The Fall of the Soviet Union- Part 3: Did the West Blow It?

(AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

Some Russian oligarchs crossed paths with Trump the businessman and some crossed paths with those in the Trump orbit.  It should also be mentioned that they crossed paths with Hillary Clinton or her husband.  While it is understandable that a US real estate developer like Trump would have interactions with a Russian real estate developer like Aragalov, such associations with Clinton are suspect.  

One of the St. Petersburg Brigade had managed to be in the right place at the right time and a former KGB officer quickly became head of the FSB and then became prime minister under Boris Yeltsin.  On New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin surprised Russia and the world when he announced his resignation leaving the government in the hands of the Prime Minister- Vladimir Putin.

One wonders what would have happened to the fate of post-Soviet Russia if George H.W. Bush had won reelection in 1992.  He had partially presided over the start of the Soviet Union’s demise in the mid-1980s and was President when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated.  He was a former CIA director in the Cold War and knew Russia very well.  He had a good rapport with Yeltsin and Gorbachev and even though Bill Clinton did also (he accepted Russia into the G7), those actions were set into motion under the Bush administration.

This is not a criticism, per se, of Clinton who had his own problems domestically and in the area of foreign policy.  Some have noted that Clinton did try to work with Yeltsin, especially early on in his first administration, but that Russian intransigence and corruption were the ingredients that prevented the Russians from transitioning to a market-based economy.  Meanwhile, others have noted that if Clinton had focused on helping the Russians lay the legal foundations for a market-based economy first, it may have eased some pain and lessened the influence of corrupt actors.  Clinton preferred to work through the IMF to financially bail out Russia.  As part of receipt of those funds, certain benchmarks had to occur which was ordered in an atmosphere that set Russia up for failure.  One doubts that Clinton or Bush wanted to see the financial destruction of Russia.  

Of course, the fault of Russians cannot be overlooked either.  Gorbachev’s rejection of the 500 day plan was based on power.  If he had accepted it, the plan outlined an incremental and time-based outline for transitioning to a market-based economy.  Gorbachev was a Communist and the plan called for a gradual relinquishing of economic power from the Supreme Soviet to the republics.  This is what he feared.  Conversely, Yeltsin did not wholeheartedly embrace the 500-day plan and watered it down, removed the timetable, and did not address the sharing or relinquishing of economic power.  That is what created the confusing legal atmosphere which laid the groundwork for the oligarchs to gain a footing and transform their ill-gotten financial gains into political power.

Whether it was the Bush I administration or that of Clinton, the United States was ill-prepared to deal with a post-Soviet Russia.  Perhaps some of it was the difficulty unwinding from a Cold War mindset to a new reality.  The intelligence community was still focused on Russia, but more so from a nuclear proliferation standpoint.  The Clinton administration particularly was concerned about what would happen to Russia’s nuclear stockpiles and worked with the Russians on that subject.  Hence, most of the US intelligence was focused there instead of Kremlin machinations and economic reforms.

Although Russian society was now more open, many within the intelligence community were relying on media reports out of Russia.  Russia- whether under Yeltsin or Putin- did not take its intelligence eyes and ears off the United States.  Aldrich Ames, a KGB mole working within the CIA, was arrested in 1994 and had been passing secrets to the Russians for years.  Likewise, Richard Hanssen continued to spy for the Russians until he was caught in 2001.  Because the Soviet Union fell, Russian spies suddenly did not disappear.  Likewise, American spies in Russia did not disappear although the information turned over to the Russians by Ames and Hanssen resulted in the loss of key assets through arrest and execution.  Because the Cold War ended, espionage did not.  If anything, the Russians adjusted the focus of their espionage while the Americans were still primarily reliant upon a Cold War military-espionage type paradigm.

Yeltsin and Clinton, whose careers as leaders of two former adversaries, largely overlapped.  While Yeltsin dealt with his domestic economic problems and Clinton focused on Russia’s nuclear stockpile, the next round of Russian leader- Vladimir Putin- came to a realization that Russia could not compete with the United States militarily or economically.  Instead, he was devising a change in strategy to elevate Russia to former glory.  The St. Petersburg Brigade was technocratic, usually former KGB people, who were nationalists.  Putin checks all three boxes.

Next: The Clinton administration and scandal