The Seething Anger of Putin's Russia

How U.S.-Russian relations became so dysfunctional—and dangerous

Joshua Lott/Reuters

MOSCOW—The standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine is a relatively recent development, but it is sickeningly familiar to anyone who grew up in the Cold War decades. It is, most of all, uniquely ominous: When nuclear-armed America and Russia quarrel, peace and life as we know it are threatened the world over. The risks of errors, miscalculations, unintended escalation, and culture-based misunderstandings loom large—especially when mutual trust has been shattered and little remains of a working relationship between Washington and Moscow.

Such risks are especially high right now. NATO and NATO-allied forces are conducting military exercises in western Ukraine, while Russian-backed separatists and Russian troops remain entrenched in that country’s east. Last Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned that “the situation in Ukraine has escalated sharply and the presence of foreign military has increased in the immediate vicinity of our borders,” while announcing the deployment of the first of six stealth submarines to its Black Sea fleet. This came just days after Russia’s successful submarine-based test launch of a Bulava ICBM—a long-range nuclear missile designed to hit targets in the United States. Russia’s $700-billion defense buildup, scheduled to be completed in 2020, continues unabated.

Ukraine isn’t the only potential hot spot. Earlier this month, a representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, addressing Russian residents of Riga, the capital of NATO member Latvia, announced, in words similar to those it has used to describe the situation in Ukraine, that as a result of “neo-Nazi sentiments ... whole segments of the Russian world ... face serious problems in securing their rights and lawful interests,” and warned that Russia “will not tolerate the creeping offensive against the Russian language” underway in the Baltics. In a speech several weeks ago in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, President Obama declared that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris,” and that NATO forces, including those of the United States, would defend the Baltics if they were attacked. The prospect of Russia taking measures—which could include closing its airspace to Western countries—to retaliate against the latest round of Western sanctions against it now seems like the least of America's problems. (Ironically, the West’s crisis with Russia, though deepening, may all be for naught: The Kremlin has successfully pressured Ukraine into delaying a key free-trade provision in a newly ratified association agreement with the EU and offering its rebellious eastern provinces three years of self-rule.)

The U.S. did not have to travel down this road, but it did, and there appears to be no way to turn back—or no way leaders in the West or Russia are prepared to take. The newly precarious state of affairs derives, in great measure, from a failure on the part of Western, and mostly American, leaders to understand Russia, which they should have tried to do, given its strategic importance, nuclear arsenal, continental dimensions, natural resources, and potential as a troublemaker—or dealmaker—in many troubled parts of the world. It also stems from America's refusal to recognize Russia’s concern about the eventual expansion of NATO, a military bloc inherently inimical to it, into more terrain along its western border—terrain that is closer to Moscow than the Baltics. How would the United States react to a Russian incursion in the Western hemisphere? This is no hypothetical question. In 1962, President Kennedy took the world to the brink of atomic war to force the Soviet Union to withdraw its nuclear missiles from Cuba.

A deal ended that confrontation, and one is needed now. But to strike one, Western leaders would have to reassess their view of, and policies toward, Russia. Russia, for reasons of history, culture, size, and geography, is what it is: not Western, not Eastern, but sui generis, its own world. Predicating policy on the hopes of a peaceful uprising and the triumph of democracy here—or, conversely, on predictions of the country’s collapse, with a new, West-friendly government emerging from the rubble—is futile. In the same vein, announcements of economic sanctions designed to make Russia “pay” for annexing Crimea or stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine ring hollow to Russian ears.

And with good reason. Russians have spent the last hundred years surviving various apocalypses, many of their own making—the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and civil war (which included foreign, and American, intervention); famine, both man-made and natural; the Nazi invasion and the loss of at least 25 million souls; almost three decades of Stalinist despotism, with perhaps 20 million Soviets dispatched to the gulag, to say nothing of mass executions, the deportation of entire peoples, and ecological disasters. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, sudden widespread impoverishment, two separatist wars, and an Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus that involves terrorist attacks in Russian cities to this day. Put simply, in Russia the worst has already happened.

This uniquely calamitous past has inured Russians in very real ways to suffering, and certainly to worrying about suffering as a result of the “isolation” President Obama wishes to impose or the “economic pain” of sanctions, which have only solidified support for Vladimir Putin and his stance against the West, and especially against the United States. In any case, Russia has set about decoupling from the West, concluding a major hydrocarbons deal with China, helping Iran weather the effects of Western sanctions, planning its own alternative to the interbank messaging service SWIFT, and establishing financial institutions to counter the World Bank and the IMF. It could at any moment derail the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan; the route home for American troops and materiel leads across Russia. Moscow cannot be bullied into changing course.

If one assumes that Putin seized Crimea and has fomented war in Ukraine’s east to keep NATO out, then an accommodation with Russia based on now-unfashionable principles of realpolitik offers the only chance of a (reasonably) stable peace. The U.S. and NATO could offer neutrality for Ukraine—that is, pledge in writing not to invite it to join the alliance, and prevail upon Ukraine’s leadership, which is now entirely dependent on Western largesse for its survival, to withdraw the bill Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is ushering through parliament that would annul the country’s non-bloc status. If Western leaders did this now, they might be able to forestall the worst-case scenario: Putin seeking to replicate the seizure of Crimea elsewhere—say, in the Baltics—where Russian-speaking populations exist outside Russia’s borders. It’s still not clear that this is what he is set on doing. But if he believes he has nothing to gain by cooperating with the West, he may try to oppose it by expanding Russia’s control over former Soviet territory.

America embarks on this road to confrontation without sure, seasoned hands at the wheel in the White House; in modern history, no U.S. administration has proved more inept at dealing with Russia. This ineptitude, combined with the relative weakness of Russia’s conventional armed forces, a still-lethal nuclear arsenal, a military doctrine that foresees the use of battlefield nuclear weapons to de-escalate conflicts, to say nothing of a wounded psyche, make this a perilous moment in history. Americans are being marched off to a new war—a cold one for now—with no idea of what the outcome will be. They need to demand of the Obama administration: “Tell us how this ends.”

Bill Clinton plays a saxophone given to him by Russian President Boris Yeltsin (center) in 1994, three years before NATO expansion set their relationship on edge. (Wikipedia)

The crisis has been long in coming. When Russia was weakest, in the mid-1990s, NATO chose to announce plans for eastward expansion, in violation of a gentleman’s agreement that Mikhail Gorbachev had struck with the first Bush administration. Boris Yeltsin objected angrily to NATO’s reneging, but to no avail. The first round of enlargement came in 1997 and included the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary. Three subsequent rounds inducted other Eastern European countries, including the Baltics in 2004. Ukraine and Georgia, though denied invitations to initiate membership proceedings in 2008, were assured that they would eventually be allowed to join.

No matter how often Western leaders and NATO voiced benign intentions toward Russia, they persuaded no one here. The four-letter acronym standing for the world’s mightiest military alliance sounds to Russian ears about as harmless as “Warsaw Pact” once did to Americans'. The Bush administration’s 2002 abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—the 1972 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union severely limiting the deployment of missile-defense systems in both countriescombined with its plans to build such installations in Eastern Europe, stoked the fire. The East-West “armed bloc” mentality that had supposedly died with the Cold War, in favor of a “Europe Whole and Free,” was alive and well.

Thus, the Russia-U.S. partnership destined to last, said Yeltsin in 1995, not “for one year ... [but] for a millennium,” began breaking down just a few years after its inception. This was predictable, and predicted. In 1998, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman spoke to George Kennan, who authored the containment policy that guided U.S. relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and got his take on NATO’s enlargement. It deserves to be quoted at length:

"I think [NATO’s expansion] is the beginning of a new cold war," said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. "I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs." ...

"I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”

NATO’s expansion, Kennan said, “shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.”

Kennan also predicted that the alliance’s enlargement would result in a “new cold war, probably ending in a hot one” and the death of democracy in Russia. There is no more succinct a diagnosis of what happened than his.

But there is something to add. While Western leaders have long held that great-power politics belongs to the past, Russians have seen proof of the opposite—and of the West’s hypocrisy. During the Yeltsin years, they watched Western disdain for their country’s interests increase. The popular perception was, “The West, and especially America, is taking advantage of our weakness and advancing on us with NATO.” The 1999 NATO intervention over Kosovo in Yugoslavia, with which Russia shares a religion and Slavic ancestry, provoked long-lasting anger. During the Soviet decades, NATO would not have launched an unprovoked 78-day bombing campaign on the border of Warsaw Pact countries. In more recent years, Russians watched the United States invade Afghanistan and Iraq, torture detainees, drone suspected terrorists, spy on its population and allies (as revealed by Edward Snowden), favor the super-wealthy in Supreme Court rulings, and suffer a seemingly endless series of mass shootings that would be unimaginable in Russia or almost anywhere else. 'Who are the Americans to lecture us?' they asked. The West’s moral authority, always shaky here, disappeared. For many Russians, the conflict over Ukraine has been nothing more than a base, old-fashioned power struggle between two morally equivalent, equally self-interested blocs.

While Putin is undeniably popular in Russia now, I am not arguing that Russian democracy has survived. It has not. But Putin’s icy demeanor, agate-blue eyes, and judo-trained physique all befit the current mood in Russia: seething anger over everything lost with the fall of the Soviet Union—superpower status, national pride, a generous social-welfare state, a low crime rate, and more. Democracy, barely tried in the 1990s, did not confer those things on Russia. Putin—plus high oil prices—did. Or such is the popular perception.

Whether or not Westerners agree with how Putin rose to power or rules today, they need to recognize that in the interests of peace and stability, Russia’s interests have to count and be accommodated in some way. Russia must have a place at the table. The West did not exclude it (entirely) during the Cold War years. It cannot afford to do so now.

But will it change course? The NATO summit in Wales has set in motion moves to create a rapid-reaction “spearhead” force that, though of little real import, will further convince Russia of the threat posed by the bloc. The logic of escalation moves in only one direction: up.