The first week in December I received an e-mail from Foreign Affairs magazine with a featured article attached, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin,” by Joseph Biden, Jr., and Michael Carpenter. “The Team” at Foreign Affairs [FA] told me to enjoy it and please share it. I began reading it, but pretty soon it looked a lot like a typical anti-Russian propaganda piece, and I lost interest. Then when I checked my Facebook page I was greeted with a post from a FB friend on my “wall” with this same article attached asking me to please write a blog in response. Since the “friend” was my wife, I decided to at least post back a brief response to a few of the “misleading” points in the article and gave a vague promise to perhaps respond at some point with a blog. A couple of other “friends” joined in with comments assuring me I needed to give a full response. I don’t really enjoy writing political blogs as much as I do the personal ones. For one thing it takes more work to dig up specific references. I often make notes on small cards to myself while reading such things, but I’m not very disciplined about where I keep these. So my “research” is actually searching every nook for where I put my notes. Second, as I have indicated before, my time in the academic world was not in contemporary politics or Russian history. It is my avocation, but my vocation as an academic was in another field. Then I received another e-mail from FA the next week, however, proclaiming how proud they were of this “breakout” piece. Furthermore, if I wanted to read more by their “brilliant writers” I could subscribe now at a reduced rate. I decided to respond to this breakout piece. (To read the article go to https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2017-12-05/how-stand-kremlin?cid=nlc-emc-fa_paywall_free_joebiden_jf2017-20171206)
First, the article sets forth the transition from the Communism of the USSR in a very positive—even glowing—manner. I will give the full quote here:
After the Cold War, Western democracy became the model of choice for postcommunist countries in central and eastern Europe. Guided by the enlightened hands of NATO  and the EU, many of those countries boldly embarked on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Remarkably, most succeeded. Post-Soviet Russia also had an opportunity to reinvent itself. Many in Europe and the United States hoped that by integrating Russia into international organizations (such as the Council of Europe, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), they could help Russia become a responsible member of the rules-based international order and develop a domestic constituency for democratic reforms. Many Russians also dreamed of creating a democratic, stable, and prosperous Russia. But that dream is now more distant than at any time since the Cold War ended.
I understand wanting to be positive about the end of the Cold War, but I think if you look at the situation in many of these former Republics you discover the transition was not as rosy as the authors indicate. I will forego examining what this transition looked like “guided by the enlightened hands” of NATO and the EU in the other Republics, however, and focus on Russia.
When Biden and Carpenter claim the “dream” of an enlightened, stable, and prosperous democracy is more distant now than ever in Russia, the authors demonstrate that they are struck with the same willful historical amnesia that many other Neocons and Liberal Interventionists have concerning the first decade after the dissolution of the USSR. The first decade of democracy in Russia was not “enlightened, stable, or prosperous.” Post Soviet Russia’s economy collapsed when democracy was implemented. The economy, according to some, fell by 80%. Readers of my blog know that I read and follow Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at Princeton University and New York University. Cohen lived in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia for many years and was there during this time. He described it as, “The first nation ever to undergo actual de-modernization in peacetime.” Seventy-five percent of the population lived below the poverty line. There have been plenty of analyses done by economists who validate the points Cohen makes in his book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, although economists differ over the exact percentages . (See also, Failed Crusade by the same author.)
My sources are not just economists, however. I have often listened to my wife and Russian family and friends describe to me what life was like then. For them, as bad as the poverty was, it wasn’t the main battle. They simply could not get enough food or clothes. My wife tells of how they had a stash of money in a linen drawer. They would keep an eye out for a supply truck carrying any kind of goods—food, clothing, household wares—to any store in town. When such a truck appeared—day or night—a line quickly formed of people in desperate need of products and food. They were able to scrape up money, but even then there was just nothing on the shelves. For Biden and other wealthy westerners, this is simply a decade we need not mention or remember. For Russians, it can’t be forgotten.
Scholars and analysts—both from Russia and other countries—trace the blame for this economic horror to the first “democratically” elected president, Boris Yeltsin. (From the United States, for example, see the Congressional Research Service 98-725.) Yeltsin was a chronic alcoholic and also had other severe health problems, especially his heart condition. Thus, he was often absent from public view for extended periods of time.
On the other hand, Bill Clinton and the government of the United States really liked Yeltsin. Yeltsin did their bidding, and the Russian Federation was in a subservient position to the United States of America. The fortunes of the overwhelming majority of the Russian people did not matter to them. As one wag put it, Clinton believed a drunk Yeltsin was better for us than a sober anyone else. He did the bidding of the American government. For all Yeltsin’s past bravado in Russia, he “came to heel” for the Americans.
When it was time for Yeltsin to run for re-election in the summer of 1996, however, the Clinton Administration realized there was a severe problem. Polls across the board showed his approval ratings in the single digits. The best they saw was around 6%. This was not the time for the guiding hands of “enlightened” NATO or the EU. This was time for the heavy hand of American politics to take over. A well-known article in Time magazine (July 15, 1996) entitled, “Rescuing Boris,” describes how President Clinton sent a team of “advisors” to Russia to make sure Boris was re-elected. They were paid $250,000 plus expenses. They were provided a driver, bodyguards and an interpreter on call at all times. While they misrepresented themselves to the Russians in the street, posing as Americans selling American TV antennas, their identity was pretty clearly known to insiders. Cohen has said that he was there during that time and he and most everyone knew that they were there and why they were there. They stayed in the President Hotel in Moscow, which is far above what anyone could expect in Russia at the time. It was equipped with all the security and gadgetry needed. According to them, they had to teach the Russian advisors how to use public opinion research to craft speeches and other presentations. Find out what people “in the street” want and then write Yeltsin’s speeches to promise to address their problems and provide for their wants.
There was also another side to the plan. They had to teach the Russians the art of political misdirection, deceit and confusion. The primary advisor they directed was Tatiana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter who was in her mid-thirties at the time. It took quite a while for them to teach her and others the “dirty tricks” of politics. Tatiana seemed somewhat taken aback that this is how democracy is supposed to work. Eventually she and the others caught on. In addition to getting Yeltsin to craft his speeches to say what the people wanted to hear, they published false dates for opposition rallies and conferences, falsified documents supposedly from the Communist opponent Zyuganov, and most people here believe on election day they used bribery, false documentation of votes and good old ballot box stuffing. In addition to these efforts on the ground in Russia, President Bill Clinton had convinced the International Monetary Fund to grant Russia $10.2 million dollars for an “emergency infusion.” With the influx of the cash, Yeltsin could make it appear that financial problems were over.
Now, some Russians involved with the campaign disagree that it was the American leadership that tipped the election for Yeltsin. They believe the egotistical Americans claimed far more of the credit by a long shot than they deserved. The point here, however, is not who was most responsible for Yeltsin’s 13 point victory that year. What needs to be reiterated is the pride the Americans took in controlling and manipulating the Russian election. As Time concluded, “Democracy triumphed—and along with it came the tools of modern campaigns, including the trickery and slickery Americans know so well.” (See also the LA Times, “Americans Claim Role in Yeltsin Win,” July 09, 1996.) So when Americans of privilege and political contacts like Joseph Biden, Jr. cry foul and whine incessantly about the Russians and their president supposedly tampering with the American election, it rings hollow with many Russians and not a few Americans who remember how far our meddling went. Hypocrisy is alive and well in this piece of which Foreign Affairs is so proud.
I and others, however, are not so willing to grant the presupposition of Biden and Carpenter (not to mention a HOST of others) that the evidence is clear that the Russians tampered with our election anyway. They still offer no concrete evidence of Trump “colluding” with the Russians or that there was any hacking done under the direction of Vladimir Putin. First, we still read in many publications of the “conclusions” of the Intelligence agencies which have been long used by the main stream media, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post. They state this as if it is fact, apparently believing the adage that if you tell a lie long enough, people will accept it as truth—in fact the one telling it may even begin to accept it as truth. The bases for such claims have been severely distorted. It was not 17 intelligence agencies as was reported for many months. James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, reluctantly admitted it was “hand picked analysts” from the FBI, CIA, and the National Security Agency. In other words, it was only three agencies, but it really was not the full power of those agencies. The “investigators” were agents who already believed the Russians did it, and that is why they were picked. Yet even the conclusions of their report are also distorted in the MSM. The analysts do give reasons that it is possible the Russians did it and why they think they did, but they conclude, “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be fact.” The report itself states that they have nothing evidentiary. Further, William Binney, former National Security Agency Technical Director, did further research and gives technical reasons why he concludes with certainty it was not a Russian hack. His main reason is that the download speed was such that it had to be a USB download, not a “hack” from the outside. He actually investigates the specifics of what happened and states clearly from his research the Russians had nothing to do with it. As far as I can tell the bulk of the MSM did not report any of his findings.
Second, Biden’s whining about the Russians tampering with our elections is sheer hypocrisy given the bold claims of the United States in using every trick in the proverbial book to keep an unhealthy, alcoholic President in office in Russia even though everyone involved knew the devastation his leadership had brought and would continue to bring on the Russian people. The plight of the Russian people are of absolutely no concern to the authors, and they should drop the pretense of “enlightened” NATO. Foreign Affairs magazine is supposed to be an academically oriented and responsible publication. Yet they promote this wonderful article as a reason I should subscribe?
I started with the history and background which Biden and Carpenter omit because the history of international relations is important. American analysts trying to reach a certain level of popularity like to start at whatever historical point suits the conclusions they have already determined they will reach. So it is not uncommon to find omissions of the real background to how democracy came to Russia and how much effort and money we put into keeping the Russian people as far from prosperity and stability as possible. Now that I’ve given a brief historical review of what Biden and Carpenter chose to omit (and smooth over with that talk of the guidance of the “enlightened hands” of NATO and EU), in Part 2 of my blog I will point to factual errors made and misleading conclusions drawn by Biden and Carpenter in their description of the conditions in Russia at the present time. As one who lives here, and actually watches and reads what really does go on here, my evaluation is quite different.