While Russian suspicions of the West are often unfounded as well as cynically manipulated by the government, they are not without foundation. Back in 1992, President George H. W. Bush declared in his State of the Union address that “by the grace of God America won the Cold War.” But Jack Matlock, the American ambassador during the breakup of the Soviet Union, argues that the end of the Cold War was no victory; it was a delicately negotiated agreement that was supposed to benefit all sides and guarantee future cooperations. According to Matlock, the United States has all too often treated the new Russia as a loser, fomenting feelings of humiliation and revenge. Though no Putin apologist, he dares to argue that a lock of understanding of Russia and Russians could necessarily lead to a frigid cold war and a redemption of a nuclear arms race.
There was never any concrete promise that the West would not expand NATO, but there was a pledge not to take advantage of Russia’s weakness. Since then, Russians believe the United States, in particular, has done just that. The litany of Russian concerns include NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe when there was not longer a Cold War. Then there was NATO’s bombing of Serbia, a fellow Slav and Orthodox country, without UN Security Council approval; the approval of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia despite U.S. support for maintaining territorial sovereignty in other instances; and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and threats to station missile defenses in former Warsaw Pact countries. Russians also cite the invasion of Iraq without UN security Council approval; America’s participation in what they see as spurious democratic revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan; and talk of expanding NATO to Georgia and Ukraine, both of which border Russia.
Plenty of people in the West, and some in Russia dispute all of this and say the real problem is that Moscow is becoming increasingly totalitarian and returning to its former dreams of empire. Given Russia’s economic challenges and failure to modernize, they argue, Putin is seeking out enemies abroad to cover up problems at home.
In 2014, Putin found the enemies he was looking for. After the U.S. – backed Ukrainian opposition overthrew the country’s pro-Russian president, tensions rose. The Ukrainian parliament passed a law that would rescind the Russian language’s official status, and while the act was vetoed, Putin was already geared up to destabilize the new government.
First, he annexed the Crimea, a historically Russian peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea that had been transferred to Ukraine in 1954. When Russia and Ukraine were part of one country, that move was largely symbolic, but once they parted ways, the status of Crimea rankled. The strategically critical Crimea has an overwhelming Russian population. Moscow was forced to rent facilities for its Black Sea Fleet, with the constant threat the lease would be revoked. This became a simmering flash point, and when Russia perceived that Kiev had become less sympathetic to it interests, with U.S. support, it acted quickly. After taking Crimea, Putin began sending weapons and troops to support Russian speakers in Ukraine’s industrial east who were looking for greater autonomy or secession…
…Those who came to Putin’s support, especially on the takeover of Crimea, composed a surprising range of people, including some who once called themselves “the opposition.” A member of the local elite I’ll call V is much more pragmatic than ferocious Russian nationalists like Irina Korsunova. He says yes to Crimea. Though he deems Putin’s interference in eastern Ukraine a disaster, he blames both Putin and President Obama for setting the fire. In his view, the United States acted stupidly when it interfered in Ukraine without a nuanced approach and without any attention to how loaded the situation was. As he sees it, the United States supported a coup against an elected president. The president in question might have been corrupt and despicable, but such an action only strengthens the perception that the United States applies one law to itself and another to everyone else…Like the majority of Russians, he argues that impasse came about at least in part because the United States has perpetuated a security system in Europe that is based on the long-ago outcome of World War II, unnecessarily isolates Russia, and no longer fits today’s world. Well versed in current events in the United States, where his children study, he is still struck by American ignorance and arrogance, bristling at Washington’s readiness to condemn Russia for the same sins he believes America is known to commit.
- Garrels, Anne. Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. Print. 34-36.