In his Kremlin speech last week Vladimir Putin revealed the motivations for his aggressive actions in Crimea. Speaking before hundreds of leaders and dignitaries in a nationally televised address, Putin was cheered wildly as he claimed to be restoring Russia’s glory and righting the wrongs of the past.
Putin is clearly using the seizure of Crimea as means of solidifying his domestic political base, diverting attention from his increased authoritarianism and his government’s inability to resolve the country’s underlying economic and social problems.
The speech also reflected the pent-up frustration and resentment he and other Russian nationalists have felt at their perceived humiliation by the West, and the negative consequences of the U.S. policy of isolating rather than partnering with Russia at the end of the Cold War.
Putin railed against U.S. policies of “exclusivity and exceptionalism,” especially the expansion of NATO and the deployment of missile defenses in eastern Europe. “We were cheated,” he exclaimed. Decisions affecting Russian interests were made without Moscow’s input.
Putin’s complaints do not justify what Russia has done in Crimea, but there is no doubt that the United States unnecessarily antagonized Russia and wasted an historic opportunity at the end of the Cold War to build a more cooperative relationship.
The decisive mistake in my view was to expand NATO without gaining Russia’s partnership. In 1997 I helped organize a delegation visit to Europe to evaluate the proposed expansion of NATO. We found concern among researchers in Brussels, support among government leaders in Warsaw, and alarm among legislators in Moscow. I argued at the time that it would be preferable to re-shape the alliance as a cooperative security structure with Russia included, rather than to expand a Cold War alliance of containment. Better to bring Moscow into the fold than to leave her standing in the cold.
The consequences of that fateful blunder are evident in Moscow’s increasingly truculent policies. As The Nation editorialized,“We are reaping the bitter fruit of a deeply flawed post–Cold War settlement that looks more like Versailles than Bretton Woods.”
Evidence again that our security is better served by attempting to reach out to former adversaries than by reinforcing their isolation.