Something makes the current standoff between Russia and the U.S. worse than the Cold War: the lack of a common language between the two world powers’ elites.
Once, U.S. and Soviet diplomats were capable of pragmatic communication even as their leaders publicly maintained their separate rhetorical lines. Henry Kissinger described his longtime counterpart, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, as an “adversary, colleague and friend, all in one.”
“We tried to prevent a situation from arising where the Soviet leaders would have to make decisions suddenly,” Kissinger recalled at Gromyko’s centennial. “We tried to tell them ahead of time what we thought and why. I would try to say to Gromyko, ‘I don’t know yet what we will propose, but I will tell you what we think.’ After a while, Gromyko developed the same attitude.”
Today, that sort of communication is impossible. Meeting with Russians is toxic and potentially career-ending, so contact is minimal and formal. Unpleasant surprises of the kind Kissinger and Gromyko tried to avoid are now the norm. Just as in Moscow people are trying to discern the policy intentions behind Donald Trump’s tweets, the U.S. establishment is trying to piece together Russian strategy from the public statements of Vladimir Putin and his allies. Dialogue is dead.
Consider the relationship between Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, and Vyacheslav Surkov, Putin’s point man on the east Ukraine conflict. Here’s how a Ukrainian legislator quoted Volker’s words about Surkov (likely accurate, given that Volcker tweeted something similar):
When I first met with Vladislav Surkov, he expressed concern about the situation of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. To which I replied that I’d been to different parts of Ukraine, including the eastern part, and I can say that only place Russian speakers aren’t safe is where Russian troops are deployed. So why not pull them out? That will solve all the problems and alleviate your concern.
This kind of posturing isn’t exactly negotiation or even conversation — not because Volker is wrong, but because it’s pointless to tell Surkov, behind closed doors, to pull out Russian troops from eastern Ukraine, where Russia won’t admit they’ve ever been sent, or from Crimea, which Russia doesn’t recognize as part of Ukraine.
Soon afterward, Surkov published a screed that I suspect is his response. It contrasts sharply with his previous publications, which have explained or presaged policies such as the Kremlin’s 2006 shift toward what he called “sovereign democracy.” Titled “The Crisis of Hypocrisy. I Hear America Singing,” it quotes angry lyrics from the U.S. heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch and pours scorn on what Surkov sees as a Western hypocrisy. Here’s a sample:
“In general, hypocrisy is disgusting, effective and inevitable. But the discourse of hypocrisy, the languages in which people lie, the metaphors of hypocrisy become obsolete from time to time. Phrases used as disguise become devalued, misalignments and inconsistencies begin to stick out. More and more caveats, justifications, explanations are used (with diminishing efficiency) to maintain the status quo. The system reaches the limit of complexity, complexity turns into scary confusion.”
If this is confusing, it’s meant to be. The raw emotion, the anger behind the verbiage is the real message. Surkov is signaling the pointlessness of talking to his Western counterparts because all they do is toss convenient formulas at him.
That’s likely how Westerners feel when they’re talking to Russians. Surkov’s concern about Russian-speaking Ukrainians is nothing if not a hypocritical formula. When these competing discourses clash, no progress is possible.
Fyodor Lukyanov, one of the savviest foreign policy commentators in Moscow, recently offered a theory as to why Russia and the West are stuck in this rut. Both are proceeding from the framework set up by the end of the Cold War, with the West as the assertive, self-satisfied winner and Russia as the sore, revanchist loser. Lukyanov wrote:
“Moscow and the Western capitals are in similar circumstances: It makes no sense to refer to the events of the late 1980s - early 1990s to legitimize one’s actions, regardless of whether one wants to maintain the setup that emerged then or to change it. This line of discussion no longer works. Absolutely new arguments are needed.”
Lukyanov says Russia is trying to manipulate discourse with “post-truth” technology because it lacks substantive ideas, and the West fears this manipulation because it doesn’t want to lose its monopoly on truth. That’s probably an accurate diagnosis of the intellectual crisis that is spilling over into political and diplomatic interaction. The sides talk to score a point rather than to resolve real-life issues that have costs in dollars and in lives.
What’s missing is the hard-nosed practicality of people like Kissinger and Gromyko, who avoided the “I’m right and you’re wrong” trap and concentrated on the details of preventing an all-out war. Some good old horse-trading could defuse the tension a little, unless we want tension with unpredictable consequences to be the new normal.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.