War is upon us. But many in the West have sleepwalked through two decades of rising tensions with Russia. The situation in Ukraine can only be understood in the context of Vladimir Putin's view on Boris Yeltsin, NATO's eastward expansion, wars in the Balkans and Iraq, and beyond.
BERLIN — We can safely assume that the scene is etched on Vladimir Putin’s memory: Berlin, August 1994, when the last of the Red Army withdrew from Germany. During a ceremony to celebrate German-Russian friendship, as a police orchestra played, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin – clearly drunk – jumped on stage, grabbed the microphone and started singing along.
It wasn’t just an embarrassment. For Putin, who lived through the fall of the Soviet Union when he was a KGB officer in Leipzig, there was nothing to celebrate. When the 524,000 Russian soldiers stationed in eastern Germany withdrew from the country, for him, the act of German reunification wasn’t a cause for celebration, but a defeat. The former East German now belonged to NATO, and the USSR had lost 108,000 square kilometers from its former sphere of influence in Europe. But that was just the beginning.
For Russia’s president, the history of the past 30 years is one of constant retreat, of betrayal and threats from the West. But these troubles did not begin when Putin took power in 2000. Their seed was planted with the fall of the Berlin Wall. What followed can be seen as a three decade story of estrangement and alienation.
The legacy of Yugoslavia
That was clear during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Moscow last week. Putin accused NATO of “sparking” the last war in Europe: in Yugoslavia. When Scholz countered that NATO’s bombing of Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević prevented a genocide, Putin responded, “What’s happening in the Donbas, that’s a genocide!” There is no proof that the ethnic Russian minority in the Ukrainian region, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014, is now or has ever been at risk of genocide.
But the war in Yugoslavia also caused mounting distrust between Russia and the West. When NATO attacked Milošević in 1998, it was attacking a Russian ally. Throughout the early 1990s, NATO had looked on as murders in the Balkans piled up, partly because it didn’t want to provoke Russia. In the late 1990s, when Clinton decided to step in, he called Yeltsin only a few hours before the attack was launched, when it was too late to change plans.
Yeltsin makes Clinton laugh
Boris Yeltsin with Bill Clinton in 1995 at the White Housecommons.wikimedia.org
Boris and Bill
“Boris and Bill” had acted like the best of friends in public, and Yeltsin received financial support from Washington. But Clinton outsmarted him. On October 22. 1993, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his deputy Strobe Talbott visited Yeltsin at a hunting lodge near Moscow. Yeltsin was still reeling from an attempted coup, which had ended shortly before the meeting with the storming of the White House in Moscow. According to Talbott, he stunk of alcohol.
The American emissaries offered Russia and the states that had formerly belonged to the Warsaw Pact a “partnership for peace.”
“A partnership for all, and not NATO membership for some?” Yeltsin immediately asked. The diplomats said yes. “A stroke of genius. Tell Bill I’m delighted,” Yeltsin is reported to have said.
New democracies from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
A few months later, on January 12, 1994, Clinton did the opposite of what had been promised: at a conference in Prague, he offered NATO membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. NATO’s eastern expansion was gradual but significant. In 2004, the Baltic states also joined. The Lithuanian capital Vilnius, now allied to the West, is only 320 kilometers from Putin’s birthplace, Saint Petersburg.
It was Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush, who pushed NATO’s expansion further. Shortly after he was elected in 2001, he said the US wanted to see “new democracies from the Baltic to the Black Sea.” That included states such as Georgia and Ukraine, which were still within Moscow’s sphere of influence.
War on Terror
But then a new enemy reared its head. After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. launched its “war on terror,” first in Afghanistan, then Iraq. This time it was Putin who accused the U.S. of warmongering.
He entered into a strategic alliance with the regime in Iran and in March 2003 he officially called for the Russian military to prepare to defend it. He was worried about events taking a similar turn to interventions in the Middle East, which culminated in the “Arab Spring” in 2011, and wanted to prevent uprisings on Russia’s doorstep. According to Tim Weiner, CIA expert and author of the book The Folly and the Glory, there was no justification for American actions.
The U.S. intelligence services had little knowledge of Iraq, but proceeded bullishly. And when the U.S. bombed Baghdad, the Russian reacted with concern and horror, writes Weiner. Moscow took note of Washington’s decision to justify the Iraq War through false claims about weapons of mass destruction – and later adopted the strategy for itself.
In March 2006, Bush claimed the U.S .had established democracy in the Middle East – and compared it to Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004), where popular uprisings had put pressure on leaders backed by the Kremlin and succeeded in deposing them.
Just as they had done during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the West had supported the opposition. Bush said Putin must now “move forward, not backward, in the fight for freedom.” For the Kremlin, which had long maintained power through an authoritarian state reliant on its secret services, that constituted a direct threat. In 2008, Bush argued for Georgia and Ukraine to be granted NATO membership.
Even his Defense Secretary Robert Gates later said that at the time, this was “really going too far.” He predicted that Putin would never surrender Georgia and Ukraine to the West and called the Russian leader an “stone-cold killer" mourning the loss of an empire and of glory.
Victory parade in Saint Petersburg
Victory Day parade 2020 in Saint Petersburg
More than a regional power
Then, in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and to this day it still occupies parts of the country. Putin justified his military attack with a wave of fake news propagated by state media. The invasion of Ukraine was carried out in a similar way, just a little later.
In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama wanted to press the reset button on relations with Russia, although the attempt was half-hearted. On a visit to Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her counterpart Sergey Lavrov with a red plastic button with the word “peregruzka” on it. The Americans thought it meant “reset”, but unfortunately there was a spelling mistake. As Lavrov immediately pointed out, the word translates as “overcharged.”
She became Putin’s public enemy No. 1
There was a brief thawing of relations, with Russia no longer blocking important decisions in the UN Security Council and American military aircraft once again allowed to enter Russian airspace. But when Clinton publicly supported the human rights movements in Ukraine, she became Putin’s public enemy No. 1, with the Russian leader eager to avoid a democratic “spring” following the Arab example washing up on his doorstep.
In former president Viktor Yanukovych, Putin succeeded in establishing an ally in Ukraine. His presidency came to an end in 2014, when he ordered police to fire on protesters in the Maidan. Then Putin annexed Crimea. At a Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague in 2014, Obama described Russia as a “a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.”
Tensions were put on hold during Donald Trump’s presidency, as he was the first U.S. President to repeatedly heap praise on Putin. Russia, for its part, had played a significant part in supporting Trump’s election campaign. Putin must have been rubbing his hands together with glee as the man in the White House drove his country from crisis to crisis.
Since Joe Biden took office, Putin’s focus has once again been on Ukraine — eager, once and for all, to disprove Obama’s description of Russia as a mere “regional power” ... at any price.
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