The story of how the West’s relations with Russia descended to their current abysmal level is often told as one of an ominous drift, under Putin, back toward a Soviet-style showdown between Moscow and its former adversaries. From this perspective, everything that has happened since 2014 – the annexation of Crimea, sanctions, clashes over Syria, allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election – has merely conformed to a sinister pattern that was already in place.
But the idea that Russia has wilfully reverted to hostile Soviet type on the international stage rests on an extraordinarily one-sided view of what has actually happened since 1991. The fundamental fact that has defined relations between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War is the huge imbalance in power and resources between the two sides. All other geopolitical calculations have flowed from it – including both the West’s impulse to drive home its advantage through the expansion of NATO, and Russia’s growing resentment of that process, as well as its inability to halt or reverse it.
Those who point this out are often depicted as Kremlin stooges, as if to note a disparity in power between the two parties were somehow to take the weaker side. But there is a huge distance, politically and ethically, between measuring how much power Russia really has and defending what Putin does with it. One of the effects of the escalating rhetoric of the ‘New Cold War’ has been to conflate the two, and thus to prevent any serious discussion of the actual international balance of power. Yet it’s impossible to understand the course of relations between Russia and the West over the past three decades without taking the disparity between the two sides into account. Once we do, a rather different picture emerges.
The process of NATO enlargement is crucial to understanding why and how relations between Russia and the West later deteriorated. It demonstrated the basic imbalance that has governed strategic calculations on both sides ever since: the US enjoyed accumulated advantages that enabled it either to attend to or ignore Russian interests as it pleased, while Russia retained enough of its great-power habits of mind to resent this state of affairs, but lacked the capacity fundamentally to alter it.
The idea of expanding NATO was already in the air even before the Soviet Union fell apart – despite assurances given to Gorbachev by several Western leaders that ‘nothing of the sort will happen’. The organization’s London summit of July 1990 issued an invitation to the Warsaw Pact countries to begin diplomatic exchanges. But the policy only gathered real momentum under the Clinton administration, coalescing as a priority by 1993–94. Its main proponents within the administration saw it as very much part of a politico-economic project to reshape Eastern Europe along liberal capitalist lines. In September 1993, Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, called for an ‘enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.’ In this neo-Wilsonian vision, the prospect of NATO membership was a means of pressuring East European governments to keep up the pace of ‘reform’; indeed, first among the ‘Perry Principles’ laid down for would-be NATO members by US defence secretary William Perry was a commitment to ‘democracy and markets’, with ‘defence of other allies’ much further down the list.
Though it has often been presented since as a response to a ‘Russian threat’, NATO expansion was entirely premised on Russian weakness. As James Goldgeier put it in his 1999 book on NATO enlargement, Not Whether But When, ‘the possibility that Poland or the Czech Republic would actually need defending seemed remote’. The USSR’s implosion and the ensuing traumas of transition instead allowed the West to move into the strategic vacuum left in the region. Clinton himself pointed to this logic in December 1994, declaring at the OSCE’s Budapest summit that ‘We must not consign new democracies to a grey zone’. That May, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had called for ‘the potentially destabilizing geopolitical no man’s land between Russia and the European Union’ to be ‘promptly fill[ed]’. During the Cold War, the two sides had been separated across much of Europe’s breadth by unaffiliated or neutral countries, from Finland and Sweden through Austria and down to Yugoslavia. After 1991, no such buffer zone was necessary.
The fact that NATO expansion could be disconnected from any actual military risks no doubt smoothed its way among policymaking elites in Washington. There was, to be sure, opposition from prominent figures: George Kennan, the original architect of ‘containment’, called it a ‘fateful error’; Thomas Friedman, holding forth in the pages of the New York Times, worried it would imperil efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. There were concerns, too, that overly aggressive moves by the US to benefit from Russia’s weakness now might produce a backlash later – that a punitive post-Soviet Versailles settlement might produce a revanchist Russian nationalism.
Yet these considerations were overpowered by two other motivations. One was precisely the chance to wrest Eastern Europe out of Moscow’s orbit for good. This was simply too good an opportunity to pass up – especially since many of the new governments in Eastern Europe were themselves keen to join. The other was a deep suspicion of Russia among Western policy-making elites, dating back through the Cold War all the way to 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution had created a breach in the international state system, a hole in the map that no amount of diplomacy or détente had been able to close. The fall of Communism, although it brought down the capitalist West’s systemic rival, didn’t fully close it either – leaving in place a fundamental mistrust of Moscow in Washington and other Western capitals. As long as Yeltsin was in power and willing to fall in with Western thinking, these doubts could be assuaged. But the moment things changed, the older ideological reflex would kick in once more. NATO expansion was therefore to some extent an insurance policy against an outcome that, ironically, the expansion would ultimately help to create: the return to the world stage of an independent Russia, with interests distinct from those of the West.
In the early 1990s, a bipartisan consensus developed in the US around NATO expansion. However, the Clinton administration also knew that too rapid an expansion would torpedo Yeltsin’s chances of re-election, so from 1993 to 1996 it pursued a two-track policy, offering Russia and other Eastern European states membership in a ‘Partnership for Peace’ that seemed to be an alternative to an expanded NATO. (Yeltsin was certainly taken in by the ruse, asking US Secretary of State Warren Christopher to ‘Tell Bill I am thrilled.’) Meanwhile the US prepared the ground for a first round of NATO enlargement – starting in 1994 with the NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act, designed to smooth the path of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance.
This dual-track approach struck hard-line Cold Warriors as needless pandering to the Russians; Henry Kissinger apparently asked, ‘Whoever heard of a military alliance begging with a weakened adversary?’ But it was in any case abandoned soon enough. Once Yeltsin was safely re-installed in the Kremlin, in the summer of 1996 – in no small measure thanks to covert assistance from the West – the US could be more blunt. Clinton’s deputy secretary of state (and former college roommate), Strobe Talbott, told Anatoly Chubais, chief of Yeltsin’s presidential administration, ‘that NATO enlargement was going to happen, and . . . that Russia had to make sure that it did not look like Moscow had lost’.
In March 1999, when Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland formally joined the alliance, NATO immediately moved ahead with a second wave of expansion, establishing ‘Membership Action Plans’ for nine more countries, including the three Baltic states. Both of these developments took place at the height of the NATO intervention in Kosovo – conducted without UN Security Council authorization, since it was evident that Russia would veto it – underscoring still more deeply Russia’s irrelevance on the world stage. Primakov, then prime minister, was on his way to Washington when the bombing of Yugoslavia started, and ordered his plane to turn around in protest. It was a forceful symbolic gesture – but then, Russia’s means were too limited to do much else.
Washington’s ability to impose its will on the question of NATO enlargement, whatever Moscow’s objections, made plain the fundamental imbalance in power between the two countries. Hard enough in itself for Russia to accept, it was made still worse by the manner in which US diplomats wielded their authority. As early as 1993, foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev was protesting to Talbott, ‘It’s bad enough having you people tell us what you’re going to do whether we like it or not. Don’t add insult to injury by also telling us that it’s in our interests to obey your orders.’
A year after the invasion of Iraq, the accession of seven more countries to NATO brought the alliance directly to Russia’s border. At the end of 2004, protests over rigged elections in Ukraine sparked the ‘Orange Revolution’, blocking Moscow’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, and ultimately bringing his pro-Western opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, to power instead. Greeted in the West as a democratic flowering, but seen in the Kremlin as the product of Western machinations, the Ukraine crisis of 2004–05 was crucially different from the previous ‘Colour Revolutions’ in Serbia (2000) and Georgia (2003). There was much more at stake for Russia than in those previous cases: the Kremlin had poured a great deal of money and effort into securing the presidency for Yanukovych, and the geopolitical outcomes of his defeat were far more serious – potentially opening the way for NATO to emplace itself along almost all of Russia’s western borders.
In the case of Ukraine, moreover, external strategic issues were intertwined with internal political questions. The ‘Orange Revolution’ represented a frontal challenge to Russia’s own ‘imitation democratic’ regime, raising the possibility that popular energies – till now excluded from the business of government across the post-Soviet space – might surge back once more, as in 1989–91, to threaten the existing system. The examples of Georgia and Ukraine proved contagious: Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Tulip Revolution’ followed in early 2005, while comparable though unsuccessful movements emerged elsewhere (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Mongolia). From 2004–05 onward, the defence of what the Kremlin saw as Russia’s interests abroad became inseparable from the impulse for self-preservation at home, tying Russian foreign policy ever more closely to concerns over domestic order.
Between the spring and summer of 2008, Russian–Western relations moved swiftly from rhetorical stand-offs to proxy war. In February, Kosovo’s declaration of independence was swiftly recognized by the US and other leading NATO states, setting a precedent Russia deemed alarming. In April, a NATO summit in Bucharest raised the prospect of membership for Georgia and Ukraine – only to defer it until some unspecified future date, in the face of Putin’s strenuous objections. Meanwhile tensions were escalating in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, de facto Russian protectorates since brief separatist wars in the early 1990s. In early August 2008, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili – seemingly with encouragement from the US – suddenly moved to recapture South Ossetia, providing Russia with a ready pretext for armed intervention.
Militarily, the conflict was a mismatch, and was over after five days of fighting. Politically, it was far more consequential. It was partly a kind of retaliation on the plane of international law for previous Western actions: Medvedev invoked the West’s own doctrines of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the ‘responsibility to protect’ (‘R2P’), as deployed in Kosovo in 1999 and agreed at the UN’s 2005 World Summit, respectively. In the immediate aftermath of the war, moreover, the Kremlin recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, citing the barely six-month-old precedent of Kosovo. The staggering hypocrisy of this gesture, from a government that had fought two wars to prevent Chechen independence, hardly needs emphasizing. But the Georgian operation was more immediately intended to call the West’s bluff on further NATO enlargement, effectively asking if it was willing to start a full-scale global war for the sake of tiny Georgia. The answer, despite much bluster from US Republicans such as John McCain, was no. Behind this confrontation, meanwhile, the issue of Ukraine – strategically far more significant to both Russia and the West – lurked in the background, as an obvious future flashpoint.
Russia’s actions on the world stage over the past few years have been marked by a rising rhetorical aggression, and by an increased adventurism in practice: the annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in the Donbass; intervention in Syria; courting of hard-right candidates and movements campaigning against the established order in major Western states, from Trump in the US to Le Pen in France and the Afd party in Germany. These moves have often been interpreted as being all of a piece, as parts of some deliberate Kremlin design for a conservative world order that would overturn the dominance of liberal democratic norms. Russia’s rulers have indeed come to see themselves as fundamentally opposed to the Western liberal-democratic order. But we should avoid the temptation to explain these developments as being driven by a coherent, pre-established agenda. Russia’s decisions have been shaped most decisively by the geopolitical environment in which the country has to operate, and this environment is dominated by other powers – the US above all.
Most of Russia’s conduct on the world stage, in fact, has to be seen as a series of responses to this overriding constraint. Since the Ukraine crisis [of 2013–14], those responses have been increasingly combative; but they have also been largely improvised, focused on short-term tactical thinking rather than any longer-term project. The apparent aggression stems not from a growing confidence or sense of purpose, but from a pervasive and deepening anxiety about Russian weakness. It is this that fuelled the Putin administration’s attempts to reassert Russia’s global relevance – and, first of all, to reverse the setbacks it suffered in Ukraine.
The suddenness and decisiveness of these actions seemed almost an end in themselves, designed to alter the parameters of the geopolitical situation so radically and abruptly that the West would be compelled to change course. The problem with this approach, however, was that after each dramatic move, the situation began to settle once more into its normal pattern, creating the need for another, still more drastic move.
We are likely to see more turbulent, unpredictable times ahead where Russia and the West are concerned – something much less stable and well-defined than a ‘New Cold War’. The shift is especially striking because the underlying parameters governing relations between the two sides remain substantively unchanged: there is still, after all, a dramatic imbalance of power. The US enjoys a wealth of advantages that allow it to either attend to or ignore Russian interests as it pleases. Russia, meanwhile, retains enough of its great-power habits of mind to resent this state of affairs, but cannot by itself reshape the relation of forces. Unless and until these conditions are altered, under the current logic of confrontation, more clashes are likely.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
 The words of British Prime Minister John Major. According to declassified documents published in 2017, similar assurances were given to Gorbachev by US Secretary of State James Baker – using the now famous formula ‘not one inch eastward’ – as well as by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, French President François Mitterrand, and NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner. See Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton, ‘NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard’, National Security Archive Briefing Book, No. 613, 12 December 2017.