATO sufficient to allow the US to become primarily responsible for strategic deterrent.  Reconciling Moscow to dealing from the outside with a strong and militarily consolidated Europe, he says, will require a new CFE, strong East-West consultative mechanisms, and, intriguingly, a second Helsinki Accord to update the original 10 Helsinki principles to take account of new geopolitical and technological realities.

Graham urges the US to come up with a policy for dealing with Russia after the war in Ukraine is over—a noble but impossible task since Western relations with Russia and the shape of Russia itself will inevitably be determined by the outcome of that conflict, which at this writing is impossible to predict with any real certainty.  What is clear, at least to this writer, is that a policy of “as long as it takes” no longer meets US, broader Western, and even Ukrainian interest.  With new crises springing up in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and likely elsewhere, Western military resources and political attention are being spread thin.  If the war in Ukraine ended now, it would rightly be seen throughout the world as an amazing triumph for Ukraine, for the West under US leadership, and for the principle that unprovoked aggression will not be allowed to succeed.  Continuing the current war of attrition carries huge risks for Ukraine with its much smaller human and material resources base.  As long as Putin and his ilk remain in power and the Russian people remain quiescent, Moscow can survive repeated battlefield setbacks and come back for more.  For all its bravery and determination, the same cannot necessarily be said of Ukraine.

Graham has a number of commonsense suggestions for a Ukrainian peace agreement, few of which are likely to be acceptable to either side, at least under current circumstances.  At this stage, the best and perhaps the only model for ending the Ukraine war quickly is the 1953 armistice in Korea, that ended the fighting roughly along the 38th parallel although it did nothing to address the underlying issues.  There are obvious political, military, and moral shortcomings to this approach, which Zelensky is likely to resist as did South Korean leader Syngman Rhee who did his best to sabotage the 1953 deal.  In the event, however, behind that armistice line South Korea developed into a thriving democratic and prosperous nation and that is the post-war outcome Ukraine and its Western supporters should strive to achieve through internal reform and robust military, political, and economic assistance.

In the end, despite Graham’s thoughtful analysis and clear policy judgements what is missing is a realistic basis for hope both for the Russian people and for the rest of us condemned to share the globe with them.   Graham correctly states that there is no prospect for improvement in Western relations with Russia as long as Putin remain in power.  In the interim, in the view of this reviewer, what we should be doing is using all the resources of the internet era to interfere in Russian domestic affairs just as vigorously as they do in ours, with the critical difference that we should be providing Russian audiences with the unvarnished and honest truth about international affairs and developments in their own country.  We should always make it clear that our policies are based on opposition to a regime that fails to respect the most fundamental principles of international law and human rights and, in the process, undermines the best interests of Russia itself.  We also need to take a hard look at ourselves and make the changes necessary to ensure that once again we provide a positive example of liberal democracy in action.

Many Russians must surely chafe at Moscow’s current tag-along relationship toward China. It is often forgotten, although not by Russians themselves, that the primary threat in Muscovy’s early centuries came from the east. In the 1970s, during the era of the Sino-Soviet split, the widespread fear of China was, as in so many other areas, picked up by the anecdotal Radio Yerevan, which on one occasion reported that a cease-fire in the Sino-Soviet war had been agreed along the Chinese-Finnish border. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Graham tackles this issue in a way that shows he remains one of our foremost Russia hands. (“What Russia Really Wants: How Mosco’s Desire for Autonomy Could Give America an Edge Over China,” Thomas Graham, Foreign Affairs, October 9, 2023) His inside-out analysis of Russia in the current volume leaves this reviewer with the sly hope that in the future we might see something from him on what Russia needs to do to improve its relationship with the West—which might be called “Getting America Right.”End.


Louis Sell, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked for six years at the US Embassy in Moscow and eight years in various places in Yugoslavia.  He served as US representative to the Joint Consultative Group in Vienna, Director of the Office of Russian and Eurasian Analysis, Director of the Office of US-Soviet Bilateral Relations, and Special Assistant and Executive Secretary of the US delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.  From 1995 – 1996 he was political adviser to Carl Bildt, the first High Representative for Bosnian Peace Implementation.  In that capacity he attended the Dayton Peace Conference and participated in the first year of implementation of the Dayton accords.  In 2000 he served as Kosovo Director of the International Crisis Group. He speaks Serbo-Croatian and Russian.  Serving as Executive Director of the American University in Kosovo Foundation (AUKF) from 2003 to 2007, Louis Sell helped found the American University in Kosovo, which opened its doors in October 2003. He has a B. A. from Franklin and Marshall College and an M. A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  He is the author of From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR; Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, and numerous articles.  He is an adjunct professor at the University of Maine at Farmington and lives on a farm in Whitefield, Maine, where he also serves as a member of the volunteer fire department.

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