In November 2001, the 41-year-old president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, visited the United States. The three-day-long presidential summit ended with a barbecue and a dance at Crawford, then-President George W. Bush’s private ranch. Aside from enjoying each other’s company, the two leaders discussed nuclear disarmament, the war against terrorism, and their long-term strategic relationship, the New York Times reported.
Putin’s visit to the U.S. and his talks with Bush in the relaxed atmosphere at Crawford represented the highest point of the U.S-Russian relationship in decades. It was a moment of trust and solidarity after 9/11, when America was hit by an unprecedented terrorist attack. Moscow made “crucial … contributions immediately after 9/11 to support the Northern Alliance and provide logistical support and share intelligence to U.S.-led coalition efforts to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. As one official remarked, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 marked the closest alignment of U.S. and Russian interests, and Russian support was as important as that of any NATO ally,’” Andrew C. Kuchins wrote in a recent report that tried to reconstruct the U.S.-Russia relationship from 15 years ago.
According to sources from both sides, Russia and America were outlining a plan for a strategic partnership that would include the creation of a NATO-Russia council and Russian-American cooperation on security issues, which some of Kuchins’ Russian sources compared to the anti-Hitler coalition in World War II. However, Putin in 2001 was ready to deal.
Well, the honeymoon did not last long. Perhaps because the two leaders were incapable of seizing the opportunity. Or was it that U.S. opponents of the alliance were not willing to support the creation of a bridge that could overcome the remnants of Cold War institutions like NATO?
In an podcast for the Week, former U.S. ambassador Nicholas Burns — now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — evokes that short period of time when the U.S. was almost able to work well with Russia. But according to Burns, soon after the summit when both sides sat down to negotiate things, a lot changed: “I can tell you from my own experience that the Russians were not very cooperative. They tried to make life difficult for us — they did not trust us.”
With his decision to junk the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, President Bush is rolling the diplomatic dice. If he is lucky, the Russians will live with the decision and relations with Moscow will continue to improve while Washington freely experiments with new missile defense systems. If he is not, Mr. Bush may alienate the Kremlin and give rise to a dangerous new arms race with Russia and possibly China as well. Why he would choose to take that risk at a moment when he badly needs Russian cooperation in the war against terrorism is baffling. It is not as if the lesson of Sept. 11 was that the United States is vulnerable to a missile attack.
Six months later, the U.S. announced that NATO would bring the Baltic States into the organization in 2004.
One former U.S. official noted, “Putin took the ABM and NATO decisions quite calmly.” But as one former Russian official remarked, the young Russian president figured out that “a strategic partnership with the United States means if you accept Washington’s agenda, you remain a partner in good standing, but you are not allowed to contribute to developing the agenda jointly; and if you object, you will be thrown overboard.”
So things went overboard, but Moscow kept its cool right up until the second war in Iraq, only to erupt in 2004 over the apparent Western support of the Chechen terrorists. This was it. Kuchins’ report followed an expanding list of problems — the American support of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the bombing of Libya and the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, just to mention a couple of them.
This brings us to the recent threats and hostile exchanges between the U.S. and Russia over to the war in Syria — to the crumbled peace agreement and the latest assault on Aleppo, in which Russia’s and Assad’s forces seem to be carrying out attacks in attempt to gain control over the already devastated Syria. The Russian-American relationship has not been so poor since the Cuban crisis.
But let’s turn back to the issue of trust for a second. Why doesn’t Russia trust the U.S.? Dimitri K. Simes explains that the Russians’ false hopes that Moscow was growing after mother Russia got rid of its authoritarian regime and opened to Western values may have played a part in this:
While a U.S.-Russian conflict is not inevitable, Russia’s estrangement from the West after the Cold War probably stemmed from the unrealistic and contrasting expectations held on both sides. When Mikhail Gorbachev and his liberal allies like Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Central Committee Secretary Alexander Yakovlev, and foreign-policy aide Anatoly Chernyaev began articulating and implementing Gorbachev’s “new thinking,” which emphasized universal human values at the expense of national interests, they assumed that the Soviet Union could cease being a global superpower, give up its system of alliances, rely increasingly on foreign economic assistance and still benefit from others’ deference to Moscow as a key player in world affairs. If Soviet leaders had consulted Russia’s own history, they would have realized how profoundly unrealistic their expectations were.
Of course, the Soviet Union did not suffer a military defeat in the 1980s like the Russian Empire’s loss in 1905. Nor did the changes in Russian government, policy and philosophy follow a domestic rebellion; instead, they were imposed from the top by a leadership that decided it was on the wrong side of history. Notwithstanding the motives of Gorbachev and, later, President Boris Yeltsin, Western officials showed little gratitude for their roles in destroying the Soviet empire once it became clear that a Russia collapsing upon itself was unwilling to use force and had very little remaining economic leverage. Similarly, while most Russians not only counted on massive Western assistance but even thought of themselves as Western allies in destroying the USSR, most in the West, particularly in central Europe, determined that the time had finally come to act on historical grievances against Moscow or felt that a weak, corrupt and unstable Russia did not deserve to be taken seriously, much less accepted as an equal partner with the United States and the European Union.
This mindset helped Russian leaders to preserve the innate feeling of cultural superiority that linked them to the best traditions of the Russian Empire — that is, to the Romanov Dynasty. Anybody who belongs to a nation without an imperial history — or even a monarch family — and has ever gotten involved in conversation with a Muscovite, knows what I am talking about. Belonging to a country with no imperial history and being member of a much smaller Slavic nation, all my conversations with Russians gave me a slight, but unpleasant feeling that the person I was talking with was constantly patronizing me. A sort of bullying — telling me with even just a look or a smile that they knew better than I did. I never cared about this, but the conversations never led anywhere, since they were based in blind and repetitive cultural chauvinism.
I am therefore convinced that Russians feel culturally superior to Americans. Every other European does, so why wouldn’t the Russians? They feel they are smarter and more knowledgeable, with a deeper sense of history and a superior analytical capacity. I remember the hatred and envy that Russia had towards China in the mid-’90s, when the “Chinese peasants” were making a great step forward in their wellbeing, and the Russians had to travel to Beijing to shop for merchandise that Russia could only dream of at the time. Russia ideologically and economically dominated China until 1960, but China has now become a second America for Russia.
So when Boris Yeltsin visited Washington in 1994 and spoke to Congress, he was happy as a child — not only because he was standing in the land of the American Dream, but also because the red carpet told him that he could finally justify portraying himself as the reincarnation of the Romanovs.
Same goes for Putin. Except that Putin did not come for a drink, but brought a gift — collaboration on security — that he hoped would be a key to open the door to becoming one big family. It was a desire that the West vaguely fulfilled in 1998, when the G7 was extended to include Russia and renamed the G8. But Putin was hoping for more. Something he did not get.
He did not get the energy deal with Europe, either, and he started to create his own system of pipelines with which to flood Europe and China. He boosted the military and weapons industry and became the principal arms dealer for China. Russia slowly reappeared and started to march again.
Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post describes this moment well:
To most Americans, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany slips by unnoticed. To Pavel Elfimov, it’s among the biggest holidays of the year.
Ask any Russian about their family’s World War II experiences and the answer, almost invariably, is one of suffering and battlefield service. Unlike the United States, which had two oceans that largely insulated it from attack after Pearl Harbor, Russia was besieged, bombed, invaded and re-invaded during World War II. Then the Red Army swept toward Berlin and played a key role in toppling Adolf Hitler.
“You have Thanksgiving. We have Victory Day,” said Elfimov, 44, who came with his family this week to a nighttime rehearsal for Moscow’s annual Victory Day Parade. The procession is a bristling display of military might that sweeps down some of the capital’s most exclusive streets before rolling through Red Square in front of the Kremlin elite.
Russian President Vladimir Putin revived the Soviet-style tank parade in 2008, seeing the day as a way to rally citizens around the flag. But despite the hundreds of missile launchers, warplanes and antiaircraft guns that roll through Red Square every year, many Russians say that the true meaning of the holiday is more personal, 71 years after the end of the war. …
World War II tends to be remembered in the United States as a victory by Americans, with the Red Army acting more or less as an adjunct. Russian memories are focused on their own sacrifices. As the veterans have died, their children and grandchildren have started to march on Victory Day, holding their photos, separately from the martial parades. That started as a nonpolitical movement in 2012, and has since been embraced by the Kremlin.
This reminiscence of the glorious days of the victorious Red Army helped Putin to create a new semi-ideological platform that reproduced some elements of the Soviet social revolution and the liberation war against the Nazis from the Stalin era. As Putin bragged in 2014 during the Ukraine crisis, Russia is now the only country in the world that still fights fascism.
Apparently the strong and unequivocal Russia, equipped with much more modern means of propaganda than in the times of Stalin, drags behind it the disenchanted masses of Europe, creating a socialist nostalgia — especially in Eastern European countries.
Open Democracy made a remarkable effort to explain the phenomenon of Russians seeing Putin as a new, strong leader — a man of solutions in a period when the American Dream has nothing more to offer:
There is absolutely no doubt that the transition from state socialism to liberal democracy in many Eastern European states has been a long and bumpy ride. Political liberalisation and the shift from a Soviet command economy to a free market economy have caused various socio-economic ramifications for the peoples of this vast region through failed promises and expectations.
While the problems of transition vary from country to country, the most common concerns range from severe unemployment to a lack of job security and, inevitably, economic instability. Stagnating economic growth in many post-communist states has, however, also produced a new and unforeseen phenomenon: communist nostalgia. …
Nostalgia has consistently been attributed to romanticising the past in the present to make it look better. Within the present-day Eastern European context, nostalgia refers to an increasingly positive outlook on the pre-1989 communist past.
Reasons for this include the safety and security ensured under state socialism and the major social and economic developments propelled by the command economy. Other factors contributing to this nostalgia are the failures and uncertainties of the existing system of capitalist liberal democracy that now engulf Eastern Europe.
There is not much hope that Russia and America will ever speak a common language. Still, I predict — perhaps optimistically — that there will not be a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Of course, that does not mean that the world would not be much better if we were capable of electing leaders who could regain some political vision, not to mention a more common sense of responsibility for the power given to them. In 2001, the world had some chances to turn things around for the better after the tragedy that happened to America. But with American leadership’s inability to reflect on what created such hatred towards the country — which was supposed to be a model of democracy — we lost the chance to become better.