The origins of Russia’s new conflict with the West

The origins of Russia’s new conflict with the West

Commentary


Neither Russia nor the West expected such a deep – and for now irreparable – crisis in their relations. The West responded to the annexation of Crimea and to Russia’s egregious violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty with economic sanctions. Putin’s abrupt policy moves, aggravated by the sanctions, precipitated Russia’s economic and social decline. But the West has been unable to make Russia reverse its course. Now, the crisis has gone beyond Ukraine and has raised real concerns about European security.

A quarter century after the end of the cold war, we have found ourselves somewhere that neither Russia nor the West ever wanted to be. Blaming Putin for the current dramatic developments in Ukraine may be justified, but obviously, the true reasons for the crisis run deeper.

The end of Communism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia’s painful process of coming to terms with its new identity and stature presented Western policymakers with a tough challenge. However, too often, they were reluctant to address the gravity of the task.

Some in the West never believed the collapse of Communism made a difference.

Some in the West never believed the collapse of Communism made a difference – to them, post-Soviet Russia was just another incarnation of the West’s adversary, the Soviet Union. One of those sceptics was Anthony Lake, national security adviser in Bill Clinton’s first administration, who said that Boris Yeltsin's government was made up of people who were “basically communists who had changed their suits from red to blue”. Should Lake’s opinion have prevailed, there would have been no rationale for ending the cold war.

Another camp hoped that Russia would join the realm of European democracies. Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO asserted in its London Declaration that “The Soviet Union has embarked on the long journey toward a free society. The walls that once confined people and ideas are collapsing.” It said that those people were “choosing a Europe whole and free”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the camp of those who believed in Russia’s democratic future –first and foremost among them, President Clinton – won the upper hand.

But of course, the West’s Russia policy was not guided by those rosy hopes for a new, democratic Russia. This was especially so since post-Soviet Russia’s early record was far from encouraging: the results of the 1993 and 1995 parliamentary elections demonstrated that the anti-Communist reformers had little public support. The Chechen War was another huge disappointment. Anthony Lake himself admitted later that “the United States did not have the leverage to make the Russians reverse course”.

Lake’s statement applied to the domestic course of post-Soviet Russia. In foreign affairs, Russia was dramatically weakened and barely had any say. Though political correctness required the US to refrain from triumphalism, after decades of cold war it was hard for it not to feel exactly that – triumphant. In recently published archival research by Mary Sarrotte, President Bush Sr. is quoted as saying “We prevailed, they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” Thus, the US as the victor in the cold war and the sole remaining superpower had tremendous leverage. It used this sway to lead the policy of NATO expansion, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the war in Iraq, another round of NATO expansion, the promotion of the independence of Kosovo, and the claim this set no precedent for anybody else anywhere else, to mention just some of the major US foreign policy moves. Russia objected to these policies, and especially to the West’s push towards independence for Kosovo. In the fall of 2007 Richard Holbrooke, a prominent US foreign-policy figure, said “The Bush Administration had an open glide path to Kosovo independence during its first term […when] the United States was globally dominant, and, most important, the Russians were still flat on their back.” The Kremlin's objections were seen as an annoyance that, at the end of the day, could be dismissed.

NATO expansion caused grave concerns in Russia.

NATO expansion caused grave concerns in Russia as soon as the project emerged on the US foreign policy agenda in the early 1990s. Even the westernising reformers in Yeltsin’s government shared this concern – not so much because NATO was seen as a threat by the members of Yeltsin’s government, but because it further empowered Yeltsin’s irreconcilable Communist opposition. In 1992 at an OSCE session in Sweden Andrey Kozyrev, Russia’s liberal foreign minister, shocked everyone by his speech in which he said that Russia wanted no business with NATO or the West – the ex-Soviet space was Russia’s sphere of influence and nobody should meddle with it. Later in the same session he explained that he meant it as a joke of sorts, as a sobering reminder to the West of the power of the anti-Yeltsin revanchist hardliners.

The West was not fully insensitive: the pill of NATO expansion was sweetened by offering Russia a seat on the G8. Whether or not this offer looked generous to Yeltsin and the Westernisers in his team, it hardly softened the hardliners. The pill remained as bitter as before, but Russia was forced to swallow it. Russia was still too weak to be reckoned with.  

Just how Russia would evolve was not a major concern for the policymakers locked in the politics of the here and now. Even those who wished Russia well barely realised that the country was too big in every way – geographically, historically, and politically, as a former superpower with the second-largest nuclear arsenal – to become just another nation on the way to Europe whole and free, in the line somewhere between Poland and Ukraine. This was simply not an option. Nor did Russia have the soft power to become a centre of attraction, a leader of a significant political alliance. This inherently uncertain identity was a major impediment to a forward-looking Russia policy.

Throughout the 1990s the West relied on Yeltsin to handle his hardline opposition, and he did. But in the process, his opponents gained more power, while Yeltsin grew much weaker, until he narrowly escaped impeachment and had to step down before the end of his second term. Vladimir Putin, his anointed successor, effectively neutralised Yeltsin’s enemies and gradually turned them into allies. At first he did not fully go over to their side. He was not an anti-Western hawk. Arguably, he sought economically beneficial relations with the West. But his higher priority was to make the West reckon with Russia, recognise its sphere of interests, and refrain from meddling with the post-Soviet countries. To the West, the sphere-of-influence approach was obviously unacceptable, and Russia’s inappropriate ambition was dismissed.   

In Munich Putin stood as a leader of a Russia that had grown stronger and was demanding that it no longer be taken for granted.

Fifteen years after Kozyrev’s “joke”, Putin too gave a warning to the West. In his 2007 Munich speech he sounded angry and frustrated over what he saw as American hegemony and its meddling in other countries’ affairs. But unlike Kozyrev, Putin was speaking on his own behalf. Unlike Yeltsin, he enjoyed a sky-high approval rating at home and the Russian hardliners were now on his side. In Munich Putin stood as a leader of a Russia that had grown stronger and was demanding that it no longer be taken for granted.

This year, after Putin’s abrupt annexation of Crimea, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly said that Putin lived “in another world”. “Another world” may be read as a hint that Putin is out of touch with reality, but it also brings to mind the two worlds of the cold war with their irreconcilable ideologies. In Putin’s world national “sovereignty” is a central principle – but just a few countries can claim sovereignty and, therefore, have the right to a sphere of influence. Russia is one of those chosen few – historically, and because Putin stands ready to fight for his nation’s sovereignty in a world where Might means Right.

The West heard Putin’s message, but dismissed it again as a nineteenth-century approach. In the twenty-first century, the West responded, all nations are equal and each country is sovereign. This sounds like a wonderful world – except that this does not seem to be the world of the US-led policy of humanitarian intervention, peace enforcement, taking sides in other nations’ domestic conflicts, and killing the forces for evil on behalf of the forces for good. Putin saw this as an argument that his world of Might means Right was real: America could pursue such policies because it was powerful and sovereign. Arguably, in Putin’s real world European nations’ sovereignty is second-rate because they depend on the US for their security and therefore have to follow US policy lines.

The Ukraine crisis demonstrated that the West has no means to impose its twenty-first century worldview on Putin. To paraphrase Anthony Lake’s words of a quarter-century back, the US does not have leverage over Russia’s ways, now even beyond Russia’s borders. Today, it barely has the leverage to defend Ukraine from Russia’s interference.

The current confrontation between Russia and the West is a move back to a cold war design: Russia as “another world” isolated by the US-led West. Russia’s world today is limited to just itself with no socialist camp around it, and the West has the potential of pushing Russia deeper into a crisis, both economic and political. Unlike the Soviet meltdown that had numerous internal causes, but is blamed on the West by Russian conspiracy theorists, this crisis will truly be precipitated by the West. In the cold war the West sought to prevail against Communism and hailed the post-Communist Russia. This time round, there is no idea just what “another Russia” should look like – either in the West or in Russia itself.

Maria Lipman is a visiting fellow at ECFR. She was until recently the editor-in-chief of the Pro et Contra journal, published by the Carnegie Moscow Center. She writes regularly for the New Yorker online and has featured as editor and contributor in several books on Russian domestic politics.  

Read more on: Wider Europe,Russia,EaP,Ukraine,Ukraine Crisis

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