Friday, February 8, 2008
It's not always Russia's fault
Here it is - that one one big issue on which I wholeheartedly agree with Vladimir Putin: there is a New Cold War, it didn't have to happen, and Russia didn't start it.
There. I said it.
Russia and the West are strategic adversaries again because:
1) During the 1990s, the West treated Russia as a weakling (it was) whose interests it didn't need to pay attention to.
2) Since 2000, the West has treated Russia like a hostile entity. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The second point is the one the New Cold Warriors in Washington and Brussels are most likely to take issue with. But the common Western narrative - that Putin is KGB to the soul and was always going to be hell-bent on avenging the collapse of the USSR - overlooks Putin's initial moves to befriend the West after taking office, particularly his overt willingness to help after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
True, he was motivated by his own interests - getting the West to see his dirty war in Chechnya as part of a wider "war on terror" - but the steps he took were genuine. By easing the way for the U.S. to establish airbases in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, he greenlighted the first-ever NATO military presence in an area that had been Russia's zone of influence since the time of the Tsars. Russia also offered to share its intelligence and advice on Afghanistan, something that perhaps should have been of more interest to the U.S. and its allies, since we now find ourselves just as bogged down there as the Red Army was in the 1980s.
What did Russia get in return? American troops in Georgia. The eastward expansion of NATO all the way into the Baltic states, with talk of Ukraine being eventually added as well. The planned missile defense shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic.
None of these moves is necessarily threatening until you combine them with the West's refusal to talk seriously about including Russia in NATO, or the White House's stubborn refusal to contemplate a missile shield based in Azerbaijan (the country closest to the alleged Iranian threat) instead of Eastern Europe.
"It's not our fault, we didn't start … funnelling multi-billions of dollars into developing weapons systems," Putin said today in announcing that Russia would join what he defined as "a new arms race."
He went on: "We drew down our bases in Cuba and in Vietnam. What did we get? New American bases in Romania, Bulgaria. A new third missile defence region in Poland." That's not just how the Kremlin and its ultranationalist friends view it - that's how most Russians see things.
It's worth noting that as Putin gave his speech, NATO was meeting in Vilnius, the capital of ex-Soviet Lithuania. If NATO is not an anti-Russian alliance, why does it expand up to the Russian border without inviting Moscow to join? If the missile shield is not directed against Russia, why not base it in Azerbaijan?
The West - after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism - laughed at its defeated adversary and ignored its concerns. Now that Russia is resurgent and has the funds to rejoin the fight, that arrogance comes home to roost. We treated it as an enemy until it became one.
It didn't have to be this way.