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Russia Needs to Stop Feeling Sorry for Itself

Russians’ self-pity and mistrust is poisoning their relations with other countries.

Russians frequently complain of their humiliation at the hands of the West. Russian apologists can point out all the mistakes the West made after the Soviet Union collapsed. But few of these laments are justified and none excuse Russia’s 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 and annexation of Crimea.

At the heart of the “Russia problem” is a toxic combination of self-pity and mistrust that is unlikely to change. But it’s not set in stone either.

Others have done it

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. Despite being overrun by the Nazis in World War II and losing nearly all its colonies in the two decades that followed, French self-confidence never collapsed. 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.

The best analogy is Germany. After its defeat in the First World War, it followed much the same path as Russia did after 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 to blame for the suffering it had endured, 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?

The post-Cold War betrayal that wasn’t

It has no good reason to blame the West for anything. After the Cold War, European nations and the United States made every effort to reassure Russia that they wouldn’t take advantage of its sudden weakness.

Gati points out they took Russia into 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 sites. Western leaders were optimistic that Russia was becoming a “normal” country.

Russians now say NATO’s eastward expansion poisoned the post-Cold War relationship, but the Atlantic alliance is designed to protect Europe from Russian aggression, not Russia from Western aggression. Russian assurances to the contrary, it has turned out Europe still needs that protection.

Until this year, Western allies never stationed troops east of the former Iron Curtain for fear of provoking Russia. Russia was provoked anyway.

Russian psyche

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’.”

That is less convincing. Russians’ sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the West didn’t start when Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 or even when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. It has been a defining feature of the Russian psyche for centuries.

Nor is Russia’s insecurity complex or its paranoia about Western designs recent. This can be explained by Russia’s absence of natural borders, repeated invasions of its heartland and Russians projecting their own imperialist mindset 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 as 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 difficult for Russians to believe that Western powers may be sincere about promoting democracy in the former Soviet space. But until they do, and recognize that their own mistrustfulness, not foreign conspiracy, is to blame for the position Russia finds itself in, East-West relations are unlikely to improve.