As Jim Collins, a soft-spoken career diplomat who was then the U.S. ambassador to Russia, made the rounds at that reception, querying guests as to what they thought of the dramatic shift atop the Kremlin, the overwhelming sentiment was relief. The Yeltsin era, which had begun with so much promise, had turned into a shambolic, deeply corrupt dystopia. Yeltsin, who had burst to prominence with a burly energy—his climb atop a tank in central Moscow to turn back revanchists who sought to save the Soviet dictatorship is one of the iconic moments of the Cold War’s end—had become chronically ill and increasingly fond of his vodka. A group of politically connected businessmen had raped the country economically and spirited most of their gains offshore. Its budget was busted, its civil servants unpaid. (I did a story then about a colonel in the Soviet Rocket Forces who killed himself because he could not afford to throw his wife a birthday party.) The once mighty—and mightily effective—KGB had to watch its best officers go off to work for private businessmen, leaving the state security services demoralized and increasingly corrupt. Russia was in chaos.
Collins listened to the various opinions offered and then offered his own. “They need someone,” he said, “who can get control of this place.” In other words, he too was relieved that Yeltsin was gone.
We forget now, in the midst of the intensifying hysteria in Washington, D.C., about all things Russia, that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin—now commonly portrayed as a cartoon villain by Western politicians and press—had a honeymoon period. Many people back then chose to disregard Putin’s career in the KGB and focused instead on the fact that he had been an energetic aide to the reform-minded mayor of his native St. Petersburg in the immediate post-Soviet era. Madeleine Albright, then Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, called him a “reformer,” and both sides of the political aisle in Washington were conned by Putin in the following decade. George W. Bush, desperately seeking Russian help in the post-9/11 war on terror, famously said he had “looked into [Putin’s] soul.” ("So have I,” cracked Senator John McCain, "and I saw three letters: KGB.”) As recently as the 2012 election, President Barack Obama mocked Mitt Romney for calling Putin a threat to the United States. "The 1980s called, and they want their foreign policy back,” Obama cracked.
That was one U.S. election cycle ago. Now, according to its critics, Russia is a mortal threat to all the West holds dear, and it attempted to intervene, largely through cyberspace, in the 2016 election. America’s most prized possession—its democracy—was attacked in what McCain, speaking for much of the Washington establishment, called “an act of war.” The new Trump administration is beset by an FBI investigation into whether members of his campaign colluded with Moscow in an attempt to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House. Trump had to fire his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for dissembling about what he said to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. Then, on May 10, he fired the man overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign, Director James Comey, in part because he wouldn’t publicly clear the president of having any ties to Moscow.
Suddenly, an undeniable whiff of Watergate-style crisis was in the D.C. air. But this scandal has a distinctive feature: As the multiple investigations unfold over the coming weeks and months, remember that this is not a homegrown scandal but one made in Moscow. Rarely, if ever, during the Cold War did Russia so effectively roil American politics.
Set aside, for the moment, whether this is a crisis or, as Trump would have it, a “fake” story manufactured by Democrats angry that they lost the election and peddled by their allies in the press. Less than two decades ago, Putin had inherited an exhausted, bankrupt country. Once a superpower, it wielded almost no geopolitical clout, not even in its own backyard. (The United States had humiliated Moscow—and infuriated Putin, then running the Federal Security Service, the KGB’s successor, for Yeltsin—when it bombed Russian ally Serbia during the Kosovo war in 1999.)
Now Russia is again public enemy No. 1 in the United States, and Putin is on offense around the world. He is the primary backer of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, thanks to his audacious deployment of Russia’s military to combat the anti-Assad Islamic rebels. He annexed Crimea and sent Russian troops and special operators into eastern Ukraine, where they remain today. In the Far East, he is moving Russia closer to a military alliance with Beijing. And in Europe and the United States, Putin’s cyberwarriors are wreaking havoc.
Read more: Inside Putin’s Campaign to Destroy U.S. Democracy