Russia and Euro-Atlantic Security: Twenty-Six Years at the Doorstep of the European Order

The convoluted forces behind any country’s foreign policy are often hard to speculate about. However, some states and their international endeavors, are more perplexing than others. For many years, Russia has been an especially puzzling case both for theorists and practitioners of international relations, especially in the West. Forewarning the complications anyone inquiring about Russia’s intents will face, Winston Churchill famously remarked back in 1939 that this country is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” More than seventy years later, the European Union and the United States are still forced to busy itself with trying to discover the key to the Russian foreign policy riddle. The existing consensus among scholars, analysts, and policymakers in this guessing game is that Vladimir Putin’s aggressive land-grabbing and zero-sum politics are the sole reasons behind hostility between Russia and the West. However, scant attention has been paid to the role of the West itself in engendering this animosity. The U.S. and EU have been contributing — whether unwittingly, recklessly, or deliberately — to the debilitation of Russia’s ability to trust and therefore cooperate with them. While analysts are bemoaning their hopes that Moscow will eventually accommodate itself to be a partner in upholding the European and Euro-Atlantic security, they avoid discussing the lack of honest efforts to assist Russia in becoming a part of the post-Cold War regional and transatlantic arrangements.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia found itself at the periphery of a bloc created by its adversaries. Despite proclaiming their intentions to include Moscow in the emerging European order, Western powers deliberately left it outside of European institutions. The norms that began governing the region after the end of the Cold War were mere extensions of the rules devised during the Cold War era by and for the countries who were historical rivals with Russia. In her 2009 book, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, Mary Elise Sarotte reveals that U.S. and European diplomats were very conscious in their choice to adopt the institutions inherited from the Cold War and to reject or ignore other options in the process. By denying Russia the opportunity to contribute to designing the rules it was nevertheless obliged to abide by, Western leaders made the first step on the long road to alienating Moscow and creating an environment susceptible to uncertainty, hostility, and insecurity that now characterize its relationship with the West and fuel Russian great-power revisionism. In the early 1990s, Russia was pushing to transform the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — the first truly pan-European institution with a comprehensive membership into the central pillar of the new European order. Americans and Europeans, however, refused to give the OSCE more importance out of the fear that it might start competing with NATO and the EU and weaken U.S. domination of the regional security arrangements. Moreover, even though Russia was able to join the Council on Europe, G7, and WTO, none of them was as essential to the new security order as NATO and EU. Western leaders were so preoccupied with preserving their newly acquired hegemony on the global arena that they failed ensure Russia is effectively bound to the emerging institutions and has an interest in the success of regional security arrangements. More than two decades later, the costly consequences of these mistakes are one of the important ingredients that make up what some call a “state of Hobbesian anarchy and fear” of the Euro-Atlantic security system. Russia is now uninterested not only in being European but in playing by the European rules, the disregard for which it has clearly demonstrated in Crimea. Furthermore, security relations between the two biggest nuclear powers are increasingly, and dangerously, turbulent. The mutual accusations by the U.S. and Russia of violating arms control treaties have been around for quite some time, but only recently was the collapse of a key pillar of transatlantic nonproliferation regime seriously mooted.

When the West did attempt to help the post-Soviet Russia restore its internal stability and become a part of the European peace, these attempts looked at best misguided, and at worst insincere in the eyes of the Russian public. Although American and European interference in Russian domestic affairs was in no way an attempt to isolate Russia from the rest of the region, its disastrous consequences nevertheless contributed to Russia’s growing mistrust towards its Cold War adversaries. The common sentiment of the public, voiced by Mikhail Gorbachev in his recent interview, is that the West very deliberately kicked Russia when it was down. As baffling as this view may seem to a Western observer, the catastrophic state Russia found itself in after following the Western recipe for democratic transition provides a solid justification for Russia’s current indignation and suspicion. The experience of the 1990s gave birth to a principle axiom of Russia’s current foreign policy: neither the U.S. nor Europe should be trusted, and everything should be done to draw a clear line between Russia and the West.

It started with Boris Yeltsin’s instituting the shock therapy, a set of radical economic reforms prescribed by the IMF and designed by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Sachs, which was quickly characterized as “all shock and no therapy.” The implemented deregulations reversed 60 years of price controls, raising the prices by as much as 500 per cent. To attack this state-created inflation, the Central Bank simply stopped printing money. Additionally, the government massively cut the budget, which, in the absence of functioning economic infrastructure, led to predictable chaos. Living standards and life expectancy were rapidly falling, and the debt of state firms to one another and the Central Bank increased by 8,000 per cent in six months. The IMF and G-7, however, were holding a reward of $24 billion in credit in front of Yeltsin’s face for following the prescribed market liberalization policy, so the chaos continued unleashing. After the economic damage had reached a degree that the public was not willing to tolerate anymore, widespread opposition to Yeltsin prompted the constitutional crisis during which the West actively voiced support for Yeltsin’s undemocratic course of actions that included the dissolution of the country’s legislature, encirclement of the White House with tanks, and the consequent storming of the building with special troops (spetsnaz). Fast forward to the presidential election of 1996, when the Russian economy was still on the verge of collapse and social protections were being stripped away all the results of Sachs’ shock therapy the IMF approved yet another loan to Russia. The timing was critical: the loan was expected to help Boris Yeltsin win the election. It did its job, but the consequences of Western meddling into the Russian political process reached far beyond one presidential term: less than four years later, Yeltsin would appoint Vladimir Putin the Acting President.

The policies pursued by the U.S. and the EU toward Russia shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union resembled an agreement between the winners and the loser, where the former dictate the rules and the latter is forced to accept them. Russia, however, perceived itself as neither defeated nor conquered. It has been, after all, the largest polity on earth for most of the last 400 years, and was, by some measures, the most successful imperial enterprise in history. Even weakened and wounded, Moscow strove to be accepted as an equal by the great powers of the West. The actions of both the European Union and the U.S. have significantly debilitated Russia’s trust and willingness to cooperate, by both excluding the country from important security arrangements and intervening in its domestic politics. It should be therefore of no surprise to anyone on either side of the Atlantic that more than two decades after its struggle for a place in the existing European system, Moscow still finds itself at the doorstep of the European order but never inside this time, however, by choice.