Russia has had a rough year: it lost to Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest; some of its athletes were banned from competing in the Rio Olympics; and the European Union (EU) decided to renew its sanctions against Russia. Many Russians think these events are Western conspiracies designed to keep Russia down. What does this tell us about how Russia sees the West? After all, whether the Russian view is right or not, this perspective shapes Russian foreign policy. Thus, the West must make an effort to understand the Russian point of view in order to better anticipate Russian actions and make the West more secure.
Russia views the West as an aggressor to be defended against. This perception has deep historic roots dating back to the Napoleonic invasion, German Imperial and Nazi invasions, and the Iron Curtain and proxy wars of the Cold War. The 1990s offered a brief reprieve in Russian-Western relations, but the general theme has remained the same: Russia feels threatened by the West.
The Ukraine Crisis is the most recent manifestation of that fact. The removal in 2014 of the democratically elected Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, who favored closer ties with Russia over the EU, was deemed by Moscow to have been orchestrated by the West. While this perception may exaggerate reality, it is not entirely unfounded. In December 2013, Senator John McCain spoke to Euromaidan protesters while standing next to Ukrainian boxer Vitali Klitschko, who had lived in Germany for years and became one of the leading figures in Ukraine's pro-European movement. Yanukovich's fall from power only cemented Russia's view of the West's self-serving rhetoric on democracy and universal values – as a values-based imperialism used by the West when politically convenient and easily forgotten when not. The removal of Yanukovich was perceived as a political move that revealed Western hypocrisy and delegitimized rhetoric on Western values. When the United States, the EU, and several other Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia in 2015, popular perceptions of the West in Russia sank to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, with 81% and 71% of Russians holding a negative of opinion of the United States and Europe, respectively.
The Ukraine Crisis is only the tip of the iceberg. Preceding the crisis were two and a half decades of assertive Western actions. Despite slightly reducing its nuclear arsenal, the United States has clearly maintained military superiority in the post-Cold War period. U.S. military capabilities by now not only far exceed those of Russia, but with over 800 U.S. foreign military bases, the United States also has much greater global reach. As if this were not enough, the Clinton administration pursued eastward NATO expansion in the 1990s. While the Western European countries initially supported this move – Germany was glad to welcome Polish and Czech buffer zones into the alliance – a split in opinions emerged toward the end of George W. Bush's presidency when NATO began looking to Georgia and Ukraine. Russia grew increasingly concerned with NATO's eastward expansion and made it very clear that the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in the alliance would be considered an intolerable disturbance to the region's "strategic stability." Germany and France opposed such an expansion in 2008 to avoid provoking Moscow into aggressive action in Georgia or Ukraine, demonstrating prudent foreign policy based on an understanding of the Russia perspective. However, the Bush administration was undeterred and (without allied support) proposed NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Only a month later, Russia invaded Georgia to support the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – a clear sign of Russia's belief that Georgia belongs in its backyard, rather than that of NATO. Given Russia's invasion of Georgia in response to NATO expansion, its invasion of Crimea in 2014 should have been all the more predictable; this makes NATO`s failure to anticipate the Ukraine Crisis all the more tragic.
Still, NATO seemed insatiable in its desire to expand its influence, even looking to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, countries that are historically Russian satellites and far outside NATO's traditional reach. Reflecting on these developments over the years, rumors abound in Russia that NATO supported Euromaidan with the goal of building a naval base in Crimea. Such a base would not only be dangerously close to Russian territory, but it would also block the Russian fleet's access to the Mediterranean. This perceived threat led Russia to intervene in Crimea to protect its national security – a move that could have been predicted. But the Western failure to anticipate this perceived threat to Russia has now forced NATO to defend its Eastern border by increasing its troop presence in the Baltic countries.
NATO was not the only Western organization to expand into the former Soviet bloc. After the end of the Cold War, the EU was quick to build close relations with and ultimately grant membership to several Eastern European countries. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, and Romania and Bulgaria followed suit in 2007. Finally, Croatia became a Member State in 2013, and the other Balkan states are on the membership track. The 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement represented a connection between the EU and one of Russia's last remaining loyal neighbors.
The general theme that emerges is that of the West working to expand its reach to the East and Russia perceiving this as a growing strategic threat to the homeland. This post-Cold War development has been described succinctly as the clash of a liberal West with a realist Russia. The West's push to expand its influence, without a clear consideration of how such actions will be perceived by Russia, suggests that the West is dangerously unaware of how its actions are perceived outside the Western sphere. The failure to understand the Russian perspective greatly contributed to the Ukraine Crisis and led to the lowest point in post-Cold War relations with Russia. While the West clearly should not formulate its foreign policy with an aim to please Russia, it is in its best interest to understand the Russian point of view; failing to do so can only hurt Western self-interest and security.
About the Author: Sarah Lohschelder is pursuing a Master of Science in Foreign Service and a Juris Doctor at Georgetown University. She is a Defense Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a Thought Partner for the World in 2050 series.