As war clouds gather over Ukraine, I have been reading a book about how we got into this mess. “From Washington to Moscow” is a personal memoir of the 25 years which American diplomat Louis Sell spent at the heart of East-West relations, from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.
Russia’s destabilizing resentment—real or manufactured—about the current European security order dates from the Soviet collapse. The captive nations viewed it as a liberation. We in the West mostly view it as a victory. Many Russians—not least Vladimir Putin—view it as a catastrophe, followed by deliberate humiliation. Those differing opinions are at the heart of lethal disagreements.
Books on the era abound, but Sell’s account helps remind us what really happened, and in some cases fills in some important gaps. His book combines meticulous use of archival and other sources with telling personal reminiscences and nuanced observations.
A particular strength is his grasp of the personalities involved. He witnessed at close quarters the way in which presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush Sr. dealt with their opposite numbers: Brezhnev, Chernenko, Andropov, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Along the way he was responsible for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow’s relations with dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov, and opposition figures such as the Chechen leader Dzokar Dudayev.
He neatly describes the difference between Mikhail Gorbachev, the intellectual imprisoned by the idea that the Soviet Union and its brand of “socialism” was sustainable, and Boris Yeltsin, the man of action thwarted by ill health and misfortune. His epitaph for Gorbachev is that he “was willing to adopt out-of-the-box solutions, but when these ran into difficulties his instinct was to hesitate, maneuver, and eventually move on to another problem, leaving behind an accumulating train of half-filled measures and unresolved issues.”
But Sell has an eye for humbler personalities too. He reminds us, for example, of the particularly horrible tactic used against religious believers: the abduction of their children, who were consigned to grim orphanages. He describes meeting a drunken, foul-mouthed prostitute on the banks of the Moscow River in the early 1990s, and his shock on noticing that she was in her very early teens. “That’s our reality now,” said a policeman bitterly, observing the scene.
He nails some myths. The Soviet Union was not ready in any circumstances to use force to crush Solidarity in Poland in 1981. In effect it bluffed the Polish Communist leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, into imposing martial law.
Ronald Reagan, contrary to the picture portrayed by his left-wing detractors, was not a clown or an ignoramus. And he was quite right to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” If that term couldn’t be applied to the USSR, then what country could it apply to?
More importantly, he skewers the idea—ardently propagated by the Putin Kremlin and its sympathizers, that the West promised not to expand NATO eastwards in return for Soviet consent to German reunification. This idea was floated as a negotiating position with regard to the so-called GDR. But it was not picked up by the Soviet side, nor did it ever become an official American or Western offer.
Unfortunately, Sell’s analytical grasp weakens a little when writing about the years in which the enlargement actually happened, with too much emphasis on the psychological humiliation it represented for Russia. The NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997) and the NATO-Russia Council (2002) were genuine efforts to find a framework in which Russia and the Western alliance could co-exist and cooperate. That they failed may not be wholly Russia’s fault. But mostly it is.