What Putin’s Apologists Get Wrong

The Russian leader is not the protector of sovereignty his admirers in the West think he is.

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 only itself to blame because it expanded the European Union and NATO right up to Russia’s doorstep after the end of the Cold War.

This website has argued that while that may be how Russia sees it — and therefore it is something Western leaders must take into account — it is an irrational and paranoid view of the world. NATO is never going to attack Russia and the EU is only a threat insomuch as it demonstrates that 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.


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 destiny.

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 the West’s.

Apologists don’t ascribe any agency to Russia’s former satellite states, as though they are 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 Russia’s worldview.

But it is central to the West’s.

Westerners who accept Putin’s argument are betraying their own principles. When he insists that Russia has a right to defend itself as well as 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 pretensions.

Wary of Russia

The former East Bloc states expected as much and that’s why they were so eager to join NATO in the first place.

Whereas Western European countries and the United States were hopeful that democracy could take root in Russia after the fall of communism, the people who had experienced the Soviet Union first-hand were unconvinced.

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

The Atlantic Sentinel has 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 invasions of its heartland; and a propensity to project its own suspicions on outsiders, making it hard for most Russians to take Western leaders at face value when they talk about freedom and democracy.

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 in Vietnam.

The best analogy 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 get revenge. After losing the Second World War, by contrast, West Germany atoned for the horrors it had caused and set out to become a better nation.

Russia could do the same.

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