The Tragedy of Russian Foreign Policy. Book Review: “Different Times: Essays on Foreign Policy” by Anatoly Adamishin
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Dmitry V. Trenin

National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
The Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),
Moscow, Russia
The Center for International Security
The Sector for Non-Proliferation and Arms Limitation
Lead Researcher

Few people are better qualified to speak about the Russian foreign policy of the last four decades than Anatoly Adamishin. Having started at the Soviet Foreign Ministry in the late 1950s, he became its youngest head of department in the late 1970s, rose to be a deputy foreign minister in the 1980s, and was appointed ambassador to Rome and London in the 1990s, before finishing his official career as Russia’s minister for CIS affairs in 1998. Adamishin dealt closely with European security issues; he was the chief Soviet negotiator for conflict resolution in Southern Africa and Central America; he led the Russian effort to end the Tajik civil war; and he was deeply involved with conflict management in the Balkans. In his eighties now, he remains one of Russia’s most respected voices on foreign affairs, as well as one of its most incisive political minds.

Adamishin’s book, V raznye gody. Vneshnepoliticheskie ocherki (Different times: Essays on foreign policy) (Moscow: Ves’ Mir, 2016), is a rare account of Moscow’s foreign relations that blends memoir and analysis, and looks ahead almost as much as it looks back. It has a complex structure, built around the three main themes: how foreign policy was made under Leonid Brezhnev and his diplomat-in-chief, Andrei Gromyko; the perestroika tandem of Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze; and, finally, Boris Yeltsin and his foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev. Many issues—such as Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States or the war in Afghanistan—run through all the segments. The narrative also includes the author’s contemporary diary entries and his observations from the vantage point of today.

What makes Adamishin’s book stand out is the breadth of the picture he paints, and the depth of the conclusions he draws from it. Having spent much of his diplomatic career on Moscow’s Smolenskaya Square, where the MFA skyscraper has been standing since 1952, he could observe from up close Russian foreign policymaking in virtually all major directions. It is only relations with China and East Asia that are absent from his purview. The author also makes it very clear where he himself stands on the issues he was dealing with, most of which are still relevant today.

The book is full of details that help better understand the personalities of three Russian foreign ministers who left a deep mark on the country’s foreign policy: Gromyko, Shevardnadze, and Kozyrev. Adamishin stays away from black-and-white judgments and instead paints a subtle, nuanced portrait of each of the men he worked for. While doing so, he does not strike a pose of a neutral observer. He makes no secret of his strong support for Gorbachev’s policy of ending the arms race and the Cold War with it, giving Soviet citizens the rights they were promised under the Helsinki Final Act, liberating Eastern Europe and pulling out from Afghanistan, and normalizing relations with many nations around the world.

What is most valuable in the book, however, is the author’s analysis of Russia’s foreign policy goals and objectives, strategies and tactics, and the results achieved. He comes up with important conclusions that have a lot of relevance today. Thus, Brezhnev’s policy was aimed at securing the territorial and political status quo in Europe, building stable relations with the United States based on nuclear parity, and winning ground in the Third World. Initially, it looked as if Moscow was achieving its goals. Yet, as Adamishin quotes from his diary, by 1980 the Soviet Union’s “tail was pinched in Afghanistan, [its] nose in Poland, and the chaos of mismanagement reigned in the middle” (p. 47).

Gorbachev’s “new political thinking,” which Adamishin values so much, was aimed at remaking the world, no less, under some friendly co-leadership by Moscow and Washington. Again, at the beginning, Gorbachev’s advances on the global stage were spectacular, even stunning. He did manage to end the four decades of confrontation with the West, and opened the country to the outside world. However, Gorbachev also had to preside over the swiftest imaginable disintegration of the country he led and the dramatic loss of Moscow’s standing in the world. Not all of this was Gorbachev’s fault, Adamishin stresses, but his responsibility for the downfall of the historical Russian state that he was in charge of is undeniable.

Yeltsin, whom Adamishin doesn’t rate nearly as high as Gorbachev, and saddles with much responsibility for the collapse of the Soviet Union, sought, with Kozyrev’s assistance, to rebuild Russia as a democratic great power, a true and genuine partner of the United States, and a part of a new undivided Europe. Yeltsin had to contend, however, with being a supplicant for financial aid coming from the international institutions, a very much junior partner of the United States, and increasingly an outsider in a Europe that was uniting without Russia.

The book does not address the Putin period except in passing, but makes a few general conclusions that are exceedingly relevant today. A strong economic foundation is the sine qua non for a successful foreign policy. Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union missed its last chance to reform and thus transform itself, and instead turned toward conservatism, which led to decay. Gorbachev could not lead the world with his new thinking while simultaneously begging for economic assistance. Yeltsin’s ambition of leading a great power was never taken seriously due to Russia’s severe economic plight.

In a similar way, Russia’s current ambitions are not sustainable over the long term without sufficient economic power to back them up, and the costs of foreign policy are amplified by the weaknesses of the Russian economic and political systems. Going forward, Russia’s international status will be decided primarily not by its nuclear arsenal but by its science power and its technological prowess. As of now, both are wanting.

Next to solid economic backing, Russia’s foreign policy needs to rest on a solid domestic political consensus. When the consensus is lacking, foreign policy becomes a field for partisan maneuvering. When the consensus is imposed from above, and one man’s or one group’s view totally prevails, major mistakes are likely. The elites need an ongoing healthy debate on the issues at hand, and the public has the right to know what the stakes and options are.

In foreign policy, lies are particularly damaging. From Cuba to Afghanistan to Ukraine, untruths have done much more bad than good to Moscow’s interests. They also send a signal of Russia’s weakness to both its friends and adversaries.

Russia does not have permanent friends, and it should make sure that the friends of the moment do not abuse Moscow’s support for them. The lessons of Castro’s Cuba, Assad’s Syria, Milosevic’s Serbia, and Saddam’s Iraq should remain a warning for Russia’s current and future leaders.

Finally, Russia should have no illusions about the West, but it needs to find a way to live in peace with it, protecting its interests but avoiding petty and unnecessary provocations. Russia is neither doomed to have adversarial relations with the West nor destined to have friendly ones with it: it is all in the hands of policymakers who need to learn, also from their own mistakes. Anatoly Adamishin’s book provides them with a rich body of experience to work from.