Trust deficit: The roots of Russia’s standoff with the West

By Fred Weir for The Christian Science Monitor:

It was Dec. 25, 1991, when the USSR abruptly ceased to exist.

Just before midnight, the Soviet red hammer-and-sickle banner was pulled down from the Kremlin for the last time, and up fluttered an unfamiliar white-blue-red tricolor that proclaimed the birth – or rebirth – of Russia.

It was truly an inflection point. The Soviet Union, the communist behemoth that had defined one pole of a binary world order for decades, had simply evaporated. It had already abandoned its Eastern European empire and dissolved its military alliance. Now its rivalry with the United States, complete with a hostile anti-capitalist ideology, a costly nuclear arms race, and multiple proxy wars around the world, was gone.

Commentators hailed this not merely as an end to a divided world with its permanent threat of nuclear war, but as a chance to create an inclusive, ideology-free order that might improve the lot of all humankind.

It was a world that seemed within reach thanks to the discovery, as the walls crumbled and the Cold War stereotypes receded, that most Russians were surprisingly, enthusiastically pro-Western. Vladimir Pozner, an American-Russian who grew up in New York, then spent 30 years working in the bowels of the Soviet propaganda machine before becoming a TV personality in both the U.S. and Russia, recalls it as the most exhilarating moment of his life.

“There was this emotional upsurge in the country. People felt like they were coming out of a cocoon after a very long time,” he says. “Many of us thought, finally, we are going to become part of the world – as we always really wanted to be – be accepted, be participants. It was a really enthralling vision.”

Things have, conspicuously, not turned out that way. Tracking polls that showed Russians overwhelmingly pro-American in the 1990s now show majorities of Russians suspicious of the U.S. Even though today’s Russia is a capitalist country, without an empire or an antagonistic ideology, American attitudes toward Russia have turned as negative as they ever were toward the old USSR.

It’s difficult to hold a conversation with any Russian foreign policy specialist today without getting dragged into polemics: angry accusations, defensive responses, and the underlying assumption that the other side must change its behavior before a more constructive global order becomes feasible.

But most agree that, in a world facing common challenges like climate change, the persisting danger of nuclear conflict, and a relentless coronavirus pandemic, the replay of the Cold War is a serious obstacle to international efforts to stave off global disaster. Some even offer a few practical ideas for how Russia and the West might at least formulate some new priorities to minimize confrontation and maximize cooperation.

“I do believe that most of the issues between us can be solved, not by one vanquishing the other, but by finding new terms of mutual acceptance,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament. “My dream is, maybe during my lifetime, that we will see normal politicians on both sides sit down together with a readiness to formulate pragmatic answers to the questions that vex our relationship.”

A Russia ignored

From the Russian perspective, the evolution of disillusionment with the West was a natural progression.

Alexei Gromyko, as director of the official Institute of Europe, often serves in an advisory role to today’s Russian leaders. On an overcast afternoon in mid-March, the institute, an ornate 19th-century building near the Kremlin, was empty amid the beginnings of Russia’s coronavirus shutdown. But Mr. Gromyko was in his office, willing to talk about how he sees East-West relations.

In his view, today’s inflamed geopolitical crisis was rooted in the post-Cold War failure to create a security system, primarily in Europe, that would fully include Russia. Western leaders gave Mikhail Gorbachev strong verbal assurances NATO would not be expanded into the former Soviet sphere but, as Mr. Gromyko ruefully notes, Mr. Gorbachev failed to get that in writing. Following the USSR’s demise, U.S. President Bill Clinton took office and adopted other plans. That lesson was not lost on the Russians.

“After the collapse of one pillar of the former bipolar world order, it became fashionable in the West to think that the world order could become unipolar, with the U.S. at the helm,” he says. “In the 1990s, Russia descended into its worst crisis since 1917. It not only ceased to be a superpower, it suffered political, economic, and social collapse as well. It was not even clear that Russia would survive physically. So, perhaps believing that Russian interests and views didn’t matter anymore, Clinton made the decision to enlarge NATO to the east.”

“But just because Russia couldn’t do anything about it at the time doesn’t mean that we accepted it. We never did. Since then the process of NATO expansion has been unstoppable, and so has the subsequent chain of events.”

The Western alliance has since taken in all of the former Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact allies, as well as the three former Soviet Baltic republics. Mr. Gromyko says the Russians signaled repeatedly to Western counterparts that inducting Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance would be a red line. At its 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO shelved those countries’ applications, but issued a statement insisting they would eventually join.

A few months later Georgia attacked the Russian-backed statelet of South Ossetia, which belongs to Georgia but had de facto independence since the early ’90s. Russia staged a military intervention and drove Georgian forces back.

In early 2014, after a disorderly change of power in Kyiv brought pro-Western nationalists to power, Russia again intervened, seizing the Crimean Peninsula – where the main base for Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet is located – and orchestrating a referendum in which Crimeans voted to join Russia. Moscow subsequently stirred up, armed, and gave military support to anti-Kyiv separatists in Ukraine’s east.

Mr. Gromyko insists Russia has nothing to apologize for. The idea of Ukraine joining NATO is as unthinkable for Moscow as, say, Mexico joining a Chinese-led military alliance would be for Washington, he suggests.

“It’s not that we view NATO as an existential threat right now,” he says. “But Russia cannot accept that a country next door would be a member of a military alliance that is hostile to Russia,” he says. “We are not opposed to Ukraine being democratic. It’s fine with us if a neighbor has a different political and social system. But not a member of an adversarial bloc. Security is the central issue.”

He says that, at least in Europe, people have concluded that NATO expansion has reached its natural limit. If that can be formalized, he suggests, it might ease the standoff over Ukraine and lead to wider negotiations for a more stable security order in Europe.

But he is not optimistic about relations with the U.S. Only one of the Cold War-era networks of nuclear arms-control agreements remains in force, and it will soon expire. And the U.S. keeps ramping up sanctions.

“Even if we have a breakthrough on Ukraine tomorrow, we are quite sure that U.S. sanctions will not be lifted,” Mr. Gromyko says. “Sanctions have taken on a life of their own, and new ones have no direct connection with the situation between Ukraine and Russia.”

Sanctions have also hastened Russia’s drift into China’s strategic and economic embrace. But the pivot wasn’t just about the Kremlin’s desire to show the West it has alternatives, say Russian experts. “The process of strengthening ties with China has been going on since 1989,” says Mr. Klimov. “That ship sailed well before the current crisis.”

Watching the Western example

The public’s view of Russia’s standoff with the West is not well covered, and the story gets told in the voices of political leaders. But Russian experts note that Russians’ disenchantment with their system played a role in the USSR’s collapse, while the widespread perception of the West as a superior civilization conditioned the pro-American orientation of Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet government.

Yevgeny Bazhanov, now retired, was a longtime professor and for some years the rector of the Diplomatic Academy, which trains Russian diplomats. He recalls watching students over the years morph from admirers of the West into hardened critics. That tendency was informed by the examples they perceived the U.S. setting, he says.

“You can blame Putin, or some kind of Russian stubbornness, but that wasn’t the main thing,” he says. “In the early ’90s we wanted to be a prosperous, democratic country, and the West was the model for our development. But reforms enacted on Western advice produced economic disaster and mass misery. People started to believe that the West didn’t want Russia to succeed. It looked like the U.S. wanted Russia to become a junior partner, like Germany or the U.K. But most Russians wanted to follow an independent policy, to be friends and partners with the West, but to be ourselves.”

He says several events led many Russians to question not only the idea of U.S. leadership, but competence. The 1999 war over Kosovo illustrated to them that NATO was not simply a defensive alliance. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and subsequent Middle East misadventures, created the impression the U.S. was an aggressor, and one that didn’t seem to know what it was doing. The 2008 financial crash tarnished the U.S. economic model.

“When you wonder why Putin often opposes the West, and Russians tend to support him, you need to see that side of it,” says Mr. Bazhanov.

“Citizen diplomacy” might be the best antidote to the war of words, says Mr. Pozner. He may be uniquely qualified in that respect. For the past three years he has given lectures at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, in Monterey, California, addressing mainly Russia-studies students, but also holding events with wider audiences. He travels Russia to give public talks, and hosts one of the most popular public affairs shows on state TV.

“Sometimes Americans ask me, how can you live with your government when it does things like poisoning the Skripals, or interfering in our elections? I answer that, like most Russians, I have no idea what Russian secret services are doing, but I am dubious about these accusations,” Mr. Pozner says. “In Russia, people are long accustomed to our authorities blaming the ‘foreign hand’ when things go wrong. It’s convenient because it displaces blame and tars critics with enemy associations. I’m sorry, I just don’t believe that anything Russia did could have swayed an American election. It’s a bit depressing to hear Americans talking like this, as if they were in the Soviet Union, and uncritically believing something their secret services tell them.”

During the 1980s Mr. Pozner took part in “Space Bridge” programs that brought ordinary Americans together with Soviets over a satellite link, and let them converse.

“The whole Cold War mood simply evaporated as they started comparing their lives, their hopes, talking about their families, even emptying their handbags to show each other what kind of stuff they had. The real Cold War disappeared shortly thereafter. I am convinced that if you get people together to dialogue, they may not become friends but they will find terms of coexistence,” he says.

The “trust deficit”

It’s hard to guess at the future. Most Russian experts agree the coronavirus pandemic is an urgent global wake-up call, and fostering international cooperation an existential issue.

But before Russia and the West can establish areas of cooperation, it is probably necessary to address the gaping “trust deficit,” or the urge to see everything the other side does through a dark prism. An example is Russia’s efforts to provide coronavirus assistance to Italy, and the U.S., during the pandemic’s worst days. What might have been greeted as a good deed – albeit with the ulterior motives that usually apply with aid – was almost universally treated in Western media as a propaganda ploy and an attempt to disrupt European unity.

“During the old Cold War, the West was genuinely united and self-confident. They not only claimed to be right, they were fully convinced of it,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Today, many Western countries face deep internal discord and uncertainty. There are serious strains within the alliance.

“I believe this urge to disproportionately blame Russia comes from that new place of insecurity and lack of confidence. I doubt there is much we can do to change this atmosphere of acrimony and recrimination until they start to fix their own problems. Amid this crisis we all need to work on that, and Russia too will need to change itself to survive. Maybe after we come through this we can find modes of dialogue.”