William J. Burns
William Burns addressing journalists in Tokyo as deputy secretary of state shortly before his retirement from the Foreign Service, January 2014.

How the US Managed, and Mismanaged, Russia: A Superstar Diplomat Tells His Story

March 12, 2019
Graham Allison


“Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal”
By William J. Burns
Random House, March 2019

William Burns’s new book “Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal” is a must-read for Russia watchers. No insider has offered more insights into the process by which a “strategic partnership” between the U.S. and a newly independent Russia under a president whose primary objective was to “bury Communism” deteriorated into the dangerous enmity we see today. A superstar of the Foreign Service in his generation, Burns served five presidents and 10 secretaries of state over a career of 33 years in which he rose to become the No. 2 official in the Department of State. 

Among the most revealing strands in the book is Burns’ account of George W. Bush’s fateful push for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine—and the not only predictable but predicted consequences. Newly declassified documents include a February 2008 memo from Burns to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in which Burns warned clearly that if the Bush administration pushed ahead with its plans to invite Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, Putin would veto that effort—by using Russian troops or other forms of meddling to splinter both countries.

Two months before Bush and Rice ignored his warning and orchestrated a communique at the April 2008 NATO summit declaring that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Burns’ private memo to the secretary said clearly: If we do this, “today’s Russia will respond. The prospect of subsequent Russian-Georgian armed conflict would be high. ... It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”

Burns’ insights into Putin—whom he labels the “apostle of payback”—provide perspective on the challenges the U.S. government faces today in dealing with what I’ve proposed we recognize as our “insufferable, inseparable Siamese twin.” However bedeviling, however devious, however self-destructive, however deserving to be strangled Russia is, we must constantly remind ourselves that if we were to kill it, we would also be committing suicide. 

From his account of his meeting with Putin in 2005 when he handed him his credentials as the new U.S. ambassador in Moscow—and some of Putin’s first words were “you Americans need to listen more”—to his report of the first meeting between Putin and the newly elected President Obama at Putin’s dacha outside Moscow, where Putin began with an “unbroken 50-minute … monologue filled with grievances, sharp asides and acerbic commentary,” the reader is treated to a real insider’s analysis of a leader who continues to command a superpower nuclear arsenal that could erase the U.S.A. from the map.

Lionel Barber’s brilliant review of Burns’ book in the past weekend’s Financial Times provocatively suggests an alternative title for the book: “Present at the Destruction.” While that may be a bit much, it serves as a stark reminder why this is a must-read not just for Russia-phobes or -philes, but for anyone trying to understand how the U.S. has managed, and mismanaged, the post-Cold War world in order to think seriously about where we can go from here.


Graham Allison

Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught for five decades, and a member of Russia Matters' editorial board.

Photo by U.S. State Department shared in the public domain.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.