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. Clinton wasn’t the only one to see the Russian President as an important partner in post-Cold War America. 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.”
However, these suspicions remained on both sides. It was dissolution of the Warsaw Pact that led to the end of Soviet Union. “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.”
Each side had its share of problems with bureaucracy. 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. My old job was to make people realize that giving and taking is equally important. . . I feel that the Russians experienced this throughout. [on NATO issues]They were being fucked off. And they were.”
There was an increasing sense in the Russian elite of Putin being played. Vladimir Lukin, who had been Yeltsin’s first ambassador to the U.S., protested: “One sided steps cannot be taken forever . . . Both sides should be involved in decisions. 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 remained 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 don’t stand there and ask for nothing. This policy I am following is because I fully believe it meets my needs. [our]National interest . . A rapprochement with the West is not Putin’s policy, it is the policy of Russia.”
This position was more difficult to defend after Bush’s first term as president in 2004. Bush’s requests were met by Russia, which had given overflight rights to America and shared intelligence. Russia was also encouraged to supply base facilities. What had Russia received 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.
Russian President elected Dimitry Medvedev and US President George W. Bush speak during a bilateral meet at DocharovRuchei in Sochi (Russia) on April 06th 2008.
Artyom Korotayev-Epsilon/Getty Images
The American officials saw the situation differently. Instead they focused their attention on Russian weakness in democracy and human rights 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?”
Surprisingly, it appeared that the couple was in a good relationship. However, there were some worrying undercurrents. Bush’s administration, Putin felt, wanted to keep Russia down and was prepared to go to almost any lengths to do so. It was irrelevant whether or not that this was the case. What mattered was perception, and the leaders’ perceptions of each other’s goals were starting to diverge.
American officials were shocked when Putin finally spoke out in public at the February 2007 Munich security conference. In reality, Putin said nothing new. Tone was what had changed. 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. As Bill Burns (then U.S. Ambassador) put it, “We’re back!” 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.”
Ambassador Burns reflected, 10 years later, on how Russia’s relations with the U.S. had steadily deteriorated after Putin took power. He concluded that Russia and America were simply deceiving each other. “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. It was inevitable that they would 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 relationsAmerica ended up being a train wreck. But it was so slow to happen. Putin was not an ideal liberal but was realistic and looked at the alternatives to the Soviet Union collapse before deciding that cooperation with Western countries was the right policy. Russia was part of Europe in all aspects: spiritually, culturally, and partly geographically. There was nowhere else for it to go. Russian elite didn’t send their children to Shanghai or Beijing. He was 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, Both the military and state bureaucracy were skeptical about the wisdom in trusting Western governments with Russia to become genuine partners. Putin didn’t want to accept that they were right, and he was wrong.
Equally disappointed was the U.S. 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 discovered to its delight that Russia was a stronger opponent.
What if it had been done differently? The answer, in theory at least, must be “yes.” Did there exist missed chances that, if taken, could have taken relations to a new direction? No doubt. Is it possible that the result would have been different then? It is possible, but it’s not certain. There are no guarantees. 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. His third term was filled with foreign policy decisions that were a payback to the West for anti-Russian actions.
Read More: The West Doesn’t Understand Putin’s Obsession with Ukraine
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.
In 2013, Edward Snowden was granted asylum. The ban on Americans adopting Russian-born children in the United States was a payback to the Magnitsky Act. This law allowed America to place sanctions against Russian officials who were suspected of human rights violations or corruption.
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.
However, payback is not an end all in itself. This was part of an overall response to economic and military pressures that the U.S., its allies and partners were exerting upon 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.
Putin believed that the relationship was already in trouble from its very start. The West has created divisions instead of creating a new balance in Europe. Putin countered that NATO’s assertion that it had no other choice than to accept Central and Eastern European members was a fabrication. While it was true that countries from other parts of the world had the right, they were not obliged to take them on if that was against their 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” . . . They could have, if they wanted. [refused]. But they didn’t want to.”
Putin wasn’t 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. These benefits were more obvious for France and Germany than they are for other countries, such as Germany. The benefits of a pledge to protect the Baltic States and Georgia from Russian aggression were hard to imagine. 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. In 1962, Khrushchev attempted to place Soviet missiles on Cuba. The world was at the edge of nuclear disaster. 60 years later, America continued its economic blockade against the island.
Officials in the United States reject these comparisons. The United States, they say, supported NATO enlargement not to threaten Russia but to reassure America’s European allies. Reality was worse and less bleak. The U.S. followed its instincts because they 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. Once he has been tied, they will cut off his claws and teeth. . . You can do it by clicking here. . . They will seize control of his land. . . They might stuff him then. . . It is up to us whether or not we are willing to fight on and keep fighting. . . 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. However, it could also be understood in a wider context. 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. Liberals from the West were expelled from decisions-making. People who advocated democratic values were excluded from decision-making. It was a vicious cycle. It was a vicious circle. silovikiThe more repressive regimes were in power, the worse the relations with the West and internal tensions grew. In 2018, the regime went from being a fairly free and authoritarian system, to becoming a close-knit dictatorship.
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.
In 2019, Putin began to seriously consider a political transition for a new generation Russian leaders. He made constitutional amendments that allowed him to stay in power nearly indefinitely. However, this was only a feint in order to stop a fight for his succession. While he didn’t want to go to his death in harness, he also did not wish to lead the chaos of the people around him who were vying to influence the day he would step down.
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues, firefighters put out a flame that erupted after shelling. This was in Opytne Oblast in Ukraine, August 1, 2022.
Diego Herrera Carcedo-Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
There was still one more piece to be done.He wanted to solve the problem of Ukraine’s status.
Putin’s obsession with Ukraine was long-standing 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. It didn’t happen. 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.
This was the main reason for Putin’s war on Ukraine, which he launched on February 24, but it wasn’t the only one. This was more than a means to bring down Ukraine. This was done to demonstrate that the U.S. could not stop it
As the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, put it: “This is not actually, or at least, not primarily, about Ukraine at all. . . This reflects the struggle over the [future]What will the world order 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?”
Partly, this was spin. This was partly spin. Putin believed that Russia would succeed in destroying the European security structures, which were built under American leadership after the Cold War.
Read More: The Ukraine War Is Becoming Putin’s Vietnam
Biden claimed Ukraine was a unique case since it wasn’t part of NATO and America would defend itself if attacked by any NATO states. What trust can countries such as Poland and the Baltic States put on such assurances? NATO is so afraid of nuclear escalation, it has refused to set up a no-fly area to protect Ukrainian cities. 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. The question was, could the United States truly risk nuclear war to defend Tallinn and Warsaw? This question wasn’t new. However, the Invasion of Ukraine made it seem very different. 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 has a very long playing field. 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. This was true when he reprimanded the oligarchs and annexed Crimea 10 years later. He accepted that Russia would suffer economic harm on both occasions. The same thing happened in 2022 with the invasion of Ukraine.
On first glance, it seemed that he was grossly wrong. With a renewed sense of purpose, the West emerged from this crisis with newfound confidence. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, proved an inspirational leader. Russia’s economy was battered by sanctions, though less severely than the West had hoped. Washington was more concerned that the global South hedged their bets. Of the world’s ten most populous countries, only one—the United States— unequivocally backed Ukraine.
Biden’s administration recognized the threat. 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’. Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, stated it even more clearly. America, she said, wanted to inflict on Putin a “strategic failure.”
It was déjà vu all over again. It was deja vu all over again. The West returned to its old policy of containment, which it learned during the Cold War. But this time it had a radical goal: to not only contain Russia but also to make it less threatening to its neighbors.
The purpose of the Iron Curtain that descends on the continent in this process will differ from the one Stalin used to rule Eastern Europe. The goal this time is to protect Europe and keep the Russians away. 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. Henry Holt.
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