As Russia’s bizarre non-invasion invasion of Ukraine continues to rattle the world, a familiar theme has emerged in some of the commentary: that Western powers, especially the United States, bear at least partial blame for inciting Russian bellicosity by kicking their Cold War foe when it was down. New York University Slavic scholar Stephen F. Cohen, a frequent Russia expert on TV, makes this claim in the left-wing magazine, The Nation; across the Atlantic, he is seconded by conservative Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens. Even some pundits with little sympathy for the Kremlin’s actions, such as the New York Times’s Tom Friedman, claim that reckless U.S. policies, above all NATO’s eastward expansion, helped generate the current crisis.
Did we create a monster by humiliating Russia after the collapse of Communism? Is the answer — as advised by foreign policy “realists,” including anti-interventionist conservatives such as Sen. Rand Paul — to avoid antagonizing the Russian state, treat it with more respect, and recognize its “sphere of influence” in nearby countries? A look at the facts suggests that whatever mistakes the West may have made in the post-Cold War years, Russia’s grievances are less about actual wrongs than about paranoid insecurities and outsized imperial ambitions — a mindset Vladimir Putin harbors himself, but also deftly exploits in the Russian public to shore up his power. And rewarding these attitudes with more “respect” can only take Russia further down a road dangerous to itself and the world.
After the demise of the Soviet empire in 1991, there certainly was a widespread view that the West had won the Cold War. But it was also generally presumed to be a victory over Communism, not Russians — who were widely seen as an oppressed people newly liberated from the totalitarian yoke. In the early 1990s, the United States eagerly embraced Russia’s fledgling democracy, its new status as a partner and ally symbolized by the cordial relationship between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin; Clinton’s first trip abroad as President, in April 1993, included a meeting with Yeltsin in Vancouver.
“Russia wasn’t even treated as an equal partner but as a favored child who was petted and given treats,” the late Elena Bonner, an icon of Soviet-era human rights activism and widow of the great physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, told me a few years ago, discussing an earlier round of laments about Russia’s wrongs at the hands of the West. (Then as now, the chorus of sympathy came in response to a Russian military adventure in a former Soviet republic trying to break away from its “sphere of influence” — Georgia.)
The “treats” were quite meaty: Western aid to Russia from 1992 to 1997 alone totaled $55 billion — not counting private charity and business investment. (In 1995, when the CIA submitted a report to the White House detailing Russian corruption that included aid money being pocketed by high-level officials, Vice President Al Gore reportedly rejected it and sent the document back with a crude epithet scrawled across the cover.) In a move that had more to do with political respect than economic reality, Russia was included in the annual forum for leaders of the world’s top economies — first in an informal “G7+1” arrangement, then, from 1998 onward, as a full member of the G8.
What about the alleged insult and injury of NATO expansion, which is also said to break a promise given to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990? The real story is far more complex. For one, Mark Kramer, director of Harvard’s Cold War Studies Project, make a fairly conclusive case in a 2009 article in The Wilson Quarterly that the non-expansion pledge is a myth (the 1990 negotiations concerned only the military status of the Eastern part of Germany after reunification). Ira L. Straus, founder and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, has pointed out that when the admission of former Eastern bloc countries to NATO first came up for serious consideration in 1993, it was with a view to more extensive engagement with Russia — and its possible membership in the alliance down the road.
Due to lingering mistrust on both sides, Russia’s leadership often questioned the sincerity of NATO’s inclusive intentions when former Soviet satellites such as Poland were given priority in admission — while the West often interpreted Russia’s opposition to fast-track admission for those countries as blanket opposition to NATO expansion. In fact, both Yeltsin and Putin at different times voiced interest in NATO membership for Russia, and Straus is critical of the West for not being more receptive to these overtures. Nonetheless, his own accounts in a 1997 paper and a lengthy 2003 article leave little doubt that Russian attitudes — suspicion of the West, reluctance to commit to NATO’s strategic agenda, and resentment at being invited to join NATO’s membership plan on the same terms as other countries — were a big part of the problem.
Notably, Russia was included in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and in the NATO-Russia Council in 2002; both provided a framework not only for military cooperation (and Western assistance to Russia in such areas as job training for decommissioned officers) but for a NATO obligation to consult Russia about possible threats to its security.
The prospect of Georgia and Ukraine membership in NATO is often said to stoke Russia’s fear of “encirclement” by hostile entities, provoking an understandably aggressive reaction. But fear of what, exactly? In October 2008, not long after the war in Georgia, retired Russian general Vladimir Dvorkin, formerly a top-level arms negotiator, published a fascinating column on the independent Russian website EJ.ru (“The Daily Journal”). Dvorkin pointed out the obvious: given Russia’s nuclear arsenal, a military attack on Russia by NATO forces is unthinkable no matter how many of its neighbors join NATO. The real danger to Russia, he warned, is “civilizational isolation” if it fails to modernize its economy and liberalize its political system and finds itself surrounded by neighbors integrated into the democratic capitalist West.
For Dvorkin, the solution to was to embrace modernization and freedom. Not so for Putin, who is keenly aware of the threat of such “encirclement” — and, crucially, of its effect at home. It is worth recalling that Moscow’s sharp anti-Western, anti-American turn in the mid-2000s came after the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, where peaceful demonstrations against rigged elections brought down authoritarian pro-Kremlin regimes. It wasn’t just the loss of allies that mattered but the power of example: today the Maidan, tomorrow Red Square.
Putin’s response was to blame these revolutions on American perfidy, with George Soros and George W. Bush implicated in the same conspiracy. In the lingo of the Russian political establishment, “orange” — the color worn by Ukraine’s pro-democracy protesters — acquired the meaning of “foreign-backed subversive” and became a standard epithet to smear the liberal opposition. In 2011-2012, it was widely used as a slur against Russia’s own protesters who turned out to denounce rampant election fraud and Putin’s cynical gambit to return to the presidency after using his obedient “heir” Dmitry Medvedev to get around the constitutional two-term limit.
In his third term, Putin has been more blatant than ever in his use of nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric to prop up an authoritarian kleptocracy. In doing so, he taps into a real sentiment among Russians — 78 percent of whom completely or mostly agree that Russia should reclaim its status as a “great empire.” Yet this sentiment is more nuanced than appears at first glance. The share of those who “completely” support empire restoration has dropped from 59 percent in 1999 to 40 percent in 2011. And, in a 2012 poll, Russians overwhelmingly preferred (by 78 to 22 percent) to see Russia as a country with a comfortable standard of living in which individual well-being is paramount than a great military power in which the prestige of the state comes first. Russians are not inherently anti-liberal or democracy-averse; but when the state controls virtually all of the mass media, it has a great deal of power to cultivate society’s most illiberal attitudes.
Behind those attitudes is the very real national humiliation many Russians felt after the collapse of Communism. But, as Bonner told me in 2008, it was hardly the West’s fault: “Russia humiliated itself. It spent 70-plus years building Communism, and reaped the results.” A wise leadership would help Russia come to terms with this reality. Instead, Putin has worked to channel popular discontent into resentment of the West while promoting pride in the Soviet-era past and using imperial dreams to salve the nation’s bruised ego.
Of course the United States should not seek out confrontation with Russia. But a respectful relationship should not include recognizing Russia’s “right” to bully its former colonies so that it can maintain a zone of friendly “buffer states.” Losing its buffer against democracy could be the best thing to happen to Russia as well as its neighbors.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She is also the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields, 1989). You can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63.