With thousands of Russian troops now massed near Ukraine’s border, the announcement that Russia and the United States will soon hold security talks is undoubtedly welcome. While a de-escalation of tensions is hardly guaranteed, it is a lot harder to talk past someone who is in the same room.
Russia and the West have been doing just that for most of Vladimir Putin’s 21 years in power. There was, of course, a brief honeymoon period: in 2001, US President George W. Bush famously claimed that he had looked his Russian counterpart “in the eye” and gotten “a sense of his soul,” which was “very straightforward and trustworthy.” And Putin was helpful in the early months of the US intervention in Afghanistan.
But things went downhill from there. Nowhere is the West’s consistent failure to understand Putin clearer than in American assessments of Russia’s Ukraine policy – especially the claim by senior US officials that Putin may be seeking to “reconstitute the Soviet Union” as part of a “legacy project.”
It is easy to see why one might think that. Putin’s recent lament that the Soviet Union’s collapse almost exactly 30 years ago was a “tragedy” and the end of “historical Russia” was hardly the first of its kind. And the current troop buildup comes less than a decade after Russia invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea.
But the conclusion that Putin is attempting a kind of Soviet reunification is facile. The late US diplomat and strategist George F. Kennan – the architect of America’s Cold War policy of Soviet containment, for whom I conducted research at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the 1990s – would surely take a more nuanced view. Kennan would argue that Russia’s behavior is best explained by a “special-nation” mindset.
Echoing American exceptionalism, there is a sense among Russians that their country is a fundamentally great power with a pivotal historical role to play. According to a 2020 poll, 58% of Russians support the country following its “own special path,” and a whopping 75% think that the Soviet era was the “greatest time” in their country’s history.
Yet, crucially, only 28% of respondents report wanting to “return to the path the Soviet Union was following.” In other words, what Russians want is not to revive the USSR, but rather to preserve their country’s status and influence, which means maintaining its sphere of influence. The notion that the West could pursue an eastward expansion of NATO without pushback was always pure folly.
Kennan recognized this from the start. In 1998, when the US Senate ratified NATO’s expansion to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, he predicted that Russia would “gradually react quite adversely,” and the West would claim that is just “how the Russians are.” Since then, NATO has expanded to 11 more ex-communist countries, including three former Soviet republics. And, sure enough, Putin is now demanding that NATO deny membership to former Soviet countries and scale back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. To no one’s surprise, the US and its allies refused.
In fact, the West has consistently dismissed the Kremlin’s security concerns relating to ex-Soviet countries and portrayed Russian resistance to NATO’s eastward expansion as paranoid revanchism. No one is threatening Russia, the logic goes; it is Russia that is threatening its neighbors, including by invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
But the West cannot reasonably expect the Kremlin to accept at face value NATO’s claim that it is a purely defensive alliance. After all, since the end of the Cold War, NATO has edged closer and closer to Russia’s borders, embracing lands to which Russia is bound by history, geography, and security interests.
That is not all the West is getting wrong about Russia. Many in the US and Europe also seem convinced that the surge in nationalist sentiment that followed the annexation of Crimea has fizzled out for good.
Again, the reasons for this perception are easy to discern. When the fighting in eastern Ukraine became too bloody, Kremlin propagandists had to work overtime to bolster Putin’s approval ratings. And they only partly succeeded: over time, Russians grew weary of the militant rhetoric, and today, they have little appetite for war.
But this does not mean that Russians are willing to sacrifice their own perceived security. On the contrary, by ignoring Russians’ concerns about NATO, the US and Europe will bolster support for Putin. Already, just 4% of Russians blame the Kremlin for the recent troop surge, with the rest blaming the US or Ukraine.
When Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelensky, dons fatigues and praises the military, or presses for a firm commitment on the country’s NATO membership, ordinary Russians get the message that there is a security threat on the border – and it is not the Russian troops now found there. Ukrainian politicians only reinforce this impression by proclaiming that the country must prepare to retake Crimea by force.
The US wants to prevent anything like a repeat of the events of 2014 in Ukraine. This seems like the fair thing to do. But geopolitics is a matter of cold calculation, not fairness. And while the “exceptional” US has long been able to act in its own strategic interest without, as one author put it, “the consequences that come with doing so,” the time may have come for it to account for new variables – namely, that Russians, too, view their country as exceptional.
Unless and until that changes, the cycle of crises will continue, with escalating, and potentially catastrophic, risks. “Such is the destructive potential of advanced modern weapons,” Kennan pointed out, “that another great conflict between any of the leading powers could well do irreparable damage to the entire structure of modern civilization.”
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