The standard narrative on the current animosity between the United States and Russia is straightforward: Washington regards Russian involvement in the Ukraine crisis and the takeover of Crimea as a threat to post-war order in Europe. In this narrative, Vladimir Putin is intent on fulfilling an imperialist plot to recreate the Soviet Union.
This is simplistic. Even a cursory glance at history could help us better understand the thought-process underpinning the Kremlin’s recent behavior. The crisis in relations is not simply rooted in the events of 2013-14 in Ukraine. It is rooted in an ideological struggle that took place during the Soviet Union’s final years — a struggle between competing visions for the future of the new Russia and its place in a radically altered world.
In 1989, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared the ‘end of history’ and the supremacy of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government. A narrative of Western good triumphing over Soviet evil was setting the stage for an inevitable clash.
Today we are told that Putin has manufactured a new Cold war, that Russia is forever the uncompromising party and that Russian aggression is what prevents the West from fully engaging Moscow on mutual threats like global terror or the war in Syria.
But history tells a different story. Putin and his three most recent predecessors have geared their early policies toward integration and cooperation with the West — in some cases bending over backwards to accommodate Western desires.
Mikhail Gorbachev believed that with necessary reforms, Soviet socialism could be a true alternative to Western-style democracy. He naively believed that if his country took the initiative in demilitarization that the West would acknowledge his sincerity and reciprocate. Under Gorbachev’s leadership, the USSR made huge cuts to its armed forces, unilaterally withdrew its military from parts of the world where it was present, proposed a ban on all nuclear weapons by 2000 and declared the ‘freedom of choice’ principle for eastern European nations. He believed the end of the Cold War should and would be mutually beneficial. In reality, by the time the USSR collapsed in 1991, Russia had been left economically and militarily weakened, its people in deep identity crisis, the country ripe to be taken advantage of.
If Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’ had failed, Boris Yeltsin was convinced it was because, hanging on to socialist ideals, Gorbachev had not gone far enough. Yeltsin committed steadfastly to a Western course. Russia joined the IMF and World Bank in 1992 and formally joined the G8 in 1994.
Under Yeltsin, Russia was supportive of US foreign policy. His foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev supported sanctions on Iraq, Libya and Yugoslavia, initially supported the US bombing of Iraq, and neglected relations with Asian and Middle Eastern nations.
Russia agreed to eliminate all land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with multiple warheads, while the US kept its own on submarines — a move which even Russia’s liberals felt was unbalanced. Yeltsin was so in thrall to the West that he paid scant attention to those who cautioned that his policies could weaken Russia.
The warnings proved accurate. Western financial support was less than had been hoped for and little progress was made toward joining NATO. Bill Clinton falsely declared that NATO expansion would proceed on a basis of “no surprises, no rush and no exclusion” of Russia itself.
By 1994, Kozyrev had begun complaining that Russia was viewed by the West as a junior partner, not an equal one. These were the first grumblings of what is now regarded as a major tenet of ‘Putinism’.
In the 1993 parliamentary elections, liberal parties lost to nationalists. Economic hardship and the sense that the West was controlling Russia for its own benefit meant support for Yeltsin’s foreign policy waned. Polls showed the US was increasingly regarded as a threat and people favored preserving cultural ties with the old Soviet bloc.
Yeltsin was forced to respond to national feelings rather than Washington’s feelings. Kozyrev was replaced by Yevgeny Primakov who declared the former Soviet bloc an area of vital national interest. Primakov believed in partnering with other states to balance US global hegemony.
Putin ascended to the presidency after Yeltsin’s surprise resignation in 1999. Despite recent history, Putin still appeared to believe that outreach to the West could yield positive results. He was the first leader to call George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks, offering Russia’s support in the fight against terror. He barely reacted when NATO expanded again in 2004, taking in the Baltics. He even floated the idea that Russia itself would join.
A turning point came in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, where, visibly frustrated, Putin blasted US policies in the Middle East and around the world. The Western partnership Russia had been seeking had still not materialized.
When radicals attacked the US, they were terrorists, but when militants slaughtered children in Chechnya, they were freedom fighters. What’s more, the US had given itself carte blanche to run around the world intervening whenever and wherever it liked.
Even still, in 2011, during Dmitry Medvedev’s term as president, Russia did not use its veto at the UN to block NATO action in Libya. Medvedev too was seeking a new relationship with the West based on mutual security and respect.
In 2013, the US actively supported a violent revolution (the Kremlin calls it a ‘coup’) in Ukraine, which installed a government extremely hostile to Moscow. Back in power, Putin regarded this as another attempt by the US to mess around in Russia’s zone of security.
Instead of attempting to allay Moscow’s fears or engaging in real diplomacy, Washington has chosen to constantly badger the country, even resorting to publicly insulting and belittling its people.
But as history plainly shows, we need not look at Moscow’s behavior to predict Washington’s response. Hostility toward Russia is just a built-in component of American foreign policy.