In 1991, the USSR dissolved into a collection of independent states leaving the Russian Federation as its internationally recognized successor. (As the legal successor state, Russia inherited the Soviet Union's seat on the UN Security Council.) The states of the former Eastern Bloc had already broken free of Soviet control. German unification was a fact. It might have seemed that the Cold War was over with NATO's mission of protecting the West from Soviet aggression no longer needed. But NATO did not disappear. Instead it began moving east into the former Warsaw Pact countries. In Washington, the judgement was that the US had “won” the Cold War, the USSR had “lost” and Russia was now just a second class power of little consequence. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined in 1999. By 2004, NATO took in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania thereby moving well beyond the former boundaries of the USSR. Albania and Croatia were admitted in 2009. Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia are on on the doorstep. Reaching deeper into the former USSR, NATO unilaterally decided to eventually bring in the Ukraine and Georgia.
It demands great credulity to believe that Russia would not have seen this expansion east as a form of aggression. Russia has a long history and a deep culture. It also possess a formidable military, nuclear weapons, and that seat on the Security Council. Moscow essentially swallowed the first waves of NATO expansion but balked at Georgia (where Stalin was born) and in 2014 drew the line in Ukraine. None of this should have been surprising. That President Putin, for partly political reasons, played to Russian nationalism in his reaction to NATO's pretensions should not hide the fact that Russia and the Russian people had good reason to feel brazenly provoked.
During the Yeltsin years, the US made efforts to support Russian “reform.” But we Americans have little appreciation of the particularities of other countries – historical, social, cultural, political – and expected too much and gave too little. With Putin the trajectory has been mostly down. But the events in Ukraine, Russian resilience to sanctions, and Moscow's reclaimed role in the Mideast suggest that it was always foolish to see Russia as simply a second class power of no consequence. The US and Europe – as at least the Germans understand – need Russia.
Russia and the US have a deep shared interest in their own and global security. They form, in effect, the Western and Eastern flanks of the Atlantic community. Conflict between the two helps neither. We face a common threat from Islamic fundamentalism and the regional chaos in Syria and Iraq. We both must contend with the “rise” of China. That the two countries have different political systems is not unusual and reflects our very different histories. It should not take Donald Trump to note that the Russian people have chosen their president and still support him. Sanctions have not weakened Putin because the Russian people need little help in seeing in them another example of US aggression.
What should be done? Washington's political class should make up its collective mind to deal with the Russia that is rather then the one it might wish. NATO expansion into Ukraine is not required by US national interests and should be dropped. EU membership for Ukraine should be left to the EU to process (or not). Sanctions should be rolled back. The US played a large part in Syria and Iraq's descent into chaos. There, Washington should accept that Russia has interests and that Assad's fate needs to be negotiated. More generally, the US should commit itself to working multilaterally and with it's partners on the UN Security Council, especially Russia. Achieving compromise approaches may not be easy. Trust has frayed. But as our work together on Iran nuclear shows, things can get done. And the US needs partners that don't always simply say “yes.” Those “coalitions of the willing” are not adequate protection from making mistakes.
Note: An earlier version of this appeared in TransConflict.