The Magazine

Don't Cry for Russia

The world's unlikeliest "victim."

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By CATHY YOUNG
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Russia first expressed cautious interest in NATO membership in 1991, when NATO was not prepared to admit any Eastern Bloc countries. By the time the admission of former Communist states was seriously considered, Boris Yeltsin's administration was already backing away from its embrace of the West, mainly as a result of pressure from the neo-Communists and nationalists who scored victories in the 1993 and 1995 Duma elections. In 1995, pro-Western foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev was replaced by Evgeny Primakov, who, Straus writes, emphasized "multipolarism" and (foreshadowing the leitmotif of the Putin-era Russian political elite) criticized "American attempts at unipolar domination of the world through NATO."

Initially, supporters of NATO expansion envisioned Russia's eventual inclusion, and Yeltsin seemed receptive to the idea. But NATO enlargement soon became a bone of contention. Straus writes that in the mid-1990s, the United States often misinterpreted Russia's opposition to the fast-track admission of smaller states into a Russia-less NATO as opposition to expansion per se. Russia in turn sent many conflicting signals. Above all, it was clearly unwilling to commit to a broad acceptance of NATO strategic policy, one of the main criteria for membership set in the organization's 1995 "Study on NATO Enlargement." This was a serious hurdle, since NATO operates by consensus, giving every member country a de facto veto over the alliance's policies.

Samantha Power dismisses Russia's inclusion in NATO's 1994 "Partnership for Peace" as "largely symbolic." Yet the partnership's framework document not only provided for extensive military cooperation but gave each member guarantees that it would be consulted by NATO about any perceived threats to its security. Straus wrote, in 1997, that Russia "held back from full participation" in the Partnership "due to domestic pressures [and] to suspicions of NATO." This was followed by the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002. Its work included not only joint anti-terrorism efforts but programs that provided job training and other assistance to discharged military personnel in Russia.

Bonner believes that, far from treating Russia as an enemy out of habit, Western politicians and pundits have been too prone to "wishful thinking" in treating it as an ally in the war on terror. Says Bonner, "Russia wasn't even treated as an equal partner but a favored child who was petted and given treats."

One such treat was an invitation to join the G7 group of industrial democracies in 1998. Despite Russia's dubious qualifications for membership in a club based on such criteria as economic performance, political stability, and low level of corruption, the group became the G8. In January 2006, after Putin had crushed his independent media and political opposition, Russia actually assumed chairmanship of the G8--just as its Freedom House ranking slipped from "partly free" to "not free." (According to a December 2005 National Public Radio report, some eternal optimists hoped that giving Russia G8 leadership would encourage liberal tendencies.)

Much Western hand-wringing over Russia's wounded pride seems to accept the premise that Russia is entitled to dominate its smaller neighbors and to have its ego coddled as no other former empire has had. Such entitlement is also deeply entrenched in the mindset of many Russians. "At least they used to be afraid of us" is a sentiment I heard repeatedly on my trips to Russia in the early 1990s. Another popular phrase in those days, "za derzhavu obidno," can be roughly translated as "makes you feel bad for the country," but really means much more: derzhava has overtones of "great power" and "autocratic state"; obidno conveys shame, hurt and resentment. With such a mentality, Putin's bully rhetoric--"Russia can rise from its knees and sock it to you good and hard," he remarked in 1999--found an eager audience.

The painful humiliation of Germany after World War II had one major positive aspect: The Nazi virus was purged from the nation's system. Russia never truly confronted or rejected the evil of its Communist past. Yeltsin, to his credit, sought to do just that. He outlawed the Communist party (which successfully challenged the ban in court) and spoke of the Soviet Union as "the evil empire." This changed under Putin, whose idea of resurgent Russian pride includes celebrating Soviet-era "accomplishments" while treating the crimes as deplorable, but fundamentally no worse than the blots on any other nation's history.