What Putin’s Apologists Get Wrong

The Russian leader is not the protector of sovereignty his Western admirers imagine him to be.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoigu, observe military exercises in Anapa on the Black Sea, March 29, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoigu, observe military exercises in Anapa on the Black Sea, March 29, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Apologists for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his aggression in Eastern Europe typically argue that the West has itself to blame because it expanded the European Union and NATO right up to Russia’s doorstep after the end of the Cold War.

During the Crimea crisis, I argued here that although Russia may see it that way — and therefore it is something Western leaders must be conscious of — it nevertheless betrays an irrational and paranoid view of the world. NATO is never going to attack Russia. The EU is only a threat insomuch as it demonstrates there can be genuine cooperation and friendship between nations.

Sadly, this paranoia is real and many, if not most, Russians have yet to come to terms with their loss of empire, evidenced in their continued admiration for tyrannical leaders from the past and willingness to believe that whatever ails their country is the result of foreign plots.

Westerners should know better.

Pawns

Authors at the right-wing Heritage Foundation point out that the apologists’ argument assumes that Russia has a right to exercise a control over its neighbors and that those neighbors have no corresponding right to determine their own fate.

This is misguided. NATO did not just expand eastward; the nations there, which had lived under Moscow’s yoke for decades, wanted to join the alliance. It was as much their choice as it was the West’s.

Apologists don’t give Russia’s former satellite states any agency, as though they are mere pawns in a game between East and West.

Such a lack of respect for the independence and self-determination of peoples is unfortunately typical of the Russian worldview.

But it is the opposite of what the West stands for.

Westerners who accept Putin’s argument are betraying their own principles. When he insists that Russia has a right to defend itself and its “co-patriots” in neighboring former Soviet states, it always seems to come at the expense of other nations.

His is not a consistent defense of Westphalian sovereignty and the rights of nations; it is self-serving rhetoric, designed to explain away Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions.

Wary of Russia

The former East Bloc states expected as much when the Soviet Union collapsed and it is why they were so eager to join NATO in the first place.

Whereas Western Europeans and the United States were hopeful that democracy could take root in Russia after the fall of communism, the people who had experienced it first-hand were skeptical.

The hawks at Heritage sympathize. “If Russia was bound to swing toward autocracy regardless of the West’s actions, then the West — having won the Cold War — was wise to take chips off the table while it could,” they argue.

In other words, it was wise to lock in its gains in Eastern Europe before Russia’s belief in its imperial destiny revived.

If, on the other hand, a transition to democracy was genuinely possible in the 1990s, that would surely have entailed a recognition that Russia’s neighbors were not imperial possessions and a corresponding recognition that their membership in NATO posed no threat.

In short, no matter what view one takes of the question of NATO enlargement, the problem ultimately comes back to Russia’s view of its own national identity and role in the world.

Russia must change

I have argued that the root of the “Russia problem” is a toxic combination of self-pity and mistrust that is the product of centuries of Russian history: a sense of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis the West that was borne out of the Renaissance, which Russia largely missed out on; repeated European and Inner Asian incursions into its heartland; and a propensity to project its own suspicions on outsiders, making it hard for Russians to take Western declarations of freedom and democracy at face value.

This is not impossible to change. Twentieth-century France was twice invaded by Germany, once defeated and lost its colonial empire thereafter, yet it regained its self-confidence. So did the United States after losing the war in Vietnam.

The best example is Germany. It behaved much the same way after losing the First World War as Russia did after losing the Cold War: it avoided self-reflection, bought into conspiracy theories and determined to exact revenge. After losing a second world war, however, it atoned for its crimes and became a better nation.

Why can’t Russia do the same?

Those in the West who care about the country should not confirm Russia’s prejudices. They should encourage it to do better.

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