Commentary / World

Why Putin doesn't trust the West

by Leonid Bershidsky


For those who wonder how it came to pass that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia pivoted so decisively away from a European path, Putin has an answer: It happened long before his time, during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.

In a lengthy interview published last weekend by the state-owned news agency TASS, Putin appeared relaxed and unusually willing to touch upon personal matters. He let it drop, for example, that his two daughters, long said to be married to foreigners and living overseas, are in Moscow and seeing their father once or twice a month. He himself couldn’t “imagine life outside Russia.” As his voters begin to experience economic hardship following a steep decline in oil prices, Putin clearly feels he needs to appeal to their patriotism — and to explain why he sees the West as a treacherous rival:

“Every time Russia gets back on its feet, grows stronger and declares its right to defend its interests beyond its borders, the attitude toward the country itself and its leaders changes immediately. Remember what happened with Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin, Russia’s first president]. Initially, the world had a good reaction to him. No matter what Yeltsin did, the West cheered.

“But as soon as he raised his voice in defense of Yugoslavia, in the eyes of the West he immediately turned an alcoholic and a wicked person. Everybody suddenly found out that Boris Nikolaevich liked a drink. Had it been a secret before? No, but it did not hamper his contacts with the outside world until it was necessary to defend Russian interests in the Balkans. When Yeltsin spoke directly about it, he was suddenly almost an enemy of the West. That’s reality, it happened quite recently. I remember it well.”

As I read this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a show that Russia’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, put on at a December 1992 meeting of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. As he started to speak, the audience couldn’t believe what they were hearing:

“While fully maintaining the policy of entry into Europe, we clearly recognize that our traditions in many respects, if not fundamentally, lie in Asia, and this sets limits to our rapprochement with Western Europe.

“We see that, despite a certain degree of evolution, the strategies of NATO and the WEU, which are drawing up plans to strengthen their military presence in the Baltic and other regions of the territory of the former Soviet Union and to interfere in Bosnia and the internal affairs of Yugoslavia, remain essentially unchanged. …

“Second: The space of the former Soviet Union cannot be regarded as a zone of full application of CSCE norms. In essence, this is a post-imperial space, in which Russia has to defend its interests using all available means, including military and economic ones. We shall strongly insist that the former USSR Republics join without delay the new Federation or Confederation, and there will be tough talks on this matter.

“Third: All those who think that they can disregard these particularities and interests — that Russia will suffer the fate of the Soviet Union — should not forget that we are talking of a state that is capable of standing up for itself and its friends.”

Today, Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, say such things all the time. Russia is seeking to ally itself more closely with China, it wants ex-Soviet countries to join a Moscow-centric bloc called the Eurasian Union, and it openly declares its interests in neighboring countries — and is willing to defend them by force of arms.

In 1992, though, Kozyrev’s assertions were incomprehensible. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger pulled Kozyrev into a side room and demanded an explanation, and Kozyrev was happy to reassure him that he hadn’t meant a word he said. As he later explained, the speech was intended to “demonstrate to the world community the dangers which lie in wait for it if the Russian reformers were defeated and representatives of the national-patriotic tendency came to power.”

As William Safire wrote in the New York Times, “what Kozyrev did was to play the role of the next Russian foreign minister — the one who might represent a government that has brushed aside Boris Yeltsin and the democratic reformers.”

The same Russian nationalist agenda appears, after 22 years, to have triumphed. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the Yugoslav crisis, which Kozyrev mentioned in his shocking speech and Putin referred to in his interview, as the turning point. As Russia sided with Serbia and the West with its enemies, a mutual distrust was reborn.

Perhaps the West should have taken Kozyrev’s warning more seriously in 1992. Back then, however, Russia was hardly a formidable rival: Although it had nuclear weapons, it was too weak to fight NATO and, economically, it was a shambles. Also, Yeltsin, Kozyrev and the reformist government of the day appeared so sincerely pro-Western, no one expected anything different. Western powers miscalculated the risk, and now they again count Russia as a major threat to the post-World War II world order.

Perhaps, however, the U.S. and its allies never really believed they were facing a different Russia back in the early 1990s. Had they trusted Yeltsin, European and American diplomats would have laughed at Kozyrev’s staged remarks and not taken them at face value.

That was at least partly Moscow’s fault. The Russian government under Yeltsin started out with pure intentions, but then quickly settled into shameless corruption and fell back on tried and tested Soviet foreign policy concepts. Russia was never consistent enough to inspire trust, so the West never treated it as a true ally.

It’s hard to apportion blame for the lost opportunity of fully integrating Russia — as well as Ukraine and Belarus — into Europe immediately after they broke from the Soviet Union. Perhaps Europe should have been more welcoming, and perhaps Moscow should have made a more honest effort at liberal reforms.

The resulting alienation is in some ways worse than the Cold War rivalry was. While that enmity was largely based on the sides’ unfamiliarity with each other’s culture, today’s bitter relationship contains a divorced couple’s cynical disappointment with each other. Putin finds his side easy to sell to his voters, and that will make rapprochement difficult even after he eventually gives up power.

Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is a Berlin-based writer.

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