Except for flurries of activity around elections in Russia and events in former Soviet republics, post-Soviet Russia largely fell off the radar screen of the Western mainstream and even scholarly media during the first part of the 21st Century. As Russia’s economic ascendancy became apparent around the same time its democratic rollback did, more attention was paid in fits and starts. But it was not until around 2006 that ex-Sovietologists began to regularly weigh in on Russia’s place in the changing world order; and it was Putin’s famous Munich speech in that same year that most believe made Cold War veterans sit up and take notice. Putin was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 2007; his engineered succession coup in 2008 brought more attention, and the recent crisis in Caucasus further opened the floodgates to analysis across the political and geographic spectrum. Everyone was suddenly essentially asking the same question, “What does Russia want?” The answer to this question continues to unfold daily, and we actually find it more instructive to examine “What is Russia saying to the world today?”
Context: Past Grievances
Much of what Russia is saying now involves grievances the country has been harboring since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. These issues have been around for the past two decades, and relate to what the West did and did not do during the time that Russia was in no position to object. In the minds of Russia’s leaders and in the Russian psyche in general, these perceived slights, snubs, and even transgressions are hardly water under the bridge – rather, they live as vivid symbols of the West’s arrogance, disrespect and even opportunism in the face of Russia’s weakness and turmoil in the early post-Soviet era. Now, with its wealth, patriotism, and clout on the international stage resurgent, Russia seeks recognition and perhaps redress for what it believes were crimes perpetrated against the Russian people as well as affronts to Russia’s pride and historical legacy. They include:
- The failure of the US and Europe to help the struggling USSR as it faced near economic collapse in the late 1980s, even in the midst of Glastnost and Perestroika reforms and conciliatory rhetoric towards the West. When financial aid came, it came after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and it mostly came in the form of loans with strings and austerity measures attached. This sentiment is echoed by many Western experts as well who believe that the West was too quick to declare “victory” in the Cold War and missed a critical opportunity to shore up their erstwhile enemy. No Marshall Plan for Russia materialized as had occurred with the defeated Axis powers of WWII, and the Russian people suffered enormously during the early post-Soviet era.
- Expansion of NATO into former Warsaw Pact countries in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Western and Russian experts agree this expansion occurred despite promises made to Russia that the Atlantic Alliance would stay out of Central and Eastern Europe in return for Russia’s acquiescence to the reunification of Germany. Many of these former Soviet republics and satellites countries were “fast-tracked” into NATO, even while technically ineligible for membership by NATO’s own rules regarding the existence of territorial disputes. Many of these territorial disputes were with Russia, who was never offered full NATO membership. Other promises regarding the de-militarization of NATO went similarly unfulfilled.
- The establishment of offensive military bases in Romania and Bulgaria on Russia’s strategic Black Sea – again, considered a violation of promises made by NATO to Russia in the 1990s.
- NATO’s pursuit of war in the Balkans against traditional Russian ally Serbia, initiated without consultation of the United Nations Security Council where Russia would have wielded a veto.
- US rejection of Russian offers in 1999 for a joint offensive against Muslim terrorist groups including Chechen rebels, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban following the first World Trade Center attack, the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the Chechen insurgency.
- Construction of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) crude oil pipeline to move oil from Central Asia through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey – bypassing Russia.
- Failure of the US and NATO to give the Russians adequate credit for help in the initial Afghanistan offensive following the attacks of September 11, including the use of Russian airspace, access to bases in Central Asia, and connections with the Russian-backed opposition to the Taliban (the Northern Alliance) in Afghanistan left over from the Russian-Afghan war of the 1980s.
- US decision to invade Iraq over the objections of Russia and other UN Security Council members.
- US support for “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgystan ousting Communist dictators and establishing quasi-democracies on Russia’s borders.
- US decision to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
In Russia’s eyes, the Atlantic powers had not only ignored Russia’s national and security interests, but they had done so with willful arrogance. As Dimitri Simes has written, “Great powers - particularly great powers in decline – do not appreciate such demonstrations of their irrelevance.” Others have noted that Russian grievances against the West have much deeper historical roots and that current tensions still reflect a sense in Russia that Europe has been “saved” several times by Russian sacrifices made in wars (against the Mongols, Napoleon, and Hitler), and that Europe has in turn not shown the proper appreciation or even recognition of this reality.
Compounding the above humiliations, the Russian narrative goes, the West only continued to exploit its position of strength, even as Moscow began to push back, starting around 2006. Recent slights and provocations include:
- The decision of the US to place Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) positions in Poland and the Czech Republic, a violation of the ABM treaty from which America had extracted itself earlier. The US claim that the defense positions are designed to deter attack from Iran or North Korea has been rejected by Russia (and many Western analysts as well). This was seen in Russia and by other international critics as a highly provocative move designed to benefit US arms manufacturers while intentionally baiting Moscow. The fact that the announcement was made without an official US state visit to Kremlin to reassure Russia of US goals was described by Czech journalist Michael Werbowski as “stick it in your eye” diplomacy by the Bush Administration.
- Refusal of the US to accept Russia’s offer of an alternative location for the placement of BMD installments: the Russian base of Gabala in Azerbaijan, which many see as a more logical location for the defense shield if the assumed threat is indeed Iran.
- US lobbying to push ahead on Georgia and Ukraine’s bids to join NATO, potentially bringing NATO membership right up to Russia’s borders, even amidst “expansion fatigue” and hesitation among European members of the defense pact and ambiguity among Georgian and Ukrainian populations about NATO membership.
- US and Western European lobbying to build a new Nabucco pipeline that would bring natural gas from Central Asia to Europe, bypassing Russia and competing with Russia’s proposed Nord Stream pipeline.
- US refusal to accept as sufficient International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) monitoring and analysis of Iranian nuclear developments.
- US and NATO support for Kosovo’s independence from Russian ally Serbia. Russia saw this as hypocritical in the face of Western objection to other ethnic separatist movements, including those in countries with significant ethnic Russian minorities (such as South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria).
Given this litany of perceived past and present grievances, Russia seems to be saying, “we have no choice but to resume our defensive Cold War position against the West.” Numerous experts have pointed out that this position is not only related to Russia’s very real economic and security interests, but in perhaps equal measure to its psychological and patriotic interests or what Samantha Power has called issues of “honor and humiliation.”
Western analysts generally concede that the above grievances have merit, yet they are quick to point out the other side of the story – what the West did during the same period that could be considered significant gestures of goodwill. These were recently summarized in Stephen Sestanovich’s article for Foreign Affairs and include:
- President George W. Bush’s offer to Putin of a new strategic arms treaty.
- US policy shift on Chechnya from opposing Russian actions in the restive separatist province to a statement of understanding.
- Recognition of Russia as a market economy and support for Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (support for Russia’s accession to the WTO has since been functionally if not officially rescinded).
- Induction of Russia into the G-8, a prominent bloc of highly industrialized and democratic nations, even though Russia is neither highly industrialized nor democratic. The West also granted Russia the honor of hosting the 2006 G-8 summit in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. (The G-8 is now again the G-7 upon Russia’s exclusion following the Georgian conflict).
- Creation of and continued support for the Russia-NATO Council, a high-level associational body to the treaty alliance.
- An expansion of the Nunn-Lugar program, a US-financed program to help Russia dismantle Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction.
These extensions of diplomatic and economic cooperation, in Russia’s eyes, do not make up for other grievances and snubs by the West. But, it must be remembered, as many have pointed out, that Putin and Medvedev have much to gain domestically by demonizing the West – elaborating on Western slights and shortcomings is always a crowd pleaser at home in Russia.
Next: Moder Russia Beyond Its Borders: The Context of Russian Foreign Policy: How Russia is Saying It