WASHINGTON (AP) — The stumbles, blunders, and policy chaos that have sent increasingly frosty U.S.-Russia relations into what many now call a new Cold War might have been inevitable.
The fundamental hopes and fears lurk, sometimes subconsciously, in the collective minds of the Russian and American nations despite the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly a quarter century ago. That puts their world views at odds and on a collision course, with the crisis over Ukraine the latest and biggest confrontation.
That dismal relationship more often than not can be linked to the eastward expansion of the NATO alliance and Moscow’s refusal to believe America’s promises that it does not threaten Russia. There’s also Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seething anger over his country’s loss of superpower status.
Back in friendlier days, after agreement on the NATO-Russia Found Act in 1997, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she saw the trouble brewing.
Albright, writing in Foreign Policy about the late former Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, recalled her friend as a flexible realist, but she also cited differences already evident soon after the NATO-Russia deal was signed.
“From the first time we sat at the same table at a NATO meeting, it became clear that no matter what was signed, we would see that key agreement differently,” Albright wrote.
The Russians were understandably concerned about NATO. The U.S.-led Western alliance was created in 1949 to blunt feared Soviet expansionism in Europe. Russia, its Soviet empire vanished, feared that Washington would push alliance boundaries right to the Russian border. The Kremlin, rightly, put no faith in what it claims were Washington assurances to the contrary. Russia is now virtually surrounded on its western and southern borders by NATO member nations.
“The Russian sense of having been played falsely, not just once, not just twice, but on a number of occasions. is fairly deep,” said Wayne Merry of the American Foreign Policy Council and a former U.S. diplomat in Moscow.
During and after World War II, Soviet troops occupied countries of Eastern and Central Europe and made them Soviet republics or Soviet dominated satellites in the Warsaw Pact. Despite Josef Stalin’s accumulation of empire, he was acting out of the centuries-old Russian fear of invasion. The countries of the Warsaw pact and those incorporated into the Soviet Union were designed as a buffer against a repeat of being over-run. Germany already had done it twice in the 20th century.
Those countries, newly independent once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, obviously were looking for protection from a repeat of their own history and eventually scrambled for NATO membership. The enticement? The promise that every alliance member would come to the aid of any other member that was attacked.
But that was deeply unsettling to a Russia that had seen its Soviet empire vanish, and increasingly to Putin after he took over the Russian leadership from Boris Yeltsin in 2000.
After pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee the country after relentless street protests, Putin responded by annexing Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula, where the population is largely Russian. The Kremlin also fomented, the United States and its Western allies assert joined, an armed uprising by the largely Russian population in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to break away from Kiev. The region is Ukraine’s industrial heartland and the crisis has badly hurt the country’s terrible economy.
The United States and the Europeans hit Moscow with punishing economic and travel sanctions in response, and, so far, fighting between Ukrainian forces and rebel forces continues to simmer despite two cease-fire agreements. NATO is stationing heavy armor in the Baltic states and has send hundreds of military trainers to Ukraine. To this point, Washington has dispatched no arms for the Ukrainian army.
Putin has shown no sign of backing down. He has repeatedly said the United States was trying to subjugate Russia, blamed the West for the overthrow of Yanukovych and accused Washington of stoking protests against him, Putin, in the winter of 2011-12.
“I don’t think the United States ever fully appreciated how deeply the Russians believe the color revolutions were instigated by the United States,” said Jessica Matthews, distinguished fellow and former president of the Carnegie Endowment.
She was referring to the Rose Revolution in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, uprisings that respectively ousted former Soviet Foreign Minister and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and the pro-Russian Yanukovych for a first time in Ukraine. The Kremlin likewise saw America’s hand in Yanukovych’s second ouster.
While Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, Crimea and a 2008 war with Georgia has earned the Kremlin Western outrage, Putin’s motives are built of a deep Russian suspicion of the world around it. And Putin, like his Soviet forebears, is using his anti-Western propaganda to distract his people from the increasing breakdown of the social contract.
Still, Putin called Obama at the end of June for the first time in four months. The White House said they discussed the Iran nuclear negotiations, the civil war in Syria and efforts to counter Islamic State. Moscow has been helpful in U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations.
And Matthews said there needs to be much more communication between Washington and Moscow.
“I think what could turn it around is clarity about NATO’s intentions about Ukraine,” Matthews said, “and I think those can only be delivered in person, and personally and quietly.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Steven R. Hurst reported from Moscow for 12 years and is the international political reporter for The Associated Press.