Why Putin sees the US, NATO and Ukraine as a threat

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Why has Russian President Vladimir Putin become so aggressive in his attitude towards the United States, NATO and Ukraine? In this article, I begin by examining the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and how it is still seen in the Kremlin as a great humiliation. Then I turn to NATO enlargement, and how Putin claims to see Ukraine and Russia as “one people” and why he is risking war. I conclude by outlining how Putin sees opportunities in a friendship with China that “has no limits” and in which China opposes “further NATO enlargement” and supports Russia’s proposals to to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe.

I must stress at the outset that in trying to understand Moscow’s hostile position and the way it is currently threatening to use military force against Ukraine, I do not approve of Moscow’s belligerent attitude or the dictatorial role what Putin is playing in what is now a very dangerous situation for peace in Europe and, indeed, in the world.

If we want to try to understand why Russia is behaving in this potentially very dangerous way, we must begin by recalling what happened to the Soviet superpower when it collapsed in 1991 and how this calamity continues to affect current strategic thinking in Moscow. Putin remember the Soviet collapse as a time when gross injustice was done to the Russian people: ‘It was only when Crimea ended up being part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not was not simply stolen, but looted.” The British Ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992, Rodric Braithwaite, observed that the disintegration of the USSR at the end of 1991 was a moment of triumph for the West, but that it brought Russians national humiliation, internal chaos, great poverty and even famine.

Former CIA Director and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently declared that almost everything Putin does at home and abroad these days is rooted in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which marked for him the collapse of the four-century-old Russian empire and Russia’s position as a great power. Gates notes that Putin’s current actions “while deplorable, are understandable.” Since becoming president in 1999, Putin has focused on returning Russia to its historic role as a major power and its historic policy of creating a buffer of subjugated states on its periphery – the foreign close.

Readers wishing to consult the definitive account of the collapse of the USSR are strongly advised to read the authoritative book just published and titled Collapse: the fall of Soviet Union by Vladislav Zubok, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. Braithwaite describes it as a deeply informed account of how the Soviet Union fell apart and how we are once again on the brink of a major armed confrontation between Russia and the West.

Zubok concludes that the speed and ease with which central Soviet structures crumbled baffled even the most seasoned Western observers. He believes that the leadership, character and beliefs of Mikhail Gorbachev were a major factor in the self-destruction of the Soviet Union. His trial-and-error reform policies generated utter chaos that legitimized rampant separatism in the Baltics and ultimately in the main Slavic territories of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

In the summer of 1991, the expectation of a new Marshall Plan among Soviet elites became almost universal. But many in Washington wanted to break up the Soviet Union for security reasons. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady informed President George HW Bush that America’s strategic priority was to see the Soviets become “a third-rate power, which we want.” During the 1990s, Zubok claims that 70–80% of Russians lived in poverty with the disappearance of the old Soviet social safety net and with rampant crime and mafia rule in most cities and regions.

With regard to the prospect of the incorporation of a democratizing Russia into a wider Europe and into NATO, the opinion was that the post-Soviet geopolitical space was too vast and unpredictable for integration into the western orbit. NATO enlargement happened quickly, as the newly independent Baltic countries and Poland wanted to be safe from the Russian military threat. Boris Yeltsin wanted Russia to join NATO, but the new US administration under Bill Clinton chose to offer Russia only a “partnership” with the alliance because the general view in Washington was that Russia was simply too large to fully belong to NATO.

Yeltsin warned that NATO enlargement could lead to a new division in Europe. US Secretary of State James Baker reassured Gorbachev that NATO “would not move an inch east from its current position” once it had safely taken a reunited Germany. These words have never been recorded in any mutually agreed formula.

Nor was the issue of Crimea raised when the leaders of what became the new countries called the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus, met in secret at the Viskuli hunting lodge, near Minsk, December 7, 1991. It was there that they agreed on the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. According to Zubok’s book, before Yeltsin left Moscow, his adviser, Galina Starovoitova, suggested that he offer the Ukrainian leadership an option of negotiated changes to Ukraine’s borders after a three- to five-year moratorium. She was preoccupied with Crimea.

This option would have helped to appease Russian public opinion and left open the possibility of settling the territorial question in accordance with international law. Yeltsin, however, did not raise this issue in the Viskuli negotiations. The later attitude of his Secretary of State, Gennady Burbulis, was that all of this could be resolved by skillful diplomacy. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Turning now to the question of NATO, Braithwaite’s opinion is that, under relentless pressure from the United States, NATO’s borders advanced until they were “within reach of the Russia and Ukraine”. This is how it is seen in Moscow, but it is ridiculous in my opinion to suggest that the current NATO members, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, pose a realistic military threat to a a country as powerful as today’s Russia.

Putin, of course, takes a totally different view. He believes the Americans conspired to break up his country and encourage the creation of a separate country called Ukraine. We are now in a situation where the animosity between Moscow and Washington over the future of NATO and the existence of an independent Ukraine has become central to the future of peace in Europe. As Gates observes, Putin’s embrace of Russia’s strategy of securing the near abroad can be seen in his actions in Belarus, Moldova, Transnistria, Georgia, the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, in Kazakhstan and now, more dramatically, in Ukraine.

Putin sees Ukraine as a critical security risk to Moscow – a dagger pointed at Russia’s Slavic heartland. Gates thinks Putin has overdone his hand on Ukraine because he finds himself in a situation where Russian success is defined either as a change of government in Kyiv – with the successor regime bowing the knee to Moscow – or as conquest country Russian. Resolving this grave threat peacefully will be a huge challenge to the resolve and unity of the Western alliance. Already, Germany is emerging as a key weak link due to its dependence on Russia for half of its natural gas supplies.

Putin proclaims that Ukraine’s NATO membership is a ‘red line’ issue for Moscow and that he wants written guarantees from the US that Ukraine’s NATO membership will never be allowed. In July 2021, he reportedly wrote a 7,000-word article titled ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians‘. He affirms that the Russians and the Ukrainians form a single people, “a single whole”. He argues that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era. We know and remember well that it was shaped – for a large part – on the lands of historic Russia. He goes on to say that the United States and EU countries have systematically pushed Ukraine into “a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at making Ukraine a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia. “.

Putin claims that what he calls “the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia” is “comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us”. He concludes ominously: “And we will never allow our historical territories and our relatives who live there to be used against Russia. And to those who undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that they will thus destroy their own country. So, in fact, there is Putin’s declaration of war if the United States and NATO do not ban Ukraine’s NATO membership forever.

But there is another potentially dangerous international complication. As I have argued in ASPI publications for the past two years or more, Russia and China are looking more and more like a de facto alliance. Last week Putin visited China and met with President Xi Jinping and Putin. In a joint statement, the two leaders agreed that the friendship between their countries “has no limits; there are no “prohibited” areas of cooperation.

The two sides specifically agreed to “oppose further NATO enlargement”, and the Chinese side proclaimed that it “supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees”. term in Europe”. It is China’s most explicit support yet for Moscow’s confrontation with the West over NATO membership.

The joint statement of this meeting between the leaders of the world’s two major authoritarian powers expressed “serious concerns” about AUKUS and “strongly condemns” the “decision to enter into cooperation in the field of nuclear-powered submarines “. The declaration marks an increasingly serious joint confrontation with the West. What we are seeing now is Beijing’s encouragement of Moscow’s hostility to the United States over NATO membership.

Xi will now take a close look at Washington’s reaction to Moscow’s military threats against Ukraine and the implications of Beijing’s military intimidation of Taiwan.


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