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When the Soviet Union collapsed more than two decades ago, political leaders in the United States welcomed—and with taxpayers dollars directly supported—the new political course of independent republics aimed at increased democratization and further integration into European political structures.
The Cold War was over and Russia was not a threat anymore. For those in the West and in the former USSR states this meant one thing: The future of U.S.-Russia relations was optimistic and—to a certain extent—peaceful. President Boris Yeltsin, who took over after Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, did not have imperial ambitions.
That euphoria, however, began to disappear in 1999, after the former KGB officer President Vladimir Putin came into power in the Kremlin. Under the Bush administration, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia deteriorated. For Putin—just like for many KGB operatives—the collapse of the Soviet Union became a tragedy or, to put in his own words, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 became the first serious signal to the international community that things were about to change. By modernizing his military, thanks to large injections of petrodollars into the Russian economy, Putin has envisioned a new future for his great motherland.
What happened in Ukraine in the winter of this year was not expected either in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. Even Putin’s previous idea to restore Russia’s political influence in the form of the newly established Eurasian Union and Customs Union was not perceived as a real, immediate threat to Euro-Atlantic security and stability.
That was true until the annexation of Crimea. The situation in Ukraine quickly pointed to a fact that the U.S. had failed to predict: The Russian bear was standing strong on its feet ready to fight whatever it perceived as a threat to its national security—whether imaginary or real.
President Putin is not Stalin. Rather, he is a modern dictator—supported domestically, yet not popular abroad. He is not stupid: Instead, he takes calculated political risks. Young and ambitious, posing topless, riding on top of tanks and jetfighters, and publishing an op-ed in the New York Times, he very well understands the art of self-marketing in today’s politics.
In this region of the world where democracy is mostly a foreign concept, strong authoritarian leaders sometimes appear to be more politically attractive than democratic presidents. This phenomenon is largely due to Russia’s communist and imperial past and explains why Putin’s approval rates today are as high as 80 percent. But Putin’s Russia is far more dangerous than Stalin’s Soviet Union. Communism was an inclusive ideology, where nationality was the secondary matter. Modern Russia is different. It is nationalistic and, alarmingly, hostile to ethnic minorities and small neighbors who do not perceive themselves as part of Russia’s territorial fiefdom. Expansionism and imperialism is the quintessence of current Russian politics and Putin has cast himself as the political messiah who promises to revive the national dream of his citizens.
We have to be honest with ourselves in America. Much of the blame for Putin’s accrual of so much power and influence rests on our shoulders. We allowed him to massacre Russia’s Chechen population in the Northern Caucasus during the Second Chechen war. We did not intervene in Georgia. And we let him choke democracies and encourage autocracies in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
We closed our eyes when he covertly and, at times, openly backed Iran’s nuclear program and when he blocked international attempts to stabilize the political situation in Syria that devolved into a massacre of hundreds of thousands. And we failed to prevent him from providing a shelter to a former NSA officer Edward Snowden. It appears that Putin has simply outsmarted the United States.
With the Russian army ready to cross into Eastern Ukraine, the issue now is whether or not the U.S. will succeed to mobilize available resources to contain Putin’s growing and, therefore, threatening political ambitions. For many of us who believe in freedom, democracy, and peace, we can only hope that this will be so.
Geysar I. Gurbanov is a Rotary Peace Fellow at Duke-UNC Chapel Hill Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies and a visiting graduate student in the Department of Government at Harvard. Follow him on Twitter @geysar.
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