“There can be no alliance between Russia and the West, either for the sake of interests or for the sake of principles. There is not a single interest, not a single trend in the West which does not conspire against Russia, especially her future, and does not try to harm her. Therefore Russia’s only natural policy towards the West must be to seek not an alliance with the Western powers but their disunion and division. Only then will they not be hostile to us, not of course out of conviction, but out of impotence.”
These words, which sound like something Russia’s President Vladimir Putin might have said recently, were actually penned in 1864 by the Russian poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev. The notion of perpetual Western antipathy runs in strong currents throughout Russian thought over the past two centuries. Indeed this is a well from which Putin has drawn deeply in recent speeches to mobilize the Russian populace and to justify the Kremlin’s policies in Ukraine and elsewhere. The West, according to this account, is both envious of Russia’s dynamism and moral superiority and eager to profit territorially at Russia’s expense. Putin has repeatedly alleged that the West has maintained a containment policy toward Russia since the 18th century; the Western reaction to events in Ukraine is merely the present manifestation of this policy. Indeed, so deep and consistent is the animosity toward the mighty Eurasian colossus that, even without Ukraine, Westerners would have seized on some other pretext, however flimsy, to try to keep Russia on its knees.
It’s a tidy little narrative that seemingly explains everything, with a bit of historical perspective no less. It has the added advantage of absolving Russia from any responsibility for the current tense relations with the West. But how accurate is it?
The 18th and 19th centuries were the golden age of Russian expansion. It was during this period that the Russian Empire absorbed vast areas in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia’s western borderlands that would later comprise most of the territory of the 14 non-Russian Soviet republics, of which Russia was supposedly deprived after the breakup of the USSR. If the Western powers had a policy of containment with respect to Russia during these centuries, then one could only call this policy a monumental failure. A Finn, a Latvian, or a Pole might well ask where containment was when they needed it.
In the 18th century Russia dealt knockout blows to two Western powers, Sweden and Poland, and began the lengthy process of dismantling the Ottoman Empire. The year 1700 saw Peter the Great’s invasion of Sweden and the onset of the Great Northern War. Although the war dragged on until 1721, the outcome was decided at the celebrated 1709 Battle of Poltava, where the Russians annihilated a Swedish army led personally by King Charles XII. It has bequeathed to the Russian language the saying, “погиб, как швед под Полтавой” (“perished like a Swede at Poltava”), and it effectively eliminated Sweden as a major European power. Solzhenitsyn poignantly assessed the historical significance of the battle: Russia moved from one war of conquest to the next, while Sweden abandoned its imperial pretensions and resigned itself to neutrality, prosperity, and a dignified life for its citizens. Who indeed, wondered Solzhenitsyn, were the winners and losers at Poltava?
Russia remained largely disengaged from the major 18th-century European wars, with the notable exception of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), in which Russian forces defeated the armies of Frederick the Great, occupied East Prussia, and even briefly seized Frederick’s capital, Berlin, in 1760. Frederick was saved by the timely death in 1762 of Russian Empress Elizabeth and the accession to the throne of her son, Peter III, who idolized Frederick and pulled Russia out of the anti-Prussian coalition. A decade later Peter’s wife and successor, Catherine the Great—herself a German princess—teamed up with the German powers, Prussia and Austria, to begin the dismemberment of Poland, a process completed with the Third Partition in 1795. Their mutual concern to prevent any resurrection of Polish statehood created a certain commonality of interest among the partitioning states, ensuring that the 19th century would be a time of almost unbroken Russian-German comity.
The 19th century saw Russia much more engaged in European diplomacy and conflicts, beginning with the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon’s ill-fated 1812 campaign is often cited as a prime example of Western aggression against Russia, but the really significant point about the period of 1812–15 is the fact that all the other major European powers were aligned with Russia against Napoleon, insofar as all of them were determined to prevent France from dominating Europe. Russia availed itself of the general state of European upheaval during the Napoleonic era to administer an additional drubbing to its old rivals Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, annexing Finland and Bessarabia in 1812. The awarding of further Polish lands to Russia at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 rounded out Russia’s western borders, which were to remain virtually unchanged—and unchallenged by any Western power—throughout the subsequent century.
The policy of containment was not invented yesterday. It has been carried out against our country for many years, always, for decades if not centuries. In short, whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools were quickly put into use.
—Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly 4 December 2014
While it is difficult to discern in the 18th century even a single event that could be credibly construed as “Western containment” of Russia, there are clear instances in the 19th century of efforts by Western powers, with varying degrees of success, to check Russian expansion. The following are perhaps the most salient examples:
- Notwithstanding Russia’s crucial contribution to the defeat of Napoleon, its effort to obtain the former Polish lands in their entirety was rebuffed at the Congress of Vienna. The other major powers were united in their desire to limit Russian penetration into central Europe, and Russia had to settle for Prussia’s and Austria’s booty from the Third Partition—a territory that was, moreover, organized as a quasi-buffer “Kingdom of Poland” with its own constitution and army.
- Alarmed at the possible consequences of a Russian death blow to the tottering Ottoman Empire, Britain and France initiated the 1853–55 Crimean War—another highlight in the litany of Russian historical grievances with respect to the West.
- Concerned by the prospect of a Russian client state dominating the Balkans, the major European powers acted in concert at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to dismember the “big Bulgaria” Russia had secured at Ottoman expense with the Treaty of San Stefano.
- In the latter half of the 19th century Britain and Russia engaged in the “Great Game,” in which the former, concerned about the security of its Indian possessions and the communication routes thereto, used diplomacy and material support to local forces to check Russia’s advance into the Caucasus and Central Asia—with only very modest results.
Besides these specific events, St. Petersburg’s devotion to preserving the established monarchical order won Russia the 19th-century sobriquet of “the Gendarme of Europe,” and consequent enmity from Western republicans and revolutionaries. In addition, during the Polish insurrections of 1830 and 1863, there was considerable public sympathy for the Polish cause in Western countries such as Britain and France—though certainly not in Prussia or Austria.
However, none of this even remotely amounted to “Western containment” of Russia. Western efforts to check Russian expansion in the 19th century were situational, episodic and largely inconsequential. Western powers did not seek to limit the Russian Empire’s territorial enlargement out of some intrinsic animus toward Russia, but because at least some Russian conquests, actual or mooted, threatened specific interests of other powers. Moreover, St. Petersburg enjoyed good relations with one or more Western powers at practically all times; the only brief periods of relative isolation were during the Crimean War, when traditionally friendly Prussia and Austria maintained neutrality, and in the late 1880s and early 1890s, as Russia’s entente with the Germanic powers withered, but before the alliance with France had been concluded. No Western country laid claim to any Russian territory; even Napoleon’s invasion was not intended to “detach juicy morsels” from Russia, but to force Russian adherence to his Continental System. Russia continued to conquer vast territories in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Far East, and only sporadic efforts were made by Western powers even to moderate Russia’s appetite, not to speak of attempting to hem the country in.
The events in Ukraine are the concentrated expression of the policy of containing Russia. The roots of this policy go deep into history, [and] it is clear that this policy, unfortunately, did not end with the Cold War.
—Putin’s speech to Russian diplomats 1 July 2014
In this historical context, the Kremlin’s “Western hostility” story begs a question: of which specific territories was Russia unjustly deprived by 19th-century “Western containment?” Should Russia rightfully have expanded deep into the Balkans? Should it have legitimately annexed the Turkish straits, large portions of eastern Anatolia, or perhaps southern Azerbaijan and the southern Caspian littoral? Was it Russia’s due, cruelly denied by malign Westerners, to expand into Afghanistan, India, Xinjiang, or Manchuria?
The 20th century saw major new developments in Russia’s relations with Western powers. The long period in which Prussia acted as Russia’s partner (and usually a junior one at that) drew to a close once Prussia morphed into Germany. The German invasion in the second year of World War I was the first attempt by a Western power to seize Russian territory in at least two centuries. However, the German success embodied in the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk proved fleeting, and was reversed with the collapse of the German monarchy, the November 11 armistice, and the Treaty of Versailles. The fitful, half-hearted Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1918-21 was certainly anti-Bolshevik but hardly anti-Russian. The Western interventionist powers did not lay claim to any Russian territory and were even loath to recognize or support independence-minded groups like the Balts, Ukrainians or Georgians; indeed, the Allies were fighting with the White armies for a Russia “one and indivisible.”
The 1941 Nazi invasion was a still more ambitious land-grab at Russia’s expense, but ended even more catastrophically for Germany than its eastern campaign in World War I. Once again, the seizure of Russian territory by a Western power was extremely brief, and on this occasion was followed by an unprecedented extension of Russian control deep into Central Europe – and, for the first time in history, a genuine Western policy of containment.
Purveyors of the Russian victimization narrative portray the French and German invasions of Russia and the Cold War policy of containment as different facets of the same relentless, age-old Western antagonism toward Russia. All of these events do, in fact, reflect a pronounced tendency in European history, but it is not the anti-Russian monomania that some observers imagine. The most remarkable point is the fact that, when Russia was invaded in 1915–18 and 1941–44, exactly as in 1812, the other major Western powers were on Russia’s side. Whenever Russia defeated Western invaders, it was in broad alliance with other Western countries. Indeed, in the centuries prior to the Cold War, Western powers never once ganged up to wage war against Russia, but rather against whichever power was threatening to dominate Europe—France in the early 19th century, and Germany in the first half of the 20th. The Crimean War was the only conflict against Western powers in which Russia had no Western allies—but the Western coalition arrayed against Russia consisted only of Britain, France and Sardinia—not exactly a united Western front. The Cold War, which was the only authentic period of Western containment of Russia, fits the historical pattern exactly—not as a manifestation of animosity toward Russia, but as yet another example of European states uniting against any power attempting to control the continent. Western solidarity in the face of a real Soviet threat simply followed the familiar model of European balance-of-power politics, but people of a certain mindset discern instead an anti-Russian conspiracy—and even project it centuries back in time.
But even if Putin has badly mischaracterized the historical context, surely Russians have legitimate grievances about collective Western behavior since the end of the Cold War, do they not? The dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the expansion of NATO, the serial humiliation of Russia, and Western disregard of its interests: Are these phenomena not sufficient evidence of the West’s perfidy and fixation on keeping Russia down?
There is not enough space in an essay to treat all of these themes in detail, but a couple of points should provide some salutary perspective.
The Soviets used to refer to the agencies of state power in the USSR as “organs.” Accordingly, one might say that the Soviet Union died of multiple organ failure. Its demise was the result of internal breakdown, not the hammer blows of Western military or even economic policy toward its Cold War adversary. Indeed, the collapse came precisely in the context of receding East-West tensions, when the Cold War had essentially ended and Soviet citizens were no longer mobilized by fear of foreign aggression—a fact perhaps not lost on the current Russian leadership.
As for the post-Soviet borders that Russian nationalists find so grossly unjust, they were drawn not in Washington or Brussels, but in Moscow, and the West had no input into them whatsoever. There was no diktat like Versailles or Trianon. Victoria Nuland was not serving up sandwiches at Belovezha.
Moreover, the great bogeyman of Western imperialism proved to be the dog that didn’t bark following the Soviet collapse. How is it possible that the covetous West, lusting for centuries after Russian land, failed to rush in for the kill at the obvious moment of Russia’s maximum historical weakness? Yet there were no Western vultures circling the Soviet carcass. Not one Western country annexed, or so much as laid claim to, a single square centimeter of Russian territory after 1991—not even regions like Kaliningrad or Karelia, wrested from Western countries a mere half-century before. Notwithstanding all the overwrought Russian angst about supposed U.S. designs on Siberia, Americans curiously failed to advance any scheme to reunify the Alaskan Eskimos with their Siberian kinfolk, or even so much as contrive a narrative about fraternal peoples cruelly separated by an artificial boundary capriciously drawn down the middle of the Bering Strait.
This Western restraint is inexplicable from the perspective of the Russian victimization narrative, but is entirely comprehensible in light of actual historical reality. Russia did not become the largest country in the world by being the object of constant Western depredations or containment. In fact, the only Russian territory that has been permanently ceded to a Western power in the last three centuries is Alaska, which was voluntarily sold to the United States. The only existing claim on Russia territory is the Japanese pretension to a few miserable little islands. Frankly, the fear—verging on paranoia—that Western powers will jointly plunder and partition Russia if it shows the slightest weakness would seem to be based on Russia’s own historical practice toward Poland, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire rather than on any actual experience at the receiving end of concerted Western aggression.
The charge that the West reneged on a pledge not to enlarge NATO at the end of the Cold War has been authoritatively rebutted by a 2009 study that examined declassified Soviet and Western written accounts of key meetings in 1990 rather than relying solely on the memory of participants. Statements about NATO not moving “one inch to the east” were referring to the alliance’s military infrastructure in the context of a reunified Germany as a NATO member. Neither side at the time understood these statements as precluding Central European membership in NATO, for the simple reason that neither the Soviets nor the West could imagine such a prospect in early 1990.
There is another vitally important aspect of NATO enlargement that its detractors gloss over: Central European countries have not been dragged or lured into NATO by the West; they’ve been pushed by Moscow. Russian revisionism and great-power chauvinism constitute the finest NATO recruitment tool ever devised. Just one interview by the likes of Aleksandr Dugin, or one conference by Konstantin Zatulin’s CIS Institute, does the trick better than the cumulative work of all the NATO information centers over the past 25 years. If Moscow doesn’t like NATO enlargement, it might usefully stop creating the conditions that make NATO membership such an attractive proposition for so many of Russia’s neighbors. An exaggerated fear of hostile encirclement drives Russian policies that antagonize other states, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; by definition, Russia can never have secure borders as long as it keeps making enemies of its neighbors.
Stripped of its massive overlay of mythology, pathos, and historical misinterpretation, the Russian victimization narrative nevertheless does contain a kernel of truth. Western powers have indeed pursued their own interests, choosing to advance them even when they clash with Russia’s, and have failed to consult or even inform Russia at key junctures. But to be honest, this is exactly what Russia has done with respect to the West. Western blindsiding of Russia on Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya finds its counterpart in unilateral Russian moves such as the 1999 seizure of the Priština Airport in Kosovo and the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. Supposedly generous, unrequited Russian gestures toward the West were either unavoidable, such as the withdrawal of Russian troops from the former Soviet satellite states, or clearly in Russia’s own interest, like support for the U.S./NATO campaign against the Taliban.
An honest look at post-Cold War Western and Russian interests prompts us to ask two sets of questions. First, what specifically would it have meant for the West to accommodate Russian interests over the past 25 years? Acquiescing in ethnic cleansing in the Balkans? Watching Qaddafi’s forces drown Benghazi in blood? Cheering from the sidelines as Russia absorbed neighboring regions, or even entire countries, under the guise of supposedly indigenous, “popular” movements for Eurasian integration or reunification of the Russian World? Eschewing NATO enlargement and leaving Central Europe in a security vacuum, where the smoldering embers of old conflicts could burst once more into flames? Second, if the goals and interests of the West and Russia differ radically, as they clearly do in so many areas, then how, as a practical matter, are the two of them supposed to partner? How can they cooperate when they’re pulling in different directions?
Unfortunately, when it comes to European security, Russian and Western interests are largely at odds. The post-Cold War Western effort to “export security” to the east runs directly counter to Moscow’s predilection for weak, divided neighbors that it can dominate. Russian great-power chauvinists persist in seeing 1991 as a historical aberration, tragic but reversible, while the rest of the world—and above all, Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors—perceive it as the new normal. Actually, for all the vilification of the West, Moscow’s effort to upend the post-Cold War order is not being thwarted by Western resolve (if only!), so much as by Russia’s own inability to re-gather the post-Soviet lands by either attraction or compulsion.
The major division among Western observers of Russia is not between those who understand Russia’s perspective and those who do not. It is between those who accept the Russian narrative more or less uncritically, and those who find that narrative distorted, self-serving, and riddled with errors of fact and interpretation.