Russians like to complain of their humiliation at the hands of the West and Russian apologists are quick to point out all the mistakes the West supposedly made in handling its relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War. But few of these laments are justified and none of them excuse Russia’s blatant aggression in Eastern Europe.
Westerners struggle to make sense of Russian behavior. They don’t understand why Russia keeps blaming everyone else for its shortcomings and find it difficult to sympathize with the Russian revanchism that inspired its invasion of Ukraine last year and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
At the core of the “Russia problem” is a toxic combination of self-pity and mistrust that is unlikely to change any time soon. But it’s not set in stone either.
Charles Gati, a senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, argues in The American Interest that Russia can change — if it stops feeling sorry for itself.
Other countries have managed to overcome self-pity after traumatic experiences, he points out. Despite being overrun by the Nazis in World War II and losing nearly all its colonies in the two decades thereafter, France never seemed to suffer from a lack of self-confidence. China recovered from the Cultural Revolution. America regained its sense of purpose after losing the Vietnam War.
Fully or partially, they have learned to sort out and handle their own crimes and faults. With considerable difficulty, it is true, they have come to behave like adults by accepting their limitations.
Perhaps the most fitting analogy is Germany. After its defeat in the First World War, it followed much the same path as Russia did in the aftermath of the Cold War: lacking self-reflection, buying into conspiracy theories, bent on revenge.
But after the Second World War, Konrad Adenauer’s West Germany made a different choice. It recognized that it was largely itself to blame for the suffering it had undergone, atoned for the horrors it had caused and set out to become a better nation.
True, it took years of soul-searching but in the end Western Germany and, since the collapse of communism, a reunited Germany chose not to blame the West for its past behavior or subsequent fate. Nor does Germany blame the United States today for its problems and difficulties. On the contrary, Germany has become a mature and responsible member of the international community.
Why can’t Russia do the same?
It has no good reason to blame the West for anything. After the end of the Cold War, European countries and the United States made every effort to reassure Russia that they would not take advantage of its sudden weakness. Indeed, as Gati points out, they admitted Russia to the Council of Europe, the G-8 and the World Trade Organization, trying to make it a responsible stakeholder in the international system. The West contributed to Russia’s economic stabilization during the 1990s and helped pay to clean up its nuclear facilities. Western leaders were optimistic that Russia was finally becoming a “normal” country.
Russians now say NATO’s eastward expansion poisoned the post-Cold War relationship from the start but the Atlantic alliance was always designed to protect European countries from Russian aggression. And despite Russian assurances to the contrary, it turns out they still need that protection. Nevertheless, until this year, the Western allies never stationed troops east of where the Iron Curtain had been nor did NATO menace Russia in any way.
Gati believes that if Russians “still feel humiliated, it is because of their leaders’ wish to divert attention from their own corrupt practices and their own incompetence to Western ‘machinations’.”
This is not very convincing. Nor is Gati’s armchair psychology of Vladimir Putin’s behavior particularly helpful.
Russians’ sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the West did not emerge with Putin’s presidency nor even with the end of the Cold War. This has been a defining feature of the Russian psyche for centuries.
Nor is Russia’s insecurity complex or its paranoia about Western designs anything new. This can be explained by Russia’s absence of clear natural borders, repeated invasions of its heartland through the centuries and Russians projecting their own mentality on outsiders.
They would take advantage of a neighbor’s weakness — as the Soviet Union did in Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War and Putin’s Russia did in Georgia and Ukraine — so the West must do the same.
They would hide behind seemingly noble principles like humanitarian intervention and self-determination to get away with toppling unfriendly regimes and annexing the territory of other nations, so that’s what the West must have done in Kosovo and Libya.
It’s hard for many Russians to accept that the West is sincere about promoting democracy in the former Soviet sphere and using military force in the service of liberal rather than Machiavellian principles.
Until they do and recognize that their own mistrustfulness, not foreign plots, is to blame for the position Russia finds itself in today, East-West relations are unlikely to get better.