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Did the West Provoke Putin? Apologists and Facts

Let’s not mince words: Ukraine and Russia are at war. This is no trifling regional skirmish: the Russo-Ukrainian war threatens global order as we know it. How did we get here? One surprisingly popular explanation is that the West is to blame: it humiliated Russia after the USSR’s demise, provoked Vladimir Putin with NATO expansion, and meddled in his neighborhood. Attempts to understand the Russian side are laudable, but facts get in the way of the blame game.

In an utterly unpredictable course of events, Ukraine’s domestic struggles between pro-European masses and their corrupt regime spiraled into a conflict that bodes a new global standoff between Russia and the West. Indeed, those in the know assert that Ukraine is only a pawn in Kremlin’s bid to foil what it perceives as a Western plot to prevent Russia from taking its history-ordained place as a great power in the international system. The West, initially dismissive and reluctant, is finally getting the idea that Putin is willing to expend blood and treasure, and violate every international norm, to achieve this goal.

Putin’s propaganda has been vigorously spinning a narrative that justifies Russia’s assertiveness as a payback for West’s various transgressions. The story goes that the West had humiliated Russia when, weak and truncated, it was brought to its knees by the Soviet collapse. Echoing Putin’s narrative, John Mearsheimer, a distinguished international relations scholar, argues that the current crisis is exclusively the West’s fault: the West glibly broke its promise not to expand NATO eastward, given in exchange for the Soviet approval of German unification. It also antagonized Russia by funding democratic civil society initiatives in Russia’s backyard, in Ukraine, Georgia, and, of course, in Russia itself.

This narrative may represent Putin’s interpretation of history but it does not mean it is correct or that it justifies his bellicosity and aggression. NATO indeed outlived the Cold War and grew while the Warsaw Pact disappeared. However, history is more nuanced and, contrary to Putin’s and Mearsheimer’s allegations, there was no formal deal about NATO expansion. More importantly, this narrative overlooks the rigor with which the newly independent and democratic former Warsaw Pact countries pursued NATO and EU membership, whatever the Bush-Gorbachev arrangements had been. This rigor is proportionate to the Russian coercion that would have been required to keep them neutral, to say nothing of aligning with Russia. That the Russians failed to design a model of development and a security arrangement that would be equally attractive and did not require arm-twisting to keep together is not the West’s fault. Turns out, democracy and rule of law is not the West’s property to peddle around the world, but a political model post-Communist societies chose to pursue when they were free to do so.

Another now-forgotten fact is that the George H. W. Bush administration did not want to see the USSR disintegrate at all, hoping that Mikhail Gorbachev’s gradual reform would succeed. In a speech delivered to the Ukrainian Parliament in early August 1991, and later dubbed “Chicken Kiev,” President Bush sent a clear message to the republics seeking independent statehood: “Freedom is not the same as independence… Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism.” The Bush administration’s fears of instability and violence that could ensue from the breakup were exacerbated by the presence of nuclear arms in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan: an unraveled Soviet Union would become a “Yugoslavia with nukes,” in the words of then Secretary of State James Baker. However, to those democratic forces in Ukraine and other Soviet republics, whose members had dedicated their lives to fighting the Evil Empire and for whom Soviet tyranny was anything but “far-off,” such US stance came as a bitter disappointment.

When, in the wake of the August 19th coup, the USSR’s crumbling became irreversible, the US acted with extreme caution, withholding diplomatic recognition of the breakaway republics till late December 1991, until after Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union officially self-dissolved. Far from making quick inroads of influence into Russia’s former domains, the Bush and early Clinton administrations pursued the so-called “Russia-first” foreign policy, whereby Washington regarded the entire post-Soviet space through the prism of Russian interests, much to the chagrin of the other post-Soviet states.

From 1994 onwards, NATO and Russia cooperated within the Partnership for Peace program and the NATO-Russia Council. In the decade that followed, the relations between the two became so normalized that it led one international relations scholar, who interviewed dozens of NATO and Russian officials, to conclude that the two former adversaries were on the verge on forming a security community within which violence becomes hardly conceivable. Even if this argument might have been overly optimistic, the fact that it was as much as plausible discredits the claim that the West has been advancing its interests in Eastern Europe with no regard for Russia.

 

Meanwhile, in 1991 Russian President Boris Yeltsin reassured his neighbors that post-Soviet Russia “has chosen freedom and democracy and will never be an empire or a big or little brother. It will be equal among equals.” Not exactly, of course. Russia insisted on being the sole heir to Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal and, with it, the UN Security Council seat, a position fully supported by the West. Ukraine alone challenged this settlement, claiming ownership of a portion of nuclear arms as a successor of the USSR on par with Russia. After all, Ukraine was a recognized legal successor to all other Soviet treaties and assets, including conventional armed forces. Eventually, Ukraine had to submit under the stalwart US-Russian pressure to surrender its nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances, which turned out to be worth less than the paper they were written on.

The post-Soviet nuclear settlement that granted Russia monopoly on nuclear weapons in the former Soviet space, achieved with active Western support, more than anything else sealed Russia’s great power status. Incidentally, at the time Professor Mearsheimer built a strong case in favor of Ukraine’s nuclear deterrent on the pages of the very journal in which he now justifies Putin’s aggression. In his 1993 Foreign Affairs article, he criticized the Clinton administration for forcing Ukraine to disarm, and claimed that a future Ukraine-Russia conflict was inevitable. “A war between Russia and Ukraine would be a disaster.… The likely result of the war—Russia’s reconquest of Ukraine—would injure prospects of peace throughout Europe,” he argued. “Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression.” According to this logic, the West’s zeal in helping Russia disarm Ukraine, not its infringement of Russia’s right to rule it, is to blame for the current crisis.

Now, as then, Russia’s superpower status rests almost exclusively on its nuclear arsenal. It is not accidental that Russia’s rising assertiveness has been accompanied by the brandishing of its nuclear prowess. Russia has been testing cruise missiles in breach of the 1987 INF Treaty, simulating a nuclear attack on Warsaw, pompously inaugurating new nuclear submarines in Severodvinsk, and most recently announcing major exercises involving 4,000 troops associated with Russia’s strategic arsenal. As Russian troops poured over the border with Ukraine in late August, Putin unabashedly used the nuclear prop: “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations,” he said. “This is a reality, not just words.”

The reality is also that outside of its nuclear capability Russia has little to show for its greatness. It is an oligarchic kleptocracy, stricken by the resource curse, a tendency of states rich in natural resources and poor in democratic institutions to succumb to poor governance and abuse of power. Outside of a handful of lavish cities, Russians live in desolate villages ravaged by corruption, poverty, bad roads, and substance abuse. With all of its vast territory, Russia is a net importer of food, having failed to make investments in agriculture and consumer goods that could as much as feed its own population. The country that builds nuclear missiles cannot even raise a chicken! Instead, Putin spends the people’s money on Potemkin villages like the Sochi Olympics, and on military forays like the Crimean annexation. Now he sheds their blood in a war he denies to be waging.

 

None of this is the West’s fault. Nor is today’s Russia exclusively Putin’s fault. Russian citizens now riding the wave of euphoric national self-aggrandizement and supporting Putin’s bloody policies must share the blame. If it is greatness they seek, there is much to do on their own turf.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that even a morally bad person could become a good citizen in a good political system. The experience of Nazism and Stalinism showed the world that the reverse could also be true: that otherwise morally sound people could be molded by the flawed and unjust system to silently support or even eagerly participate in evil deeds perpetuated by that system. If the history of the 20th century taught us anything, it is that citizens not simply have a right but a civic duty to keep a critical eye on power and change the system if it threatens to consume them.

Ukrainians ended up with the same kind of a dysfunctional post-Soviet mutant of a political system as Russians. They saw their life savings disappear, their economy shrink by nearly half, the old nomenklatura and new opportunists grab the wealth of their nation and eventually capture the state itself. They lived in a country where the aberration of a rule has become the rule. The difference is that Ukrainians realized they have no one to blame for it but themselves. Last winter, Ukrainians acted out and, against all odds, changed their rotten political establishment. The transformation is far from over, but the mutant has been dealt a deadly blow.

The Russians, however, are still playing the blaming game. Today, it is NATO and the West. Tomorrow, when Putinism is gone, it will be Putin and his cronies. The war with Ukraine will be termed a tragic fratricide, an unfortunate development of unintended consequences. The world should not buy this shameful retreat from responsibility: it is only the Russian people and their leaders who can build a free and democratic Russia and achieve true greatness. It is only the Russian people who are failing to do so. Until then, to invert Abraham Lincoln’s famous words, those who are not free, ought not deny freedom to others.

Mariana Budjeryn is a Ph.D. candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy, and International Relations at the Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary. Her research investigates politics of nuclear disarmament of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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