by Andrew Goodman
While most Western analysts and commentators place responsibility for the war in Ukraine squarely on Vladimir Putin, a few contend that NATO’s enlargement provoked the Russian invasion. Based on my personal interactions with Putin while serving as a U.S. diplomat in St Petersburg in the 1990s, I would argue that a collision between the West and a revisionist Russia led by Putin was virtually inevitable.
The Realist Thesis of Western Responsibility for the Ukraine Crisis
University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer is the primary advocate of the idea that the West provoked Putin by enlarging NATO. He first advanced his thesis in 2014 following Putin’s seizure of Crimea (“Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2014). Following the Russian invasion last February, Mearsheimer amplified his contention that the West is at fault (“John Mearsheimer on Why the West is Principally Responsible for the Ukrainian Crisis,” The Economist, March 11, 2022). The crux of his argument is that the war has been caused by Western efforts to turn Ukraine into a “Western bulwark,” primarily through NATO’s “expansion.” Mearsheimer’s position has been supported by some early critics of NATO enlargement, such as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, who maintains the West is partly to blame for the Ukraine crisis by unnecessarily provoking Russia through the Alliance’s enlargement (“This is Putin’s War. But America and NATO Aren’t Innocent Bystanders,” The New York Times, February 21, 2022).
There are a number of reasons for disputing this “realist” critique of Western policy, such as its rather peculiar view that NATO enlargement came about because of the Alliance’s alleged recruitment of new members, rather than the aspirations of Eastern European countries to join NATO. What seems to be missing from the debate, however, is consideration of whether Putin’s intentions – and therefore, his actions – are the product of his experiences since he became President of Russia or whether they are more deep-seated and stem from his politically formative years – the 1980s and 1990s – well before he assumed national office. This is a key period of Putin’s life, but one about which relatively little is known, as several prominent scholars have pointed out (e.g., Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, “The American Education of Vladimir Putin,” The Atlantic, February, 2015).
My personal knowledge of Putin stems from this crucial period in Putin’s political development, when I was posted to the U.S. Consulate General in St Petersburg in the early 1990s and Putin, who was then responsible for the city’s external relations, was my designated interlocutor in the city government. My conversations with Putin and observations of his actions suggest that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his current anti-Western stance are remarkably consistent with his view of Russia’s destiny, his deep mistrust of the West and the disdain for Western democracy that he evidenced in St Petersburg.
Dispelling Some of the Mystery Around Putin
Proponents of the thesis of Western responsibility argue that all of Putin’s statements and actions have come after the NATO enlargement rounds of 1999 and 2004 and particularly after the 2008 Bucharest Declaration concerning future membership of Georgia and Ukraine. While it is certainly true that there were no public statements by Putin of opposition to NATO enlargement before he became President of Russia, the problem with this argument is that there also were no public statements by Putin on any foreign policy issue before he became President of Russia. Until Putin ran for the presidency, he was never a candidate for public office and had no reason to make any such public statements. He rarely spoke to the press and then only as a St Petersburg city official addressing city business. His beliefs remained largely unknown and he was viewed by widely differing segments of Russian society as one of their own until well into his presidency.
In private conversations, however, Putin did reveal his worldview. These conversations have largely escaped his biographers, primarily because Putin’s closest advisers and aides have always been extremely tight-lipped about whatever Putin said to them. Loyalty to him included not disclosing anything unless he wanted it disclosed—and then his advisers would normally leave disclosure to him. As the Deputy Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate in St Petersburg, however, I was able to engage Putin in regular, extensive, informal conversations over a period of approximately 18 months in the early 1990s, during which he expounded on almost every aspect of politics and economics, including his view of world affairs.
During my subsequent 18 months at post we seldom spoke directly; our relationship became adversarial after I began investigating organized crime and corruption in the city, including activities involving Putin. Instead, I wound up having conversations about Putin with any number of the city’s elite and with foreign businessmen who had dealings with him. The consensus that emerged was that Putin was someone to fear, that individuals crossed him at their peril, that Putin equated criticism with disloyalty, that he was sensitive to any sign of what he thought was disrespect, that once he had committed himself he only backed down in the face of countervailing force, and that he was ruthless and vindictive—all qualities that have characterized Putin as Russian President.
Putin Has Always Desired to Make Russia Great Again
In conversations with me, Putin wore his love for Russia on his sleeve. He believed in Russia’s greatness and repeatedly told me that Russia must once again attain the status of a superpower. From the very start of our acquaintance, Putin also made clear that he did not trust the West. Although many of Putin’s sentiments echoed communist dogma, his view of the West followed his own logic. Putin assumed that officials of Western governments were as “patriotic” as he was. He saw no reason for Western leaders willingly to grant great power status to Russia. Russia would have to rely on itself to regain its rightful place in the world. This rightful place included domination of the countries of the “near abroad” that previously had been part of the Soviet Union. Putin told me these countries were “bound” to Russia by tradition; it was “natural” for them to act in concert with Russia. Putin also felt that the countries of Eastern Europe that had been in the Soviet sphere of influence should similarly be part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Putin was pragmatic about Russia’s situation, however. Russia had fallen behind the West and needed to modernize to catch up. He said that his time in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had convinced him that economic reform was the only way to put Russia on an equal footing with Western countries. Although Putin’s KGB activities in the GDR were directed against the West as the “enemy,” Putin recognized that Russia needed investment from the West to modernize. While Putin did not trust the West, he assumed Western leaders and businessmen would help Russia so long as it was to their own benefit. Part of Putin’s function in the St Petersburg city government was to convince Western businessmen to invest in the city; in so doing he made sure those businessmen understood that any investment had to be sanctioned and would be monitored by his department. In fact, if an investment later seemed to benefit a foreign company more than expected, Putin was quick to demand that the terms of the investment agreement be redrawn.
Putin Has Never Believed in Western-Style Democracy
Putin’s actions undermining democracy in Russia over the course of his presidency are well-documented. He has had the constitution altered to suit his needs, eliminated any semblance of a free press, stripped regional governors of their power, clamped down on public protests, and jailed opponents and critics, such as Aleksei Navalny. Less well known is the fact that Putin displayed the same attitude towards democracy when he was in the mayor’s office in St Petersburg.
Although formally committed to a democratic electoral process, Putin was a key player in efforts to manipulate local elections. Putin used physical intimidation to prevent certain individuals from standing as candidates. He arranged for voters to be bribed, and stuffed ballot boxes by trucking in units of soldiers who were instructed on how to vote. Putin’s lack of respect for legislatures and political parties also began in St Petersburg. He told me that the executive—namely, the mayor—was the representative of the people, while legislators and the political parties to which they belonged were beholden to special interests. Putin also had little use for a free press. The media’s job, he said, was to support the mayor and publicize his policies. He regarded any criticism by the media as disloyalty.
Putin’s attitude towards corruption was a Soviet one: “loyal servants of the state,” he said, were entitled to “some reward.” Even though Putin supervised police investigations of criminal economic activity, Putin did not investigate subordinates or colleagues alleged to be corrupt. Putin himself accepted gifts from businesses, which he tried to cover up. The pattern of trying to hide the wealth he obtained through his public office was one he repeated as president.
Putin Always Foresaw a Collision with the West
In St Petersburg, Putin was not in a position to realize his goals for Russia. Since becoming Russian President, however, Putin has been on a quest to make Russia the great power he has always believed it should be. Putin cooperated with the West so long as he thought such cooperation might lead the U.S. to allow Russia to return to a dominant position in world politics. For example, Putin offered support to Operation Enduring Freedom in the wake of 9/11 in the hope it would lead the U.S. to treat Russia as more of an equal partner. When this hope did not materialize, the episode became one of a series of disappointments that fueled Putin’s sense of disrespect by the U.S., leading to his decisive break with cooperation with the West in his 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference.
The views Putin expressed to me in the early 1990s came well before Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO. This supports the idea that while NATO’s enlargement and Ukraine’s aspiration to join the Alliance have served as justifications for Putin, they are not the cause of his actions. Putin’s long-term vision for Russia always foresaw a confrontation with the West. If someone is already bent on a course of action, as Putin has been, can one really say he has been provoked to take that action?
Given how important control over Ukraine is to Putin’s goals for Russia, it should have been expected that the collision with the West would occur over Ukraine. Putin has been wrestling with Ukrainian efforts to escape domination by Russia since at least 2004. After the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004 prevented the rigged election of pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych as Ukrainian President, and after Yanukovych, legitimately elected in 2010, was driven from power in February 2014 by the Maidan Revolution, physical control of Ukrainian territory became Putin’s only option – one that he pursued in March 2014 by seizing Crimea and one that he continues to pursue through his invasion now.
Putin’s statements comparing his quest to that of Peter the Great, plus his assertions that Russia is simply “reclaiming” territory that previously belonged to it, suggest that neutrality for Ukraine is not a realistic long-term solution. Nor will establishment of a ring of neutral states on Russia’s border, as some analysts have proposed, satisfy Putin’s ambitions. Putin is not going to be satisfied with anything less than a restoration of Russian hegemony over the former constituent parts of the USSR and Eastern Europe.
Putin has demonstrated that he only backs down or seeks an accommodation when he is confronted by an adversary with power equal to or greater than his own and only after that adversary has demonstrated a willingness over time to employ that power to oppose Putin. To resist and ultimately overcome Putin, therefore, the West is going to need to continue its military assistance to Ukraine and maintain its commitment to defend democracy in Eastern Europe over the long term—until Putin is convinced that he has met an adversary with the strength and determination to match his own.
Andrew Goodman was Deputy Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in St Petersburg 1992-95. During over 30 years in the Foreign Service, he specialized in the Soviet Union/Russia and European security issues. He served on the Soviet Desk, on the German Desk, at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, at the U.S. Mission in Berlin when it was still a four-power city, and at the U.S. Mission to NATO. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Two-Plus-Four negotiations on the unification of Germany and chief negotiator for the U.S. at NATO from 2000 to 2002 for the large round of NATO enlargement that ultimately resulted in the admission of the Baltic States, and a number of East European countries, into the Alliance. Goodman has taught courses on Russian foreign policy at Columbia University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Mary Washington University.