February 11 and even February 16 have come and gone, the Beijing Olympics have ended, yet U.S. officials continue to warn about an "imminent" Russian invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has presented Russia's response to Washington's security proposals, demanding that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO. Yet some believe that there is still hope for the sides to negotiate a solution to the crisis.
With the Russian and Ukrainian markets bouncing back, it appears that the worse of the conflict between Russia and the West is over for now (and without bloodshed, as I predicted). However, tensions over Ukraine may resurface. Hence, it is important to take a closer look at the causes of these tensions.
Enlargement Of NATO Is Not The Real Issue
Since the Kremlin presented the West with its ultimatum regarding Russia's "security concerns" on December 17, 2021, almost all negotiations and talks between Russian and Western officials have focused not so much on security matters as on Putin's historical reminiscences. The very idea of seeking "security guarantees" seems somewhat bizarre, given that Russia possesses the world's largest nuclear arsenal and fifth-largest standing army (and note that in the Soviet era Moscow never initiated any talks of this kind). Moreover, for both the Russian imperial leadership and the Soviet leadership (from the Hague Peace Conference of 1899 to the Gorbachev-Reagan talks of the late 1980s), security issues were always anchored in arms controls and deployment. However, in the beginning of February, the U.S. and NATO replied at length to Russia’s proposals on security guarantees (Washington presented a five-page response and NATO a four-page one), but Russia claimed that the U.S. and NATO statements were "insignificant."
Every time Putin met with either American or European officials, he started complaining about the threat posed by NATO's enlargement to Russia's interests (although, out of the 15 countries that joined NATO in the post-Soviet era, 11 were admitted during Putin's years in the Kremlin – without any audible complaints on his part). Considering that both Russia and the U.S. possess hypersonic missiles, the difference between launch sites in Bucharest and in Kharkov does not seem significant enough to derail Russia-NATO relations. The real issue, then, has nothing to do with NATO's enlargement.
Putin Realized The West Would Not Embrace Him
Two major issues underpin Putin's hostility towards NATO and the West in general – and both are very personal.
The first stems from Putin's deep sense of resentment that goes back to the early 2000s. Back then, Putin regarded Europe as an example for Russia to follow. In his famous address to the Bundestag, he said that Russia was "looking to the European integration with hope." He also discussed the liberalization of Russia's economy, and sided with the U.S. in the War on Terror. Putin hoped that, after delivering this Western-oriented speech (which sincerely reflected his opinions), he would be respected by his Western counterparts. However, his hopes were soon to be shattered.
In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime. Putin opposed the invasion, as he believed that the principle of "sovereignty" must be respected (as opposed to the principles of human rights, for which he has never had much respect). This ended his friendship with president George W. Bush, who had previously claimed a deep sense of affinity with Putin ("I looked the man in the eye… and peered into his soul").
Then, in 2004, the European nations supported Ukraine's Orange Revolution, thus ending the brief Berlin-Paris-Moscow tripartite alliance. Putin then realized he would never be treated as one of the leaders of the Western world. Moreover, he initially believed that power could be translated into money and vice versa, but soon realized that the West had started to consider Russian money "dirty." Another humiliating blow came when British prime minister Tony Blair explained that he could not extradite Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev to Russia, since the courts and legal considerations prevented him from doing so.
By the mid-2000s, Putin felt alienated by the West. As a reaction to this Western rejection, Kremlin-affiliated "ideologists" started to develop and support theories asserting the social and moral "decay" of West and accusing it of promoting "Russophobia." Furthermore, in those days, the concept of the "Russian world" (russkiy mir) emerged, which calls for protecting the sphere of Russian interests and the restoration of Russia's historical unity (It is worth noting that, in 2014, in his annual TV call-in television program, Direct Line, Putin said: "As for our people, our country, like a magnet, has attracted representatives of different ethnic groups, nations and nationalities. Incidentally, this has not only become the backbone of our common cultural code but also a very powerful genetic code, because genes have been exchanged for centuries and even millennia as a result of mixed marriages, and this genetic code of ours is probably, and in fact almost certainly, one of our main competitive advantages in today’s world").
Russia still is a European nation, and the Russians are intrinsically European (and therefore part of the West), but there is no chance for a reconciliation as long as Putin, motivated by bitterness and resentment, continues to rule.
Putin Is The Ruler Of "Muscovy"
The second reason for Putin's hostility towards NATO and the West has to do with Ukraine but, again, also with Putin's sense of himself. Ukraine was a key force behind the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and subsequently it undermined almost every attempt to reintegrate the post-Soviet space. In the 2000s, this country developed a strong sense of independence and a separate national identity. In 2004-2005, it rejected Putin's favored candidate for Ukrainian president, and humiliated Putin by initiating the Orange Revolution in response to the Russian pressure. In 2014, it launched another anti-Russia revolution by turning to the West.
Ukraine's dissociation from Russia, which grew from year to year, was perceived by Putin as a personal insult. For Putin, a devoted Russian imperialist, the sovereignty of the "Ukrainian people" does not exist. Ukraine, on the other hand, seeks to prove that Ukrainians are a Slavonic people who can become democratic and European without losing their identity, who can remain Orthodox Christians while challenging the "spiritual foundations" of the Russian Empire, and whose Ukrainian Orthodox Church can gain independence from the Russian Church.
An independent and European-oriented Ukraine is a humiliation for Putin. Since the Orange Revolution, every development in this country has run contrary to his schemes and ambitions. Therefore, a few concessions by the Ukrainian authorities will not satisfy him – he wants this country to cease to exist. He may have a historical reason for this: Today's Russian Federation resembles the Russian state of the mid-17th century, known as Muscovy. of "Russia" was born in 1654, after Muscovy reunited with part of what is now Ukraine. Putin currently sees himself as the ruler of Muscovy, but his burning desire is to become the emperor of Russia – which is incompatible with an independent Ukraine. Putin has in fact been trying to dismantle Ukraine and render it dysfunctional since 2014, to pry it away from Europe and reintegrate it into Russia, as he believes that the Russians and the Ukrainians constitute a single nation. Therefore, for Putin, any Western involvement in Ukraine is nothing less than aggression against "the millennium-old historic Russia," whose boundaries he sometimes equates with those of the Russian Empire and sometimes with those of the Soviet Union, according to his convenience.
The Kremlin Thought That The Threat Of War Would Drive NATO Back
The recent standoff in Ukraine should thus be seen as Russia's attempt to reconquer the "historic" Russian lands between Muscovy and Europe. The confrontation with the U.S. and its European allies arose because Putin doesn't believe in the "real sovereignty" of Ukraine. During a recent meeting with Lavrov, the Russian president assessed that NATO and the EU seek to be the sole rulers of Europe, the only ones to determine the future path of this continent. The Kremlin expected the U.S. to push Ukraine to accept the Minsk agreements and/or to drop its ambitions of joining NATO. However, things turned sour for Putin as NATO member-states insisted on the "open door" principle for countries wishing to join the alliance, and as the Ukrainian leadership stuck to its NATO bid even in the face of the Russia's militant threats.
The U.S. too has been playing a geopolitical game, with its media producing a torrent of "fake news" about the "imminent" threat of a Russian invasion. The U.S. was the first country to advise its citizens to leave Ukraine (as well as Belarus – but, strangely, not Russia), and the first to evacuate its embassy in Kiev. When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked President Joe Biden to calm down and stop spreading panic among the Ukrainians, he was absolutely right. At some point, the Western pressure (also manifest, for example, in the suspension of air traffic through Ukrainian airspace) became even more intense than the pressure of Russia's Black Sea blockade, attributed to the navy drills.
Russia, as I've been arguing for the last few months, has no intention of going to war with NATO or even with Ukraine. Putin has become used to the "weak West" that has been endlessly patient with Russia since the 2008 Georgia war. Back then, Russia's military came close to Tbilisi without any consequences for Moscow. Later, in 2014, Russia occupied Crimea and sent its troops to Donbass without encountering any Western military response. Therefore, the Kremlin was almost certain that the threat of war would suffice to drive NATO back. As the latest developments show, Putin had no plan B in case Kiev refused to surrender and agree to Ukraine's "federalization." Hence, the situation reached an impasse. Most likely, Russia will soon engage in some arms-control negotiations with the West, but Putin will consider these activities meaningless. Western policymakers must understand that Russia's failure to gain anything from the latest tensions over Ukraine is yet another humiliation that Putin will not be able to overlook, and that, as a result, he will continue to seek ways to undermine Ukraine's sovereignty.
To further understand the roots of the Russia-West standoff in Ukraine, it should also be noted that, for over two decades, Putin has been insisting that Russia is finally "rising from its knees" and regaining its status as a global superpower. Accordingly, he feels that anyone who has insulted Russia should now repent. Like Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen republic and one of the most powerful men in Russia, who expects anyone who has "disrespected the Chechen people" to apologize to him, Putin feels that NATO and the Western powers owe Russia an apology for mistreating it (in fact, this was declared quite explicitly by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, who recently called on Britain "to apologize" for "bashing" Russia). Unable to "make Russia great again," because the country's economy is weak and its contribution to global technological progress is declining, Putin desperately wants to use Russia's military might to force the world to acknowledge Moscow's extraordinary capacities. In short, Putin wants to be considered as indispensable to the world as he is considered indispensable in his own country, in Russia.
What should the West do once the critical phase of the showdown is over?
Crucially, the West should not relax, since the current détente looks more like a temporary development than like a solid and enduring one. The West should look for other options and ways to engage with Ukraine. It should find a way to incorporate Ukraine in NATO's security structure without directly inviting it to join to the alliance. Furthermore, the West must develop suitable strategies for lessening Europe's dependence on Russian energy, and the U.S. too must decrease its dependence on imports from Russia.
Misleading and irresponsible theories, such as the claim that Putin must be appeased in order to dissuade Russia from its alliance with China, must be abandoned. The West should rethink its notion that a "mutually beneficial collaboration" with Russia helps to hold Putin accountable and that "almost no significant global problem" can be addressed without Russia's cooperation. Since the early 1990s, Russia has helped create dozens of regional problems and conflicts, but has not helped to resolve even a single serious crisis. Putin's Russia is a formidable enemy of the West, and this is not likely to change soon, as the Russian people are unable or unwilling to oust their president.
The West can do nothing to undermine Putin's rule in his own country. It should refrain from trying to change Russia, while doing its best to secure itself and its allies against the Russian threat. As I have been arguing since the mid-2010s, the task is not to defeat Putin's regime, but to outlive it.
* Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev is a special advisor to the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project.
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