When Bill Clinton telephoned Vladimir Putin on New Year’s Day, 2000, to congratulate him on his appointment as acting President, Putin told him: “There are certain issues on which we do not agree. However, I believe that on the core themes we will always be together.” Clinton was equally upbeat. Putin, he said, was “off to a very good start.”
Later it would be said that the American President had been naïve and that Putin’s protestations of friendship with the West were a masquerade from the start. But Clinton was not alone in seeing the Russian President as a valuable partner in the post-Cold War world. Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, thought “Putin admired America and wanted a strong relationship with it. He wanted to pursue democratic and economic reform.” The Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, pronounced him ‘a Russian patriot’ and Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, found his support after 9/11 simply “amazing… He even ordered Russian generals to brief their American counterparts on their experiences during their Afghanistan invasion in the 1980s… I appreciated his willingness to move beyond the suspicions of the past.”
On both sides, however, those suspicions never entirely went away. The Warsaw Pact had been dissolved and the Soviet Union no longer existed. “But NATO still exists,” Putin complained. “What for?” From the Kremlin’s standpoint, it was a fair question. “We all say,” he went on, “that we don’t want Europe to be divided, we don’t want new borders and barriers, new ‘Berlin Walls’ dividing the continent. But when NATO expands, the border doesn’t go away. It simply moves closer to Russia.”
The bureaucracy on both sides had a lot to answer for. The Pentagon, under Donald Rumsfeld, was allergic to anything which might constrain America’s freedom to act as it wished. The Russian General Staff was obsessed with the idea that NATO was planning to deploy troops along Russia’s borders. Putin himself acknowledged that “many things that seem fine in negotiations often end up bogged down in practice.” But even if the blame were shared, the West often gave the impression of deliberately dragging its feet. Francis Richards, who at that time headed GCHQ— the British equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency—remembered: “We were quite grateful for Putin’s support after 9/11, but we didn’t show it very much. I used to spend a great deal of time trying to persuade people that we needed to give as well as take . . . I think the Russians felt throughout that [on NATO issues] they were being fobbed off. And they were.”
The result was a growing sense among the Russian elite that Putin was being played. Vladimir Lukin, who had been Yeltsin’s first ambassador to the U.S., protested: “One sided steps cannot be taken forever . . . Decisions should go both ways. They should not end just in smiles and encouragement.” There was grumbling, not only in the army and navy but also within the Presidential Administration, at what was termed a “policy of concessions” which brought Russia no tangible benefit.
Putin held firm. Russia had made “a strategic choice,” he said: “Russia today is cooperating with the West not because it wants to be liked or to get something in exchange. We are not standing there with an outstretched hand and we are not begging anyone for anything. The only reason that I pursue this policy is that I believe it fully meets [our] national interests . . . A rapprochement with the West is not Putin’s policy, it is the policy of Russia.”
By the end of his first presidential term, in 2004, that position became more difficult to defend. Russia had done everything Bush had asked for and more: it had shared intelligence, given the Americans overflight rights and encouraged its allies to provide base facilities. But what had it got in return? America had insisted on abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, rather than modifying it as the Russians had proposed; it had gone ahead with plans for a national missile defence programme over Russian objections; NATO enlargement was continuing apace and would soon reach Russia’s borders; and Russia’s concerns about America’s invasion of Iraq, which were shared by many of America’s own allies, had been summarily dismissed. The final straw had been U.S. support of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which to the Kremlin was tantamount to promoting regime change on Russia’s borders.
American officials saw things rather differently. They focused instead on Russian backsliding over human rights and democracy issues. But few Russians thought that that was any of America’s business. Even liberals who excoriated Putin’s regime jibbed at heavy-handed foreign criticism. Putin spoke for a wide segment of Russian society when, commenting on American criticisms of the Russian elections, he said: “we are none too happy about everything that happens in the United States either. Do you think that the electoral system of the USA is perfect?”
On the surface, the relationship remained correct. But there were worrying undercurrents. Bush’s administration, Putin felt, wanted to keep Russia down and was prepared to go to almost any lengths to do so. Whether, or to what extent, that was true was almost beside the point. What mattered was perception, and the leaders’ perceptions of each other’s goals were starting to diverge.
When Putin finally gave vent to his grievances in public in a vituperative speech at a security conference in Munich in February 2007, American officials were stunned. In fact, he said little that he had not said before. What had changed was the tone. What Putin liked to call the “false bottom” to U.S.-Russian relations—the pretence that all was well and that Russia and America were solid, strategic partners with just a few trifling tactical problems—had been discarded. In simple terms, as Bill Burns, then U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, put it in a cable to the White House, the message was: “We’re back, and you’d better get used to it!”
America, Putin had concluded, was not listening to Russia’s concerns and would not do so until given a salutary shock. “It doesn’t matter what we do,’ he told a group of Russian journalists a few days later. ‘Whether we speak out or keep silent – there’ll always be some pretext for attacking Russia. In this situation, it is better to be frank.” The West saw itself as “shining white, clean and pure” and Russia as “some kind of monster that has only just crawled out of the forest, with hooves and horns.”
Reflecting, a decade after these events, on the steady, seemingly ineluctable deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Russia after Putin came to power, Ambassador Burns concluded that both countries had been deluding themselves all along. “The Russian illusion,” he thought, “[was] that somehow they were going to be accepted, even though the power realities had changed enormously, as a peer, as a full partner.” The American illusion was that “we could always manoeuvre over or around Russia. There was bound to be a time when they were going to push back . . . A certain amount of friction and a certain number of collisions were built into the equation.”
In retrospect, what is surprising is not that Russia’s relations with America finished up as a train wreck, but that it took so long to happen. Putin was not a natural liberal, but he was a realist and, contemplating the available alternatives after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he concluded that cooperation with the West was the only sensible policy. Culturally, spiritually and, in part, geographically, Russia belonged with Europe. It had nowhere else to go. The Russian elite did not send their children to study in Beijing or Shanghai. They sent them to British or American schools and universities. Russian oligarchs did not park their ill-gotten gains in Seoul or Bangkok, they invested in London or New York and bought property in Knightsbridge or Chelsea, Manhattan or Miami.
There was another more personal reason for Putin’s reluctance to abandon the rapprochement with the West. In trying to promote cooperation with Russia’s former adversaries, he had overridden the reservations of many of his closest colleagues. The siloviki, the state bureaucracy and the military had been dubious from the outset about the wisdom of trusting Western governments to engage with Russia as genuine partners. Putin was in no hurry to admit that they had been right and he had been wrong.
The U.S. was equally disappointed. The belief that Moscow would become a partner, if not an ally, espousing Western values in an American-led world, which had animated U.S. policy towards Russia since the early 1990s, had proved vain. American exceptionalism found to its surprise that it was facing a Russian exceptionalism which was no less tenacious.
Could it have been done differently? In theory, at least, the answer must be yes. Were there missed opportunities, which, had they been taken, might have set relations on a different road? No doubt. Would the outcome then have been different? Perhaps, but not necessarily; there is no way to be sure. In practice the ideological convictions of the Bush administration, shared not just by Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz but also by Bush himself, made agreement all but impossible. By 2008, as Putin ended his second four-year term as Russia’s leader, the rift had become too deep to heal.
Over the next ten years, Putin’s disillusionment with the U.S. deepened. Most of his foreign policy initiatives during his third term, from 2012 to 2018, were payback for what the Kremlin regarded as anti-Russian moves by the West.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea was payback for Kosovo, which, with Western support, had seceded unilaterally from Russia’s ally, Serbia. To Putin, that was the first of the West’s three cardinal sins—the others being NATO enlargement and America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—that had destroyed both sides’ hopes of building a better, more peaceful world after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden in 2013 and the ban on Americans adopting Russian children were payback for the Magnitsky Act, which allowed America to impose sanctions on Russian officials suspected of corruption or human rights abuses.
Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 on behalf of that country’s brutal President, Bashir al-Assad, was payback for U.S. intervention in Libya and Iraq.
Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 was payback for America’s efforts to spread—or “impose,” as Putin preferred to say—its own system of values to other nations.
But payback was not an end in itself. It was part of a broader response to the economic and military pressures which the U.S. and its allies were exerting on Russia. Above all, it was an attempt to assert Russia’s place as an independent actor in an increasingly multipolar world in which, in Putin’s view, the United States was destined to lose its role as the dominant power.
Over the course of his third term, Putin’s thinking about Russia’s relationship with the West crystallised, forming, in his mind at least, a coherent picture of all that had happened in the 25 years—the “wasted years,” as he now put it—since the Soviet Union’s demise.
The relationship had started going wrong from the very beginning, Putin thought. Instead of establishing a new balance of power in Europe, the West had created new divisions. Its claim that NATO had no choice but to accept new members from Central and Eastern Europe was phoney, Putin argued. It was true that other countries had the right to apply, but that did not mean that the existing members were obliged to accept them if they thought it was contrary to their own interests. “They could have said: “we are pleased that you want to join us, but we are not going to expand our organisation because we see the future of Europe differently” . . . If they had wanted to, they could have [refused]. But they didn’t want to.”
Putin was not wrong. The NATO Charter says only that the member states “may invite any other European state in a position to . . . contribute to the security of the area.” There is no obligation to do so.
But for Washington, NATO enlargement was a means of consolidating America’s hold over its European allies, even though it implied obligations which, were war ever to break out, the U.S. might be reluctant to fulfill. For countries like France and Germany, the advantages were less obvious. It was hard to see how their security would be enhanced by a commitment to defend the Baltic States, let alone Georgia or Ukraine, from possible Russian aggression. But in the early days, amid the euphoria which marked the end of the Cold War, when the West assumed that Russia was destined to become part of the American-led world and Moscow was far too weak to resist, none of America’s partners thought it worthwhile to object. The result was that NATO’s military infrastructure arrived at Russia’s borders.
What would America have done, Putin wondered, if it had been the other way round—”If Russia had placed missile systems on the U.S.–Mexico border or the U.S.–Canadian border?” The answer was self-evident. When Khrushchev had attempted to install Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, the world had been brought to the brink of nuclear destruction and the issue remained so fraught that, 60 years later, the United States continued to subject the island to an economic blockade.
American officials reject such comparisons. The United States, they say, supported NATO enlargement not to threaten Russia but to reassure America’s European allies. The reality was more galling and more prosaic. The U.S. acted as it did because it could.
“Our biggest mistake,” Putin told a western scholar, “was to trust you too much. Your mistake was to take that trust as weakness and abuse it.” It was a lesson, he said. If a bear stops defending its territory, “someone will always try to chain him up. As soon as he is chained, they will tear out his teeth and claws . . . When that happens, . . . they will take over his territory . . . and then, perhaps, they will stuff him . . . We must decide whether we want to keep going and fight . . . Or do we want our skin to hang on the wall?” In Putin’s metaphor, the bear’s teeth and claws were Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But it was also intended in a wider sense. When he looked back over the previous two decades, he saw—or claimed to see—an America which, from the outset, had set out to dupe Russia.
As Russia’s relationship with the West became increasingly hostile, the backsliding on democracy at home, which American officials had been complaining about ever since Putin’s first term, became more pronounced. Pro-western liberals were excluded from decision-making. Those advocating democratic values were marginalised. The result was a vicious circle. The more the siloviki were in the ascendant, the more internal repression intensified and the worse relations with the West became. Starting in 2018, the regime transitioned from a relatively free authoritarian system to a closed dictatorship, not quite totalitarian but close.
Putin’s rhetoric changed, too. The West, he charged, had backed “an international terrorist invasion of Russia… This is an established fact and everybody knows it.” It was the language of Soviet propaganda from the 1960s and ’70s. Even though it was transparently untrue, it fitted the Kremlin’s narrative of a hostile western world, headed by a waning hegemonic power, which was trying by fair means or foul to tear Russia apart as it struggled to fight off its own inexorable decline.
By 2019, Putin was starting to think seriously about a political transition to a new generation of Russian leaders. He introduced constitutional changes giving himself the possibility of remaining in power almost indefinitely. But that was a feint to prevent a struggle for the succession. He had no desire to die in harness, but nor did he want to preside over the squabbles of his entourage vying for influence against the day when he might step down.
In the meantime, there was one last piece of unfinished business he wanted to resolve: the status of Ukraine.
Putin had had a fixation on Ukraine since long before he became President. In 1991, it had been Ukraine’s insistence on declaring independence that had triggered the break-up of the Soviet Union. Twelve years later, in 2003, Ukraine had dealt him the first serious political defeat of his presidency when the Orange Revolution prevented the election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s head of state. After the annexation of Crimea, in 2014, Putin had hoped that the Minsk accords would lead to the creation of a federal system effectively guarantee the country’s neutrality. But that had not happened. Instead Ukraine became a military outpost of the western alliance, not formally a member but in practice a close partner, hard up against Russia’s border.
That was the pretext, though not the fundamental reason, for the war that Putin launched on February 24. It was not just a matter of bringing Ukraine to heel. It was to show that the U.S. was powerless to prevent it
As the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, put it: “This is not actually, or at least, not primarily, about Ukraine at all. . . It reflects the battle over what the [future] world order will look like. Will it be a world in which the West will lead everyone with impunity and without question or will it be something different?”
This was partly spin. Portraying the conflict as a proxy war in which Russia was fighting on behalf of the non-aligned nations of the world to end American hegemony made it a much easier sell to Russian public opinion as well as to countries like China and India which favoured a multipolar global system. If Russia succeeded, Putin believed, it would fatally undermine the structures of European security which had been built up under American leadership since the end of the Cold War.
Read More: The Ukraine War Is Becoming Putin’s Vietnam
The Biden administration insisted that Ukraine was a special case because it was not a member of the alliance and that, were any NATO state attacked, America would rush to its defence. But how much reliance could countries like Poland and the Baltic States place on such assurances when NATO was so risk-averse that it refused to establish a no-fly zone to protect Ukrainian cities for fear of nuclear escalation? Putin’s charge that the West was happy to fight to the last Ukrainian was dismissed as propaganda in America but it gave pause to leaders in Eastern Europe. Would the United States really risk nuclear annihilation to defend Warsaw or Tallinn? The question was not new but the invasion of Ukraine put it in a harshly different light. To Putin, even if Russia had failed to prevent NATO enlargement, it might yet sow doubt about the alliance’s reliability, undermining faith in America’s support for other states on Russia’s borders, NATO members or not.
Putin plays a long game. Throughout his time in office, whenever he was faced with what he saw as an existential choice between antagonising the West and preserving his own power and Russia’s position in the world, the latter always prevailed. That was so when he clamped down on the oligarchs in 2003 and when he annexed Crimea a decade later. On each occasion, he accepted the economic damage to Russia as the price to be paid. In 2022, the invasion of Ukraine followed the same pattern.
At first sight, it appeared that he had grossly miscalculated. The West emerged with a new sense of purpose. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, proved an inspirational leader. Russia’s economy was battered by sanctions, though less severely than the West had hoped. More worrying for Washington, the global South hedged its bets. Of the world’s ten most populous countries, only one—the United States— unequivocally backed Ukraine.
The Biden administration recognised the danger. America’s goal, said the National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, was ‘a free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia and a stronger, more unified West’. The deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, put it more succinctly. America, she said, wanted to inflict on Putin a “strategic failure.”
It was déjà vu all over again. The West was returning to the old policies of containment that it had honed during the Cold War, but this time with a more radical objective: not merely to contain Russia but to leave it so diminished that it can never threaten its neighbours again.
If, in the process, a new Iron Curtain descends across the continent, its purpose will be different from that imposed by Stalin to subjugate Eastern Europe. This time the goal is to keep Europe free and the Russians out. Unlike Stalin’s Iron Curtain, it will be enforced by economic weapons rather than watchtowers and barbed wire—a memorial to a Europe that might have been but never came to fruition because leaders on all sides failed to grasp the opportunities offered by the Soviet Union’s demise.
Adapted from Philip Short’s new biography, Putin. Published by Henry Holt.
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