Either a new American administration will regard Russia as a distinct civilization marked by its own value code and special rights sanctified by history, or it will treat Russia just as a target.
—Boris Mezhuev, “Why Henry Kissinger Came to Moscow,” February 12, 2016
Positive change may be expected no sooner than seven or eight years from now, when a new generation of elites will come to power in the United States and Europe, and may again consider Russia a strategic ally and a business partner.
—Andrey Bezrukov, Mikhail Mamonov, Sergey Markedonov, Andrey Sushentsov, “How to Avoid War with Russia,” The National Interest, January 29, 2016
Most Russians have little difficulty identifying the root cause of the sharp deterioration in their country’s relations with the West in recent years. It is the failure of the West, and principally of the United States, to respect Russia’s fundamental interests or treat Russia as an equal, manifested above all in the policy of NATO enlargement into Central Europe and a proclivity to encroach on the post-Soviet space, regions where Russia has, in the words of Boris Mezhuev, “special rights sanctified by history.” In this assessment they draw support from a sizeable contingent of Western experts and security analysts across the political spectrum.
The Russian sense of a special role in these two regions stems from several factors. There is a residual sense of Central Europe as part of a Soviet-led bloc, with a still-imperfect understanding that most Central Europeans viewed the arrangement as less an alliance than a yoke. But quite apart from what Central Europeans might have felt, Russians justified their domination by the colossal sacrifices of the Soviet Union during World War II. To this day many Russians are incapable of grasping the dynamic that led to the peaceful withdrawal of Soviet/Russian forces from Central Europe in the early 1990s. What was in fact a candid recognition of the bankruptcy of the Warsaw Pact, they see instead as a traitorous surrender of forward positions without a shot fired. This withdrawal remains one of the most deeply held Russian grudges against Gorbachev and his Foreign Minister, Shevardnadze.
Russian attitudes toward the “near abroad” have been shaped above all by the idea of дружба народов (“the friendship of peoples”) in the Russia Empire and the Soviet Union. As ultimately elaborated in Soviet historiography, the friendship narrative declared that Russian rule had always and everywhere been welcomed by the non-Russian masses. Western imperialism in Asia, Africa, and the Americas had been brutal and grasping; only the Russian Empire had expanded peacefully and consensually, bringing technology, education, modern health care, and higher culture to the non-Russian “younger brothers.” In places like the North Caucasus, where the locals had clearly fought long and hard for their independence, this resistance was attributed to the influence of British and Ottoman agents stirring up anti-Russian sentiment for their own nefarious purposes. Following the Russian Revolution, the blessings of socialism were added to the list of benefits accruing from Russian rule.
The friendship narrative was selective and overdrawn, but it was hardly baseless. Christian peoples in the Caucasus broadly welcomed the expansion of the Russian Empire to their region, and many Eastern Slavs were not particularly sorry to see Polish rule replaced by Russian. That said, even nations that welcomed Russian rule, or at least did not fiercely oppose it, retained their own more nuanced perspective on the nature of the relationship between the “older” and “younger” brothers. Russians, however, lulled by their confidence in the unique benevolence of Russian rule, were psychologically unprepared for the stark reemergence of the nationality question in the USSR in the late 1980s. Movements to restore national states independent of Moscow were widely seen as expressions of shocking ingratitude for all the good Russia had done historically for its subject peoples.
Devastated by the twin blows, in rapid succession, of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russians in the 1990s faced a third development that flew in the face of their deeply held concept of Russia’s natural place in Eurasia and the world—the spectacle of Moscow’s former Warsaw Pact allies lining up to join NATO. Perceiving NATO as simply an anachronism in a post-Cold War Europe, most Russians could not fathom that NATO, in fact, remained the most successful collective-security arrangement in history. The draw for the former Soviet satellites was manifold: 1) a seat at the table of a hard-security organization (unlike the OSCE) with Article 5 guarantees; 2) an institutional part of the process of “rejoining Europe;” 3) a way to sublimate the ghosts of old nationalist and irredentist sentiments that could have been unleashed by the end of the Cold War; and 4) a hedge against potential Russian revanchism. Unable to comprehend, and unwilling even to acknowledge, the Central Europeans’ interests or perspective, Russians have chosen to portray NATO enlargement as malicious Western infringement on Russian prerogatives rather than a logical answer to Central Europe’s security needs.
Characteristic is the thinking of Vladimir Lukin, one of Russia’s most authoritative and balanced foreign-policy analysts, who recently chided Western countries for attempting to “solve global problems in their usual unilateral manner, much to their own benefit,” by enlarging NATO. It is a curious rebuke. By what logic is it unilateralism for several dozen countries to reach a consensus on a common approach to their mutual security, but—presumably—multilateralism for one country to oppose that consensus? Is it not Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement that has been unilateral, asserting the primacy of Russian interests to the exclusion of the national interests of the NATO aspirants?
There is another aspect of NATO enlargement that deserves wider acknowledgement: the fact that responsible Russian opponents of NATO enlargement recognize, often grudgingly, that NATO does not pose a genuine invasion threat to Russia. I recall Russian Duma hearings I attended in the mid-1990s on the topic of prospective NATO enlargement. The witnesses were mostly notables from the Russian foreign policy and security expert community, and I was struck by the absence of alarmist rhetoric about any looming military danger. The experts’ concern, by and large, was of an entirely different nature: that NATO enlargement would create facts on the ground that would foreclose certain possibilities at such time as Russia re-emerged from a temporary period of abnormal weakness. No one elaborated what those “possibilities” might entail, and I came away from the hearings with a deeper appreciation for the impetus behind NATO membership on the part of the Central Europeans.
Moreover, as a number of analysts have emphasized, NATO members have spent the last two decades slashing the size of their military budgets and armed forces. The current NATO, with nearly twice the membership, has fewer soldiers and heavy weapons than the pre-1990 NATO had. Furthermore, NATO forces are configured either for stationary defense or for expeditionary deployment to distant hot spots. They are in no way configured, in terms of troop numbers, equipment, or posture, to undertake a massive land invasion.
Finally, Russian actions simply belie any fear of NATO military aggression. If Russians were genuinely worried about a NATO invasion, they would have long ago strung up barbed wire along the right bank of the Narva River, dug tank traps on the approaches to Pskov, and evacuated women and children from the exposed and defenseless Kaliningrad region. The fact that the Russian authorities have not taken even such basic precautions leads to the inescapable conclusion that Moscow does not genuinely fear an invasion emanating from the new NATO member states, and that rhetoric to the contrary is posturing. Russian ire at NATO enlargement does not stem from any measured, rational assessment about impending invasion, but from the sense that Russia is simply entitled to regain positions in Central Europe “surrendered” at the end of the Cold War, when the West supposedly exploited Russia’s “temporary weakness.”
The breakup of the Soviet Union has been even harder than the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact for Russians to comprehend or to bear. Initially there was an expectation that the independence of the non-Russian republics would be largely fictitious, like the ostensibly federal structure of the USSR, and that the newly created Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) would provide a framework within which common political, economic, and social structures would continue to function more or less as before. However, as commentators observed, the CIS proved to be less a platform for maintaining unity than a mechanism for “a civilized divorce.”
The consolidation of independence by post-Soviet neighbors, as well as the palpable drift of many of them away from Russia, did not dim Moscow’s ardor for reintegration of the former Soviet space. Since integration was an “objective” phenomenon as demonstrated by the EU and NAFTA, it was only natural that a similar tendency would operate in Eurasia. Accordingly, Moscow generated a plethora of fora and initiatives, including the Russian World and Eurasian Union, to harness this purportedly elemental drive for the post-Soviet space to coalesce under Russia’s aegis. As a somewhat skeptical editorial in Nezavisimaya Gazeta observed several years ago, “Figuratively speaking, Russia sees itself in the role of leader and proposes to consider itself as a kind of nucleus which, according to the laws of physics or geopolitics, will attract other subjects of international law.”
The fruits of all this effort have been, from Moscow’s perspective, extremely disappointing. Demonstrating a remarkable immunity to Russia’s gravitational pull, the Baltic States have firmly ensconced themselves in Euroatlantic institutions, with Ukraine and Georgia anxious to join them there. Even before the current war, the Yanukovych government had shown no interest in bringing Ukraine into the Eurasian Union. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have greatly distanced themselves from Moscow without, however, aligning themselves in any way with the West. Two of Russia’s close partners and co-founders of the Eurasian Union, Kazakhstan and Belarus, are by all accounts quietly reassessing their options in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the likelihood that either of them could be the next destination of the “little green men.” Moscow can reasonably rely on the support of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan (at least as long as the subsidies keep flowing), two desperately poor and isolated countries that have no option other than a Russian orientation. Beyond Russia and some Russian diaspora communities, virtually the only enthusiasm for Eurasian integration comes from Russia’s ramshackle mini-empire of separatist regimes, a sad, sordid collection of kleptocracies, none of which stands a chance, under any plausible scenario, of ever standing on its own feet or providing even a modicum of justice or prosperity to its inhabitants.
The Russian understanding of its neighborhood has been shaped by narratives about Soviet sacrifices to liberate Europe from fascism, the historic benevolence of Russian rule toward subject peoples, the role of the Russian people as an “older brother” to smaller nations, the inherent attraction of Russia for other peoples, and the notion of Russia as the nucleus of a mighty Eurasian civilization. And there is considerable truth in these narratives. How then do Russians reconcile this beatific vision with the reality of a Central Europe that has decamped to NATO and the EU, and post-Soviet states veering off on a variety of largely centripetal trajectories? Happily, the Russian historical consciousness provides a ready explanation.
If 19th-century resistance to Russian rule in the North Caucasus was fomented by hostile foreign agents, in modern times there is a new enemy seeking to undermine Russia at every turn: Washington and its European lackeys. Not only have they maliciously pursued NATO enlargement up to Russia’s very borders; they have also instigated “color revolutions” to drive Russia out of the post-Soviet space. The solution to this problem is as simple as the explanation: the West must cease its subversive activities and recognize Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests” in its neighborhood. It is incumbent upon the West to admit its mistakes and make amends to Russia—hence the Russian anticipation that a change in Western leadership could be the key to a rethinking of Western policy.
But how much difference is a change in Western leaders likely to make?
Characteristic is the situation with Barack Obama. In one of history’s little ironies, the author of the U.S.-Russia reset and as cautious, domestically focused and non-interventionist a president as the United States has seen in generations, has become the most reviled and ridiculed U.S. president in Russian history. Vilified by his American critics for spineless inaction in the face of Russian aggression, he is anathematized by Moscow as the evil genius behind a massive Western conspiracy to undermine Russian interests in every possible way. The fact that the reset was likely to end in tears was evident at the outset from the two parties’ different interpretations: Washington saw it as a chance to set aside areas of disagreement and focus on areas of common concern, while Moscow viewed it as a vindication of Russia’s perspective, a repudiation of previous American policies, and an implicit pledge to begin “treating Russia as an equal.”
There are, after all, historical precedents for a condominium arrangement between European powers and Russia—the 1807 Treaty of Tilsit between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I, as well as the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Unfortunately, the European leaders who were cynical enough to strike such bargains with Russia were unscrupulous enough to violate them, invading Russia in 1812 and the Soviet Union in 1941. Today Russia is unlikely to get Western interlocutors of the caliber of Napoleon or Hitler. Still, hope springs eternal, in Moscow as elsewhere, and Russians look longingly to the next U.S. President or set of EU leaders to accept some dividing line between their sphere of influence and Russia’s.
However, the problem is not even so much that Russians believe such a condominium with the West is desirable, but that they imagine an arrangement of this nature is even possible.
In vain do Russians wait for some new constellation of Euroatlantic leaders who will bring the West to its collective senses, disband NATO, send the Americans packing back across the Atlantic where they belong, and acknowledge the Eurasian heartland as an exclusive and inalienable Russian preserve. It makes no difference if a President Trump should look into Putin’s eyes and perceive the soul of a kindred spirit, or if a President Clinton should take the oath of office with her left hand resting on a “reset” button instead of a Bible. As soon as the time came to address concrete foreign policy issues, the fundamental divergence of interests and perceptions between Russia and the West would reassert themselves.
In any event, for hardheaded realists, what exactly would be the Western interest in accommodating Russia’s re-subjugation of its borderlands? Would it be simply to buy Moscow’s good will? Neither Russia nor the West has allowed tensions in their relationship to block cooperation when it was clearly in their mutual interest, such as the recent Iran nuclear deal, and there is no need to buy Russian favor in these circumstances. What, then, would Moscow offer in exchange for Western acquiescence in a Russian zone of privileged interests? As far as I can tell, it is precisely nothing. There is no evidence that Moscow would be prepared to work with the West to create a Syrian government of national unity excluding both Assad and ISIS. We could not expect Russia to pressure Iran over its missile program or support for terrorism, nor should we anticipate that Moscow would begin to perceive Hizballah or Hamas the way it views domestic Russian terrorists. Russia is not about to join the West in promoting a lasting peace in the Balkans by recognizing the independence of Kosovo or withdrawing its support for the most retrograde Serbian groups. Indeed, the Kremlin seems to expect Western acceptance of a Russian sphere of exclusive interest as simply the righting of an old injustice, with no Russian quid pro quo in return. Real horse-trading, it seems, would only begin upon full satisfaction of Russia’s preliminary, non-negotiable demands with respect to its neighbors.
“Treating Russia like an equal” is basically a code phrase for granting Russia special rights with regard to its neighbors. But by what calculus would such a concession constitute “equality?” Even the United States, viewed variously as either the last remaining superpower or the world hegemon, does not insist on any comparable prerogatives in its own neighborhood. When Russians talk about equality, what they are actually demanding is a privilege accorded to no other country in the world.
However, the most insuperable problem with creating a Russia-West condominium is the belief or pretense that the fate of the vast and diverse population in Russia’s borderlands can be decided by some sort of Russian-Western “understanding.” Even if Moscow could induce a critical mass of Western leaders to consign the post-Soviet space, and possibly Central Europe, to some zone of privileged Russian interest, there is no reason to believe that the people affected would allow themselves to be so consigned. We can throw them under the bus, but we cannot force them to lie passively in the street.
In attempting to reassert its prerogatives in this zone, Moscow would be dogged at every step by non-cooperation, subterfuge, slow-rolling, and open resistance, possibly even armed as in Ukraine. Most of the countries on Russia’s periphery have long histories of foreign domination, including by Russia, and their cunning inhabitants are well versed in the art of outwitting and outlasting more powerful neighbors. Even the most pro-Russian governments and peoples in the post-Soviet space are unlikely ever to accept the notion that their sovereignty and territorial integrity are conditional, and that they endure as independent countries solely at Moscow’s sufferance. Even if the West were to renounce any interest in this part of the world, Russia would still find itself herding cats.
The fates have contrived a nasty conundrum for Moscow in attempting simultaneously to keep Euroatlantic institutions at bay while reasserting Russian prerogatives in the post-Soviet space: Russia’s infringement of its neighbors’ sovereignty cannot help but enhance the attractiveness of the Western rival. NATO enlargement might well have been reaching its natural limits, petering out with a few inconsequential Balkan aspirants, were it not for Moscow’s unparalleled success at generating support for NATO membership in places like Georgia and Ukraine. The grim reality is that the harder Russia squeezes its neighbors, the more they will turn to Euroatlantic institutions as a refuge. And the “treatment as an equal” that Russia expects from the West is precisely what Moscow has so far been unwilling to extend to its post-Soviet neighbors.
Illustrative is the curious and seemingly quixotic Russian move to criminalize “falsification of history.” It is at bottom an attempt to thwart the tendency of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors to develop their own historical narratives at variance with the notion of Russia’s unreservedly benign rule or the Soviet Union as an unqualified liberator. However, former subject peoples are unwilling to have their history interpreted for them by Russians, as evidenced by Kazakh President Nazarbayev’s sharp rebuttal of Putin’s allegation in 2014 about the lack of historical antecedents to the modern Kazakh state. With regard to the post-Soviet space, Moscow’s desperation to control the past is symptomatic of its weakening grip over the present and faltering prospects for the future.
Analysts rightly emphasize that the West has to deal with the Russia it has, not the one it wishes it had. But no less important is the flip side of the coin: Russia has to deal with the world as it is, not as Russia might want it. Whatever some people might imagine, Russia has no “special rights sanctified by history,” and a belief in such special rights—not Western meddling—is the root cause of most of Russia’s problems with the other former Soviet republics. The genuine independence of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors, the basic solidarity of the West, and the enlargement of Euroatlantic institutions comprise the pillars of the post-Cold War European security architecture, and all of Moscow’s butting and shaking are not going to topple them.