20 years under Putin: a timeline

Today, on July 13, the NATO-Russia Council will hold its third meeting, albeit at an ambassadorial level, since cooperation under its auspices was suspended in April 2014 in response to the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine. Both NATO and Russia continue to have “profound and persistent disagreements,” but in light of intensifying geopolitical tensions in Europe and the Middle East, as well as Russia’s ongoing economic crisis, it’s become clear that a dialogue of some sort is necessary. With international affairs fundamentals changing in real time, a re-examination of the tumultuous relationship between NATO and Russia can help develop a more realistic view of the existing differences, set priorities straight, and pave the way to start bridging the gap.


A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber leads a formation of fighter aircraft including two Polish air force F-16 Fighting Falcons, four U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, two German Eurofighter Typhoons and four Swedish Gripens during NATO's exercise BALTOPS on June 9, 2016 over the Baltic Sea. Photo: Sra Erin Babis / Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire / TASS


Moscow’s Pet Peeve

Moscow was handed a significant geopolitical victory on June 23 when, in a startling upset, British voters chose to leave the European Union. The development came just ahead of NATO’s July summit in Warsaw, where the security alliance hoped to leverage the talks to reinforce its defenses in Poland and the Baltic states, and to salvage what remains of Western unity against Russia in response to the country’s annexation of Crimea. Indeed, during the summit, NATO pledged to station troops in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and each of the Baltic states to deter further Russian aggression in the region. NATO members also formally invited Montenegro to join their ranks, and pledged to raise individual defense expenditures to 2 percent of GDP by 2020. Meanwhile, Moscow reiterated its stance that NATO is focused on a “‘non-existent’ threat from Russia,” adding that the Kremlin “will seek explanations for the alliance’s plans at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on July 13.”

It is unlikely, however, that the meeting will have any lasting effect on Russian-Western relations. Russia and the West have recently engaged in a series of hostile exchanges, most of which have occurred since Russian president Vladimir Putin won his third term in office in March 2012. These skirmishes—rhetorical and otherwise—have prompted a heated debate about NATO’s history, identity, and role in the conflict between Russia and the West.

In 1946, as the Western Allies and the Soviet Union vied for control over post-war Europe, American diplomat George Kennan penned the fabled “long telegram” to the State Department outlining his views on the USSR. In the document, Kennan argued that the Kremlin considered “permanent peaceful coexistence” with the West fundamentally impossible, and that its worldview—born out of a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity”—hinged on the “patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.” Kennan’s telegram, combined with Soviet expansionism and competing Western and Soviet geopolitical objectives[1], contributed to an atmosphere of distrust; it is within this context that NATO was born. As the late NATO secretary-general Lord Ismay famously once said, the alliance aimed “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” 

If a core tenet of NATO’s founding centered on Soviet exclusion, it should come as no surprise that much of Russia’s modern leadership remains, at best, wary of the alliance. Putin served for years as a KGB officer, and it is estimated that upwards of one-third of Putin’s inner circle once worked for the Soviet intelligence service.[2] According to historian Walter Laqueur, they did this work “from a sense of duty—that is to say, patriotism and idealism.”[3] However, there is another view, pushed forward by Russia expert Karen Dawisha, asserting that the Soviet power ministries also operated out of self-interest. From this perspective, the security forces aimed to preserve the status quo—their wealth and power—by controlling the Soviet Union’s domestic and overseas assets, and by maintaining access to foreign capital inflows.[4] Either way, when Putin claimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century[5], it is safe to say that he was not just speaking on his own behalf. From Moscow’s perspective, who else but the West could be responsible for such a tragedy?

That NATO chose to exclude post-Soviet Russia from its ranks has certainly not soothed hurt feelings. Of course, many experts have noted the difficulty of including Russia in a security alliance whose past was rooted in the Cold War, and whose future is vested in the advancement of democracy and Western values. As Lilia Shevtsova argues in the American Interest, “Those who blame the West for failing to integrate Russia should be asked whether an illiberal system can be integrated into the framework of a liberal civilization. And what would have happened to the West if such an attempt had indeed been made? But if such a scenario were actually possible, what should the West have done to make Russia reform itself? We can assume that the ‘integrators’ are talking about the inclusion of authoritarian Russia into the Euro-Atlantic structures—an intriguing experiment, indeed. Are the ‘integrators’ ready to see a collapse of the West?”

In other words, Russian inclusion would have dampened NATO’s effectiveness as a proselytizing force for the West. In the aftermath of the Cold War, consolidating Western gains was deemed more important than tiptoeing around Russia’s bruised ego.

As for NATO’s expansion, historian Mary Sarotte argues that the West never explicitly promised to prevent NATO from spreading to Europe’s eastern bloc. Rather, Sarotte contends, such a deal was briefly hinted at during talks over German reunification, but in the end, “there was never a formal deal, as Russia alleges.” Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has confirmed himself (despite previous claims to the contrary) that such an agreement was never reached.

This is not to say that Russia never expressed concern over NATO’s growth or actions abroad in the post-Cold War era. Political scientist Rajan Menon writes that Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev warned against expansion as early as 1992; president Boris Yeltsin lambasted NATO for bombing Serbia and Kosovo in 1999; and in the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, president Dmitry Medvedev essentially proclaimed neighboring countries off-limits to Western affiliation. But since Putin’s return to power in 2012, Russian hostility toward NATO has risen to a feverish pitch. What explains Moscow’s recent animosity?


Not Just a Difference of Opinion

The answer largely depends on how much importance one places on macroscopic security dynamics versus Russian history and domestic politics. Realist theorist John Mearsheimer has focused on the former, arguing that Russia’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine was the culmination of two decades of Western encroachment into Eastern Europe. With Kiev’s pro-Russian government in tatters, Mearsheimer contends, Russia was faced with the prospect of a NATO member or proxy state materializing at its doorstep. From this perspective, Moscow reacted in a rational and defensive manner, entirely in line with its geopolitical self-interests. After all, wouldn’t the United States be alarmed if Russia were to establish a military presence or hostile proxy government in Mexico?

It’s not just that Putin and the West disagree—it’s that they aren’t even engaged in the same conversation. Putin truly believes that the West always has and will continue to deceive Russia and undermine its place in world politics.

Realists like Mearsheimer raise some pertinent points, but their explanations are often expressed in zero-sum terms, and too easily dismiss the importance of personality in Russian politics and foreign affairs. Although a number of Russian leaders have, in the past, expressed displeasure with NATO and the West, only Vladimir Putin has translated this displeasure into full contempt. It seems hardly a coincidence that his regime’s jingoism, military adventurism, and anti-Western/anti-NATO rhetoric have often coincided with economic and political crises at home.

According to Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, the Putin regime had long based its political legitimacy on economic development and stability, but by 2012, beset by electoral protests and unable to spark “more than at best middling growth,” Putin decided “to shift the base of his regime’s legitimacy away from economic growth and rising incomes and toward patriotic mobilization” and anti-Westernism. For example, when Putin was faced with widespread opposition protests in Moscow in late 2011, he lashed out at then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, claiming that she and the State Department were responsible for the unrest. A few years later, in the months preceding Russia’s March 2014 invasion of Crimea, Putin was once again beset by domestic political problems: his approval ratings had dropped to 61 percent—a nadir not reached since June 2000. Putin’s weakening support base, coupled with the sudden ouster of pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, prompted the Kremlin to seize Crimea. Following the annexation, Putin’s approval ratings quickly skyrocketed to 80 percent, peaking to a crescendo of 89 percent in June 2015. Popularity notwithstanding, however, Russia’s economic troubles persist, and the Putin regime continues to engage in vehemently anti-Western rhetoric.

It’s not just that Putin and the West disagree—it’s that they aren’t even engaged in the same conversation. Putin truly believes that the West always has and will continue to deceive Russia and undermine its place in world politics; consequently, the Russian president sees himself as a “guardian of national sovereignty” against “American-dominated globalization” and “foreign intervention.” In his view, NATO and the West are agents of illegitimate regime change (the color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, and NATO’s 2011 bombing of Libya are often cited as examples). Meanwhile, the West considers Moscow a flouter of the universal rules and norms established after the Cold War; from the Western perspective, NATO is merely a goodwill enforcer of this system.

In addition to the difference in narratives, another issue concerns a difference of priorities: the Putin regime believes national sovereignty and security trump obligations to transnational systems and organizations, whereas the West does not. Thus, when NATO and the West defend their actions with notions of “democracy” and “transatlantic security,” it should be understood that the Kremlin does not accept these values as Russia’s own; on the contrary, it interprets them as existential threats to Moscow’s independence, security, and sphere of influence. Today, the Baltics, each of the former Warsaw Pact states, and several other Eastern European nations boast NATO membership—a development that runs directly counter to Putin’s vision for Russia and the post-Soviet space. It should be no mystery, then, as to why the Kremlin has actively opposed Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Finland, and Sweden joining the Western security alliance: Moscow sees its influence diminishing in its own backyard. The threat Moscow perceives from NATO, therefore, is just as political as it is security-focused, and perhaps even more so. The Putin regime fears that effective, democratic governance in the post-Soviet space could incite a color revolution at home.


What’s Next?

As relations with Moscow continue to deteriorate, the West can no longer afford to misinterpret the nature of its conflict with Russia. The West must recognize that much of its history and identity is founded upon normative values quite different from Moscow’s own; that no amount of cajoling will persuade Putin to see the West as anything but Russia’s eternal enemy; and that as long as Putin heads the Kremlin, Moscow will go to great lengths to assert itself and challenge Western influence in its “near abroad.” This, of course, does not mean that NATO should discontinue its “open door” policy or abandon defenses in Eastern Europe; just as Moscow has the right to determine what it considers a threat, so do the West and the former Soviet-bloc states of Eastern Europe.

Are Russia and the West doomed to an endless, Sisyphean cycle of escalation and retaliation? The answer is no, and that is because even Putin (an autocrat by any reasonable standard) is constrained by public opinion. Despite his regime’s heavy-handed control over the Russian media, electoral arena, and various branches of government, Putin cannot sustain military adventurism abroad in the absence of support at home. Thus, if the West is to curb Russia’s aggression, it must increase the political costs of that aggression[*] via economic and diplomatic means. This could involve strengthening current sanctions, or placing extra pressure on the Assad regime in Syria, potentially forcing Putin to choose between warmongering and domestic political support. In terms of more long-term deterrence, the West might consider bolstering Ukraine’s defenses, fortifying the Baltics, and mandating that NATO members contribute more to defense spending. While Moscow would undoubtedly denounce these actions as provocations, they just might force the Kremlin to think twice about pursuing further adventurism abroad.

Ultimately, though, before any long-term repairs can be made to Russian-Western relations, the two sides must reconcile disparate interpretations of history. After all, if rivals cannot even agree on the cause of an argument, then resolution remains perpetually unattainable. Even though Putin will remain in office for the foreseeable future, the West can still deal with Russia intelligently. Hard power and deterrence are certainly important parts of the equation; but containing Moscow also means, if necessary, forgoing well-trodden narratives for more productive conversation. Only when the lexicon of this conflict changes will Russia and the West truly find something meaningful to talk about.


Daniel Frey is an independent Russia analyst.

[*] The author used similar phrasing previously in a graduate school admissions essay.


Works cited:

[1] Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York, NY: Penguin, 2005.

[2] Laqueur, Walter. Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dawisha, Karen. Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

[5] Lucas, Edward. The New Cold War: Putin’s Threat to Russia and the West. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2014.


Correction: A previous version on this article incorrectly stated that the July 2016 meeting of the NATO-Russia Council was the first since cooperation under its auspices was suspended, while it's actually the third one.