Why Did Putin Turn?

PRINCETON – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy toward his country’s “near abroad” and the West has been badly misunderstood. Instead of focusing on broader geopolitical patterns – in particular, the effect of the 2007-2008 financial crisis on global politics – commentators have been turning Kremlin policy into a psychodrama that can be understood only through a deep exploration of the Russian soul. The result has been rampant misconceptions about what drove Putin’s shift from what seemed to be a modernizing, conciliatory, and even pro-Western stance to aggressive revisionism.

Two such flawed explanations for Russia’s current foreign policy have been offered. The first, proposed by Germany’s self-described Putin-Versteher (“Putin sympathizers”), is that Russian policy is a logical response to the West’s strategy of encirclement. The eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union, they contend, was an unnecessary provocation. In fact, none other than George Kennan, the originator of America’s Cold War containment strategy, opposed NATO enlargement in the 1990s on precisely these grounds.

There are obvious limits to this theory. For starters, it is based on the claim that, at the time of the Berlin Wall’s collapse and the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the West promised that there would be no NATO expansion. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, on the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s demise, accused the West of not keeping the promises it made in 1989, instead taking “advantage of Russia’s weakening” in the 1990s to claim “monopoly leadership and domination of the world,” including through NATO enlargement.

But, in reality, the West never promised not to expand NATO. In fact, in the spring of 1990, the United States presented a powerful case that a reunifying Germany could not be part of two different security systems.