A new Cold War is rapidly taking shape. Relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated dramatically this past year as the result of the unfolding civil strife in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accepted and then rejected a trade agreement with the European Union, resulting in popular unrest that led to Yanukovich’s overthrow. Russia then initiated a military occupation and annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a violent conflict has been unfolding within Ukraine between the new government and Russia-leaning separatists in the country’s eastern regions outside Crimea. Both the United States and Russia have responded to this strife by increasing their military presence and activities in Europe and elsewhere, while cooperation between Russia and western powers has been drastically reduced.
This new hostility between the two great powers with the world’s two largest arsenals of nuclear weapons has created a very dangerous situation for both the United States and Russia, as well as many other countries. Relatively small confrontations between these two countries’ militaries have proliferated in 2014 and have the potential to spark a larger conflict, given the current tense situation. Lowering tensions and achieving a more stable American-Russian relationship is imperative. Such a de-escalation of the conflict might well be possible through complex diplomacy that would involve the central players: Russia, the Ukrainian government, the separatists, Europe (both EU and NATO nations), and the United States. These diplomatic negotiations would offer all of them incentives for accepting a negotiated settlement over further confrontation.
Given the understandable suspicion with which many Americans view Russian President Vladimir Putin, the prospect of a diplomatic deal with Russia might seem naïve. A deal that offers incentives to Russia might seem to be rewarding Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Both of these concerns are reasonable. Nevertheless, when the events of the past year are viewed from Putin’s perspective—and placed in the larger context of US-Russian relations over roughly the last 20 years—the Russian president’s actions become understandable, if not justifiable. Appreciating how Putin and other Russians view American actions will illustrate why diplomatic compromise is, for all its shortcomings, a more promising approach than steps such as increasing American military forces in Eastern Europe, offering security guarantees to Ukraine, or even trying to bring Ukraine into NATO.
Ukraine has a special significance for Russia. The two countries have a common Slavic, historically Orthodox Christian culture and a long historical association (with Russia in a dominant position for most of that history). Ukraine is important for the Russian economy, offering access to the Black Sea through its ports and transit for Russian natural gas shipments to Europe. Above all, Ukraine provides Russia with a defense against military ground attack from western powers: the Carpathian mountain range in western Ukraine is a natural obstacle to an invader. If Ukraine were in the hands of an anti-Russian power or allied itself with such a power, Russia would be much more vulnerable to an invader. Given Russia’s historical experience of being invaded from the west—two such invasions took place within the last 100 years, with devastating effects on Russia—Russian leaders would understandably be wary of again becoming vulnerable to such an invasion.
For these reasons, dominance over Ukraine is vitally important to Russia. Russian actions over the last year have been attempts to maintain this dominance in the face of closer EU-Ukraine ties, Yanukovich’s overthrow, and a new, unfriendly Ukrainian government. Meanwhile, American responses to Russia’s actions—denunciations, sanctions, an increased military presence in Eastern Europe—appear to confirm the view that Russia is facing hostile powers in the west and must protect itself.
This view did not originate during the events of the last year, either, but is consistent with American actions, as understood by Russian leaders, over the 22 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. An array of US policies in the interim can quite plausibly be interpreted as forming a pattern of threatening and humiliating Russia.
First, NATO, which was originally created as a military alliance directed at Soviet Russia, has gradually expanded since the end of the Cold War to include Eastern European states formerly part of Russia’s sphere of influence: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This historically anti-Russian military alliance now extends all the way to the Russian border. Further, this expansion may be perceived by the Russians as a blatant violation of an understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union, reached in the last days of the Cold War, that NATO would not grow to include Eastern Europe.
Second, the United States has repeatedly attacked or threatened nations with which Russia has had friendly relations: in 1999, President Bill Clinton bombed the Serbs, another Slavic, Orthodox people; in 2003, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, a long-time Russian ally; in 2013, President Barack Obama seriously threatened to bomb Syria, another Russian ally, and this year actually has bombed Syria. To be sure, the 2014 bombing is aimed at rebel groups opposed to the Syrian government, but that has not prevented Putin from condemning the US bombing campaign in Syria.
Third, the United States has pursued an anti-ballistic missile defense system that could counter the deterrent effect of Russia’s nuclear arsenal; President Bush even went to so far as to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the Soviet Union and United States agreed to in 1972 — along with NATO expansion, this is another instance of the United States apparently breaking its word to Russia. Despite his efforts to “re-set” the US relationship with Russia, President Obama has continued deployment of an anti-missile system.
Given both this history of apparently anti-Russian policies and Ukraine’s importance to Russia, closer economic ties between Ukraine and the EU could reasonably appear to Putin and other Russian leaders as the next step in a strategy by the United States and its European allies to threaten vital Russian interests. Pressuring Ukraine to cancel the EU trade deal, supporting Ukrainian separatists, and annexing part of eastern Ukraine are all strategically understandable, though morally unjust, measures to prevent this important Russian neighbor from falling under anti-Russian influences.
To repeat, none of this justifies or excuses Putin’s actions, nor does it make the Russian president anything other than a ruthless autocrat. This context does make his actions understandable in terms of Russian economic and military self-interest, however, and strongly suggests that attempts by the United States to extend its influence into Ukraine—even if the intention is simply to protect Ukraine from Russia—will be met by further hostile Russian actions. Recognizing this and trying to avoid escalating tensions is not “appeasement” but simply prudence.
The prudence of a less confrontational approach to Russia becomes clearer if we consider a rel