by Joe Renouard
Veteran Russia-watchers have grown accustomed to President Vladimir Putin’s broadsides against the West. Not only has he routinely condemned the United States and the European Union for interfering in Ukrainian affairs, but in suggesting that the crisis in Ukraine stems from an unceasing Western desire to stifle Russian ambitions, he has also adhered to a provocative point of historical context. In short, he has accused the West of containment.
“The policy of containment was not invented yesterday,” Putin declared in December. “It has been carried out against our country for many years, always, for decades, if not centuries…. Whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into use.”1 More recently, he charged NATO member states with using the Ukrainian military as a “foreign legion” in pursuit of Russia’s “geopolitical containment.”2 Most Americans are likely to conclude that this is simply Kremlin propaganda—a cynical smokescreen aimed at maintaining domestic political power, expanding hegemonic influence in Ukraine, and channeling public anger at imagined foreign enemies. And indeed, jibes at Washington have been among the regime’s most consistent rhetorical themes. As Putin told the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation a few months ago, “Our American friends… are always influencing Russia’s relations with its neighbors, either openly or behind the scenes. Sometimes it is even unclear whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors.”3
Even if the U.S. is not pulling as many strings in Ukraine as Moscow claims, the charge of American culpability has a powerful appeal. To be clear, Putin’s assertions are not just the self-interested ravings of Russia’s political elites; many ordinary citizens believe them, too. A recent poll by the independent Levada Center finds that more than eighty percent of Russians have a negative view of the U.S., the highest proportion since the center began such studies in 1988.4 In the near term, low oil prices and ongoing sanctions may only strengthen these sentiments and indirectly bolster the Kremlin’s claim that America and the West seek to isolate Russia.
Russian nationalists’ “containment” claim is highly flawed, but we ignore its popularity at our own peril. It matters for two reasons. First, the perception of outside meddling fuels much anti-Americanism, which in turn weakens Russian reformism and indirectly keeps strongmen like Putin in power. Second, the current level of East/West hostility hurts relations at a time when the U.S. and Russia need each other to solve problems across a wide swath of the globe from Syria to Afghanistan.
Considering the tense state of affairs in the embattled oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, American policymakers would do well to understand that this perspective predates the Ukrainian conflict, and even predates the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union. In the eyes of many Russians, Washington’s efforts to open markets and expand American influence in Eastern Europe (to say nothing of the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia) have long entailed parallel attempts to draw governments away from Moscow’s orbit and toward the United States and Western Europe. Just as President Putin portrays events in Ukraine as part of a broader American effort to isolate Russia, so did the Kremlin often see America’s twentieth-century activities in Europe as efforts to undermine Russian and Soviet interests. Then, as now, Washington justified its moves as defenses of “universal principles,” such as democracy, free market economics, free trade, and national self-determination—not coincidentally, values that were closely tied to America’s commercial and security interests.
Russian observers can cite many twentieth-century precedents. Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito’s 1948 split with Moscow was cause for celebration in Washington, and for decades thereafter American leaders maintained close ties to his regime. “International communism and subordination to the views of Moscow are one thing,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower said of Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1957; “independent communism is something else.”5 Despite Tito’s authoritarianism and his shrewd efforts to remain nonaligned in the ensuing years, Washington saw great value in keeping Belgrade out of the Soviet orbit. The United States could offer only rhetorical support to Hungarian rebels in 1956, but Yugoslavia was a win-win: a European socialist state that freed itself from Soviet domination and pointedly remained outside the Warsaw Pact. All of Ike’s successors continued friendly relations. Speaking in Belgrade in 1970, President Richard Nixon took a thinly-veiled swipe at Moscow while outlining his position on geopolitics in Eastern Europe: “We do not accept doctrines by which one power purports to abridge the right of other countries to shape their own destinies and to pursue their own legitimate interests.”6
Indeed, in the Cold War era, Eastern European governments’ internal policies generally mattered less to Washington than did their ties to Moscow. Postwar Romanian socialism was often more brutal than the Soviet variant, but the U.S. appreciated the Bucharest regime’s independent streak under Gheorghe Gheorghiu–Dej and Nicolae Ceauşescu. In the 1970s, Washington backed Romania’s entry into the IMF and World Bank, and even granted it most-favored-nation trading status (MFN) until the end of the 1980s. Since the U.S. also granted MFN to the socialist states of Hungary and China, but not the Soviet Union, it is clear that the decision was partially strategic. When President Jimmy Carter welcomed Ceauşescu to the White House, the geopolitical implications of his public toast to the Romanian leader—“We believe in the right of every country to be free from interference in its own internal affairs by another country”—were not lost on the Kremlin.7
The U.S. also periodically rewarded Poland and Hungary for their liberal and market reforms, as well as their acts of regional independence. This support was modest in the 1970s and 80s, but Washington much more openly and lavishly assisted them after their communist governments fell in summer 1989. Seeing dollars as a fitting carrot for strengthening these nations’ nascent parliamentary systems and keeping them out of the then-still-existent Soviet camp, Congress granted huge sums for economic restructuring, private-sector development, and democratic reforms through the 1989 Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act. Washington then drew them even closer with favorable loans, trade packages, and, in time, NATO membership.
Ukraine fit a slightly different pattern. With the Cold War on the wane in 1989-91, it was one thing for Americans to support sovereign independence in the states of Central and Eastern Europe; it was another thing entirely to do so in the Soviet republics. President George H.W. Bush recognized that Moscow was highly sensitive to outside interference, and he further feared that the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution might spur civil violence.
Despite Bush’s caution, Ukraine’s path to independence stirred bad blood between Washington and Moscow from the very start. As Ukraine joined Belarus, Georgia, and the Baltic republics in pulling away from the union in 1991, the United States avoided formal recognition until the eleventh hour. Regarding Ukrainians’ vote for independence, Bush confided to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, “You know our tradition as a democratic nation. We must support the Ukrainian people. But we want to do so in a way that encourages a peaceful transition to a new order.”8 As a sign of the troubles to come, an unconvinced Gorbachev chided his American counterpart: “It appears that the U.S. is not only trying to influence events, but to interfere.” Citing the ethnic warfare that had broken out in Yugoslavia, Gorbachev added that if Ukraine seceded, “twelve million Russians and members of other peoples become citizens of a foreign country… . Crimea will act to review [its] status… . The question of Donetsk will also emerge.”9 A month later, the Soviet Union was no more.
History has largely vindicated Bush, Gorbachev, and their European counterparts for their cautious management of Eastern European affairs in 1989-91. But unfortunately, Gorbachev’s prescience was overshadowed by Americans’ euphoria at having outplayed, and ultimately outlasted, their most formidable adversary. Consequently, many Russians would interpret American actions in the 1990s and 2000s as “provocations” that fit a long-established pattern. America’s bombing of Serbia, its recognition of Kosovo, its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, its perceived efforts to export “Western values,” and, above all, NATO’s eastward expansion—all suggested that the United States would act against Russian interests, and would do so unilaterally if necessary. As the scholars Eric Shiraev and Olga Makhovskaya wrote a decade ago, “Most Russians still believe that a main objective of the United States government is to create a weak and obedient Russia.”10 This sentiment has only become more popular in the years since.
So powerful is this collective memory that when the head of the Kremlin presidential administration accuses the U.S. of creating an “anti-Russian coalition,” or when President Putin charges America with prompting the crises in Ukraine and Syria—and even backing “neo-fascists” and “Islamic radicals” on Russia’s border —the suggestion resonates with many Russians.11 Americans may see the eastward drift of NATO and the European Union as a symbol of liberal democracy’s universal appeal, but many Russians see only anti-Russian provocation. Overt American support to the Euromaidan demonstrators and the post-Yanukovych Ukrainian government has only hardened these views, as has more recent talk of arming Ukraine. All sides suffer from these oversimplified perceptions.
The great tragedy is that Russia and the United States never transformed their relationship into a mutually beneficial bond like that which now exists between the U.S. and China. Sino-American relations are defined by close financial links and trade ties—an impressive exchange of goods, services, and currency which reflects China’s and America’s robust economies. The same has never been true of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Simply put, the Russian economy produces little that American consumers want, while many foreign investors are wary of the nation’s rampant corruption and civil disorder. Washington and Beijing’s political differences are generally overridden by market forces, but few such correctives guide the Washington-Moscow relationship.
None of this is to suggest that the Kremlin’s aggressive gambit in eastern Ukraine is justified. The Russian government must be held accountable for its violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and its illegitimate uses of force. But with so many lives hanging in the balance, it is all the more imperative that American policymakers take a broader perspective on Russian grievances against the West. This includes, at the very least, acknowledging the strong appeal of Putin’s containment claim and publicly disavowing any desire to isolate Russia. Meanwhile, leaders in both Washington and Moscow must accept that, with respect to Ukraine’s destiny, it is the wishes of the Ukrainian people that matter most.
1. Press Release, Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, 4 December 2014, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/47173.
2. Karoun Demirijian, “Russian Leaders Lash Out at West for Inciting ‘Anti-Russian Hysteria,” Washington Post, 26 January 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/russian-leaders-lash-out-at-west-for-inciting-anti-russian-hysteria/2015/01/26/afe93c7c-a572-11e4-a162-121d06ca77f1_story.html.
3. Op. cit., Presidential Address.
4. Michael Birnbaum, “Russia’s Anti-American Fever Goes beyond the Soviet Era’s,” Washington Post, 8 March 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russias-anti-us-sentiment-now-is-even-worse-than-it-was-in-soviet-union/2015/03/08/b7d534c4-c357-11e4-a188-8e4971d37a8d_story.html.
5. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The President’s News Conference,” 21 August 1957, in Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (Public Papers of the Presidents), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=10864.
6. Richard Nixon, “Toasts of the President and President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia at a State Dinner in Belgrade,” 30 September 1970, in Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (Public Papers of the Presidents), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=2686.
7. Jimmy Carter, “Visit of President Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania, Remarks at the Welcoming Ceremony,” 12 April 1978, in Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (Public Papers of the Presidents), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=30655.
8. Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, 30 November 1991, George HW Bush Presidential Library, http://bush41library.tamu.edu/files/memcons-telcons/1991-11-30–Gorbachev.pdf.
10. Eric Shiraev and Olga Makhovskaya, “From the Cold War to a Lukewarm Peace: Russian Views of September 11 and Beyond,” in David Farber, ed., What They Think of Us: International Perceptions of the United States since 9/11 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 95-124.
11. “Kremlin Accuses USA of Creating Anti-Russian Coalition,” Pravda, 24 October 2014, http://english.pravda.ru/russia/kremlin/24-10-2014/128886-kremlin_russia_usa-0/; Neil MacFarquhar, “Putin Accuses U.S. of Backing ‘Neo-Fascists’ and ‘Islamic Radicals,” New York Times, 24 October 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/25/world/europe/vladimir-putin-lashes-out-at-us-for-backing-neo-fascists-and-islamic-radicals.html?_r=0.
Dr. Joe Renouard is an associate professor of history at The Citadel. In 2015-16, he will be a visiting lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Nanjing, China. His latest book, Human Rights in American Foreign Policy: From the 1960s to the Soviet Collapse, will be published in 2015 by Penn Press.