The Ukraine crisis feels like déjà vu all over again. Russian troops poised to invade a neighboring country. American threats of unprecedented economic sanctions. Russian demands that NATO never expand eastward. American troops on high alert. Russian threats to place nuclear weapons near America’s coastline. Thirty years after the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia and the West are engaged in a second cold-war.
What is Putin thinking? What will he do? An aura of inscrutability surrounds him in the West. No one can predict his next move. Upon closer inspection, the mystique dissipates like mist. He is an authoritarian nationalist leader of a humiliated country. He aims to restore Russia to its rightful place on the world stage as a military and political force to be reckoned with. There is nothing mysterious about Putin’s aim: to make Russia great again by restoring its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
The sources of national humiliation are several. Its military adventure in Afghanistan ended in dismal failure. Zbigniew Brzezinski crowed the US would turn Afghanistan into a Russian Vietnam. Thwarted by Mujahadeen guerillas, engulfed in an interminable military quagmire, the Russian military suffered an ignominious defeat and the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul was removed.
With the stroke of a pen, Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991. Its de facto empire, ranging from the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe to its satellite republics in Central Asia, suddenly and unceremoniously vanished. Some years later, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed Warsaw Pact nations were free to pursue NATO membership. Putin referred to the demise of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20thCentury. His personal experience as a KGB agent working in East Germany awaiting orders that never came from Moscow was personally devastating.
But there is another enduring source of humiliation sustained by Russia. And this rarely gets mentioned. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping pronounced the Chinese would become capitalist roaders. Hamstrung by Maoist policies, China remained a poor economic backwater. Deng envisioned a radical departure.
During the last forty-five years, the Chinese engineered the most breathtaking industrial transformation in human history. It became an economic and financial superpower and the world’s largest exporter. Meanwhile, Russia’s economy remained dependent on extracting its vast natural resources like oil and gas and the production of metals, like steel and aluminum. Being eclipsed by their erstwhile Communist comrades represents an enduring national humiliation for Russian leaders.
While 2022 reprises the political tensions of 1962, we should recall another pivotal year. In 1992, Boris Yeltsin came to Washington to address a joint session of Congress. He extended a hand of friendship, proclaiming an end to enmity between Russia and the United States. Politicians from both parties applauded vigorously and leapt to their feet chanting his name. It is astonishing to recall that moment almost thirty years later.
Equally remarkable is the fact that shortly after being appointed Yeltsin’s successor, Putin consulted Madeleine Albright in 2000 about Russia joining NATO, but was flatly rebuffed. For almost twenty years, from 1991 to 2008, the West was afforded an extraordinary opportunity to bring Russia into the European community. Vanquished in the Cold War, the post -Soviet leadership, first Yeltsin then Putin, wanted to join the winning side. While Western leaders would not allow their ex-communist adversary to join NATO or the EU, a Marshall Plan for Russia in the 1990’s or 2000’s might have done wonders to cement ties between Russia and the West. Unfortunately, that opportunity was not recognized and seized.
Putin once said Russia’s mistake was trusting the West. He added the West’s mistake was trying to take advantage of that trust. There is truth in Putin’s observation. Russia was not going to become a Western style liberal democracy, a new-fangled version of the UK or France, no matter what the circumstances. But a program of economic liberalization and market reform introduced gradually in the immediate post-Soviet era, not a doctrinaire program of shock and awe, involving fiscal austerity and a significant decline in living standards, could have generated an economic engine for political liberalization. Of course, we will never know what that may have accomplished.
Currently, the West is reaping the bitter harvest of that missed opportunity. Putin fears, as all Soviet leaders did, that Russia will be surrounded by hostile forces. But here too Putin has a point. Imagine a regime change in Mexico or Canada that resulted in a military alliance with Russia. Any American president would invoke the Monroe Doctrine to overcome the threat, as Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis.
So what does Putin want? He wants to restore Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and diminish NATO’s presence on his doorstep. Think of it as Putin’s equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine. But we should not assume Putin wants to invade Ukraine. Consider the consequences to Russia if he did. Installing a puppet regime in Kyiv would subject Russian occupiers to a tenacious armed resistance. Sustained violent opposition to Russian occupation broadcast to the world would probably embolden political dissidents in other countries like Belarus or Kazakhstan, to renew calls for regime change, generating a potential Eastern European/Central Asian “Arab Spring”. Ukrainian resistance to Putin’s invasion could even fuel resurgent opposition at home and threaten his grip on power. Moreover, the financial toll of an invasion would likely be enormous and unpopular with Russian citizens, even if they construe Ukraine to be a legitimate part of Russia.
We can be sure Putin has considered all this extensively. Perhaps the troops at Ukraine’s border are designed to announce to the world that Russia is, once again, a significant political and military force. If nothing else, Putin has conveyed how its national interests must be considered and respected by Europe and the US.
Mindful of Russia’s enduring national humiliation and the threat posed by NATO expansion to its border, the West should consider imposing a moratorium of, say, 25 years, on any NATO expansion, while asserting the West would respond swiftly and severely to any threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Moreover, the West should propose ways to help Russia become more competitive in the global marketplace, perhaps establishing mutually beneficial trade agreements. If Putin can extract these important concessions, Russian citizens would applaud his show of strength. And the West would avert a military conflict in Ukraine. Finally, the West should view the current crisis as a valuable opportunity to engineer a rapprochement between Russia and the West including a new round of arms control negotiations. This would alleviate a potent source of Russia’s national humiliation and reduce geopolitical tensions in Europe.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano