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U.S. Diplomat Recounts Time In Russia In 'The Back Channel'


How should the United States approach Russia now?


A special counsel chose not to charge President Trump of conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election. But Robert Mueller also confirmed that Russia did try to get President Trump elected. It's one of many ways Russian leader Vladimir Putin asserted Russian power.

INSKEEP: William Burns has a long view of Russia. He's among the most experienced U.S. diplomats, and his career included a posting in Moscow in the 1990s. Burns returned as U.S. ambassador from 2005 to 2008. He recounts his Russian experiences in portions of his new memoir, "The Back Channel."

WILLIAM BURNS: You know, I was always fascinated by U.S.-Soviet and then U.S.-Russian relations. And so about 10 years into my career, I spent two years learning Russian because I thought it was important to really invest in the language. And then I went, early 1990s, in Boris Yeltsin's Russia to be the chief political officer at our embassy in Moscow.

INSKEEP: How did you go about trying to figure out Russia?

BURNS: Russia's a particularly challenging place, and humility is a good starting point for any outsider to understand it. You know, Russia covers 11 time zones, so just the sheer scope of Russia is complicated. So you had to get beyond Moscow.

And that was a fascinating experience because this was a Russia that was flat on its back economically at the end of the Cold War, you know, where people were going through genuine hardship and privation. And I always thought it's hard to understand the kind of smoldering aggressiveness that Vladimir Putin embodies today unless you understood that very curious combination of hope with the end of communism but also humiliation and deprivation that Russians felt in the 1990s.

INSKEEP: What was the farthest you remember getting from Moscow?

BURNS: Oh, I got to Vladivostok in the East all the way to the Far North in the Arctic, and then, you know, all the way to the South. I remember traveling to Chechnya during the first Russian-Chechen war in 1994-95, which was a really graphic experience not only in terms of the human suffering in a very bloody war but also to see, you know, how far the Red Army had fallen. You know, this was the Red Army that was supposed to be able, during the Cold War, to get to the English Channel in 48 hours. And here it was really a ragtag collection of military units and unable to suppress a rebellion in, you know, a remote part of Russia.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering an old book by Hedrick Smith who spent decades in and out of what was then the Soviet Union. And he described enormous amounts of vodka drinking as a culturally necessary thing.

BURNS: That's true. And it was a particular habit, especially of provincial governors and mayors, to try to drink the American ambassador under the table.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BURNS: And so my - it's amazing in some ways my liver survived, you know, all those years that I spent serving in Russia because you can't avoid consuming a lot of vodka.

INSKEEP: Did you get a chance to meet Vladimir Putin before he became president of Russia?

BURNS: I did once, just in passing. When I was the chief political officer in the '90s, he was then the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. At the time, I don't think he had any notion that he was going to wind up as president of Russia any more than I had the notion I would wind up as American ambassador.

INSKEEP: Was this one of the sessions where they tried to drink you under the table?

BURNS: No, I don't remember that. And, you know, Putin's background is pretty abstemious by comparison to, you know, most of his peers. He's never struck me as a hard drinker.

INSKEEP: How did it come to pass that you were able to return to Russia years later?

BURNS: Colin Powell had asked what I would like to try to do next, and I had expressed strong interest in going to Moscow. And, you know, it's very fortunate that I ended up being the president's nominee.

INSKEEP: So you got there in 2005? Is that right?

BURNS: I did.

INSKEEP: And now Vladimir Putin is president.

BURNS: Right.

INSKEEP: Do you remember early meetings with him?

BURNS: I do. I remember vividly my first meeting with Putin as ambassador at the Kremlin when you present your credentials, your letter from the president of the United States. And this takes place in the Kremlin, which, as you well know, is built on a scale meant to intimidate. So I go through the huge halls, the kind of very long corridors, the kind of endless walk into one big hall. And at the end of it, there are these two-story bronze doors. And you're kept waiting there, mostly to let this all sink in. And then the doors open a crack, and out comes President Putin.

Now, as you know, despite his kind of bare-chested persona, he's not a physically very imposing person. He's probably about 5-foot-6, although he carries himself with a lot of self-assurance - comes walking toward me. Before I could hand in the letter, before I could get a word out of my mouth, President Putin said, you Americans need to listen more. You can't have everything your own way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms.

And, you know, that was vintage Putin. He was not subtle. He had a big chip on his shoulder, a sense of grievance. And it was defiantly charmless, just like Putin himself.

INSKEEP: It is said that one plausible motivation for Putin interfering in the U.S. election in 2016 was that he felt that the United States had messed around in Russian politics. When you were there, did the United States interfere in some way in Russian politics?

BURNS: No. I mean, I remember one encounter, I think, in 2007 with Putin where he took me aside after another meeting and said, you know, outside interference in our elections, in Russia's parliamentary elections then, will not be tolerated. And he saw the activities of American diplomats - you know, I described what we tried to do in the '90s in terms of understanding how another political system ticked - he interpreted that as efforts to undermine him. As I told Putin at the time, we didn't take sides in Russia's election. But what we would do, as we did in any other society, is try to stand up for fair processes.

INSKEEP: Some people may well be listening to us talking and thinking, well, the United States does interfere in other people's political processes. Right now the United States is trying to change the presidency of Venezuela. In your experience, does that happen very often that the U.S. tries to change a government?

BURNS: You know, historically, the United States has been involved in efforts covertly and overtly to undermine other regimes. It was true in Iran in the early 1950s and Central America later in the 1950s. Even in the 1996 presidential election in Russia, there were lots of American consultants who were advising Boris Yeltsin. And I think it's fair to say that we, in some ways, put our thumb on the scale in favor of Yeltsin in that period too, and those are things that Putin remembers vividly. And then there are the efforts that forced change of regimes, like Iraq in 2003. So it's not like the United States has exactly a pristine experience on these issues.

INSKEEP: Did you broadly feel, during your time in the State Department, that the United States was a force for good in the world?

BURNS: You know, I think we played a broadly positive role. But as I said, we got to be honest about our mistakes and the things that we got wrong.

INSKEEP: William J. Burns is author of "The Back Channel: A Memoir Of American Diplomacy And The Case For Its Renewal." Thanks so much.

BURNS: Thanks, Steve, very much.