Magazine | June 11, 2018, Issue

The Roots of Russian Aggression

Unidentified individuals hold a Russian flag as they block a building in Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea, on March 1, 2014. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)
Don’t blame the West

The Cold War didn’t “end” — it was won.
— George H. W. Bush, 1992

As U.S.–Russian relations reach a post–Cold War low, a growing number of observers have concluded that Western behavior, not Russian belligerence, ultimately lies at fault. According to this analysis, the United States and its European allies “humiliated” Russia by enlarging NATO, undertaking military action in the Balkans, extending trade and other forms of soft power to the former Eastern Bloc, and generally not affording Moscow the respect it supposedly deserved as a great (albeit territorially smaller and militarily weaker than it once was) power.

“The West will find it easier to coexist with this tormented, intransigent, melancholy and oil-rich neighbor when Russia feels comfortable with itself, not when its nose is rubbed in its long history of failure,” the British military historian Max Hastings wrote in 2008 after Russia invaded Georgia. Two years later, well into Barack Obama’s “reset” aimed at repairing relations with Moscow, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock blamed American hubris for the rise in tensions. “The collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as a military victory, which led to a spirit of triumphalism and a feeling of omnipotence as the ‘sole superpower,’” he said. Repeating the word “triumphalist,” which has become ubiquitous in these types of appraisals, Matlock complained that “a lot of this triumphalist mythology has come from the neocons whose ideas were rejected by Reagan, who in the end was more interested in negotiating.”

So stubbornly is this historical narrative of Western arrogance and Russian innocence asserted that it has become impervious to all manner of Russian mischief, no matter how morally egregious or physically destructive. In 2014, after Russian president Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula in the first armed seizure of territory on the European continent since World War II, former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev denounced NATO “triumphalism” as the culprit, though the military alliance had expressly chosen not to offer Ukraine a pathway to membership at its 2008 Bucharest summit. So, too, last year did Odd Arne Westad, a Harvard professor and the author of a mammoth new history of the Cold War, accuse America of “post–Cold War triumphalism” that “promoted a prosperity agenda of market values on a global scale.” He lamented that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was not welcomed into the Western fold. Instead, “ideas and assumptions that had built up over generations persisted, despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat.”

According to these critics of Western “triumphalism,” Washington and its allies repeatedly neglected to take post-Soviet Russia’s legitimate security concerns into account, thereby making the present impasse all but inevitable. “After the end of the Cold War, the Euro-Atlantic countries failed to create a regional security system that would include Russia,” Dmitri Trenin wrote in February. Trenin, a former Soviet army colonel who now works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is essentially arguing that NATO, originally established to resist Moscow, ought to have extended membership to it.

The most recent and prominent airing of this view appeared in mid May in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, where Russian-American author Keith Gessen profiled two camps of Washington “Russia hands.” On one side, he wrote, are the hawkish “internationalists” who impudently act as if the West prevailed in some long twilight struggle against Soviet Communism. On the other are sober “realists” who “believe that the intransigent and unchanging one in the relationship is the United States — that the country has never gotten past the idea that it ‘won’ the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life.”

These critics of Western “triumphalism” are right that the root of our current problems with Russia can be traced back to the 1990s. But they have drawn the wrong lessons from that crucial period. No proper understanding of contemporary U.S.–Russian relations can escape the fact that the West won — and the Soviet Union lost — the Cold War. By “win,” one does not mean only that the free world achieved its geopolitical objectives, liberating Eastern Europe and orchestrating the downfall of a superpower rival. For the Cold War was more than a mere struggle over territory and global influence. It was also a moral struggle between two fundamentally different systems. And it wasn’t just liberal-democratic market capitalism that prevailed over totalitarian command-economy socialism. What also won was a version of state sovereignty whereby small nations have as much right to determine their destiny as large ones do, free from external domination. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, there triumphed a particular vision of ordering not just a society but the world.

Long before the collapse of their empire, Soviet leaders endorsed this conception of state sovereignty by signing the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which committed signatories to respect one another’s “sovereign equality,” the “inviolability of frontiers,” the “territorial integrity of states,” “non-intervention in internal affairs,” and the “peaceful settlement of disputes.” Collectively, these resolutions constituted the act’s “first basket” of agreements. The second basket incorporated trade and scientific cooperation, while the third committed states to uphold human rights, freedom of emigration, and freedom of the press. At the time, the Soviets were eager for such an agreement because it essentially legitimized their post-war domination of Central and Eastern Europe, where they had installed Communist puppet regimes (which, along with the United States and its Western allies, were also party to the Helsinki accords). While the Eastern Bloc governments had no intention of actually upholding the act’s “third basket,” their formal recognition of it came back to haunt them in the form of dissidents who cited these written commitments in making their case for great political freedom. So, too, were the Soviets and their allies taken by surprise when national independence movements referenced the act’s sovereignty provisions to expose the fundamental illegitimacy of the Warsaw Pact, all along a façade for Russian colonialism. That the Soviets (and, later, Russians) never intended to take the human-rights and sovereignty provisions of the Final Act seriously is a repudiation not of the Final Act itself but of the leaders who disingenuously signed it.

Soviet leaders again endorsed the principle of national sovereignty when, in 1989, they supplanted the Brezhnev Doctrine, which permitted Warsaw Pact countries to intervene militarily against “forces hostile to socialism” in other member nations, with the “Sinatra Doctrine,” whereby Eastern Bloc states could do it their way. Though it was not Gorbachev’s intention, this momentous decision ultimately led to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The first post–Cold War conflict to erupt between Russia and the West was in the Balkans, where the United States and its allies intervened militarily to avert ethnic cleansing carried out by Moscow’s traditional ally, the Serbs. Confronting internal economic and political instability, and prosecuting a scorched-earth war in Chechnya, Russia was in no position to challenge NATO in the former Yugoslavia. This inability to contest Western intervention in what Moscow considered its imperial backyard bred feelings of resentment among a rising generation of Russian nationalists, who would later choose to fixate on the Western military alliance as the greatest threat to Russian security.

The subject of NATO’s post–Cold War enlargement, and more specifically the false claim that Western leaders promised their Soviet counterparts that NATO would refrain from incorporating new members, has won credibility of late. Particularly after the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s Western sycophants, seeking to justify Putin’s aggression, trotted out the claim that NATO’s “encircling” of Russia had somehow forced Putin into invading his neighbors. It is remarkable how pervasive this narrative has become. Touring the United States over the past year to promote my book about Europe, I have never addressed an audience in which someone did not mention, if not endorse, this argument.

Assertions of Western “triumphalism” with regard to NATO enlargement gained strength in December when an outfit called the National Security Archive at George Washington University selectively published a series of recently declassified U.S.-government documents purporting to show, once and for all, that Western leaders had indeed offered their Soviet interlocutors a “cascade of assurances” that NATO would not expand. Despite its official-sounding name, the National Security Archive is a left-wing organization committed to exposing the Cold War sins, real or alleged, of America through the highly selective publishing of tendentiously presented documents, and nothing in the latest dump tells us anything new. As is already known, James Baker, then the secretary of state, promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” The archive attempts to embellish this statement by releasing some extraneous once-classified documents. But Baker made that pledge solely in the context of East Germany, a country that, like the Soviet Union, would soon cease to exist. At the time, it was inconceivable that places such as Poland or Czechoslovakia (another state not long for this world), never mind the soon-to-be independent Soviet Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, might one day join NATO.

Russia and its Western apologists can offer no evidence of a promise not to enlarge NATO, because such a promise was never made. Gorbachev should have the final word on this matter: “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years,” he said in October 2014. “I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991.” Only years later would the prospect of former Warsaw Pact states’ joining NATO become a subject of more than academic discussion, when the alliance offered membership to Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In 1997, all three joined.

But relitigating what assurances the West did or did not make to the collapsing Soviet Union about NATO’s future status is a distraction from the more fundamental question: What right does Russia have to decide whether its former satrapies can join a defensive military alliance of their own free will? In the words of the former State Department official Kirk Bennet, “NATO enlargement was driven by demand, not supply.” The newly independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe all desperately wanted to join NATO, and given their histories with Russia, it’s not hard to understand why. The practice of invading European neighbors because they stray from the true socialist path — employed by the Russians in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively — is a model of interstate behavior that was supposed to have been forever discredited with the collapse of the Soviet Union. (As events in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine six years later demonstrate, however, it has unfortunately been revived.)

The principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity initially laid out in the Helsinki Final Act were later enshrined in the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, agreed to by the Soviet Union and, following its dissolution, its legal successor state, the Russian Federation. In 1994, Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum with Ukraine, Great Britain, and the United States, which saw Kiev surrender its ample nuclear-weapons stockpile to Moscow in exchange for guarantees of its territorial integrity. As with practically every understanding it signed in the post–Cold War period, Russia later violated this pledge.

Throughout the 1990s and well into the reign of Vladimir Putin, the United States and its allies went out of their way to draw Russia closer and assuage any fears its government might have had, genuine or contrived, that the Western alliance harbored aggressive designs. In 1997, the NATO–Russia Founding Act was signed to guide relations between the West and Russia; among other provisions, the accord limits the number of troops each side may permanently station in Central and Eastern Europe. Five years later, the NATO–Russia Council was established to serve as a forum for “consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision and joint action, in which the individual NATO member states and Russia work as equal partners on a wide spectrum of security issues of common interest.”

During the early years of the war in Afghanistan, Russia and NATO collaborated constructively, with the former permitting the latter use of its airspace and territory to transfer supplies to the theater. As late as 2010, the problem that Russia’s then-ambassador to NATO had with the military alliance was not that it was too belligerent but that it emanated a “mood of capitulation” with respect to Afghanistan. Further signs of Western cooperation included granting Russia a place at the table of the G-7 (which thereby became the G-8, until Moscow’s annexation of Crimea led to the suspension of its membership) and admission into the World Trade Organization.

What provoked the deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, then, was neither NATO enlargement, nor American foreign policy, nor anything else that the West did, but Russian revanchism and revisionism. In 2007, Putin delivered an anti-American tirade at the Munich Security Conference, shocking attendees. Shortly thereafter, Russia launched a cyberattack on tiny Estonia, and the following year it invaded Georgia. The French writer Michel Gurfunkiel identifies Putin’s four major strategic goals as reuniting “all the Russian-speaking peoples under a single nation-state,” reestablishing Russia as “the first among equals” in the “Eurasian community,” weakening Europe and the transatlantic alliance, and restoring Russia as a global power. All of these objectives are in direct conflict with the understandings achieved by Western victory in the Cold War and agreed to by Putin’s predecessors in the Kremlin, foremost among them that the consensual model of interstate relations had replaced the coercive methods of the past. Putin’s rhetorical embrace of “Eurasianism,” an ideology with fascistic and mystical undertones, and his establishment of the “Eurasian Union” as a direct competitor to the European Union, signaled the decisive shift away from cooperation with the West to a strategy of weakening it from within.

Unlike post-war Germany, which made full amends for its past militarism and atrocities and committed itself to multilateralism and nonviolent approaches to resolving international conflict, Russia never went through a process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.” Perhaps this was an unavoidable consequence of the Cold War’s peaceful end — the Soviet Union, unlike the Third Reich, was not subjected to a traumatic military defeat and occupation by its adversaries. But the consequences of Russia’s not engaging in the sort of critical appraisal of its own history so admirably pursued by post-Holocaust Germany are visible all around us in the modern-day cult of Josef Stalin, the veil of silence surrounding Communist-era crimes, and the popular support among the Russian people for Putin’s military adventures abroad.

Following the advice of the “realists” Gessen so admires and allowing Moscow a veto over the foreign-policy orientation of former subjects would have indulged Russia’s notion that it is still an empire and invited more aggression. By this light, NATO’s denial of Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia indicates how the West failed to reap the benefits of winning the Cold War. Chief among these benefits ought to have been the welcome rise of sovereign countries’ Western aspirations. Instead, the West preferred to assuage Russian inferiority complexes and hurt feelings. Deprived of the argument that it was nonexistent NATO expansion to Ukraine that “provoked” Russia to invade it, some realists cite the EU’s 2013 offer of a trade-and-aid package to Kiev as having justified the aggression. What this excuse neglects to acknowledge is Putin’s 2004 statement “If Ukraine wants to join the EU and is welcome there, we can only welcome that.” Ten years later, he waged war against the country for trying to do precisely what he had encouraged.

Our present-day problems with Russia stem from two utterly different, and fundamentally irreconcilable, understandings of what the end of the Cold War meant. It wasn’t just a side that lost but a whole understanding of how the world should work. From the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to the Sudeten crisis to the division of Germany, most of the 20th century’s major conflicts erupted over border disputes in Central and Eastern Europe. Vladimir Putin’s refusal to acknowledge that small countries have the same rights as larger ones has pitted a rules-abiding West against a rules-flouting Russia. Faced with neighbors wishing to break free of their post-imperial yoke, Russians have not paused to consider that maybe it’s their behavior, past and present, that has led the former “captive nations” to be wary of Moscow’s designs. Rather, Russians have internalized, in the words of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, the attitude that “nobody likes us, what’s wrong with everybody?” For Western policymakers to endorse such myopia is like giving car keys to a drunk.    

As Russian troops marched into Crimea under the same pretext as German forces did into the Sudetenland — claiming to “protect” the rights and lives of allegedly threatened ethnic comrades — German chancellor Angela Merkel was said to have remarked that Putin lives in “another world.” He does. It’s a dangerous world where might makes right, one that successive generations of Western statesmen, along with courageous Poles, Czechs, Romanians, and countless others, fought to overcome. The post–Cold War “ideas and assumptions” of America and its allies were not “triumphalist” diktats meant to humiliate or “encircle” Russia by “rubbing its nose” in defeat, but fundamental principles of sovereignty and national self-determination established to avert war on a continent repeatedly plagued by it. Far from being too “triumphalist” in its dealings with Russia, if anything, the West was not triumphalist enough.

James Kirchick — Mr. Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Center for the United States and Europe and at the Project on International Order and Strategy, both at the Brookings Institution, is the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.

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