The UC Interview Series: Dr Thomas Graham

Interviewer: Lev Sokolshchik, UC Fellow

Lev Sokolshchik is a research fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies (CCEIS) at the National Research University, Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia). He received a PhD (Candidate of Science) in 2016 at the Ural Federal University (Ekaterinburg, Russia). His current research interests are broadly focused on areas of US foreign policy, and US–Russian and Transatlantic relations. He is also deeply interested in investigating American political developments in the context of the evolution of conservatism and populism.

Interviewee: Dr. Thomas Graham

Dr. Thomas Graham is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Senior Adviser to  Kissinger Associates, Inc. He serves on the faculty steering committee of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies program at Yale University. He is also a research fellow at the MacMillan Center at Yale University, where he teaches a course on US–Russian relations. During his career in the US government he served as Special Assistant to the President, Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff, and Associate Director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department. He also served twice in the US embassy in Moscow. He actively publishes on Russia and foreign policy-related issues in various media outlets.


PAST EXPERIENCE: On being a young man in Moscow, the enthusiasm of the 1990s, and what went wrong in US-Russia relations

Lev:                To begin the first part of our conversation, can you tell me when, how, and why you entered the field? What motivated you to become involved in US–Russian issues?

Dr. Graham: That is a long story, which began many, many years ago when I was a very young boy growing up outside of New York City. The first event that I remember that had something to do with Russia was the launch of Sputnik in 1957. I clearly didn’t understand what was going on, but I had conversations with my parents and with their friends and I knew that something important had happened. It raised a lot of concern in the United States because the Soviet Union had clearly accomplished something of great technological complexity tbefore the United States.  Moreover, the USSR continued to achieve firsts in space: the first dog, the first astronaut or cosmonaut, and so forth. After his inauguration, President Kennedy launched the space race. All that sparked my interest in understanding what Russia and the Soviet Union were.

I was fortunate that at that time the first exchange programs between the Soviet Union and the United States started. The first books about the Soviet Union written by Americans participants became available.  I read many of them, as well as many other books about the Soviet Union and Russia.  I even read the Communist Manifesto when I was nine or ten years old  to get a better understanding of communism, not that I can say that I really grasped what Marx and Engels were talking about. I was also fortunate to attend one of the first high schools in the United States to offer Russian as a foreign language. So, I started learning Russian when I was 13 years old. I was excited to be able to speak a foreign language—and a difficult one at that—and to do some reading in Russian.

There were a lot of other events that underscored the importance of the Soviet Union to the United States’ security and prosperity. I remember very vividly the Cuban Missile Crisis and the anxiety that it raised in the United States, because we were close to nuclear war. I also remember the Prague Spring and the Soviet Invasion in 1968. So, when I finished high school I thought of Russia primarily as the other superpower, a country with significant military and scientific powers, that was something of a threat to the United States.  But it was also a country that we needed to better understand.

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When I started university in 1969, my major was Russian Studies. That was a popular major at the time among my fellow students—most of us probably wanted to learn about the “enemy.”   But I came to think about Russia in other ways.  I remember hearing from one of my instructors that by the time a Russian entered college, he had read all the Russian classics, so I tried to catch up and spent a lot of time reading Russian classics too – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others.  And I finished college with a greater appreciation of Russia’s rich culture.

A critical episode in forming my picture of Russia was an IREX-exchange program: I stayed in Moscow for six months in 1981.  I was actually the spouse, with no obligation to do any specific research.  So, I spent my time exploring Moscow.  Some Russian acquaintances invited me to join their Thursday “banya” club.  It was an eyeopening experience for me.  We steamed together and drank vodka and devoured zakuski and talked about life.   What struck me immediately was that all my companions were employed, yet somehow they could spend four hours at a banya on Thursday afternoons—a first insight into how Soviet society worked, or rather didn’t work.  More important, these young men were all intelligent, decent people, like most other Russians I met.  As a result, my picture of Russia grew more complex. On the one hand, it was an obvious competitor to the United States, a very powerful country, but on the other hand I experienced a country which was very rich culturally and intellectually with a population of normal, decent people. When I entered government service, the question would become how to combine all these aspects of Russian society when managing our relationship.

So, Russia was a central part of my intellectual upbringing; it has been the focus of my professional life.  I have been engaged in US–Russian relations professionally since the mid-1980s, 35 or 40 years, with ups and downs obviously, but I cannot imagine my life without Russia.

Lev:                You worked with Russian officials and diplomats during your time in Moscow in the 1990s. What changes have you observed between then and now when it comes to dealing with your Russian colleagues?

Dr. Graham: Well, my role in the 1990s was somewhat different from what I focused on later on, when I started working for the Bush administration in the 2000s. In the 1990s, I spent three to four years at the US embassy in Moscow. My focus was Russian domestic affairs, at a time of tremendous change in Russia. There were a lot of questions about what Russia would become and what its political system was going to look like after the break-up of the Soviet Union. At the time, I had contact with people in the Kremlin and the Duma who focused on domestic politics, and with newspaper editors, journalists, and experts. I even knew most of the original oligarchs personally and had many conversations with them. Because my wife was also serving in the Embassy—she was in charge of the cultural section—I met a lot of theater directors, actors, musicians, artists. This broad network of people gave me some sense of what was going on and being discussed in Russia.

It was a tremendous time to be an American diplomat focused on domestic affairs. What I could do as an American diplomat was sometimes difficult for others, including Russians themselves. I could move among various groups across the political spectrum: I knew far-right people, people who were pro-Western, those who were nationalists, et cetera. And if you develop the contacts and develop a level of confidence, trust with them, you become a small part of this network yourself. You can help to transmit information from one group to another, people in the far-right would be interested in what people on the left thought, pro-reformers would want to learn about the views of conservatives, and so on. It was a tremendous experience for me, and I felt like a part of this system. Foreign diplomats are, of course, not supposed to interfere in the domestic politics of a country, but nothing prevented me from “exchanging views.”

When I started working for the Bush administration I focused on the bilateral relationship, and I worked with different types of people from the foreign ministry and various institutes which were focused on foreign affairs rather than on domestic issues. In the early 2000s, after 9/11, there were a lot of reasons for our two countries to form a close partnership. Over the years, as we know, it has deteriorated. In any case, while I was working on US-Russian relations, there was not the enthusiasm and hope that I had experienced in Moscow in the previous decade. In the 1990s, Russians were experiencing bursts of freedom after the Soviet period; despite the hardships, there was a certain dynamism.  Everyone, it seemed, had a project to work on. Then things stalled and stagnated. There has been less dynamism and creativity about how our relationship may be restored and maintained, no one really sees a way out of the current situation. So, that is the difference. I don’t think this will last forever, but I certainly do miss some of the excitement and drama of the 1990s when I work with my Russian colleagues today.

Lev:                Let me ask you a question regarding your career as the US president’s advisor on Russia. What were the most common stereotypes about Russia among the members of the administration of President George W. Bush?

Dr. Graham: The answer relates to the environment in Washington in the early 2000s. When President Bush took office, the United States was at the peak of its power. In this post-Cold War world, after the Soviet Union collapsed, no other country could compare to the United States in any dimension of power. We really were the preeminent global actor. In contrast, the 1990s in Russia were a very difficult period with political disorder, socio-economic collapse, and international humiliation. There was a tremendous asymmetry in power between the two countries.

Given this asymmetry, there was very much a sense among senior officials in the administration that Russia was a weak, declining power. Yes, we needed to deal with Russia for certain reasons, but it would never be an equal partnership. Second, there was a view in Washington that Russia didn’t even understand what its own national interests were. After the end of the Cold War, Americans were convinced that there was really only one way for countries to thrive on the global stage, namely, to follow the Western democratic path. And because Russia was in transition, we really thought we understood better what Russia needed to do, what its interests were, how Russia should act on the global stage. Third, there was a tendency to see Russia like a petulant child in matters of foreign policy, a child with sufficient power to do things on the international stage, to create problems, and so it had to be calmed down and put back on the appropriate path. Despite the fact that many of our actions and advice had the best intentions, there was a tremendous amount of arrogance and a lack of knowledge on our part, and it laid a very problematic foundation for the future of the relationship.

Lev:                In a 2016 interview with the Russian News Agency, TASS, speaking about contemporary relations between the two countries, you mentioned that difficult relations were inevitable but a total breakdown in communication was not inevitable. Elsewhere you have mentioned that the US refusing to acknowledge Russia as a great power also contributed to current difficulties. If you could rewind the clock by 20 or 25 years, what American steps towards Russia would you have taken differently to change the outcome?

Dr. Graham: Let me start by saying, that, of course, we have problems in our relations; these are two major countries with different worldviews, political and economic interests, and different political traditions. It is not unusual or surprising that there are some tensions when we meet. But it doesn’t mean that we cannot cooperate or have relations which are less tense than the ones we have today.

There were, I believe, a few things we could have done differently that would have led to a better situation than we have today.  As I just said, after the demise of communism, a widespread view in the United States and elsewhere was that history had ended, that there was only one way for countries to thrive and prosper in the future, and that was the liberal democratic and free market system. And when Russia seemed to have started down this path, we believed we should provide guidance. In the 1990s, the United States tried to play a role in shaping Russian domestic affairs, thinking that we knew better what Russians needed than Russians themselves. The appropriate way would have been to spend time with the Russians and listen to what they were concerned about, what their ideas were about how their system should be transformed. In the end, I think that we did not have enough empathy for Russians who were suffering from these changes, because we saw them as inevitable consequences of a transition which had to be made.

One issue that really burdens relations now is the question of NATO expansion and the security architecture of Europe. We should have shown more creativity in the early 1990s in thinking about how to rebuild European security after the Cold War in a way which would have indicated that Russia was going to be a significant element of that system and that its interests would be taken into account. Instead, we expanded NATO. We took an organization which Russia perceived as an enemy, tried to change the psychology of that institution to make it more a political; than a military organization, and then we expanded NATO to Eastern Europe and later to parts of the former Soviet Union, to the Baltics. While we argued that it would bring Russia closer to Europe and Western institutions in security matters, geopolitically we were pushing Russia away from Europe. Moreover, we never offered a convincing argument that Russia would be part of this community.

Another matter where we could have taken a slightly different approach was Chechnya. It was a difficult problem for the Russians and it became particularly problematic after we launched our own War on Terror. We never appropriately explained to the Russians why we wanted them to work with us to fight terrorism while we refused to work with them in their struggle. We usually made an argument that there was a moderate element in the Chechen rebellion with which Moscow should negotiate. But that was unconvincing when we told other countries that they had to choose between being with us or against us with the terrorists in the larger war on terrorism. Moderate Chechens, it seemed, did not have to make that choice. In addition, we probably should have been working with Moscow more actively on dealing with those that we knew were terrorists. The situation was complex and full of moral ambiguities, to be sure, but our stance on Chechnya undermined our credibility with Russian leaders.

And the final one has been one of the most difficult issues in US–Russia relations for decades: the former Soviet space. The dilemma is how to reconcile Moscow’s views on its role in the former Soviet space as the preeminent power and our conviction that these should all be sovereign, independent states, free to choose their geopolitical orientation. Could we have played a better role in easing relations between Russia and some specific states such as Georgia and Ukraine?  It is mot clear, but the role we did play tended to exacerbate tensions. I think our behavior conveyed to Moscow that we were not so much supporting the people in these newly independent countries, but the politicians who were anti-Russian such as Saakashvili in Georgia. That soured relations in a way which was probably avoidable.

Lev:                I have one more question on this topic: there is a theory that Russia would have followed the democratic path of development more confidently if it was provided with a special economic plan, a kind of Marshal Plan for Russia. Do you think this may have worked?

Dr. Graham: The situation in Russia after the end of the Cold War was radically different from the situation in Europe after the Second World War. First, the countries in Europe which were included in the Marshal Plan already had a democratic element in their histories, even Germany and Italy. They also had market economies. So, what we were doing was providing assistance to rebuild these countries on the foundations that already existed. Also these countries were capable of coming together to create a type of economic integration, which helped the plan too. Finally, when it comes to Germany, along with France and Great Britain, we occupied it.  That gave us much more control over how the situation developed there.

Russia at the end of the Cold War didn’t have a rich democratic tradition. Russia also had no recent experience with a market economy. If you look at the money that we did provide, though loans from the IMF or bilaterally, a lot of that disappeared because of corruption. One of the things that surprised us, even if we should have expected it, was that many so-called young reformers turned out to be corrupt. The oligarchs, in many ways, were corrupt, and they siphoned money that was intended for certain programs to their private bank accounts.

So, how could we have provided large amounts of money in a situation where we had very little control over how it would be spent? I doubt that giving Russia large amounts of money would have led to anything better. To the contrary, it would have led to a more corrupt society and it would have complicated many things that needed to be done inside Russia.


CURRENT ISSUES: On the Biden Administration, China, and Belarus

Lev:                Recently you notedbetter relations will come when world developments convince both sides that they need to work together to advance their respective national interests”. Despite all the contradictions, which among current “world developments” could create an opportunity to promote a change in Russian–Western relations? Perhaps strategic stability and arms control, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, cybersecurity, space or something else?

Dr. Graham: What needs to emerge, and it needs to emerge in both countries, is the recognition that the lack of extensive diplomatic engagement, the tendency to demonize one another, has led to a greater risk of confrontation that could spill over to a military conflict, which could escalate to the nuclear level. We also need to recognize that there are transnational challenges which require the cooperation of all nations, Russia and the United States included. What will happen before we move in that direction is another question.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 led Moscow and Washington to recognize that we needed to control the nuclear threat. We needed to create a stable strategic environment. That’s what the New START is about and why we need to renew it. So, this is one area where we have a common interest: in regulating the nuclear competition and avoiding an unnecessary arms race. Equally, we have a common interest to eventually bring others into the equation: China, India, Pakistan, Britain, Israel, France – other nuclear powers.

Cyberspace also has strategic implications and is becoming increasingly vital for political and socio-economic institutions. Now, many Americans are concerned about what Russia may do in cyberspace such as interfering in our domestic politics. And Russians are concerned as well about what Americans can do to undermine Russian political activity and security. So, this is another area where the two countries should sit down and think through how we could regulate behavior in cyberspace..

Climate change is another one. I think we are experiencing the consequences of it here in the United States now. I think Russia is quickly beginning to acknowledge the consequences. That’s why we need the United States, Russia and other countries to work together on this issue.

Finally, what didn’t lead to the kind of cooperation many people hoped for is the crisis we are all facing now: COVID-19. More or less, what we have seen is all countries going their own way. But there are ways for  major countries to come together in order to discuss the lessons learned and how to tackle similar events in the future. There is a lot of ground for better relations if we focus on the overarching stakes in this relationship.

Lev:                The US presidential election has reached its final stage. How do you think Joe Biden’s victory could affect US–Russian relations? Despite Biden’s tough rhetoric against Putin’s Russia, might he be persuaded to engage with Russia, and if so, under what conditions and for what purpose? (This interview was conducted before the US elections).

Dr. Graham: Well, if Biden wins and particularly if the margin is large, that will ease some of the concerns about Russian meddling in American domestic politics. That means that Biden’s administration may be able to help depoliticize the issue of US–Russian relations. Russia becomes less of a domestic political issue and more of a foreign policy one, which it hasn’t been for the past 4 years.

Also, President Biden will not face the suspicions that he is in Putin’s pocket, as many believe President Trump is, rightly or wrongly, but perceptions matter in politics. While I don’t think that we will see  a radical change in the way the US engages with Russia, there will be less pressure under Biden’s administration to be tough on Russia.

Another positive issue here is the New START. If you believe the rhetoric, the Biden administration wants to extend it for 5 years. The Biden administration will be very eager to open a serious discussion about strategic stability, it seems. That’s something Moscow is interested in and it would provide a foundation for a more robust dialogue between the two countries. Along similar lines, Biden will also be interested in re-joining the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). This would bring us together (also with other countries which negotiated that deal) into a joint effort to deal with this particular problem.

On the other hand, the Biden administration plans to raise human rights issues more forcefully than the Trump administration has. This focus on domestic Russian political issues will create some tension. The Trump administration didn’t impose sanctions because of the poisoning of Navalny, but Biden will almost certainly do that. A Biden administration is going to be much more interested in the countries of the post-Soviet space, and that will create some tension in the relationship.

So, we are not talking about another reset, this will continue to be a competitive relationship; there are great differences in our worldviews, geopolitical interests, and values, but it would provide a foundation and a framework for the relationship going forward.

The final point that I would make is that a Biden administration is going to be pragmatic: they will want to reduce tensions. Nevertheless, reducing tensions will require not only a change of attitude within the American administration but also a change of attitude in the Kremlin. What we need from both sides is more flexibility in resolving problematic issues.  We can’t continue to approach them from a zero-sum standpoint convinced that we can wait until the other side capitulates. That is not going to happen, so we need to think more creatively about our differences and how to reconcile them.

Lev:                In an open letter published by Politico Magazine in August 2020, you and your co-authors wrote the following about the China factor in US–Russian relations:

“The success of US–China policy will in no small measure depend on whether the state of US–Russia relations permits three-way cooperation on critical issues. Our current policies reinforce Russia’s readiness to align with the least constructive aspects of China’s US policy.”

What conditions, in your opinion, are required to create an opportunity to strengthen this trilateral format for addressing significant international problems?

Dr. Graham: Good question, and a very complicated one. Obviously, China is going to be a major player on the global stage, perhaps it will become the other superpower along with the United States. What needs to be done to lay the foundation for some sort of cooperation is actually the normalization of US–Russian relations. Russia has a very good relationship with China, an ever closer strategic alignment. The United States has a very active relationship with China, but it is has become increasingly hostile over the last few years. A consensus has emerged within the American political class that the United States needs to be more assertive in its relations with China. Nevertheless, in this situation, what we do with Russia pushes Russia closer to China. That makes no strategic sense.

Normalization of relations with Russia would have two positive impacts. First, it would enable solving the problems in our own relationship. And second, it would also give Russia strategic options. This does not mean it is going to break its relationship with China, it can still continue enjoying good relations for good strategic reasons, but it would not have to embrace China as strongly as it does now. Which means that Russia would have more leverage to negotiate commercial and political arrangements with China that are more in favor of Russia, than they are at this point.

In short, normalization of relations between Washington and Moscow gives Russia options for more balanced relations with China. Moreover, it opens a possibility for a trilateral discussion: Russia and the United States need to work together on nuclear issues and strategic stability, but at some point China has to be invited to this conversation. China now resists doing anything on this issue, but possibly a concerted effort with Russia may bring them to the table. If we foster a trilateral cooperation, China is going to have to deal with both of us in order to advance its own interests.

Normalization of US–Russian relations also puts the whole question of the Arctic into a different context. We have been cooperating in the Arctic in the last decades, mostly through the Arctic Council, but there are forces in both countries who want to create a sense of geopolitical competition and to militarize the region. If we can normalize our relations, it allows the United States and Russia to work together instead even more than we do now. And we can also deal together with Chinese interests in the region and my guess is that we will find that our interests largely overlap.

Lev:                Let me shift the focus of the conversation to regional issues. One of the most important topics of recent times is the political developments in Belarus. How have US political circles reacted to these developments?

Dr. Graham: It is obviously an important development which will have lasting consequences for Belarus, and also for Russia and Europe. It is the start of the end of Lukashenko as president. He has eroded his own legitimacy in Belarus among the Belarusian people, he doesn’t have a lot of supporters elsewhere in the world, and his relationship with Moscow is a difficult one. While Moscow certainly does not want to create a situation in which Lukashenko appears to yield to popular demand and popular pressure, I don’t think that the Kremlin would be all that unhappy if Lukashenko left his post under a more acceptable scenario, in conjunction with constitutional reform, for example,

                        But we also should acknowledge that Belarus is not a major issue in the United States, and that is unlikely to change with the new administration, although it might pay more attention than the Trump administration has so far. There is general recognition in the United States that Russia has a much greater interest in Belarus than we do. Russia sees Belarus as vital and it is not going to allow Belarus to move from the alliance with Moscow to an alliance with the West. There is very little that we can do in a positive way without provoking a reaction from Moscow, which would be bad for the advancement of democratic ideas in Belarus itself. Moreover, it could create a new crisis in Western–Russian relations which nobody really needs.

Lev:                In your article ‘The Sources of Russia’s Insecurity’, published in 2010, you wrote:

“To survive as a major power, Russia needs to transform itself into an attractive model of socio-economic development and political organization. In the twenty-first century the soft power of attraction has come to occupy a leading place in world affairs alongside the traditional hard power of coercion. To succeed in this effort, Russia must remain engaged in the world.”

What progress do you observe in this direction since that time, taking into account the warnings you also expressed in the publication, and what future do you see now?

Dr. Graham: Russia definitely has done a lot for its hard power over the last decade. We can see it in the military modernization program, in how the Russian military is effective in certain operations, such as the ones in Crimea and Syria. On soft power Russia has done much less. But to be fair, the United States has also done an effective job in eroding its own soft power over the last several years in global affairs.

The fundamental problem, as I wrote back in 2010, is that Russia doesn’t provide an attractive socio-economic and political model for other countries. Russia gives others little confidence that it is going to master the challenges of technological advancement, that it is going to be able to reform its economic system, that it will be more than simply an exporter of raw materials, or that it will become a more competitive economy across a broad range of sectors that are important in the 21st century. And as a result, Russia is simply less attractive as an economic and developmental model than other countries, than Europe for Ukraine or Georgia, or than China for countries in Central Asia.

So, while Russia believes that it has to remain the preeminent power in the former Soviet space for economic reasons as well as for security reasons, its position there is, in fact, quite precarious. And in the long term, without a fundamental change inside Russia, it may become weaker and weaker. And I don’t necessarily think that it is a good outcome: not for Russia, nor for the rest of the world, because the world does need a strong and confident Russia as one of the major pillars of the international system.

So, much more needs to be done on internal reform in Russia, on rebuilding the economy, and it may also require some adjustments in the political system to create confidence that Russia can move from generation to generation, and also from one President to another, without destabilization and political crisis.   Russia has accomplished none of this over the past decade and in fact, the politics of the current period appear to have pushed off the resolution of that issue for some time.


A MESSAGE TO THE YOUNGER GENERATION: “A new international system will have to be built”

Lev:                Reaching the end of the interview, I would like to ask you about the younger generations that will have to solve complex international problems in the near future. If you could send my generation a message, what would it be? And what lessons from your own academic and policy experience are most relevant for younger people today?

Dr. Graham: If you look at the world, it is clear that we are at a historical inflection point: the geopolitical landscape is rapidly changing as countries rise and fall. It is a period of tremendous technological advance. What has occurred over the past decades is incredible for someone who grew up in the 1950s. But the future promises even more radical advancement and new discoveries that will have a dramatic impact on the way we live, the way we communicate, the way we work.

This leads to a situation where the old world arrangements look worn out and in need of radical repair. Dysfunction seems to define much of global affairs. For some young people that may be disconcerting: you don’t have the sense of stability that many people of my generation had when we grew up. On the other hand, it really will be a time of tremendous opportunity particularly for young people, because a new international system will have to be built. So, there is a real need for creativity, innovation, thinking how to take advantage of  the promises of technological advance and how to apply them to the global challenges that we face. A big question is how, in this period of rapid change, to maintain peace and stability in the world. So, for an enterprising young person, a creative young person, there are opportunities to create along with his or her colleagues a new order.

The second point that I would like to make here, and this is one of the lessons that we have learned over the past decades, is that you need to pay attention to history. History matters. Culture matters. Human beings hold certain traditions, they have certain values and you have to take those into account if you are going to fashion a new global system. The challenge of leadership is leading people from the current environment into something that is radically new, and convincing them that what they hold as valuable is not going to be sacrificed in the process, that you are not talking about taking away what they hold as dear, but about adapting it and reinterpreting it to take into account changing circumstances.

So, we need to spend a great deal of time experiencing and learning about other cultures, trying to understand their variety and to think creatively about how to combine them, how to reconcile them, to move towards a more peaceful and prosperous environment, with as little damage as possible. That is an important lesson that I have learned.

Going back to US–Russia relations, if I had known what I know now 20 to 30 years ago, I think I could have been a much more effective policy maker. But I can’t change that now. I can only urge you, as you look forward to many more productive years, to take the time to learn about the past so that you can shape a more secure and prosperous future.

Lev:                Dr. Graham, thank you for the interview.