LONDON – The question of the West’s relationship with Russia has been buried by media stories of hacking, sex scandals, and potential blackmail. The dossier by former British spy Christopher Steele about US President Donald Trump’s activities in Moscow some years ago may turn out to be as credible as the claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction – or it may not. We simply don’t know. What is clear is that such stories have distracted attention from the task of bridging the diplomatic chasm now dividing Russia and the West.
It’s hard for a Westerner, even one of Russian ancestry like me, to warm to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I hate the way his government has used the “foreign agent” law to harass and effectively close down NGOs. I hate its human-rights abuses, assassinations, dirty tricks, and criminal prosecutions to intimidate political opponents.
What seems indisputable is that today’s anti-liberal, authoritarian Russia is as much a product of the souring of relations with the West as it is of Russian history or the threat of disintegration that Russia faced in the 1990s.
This souring is rooted in Russia’s perception, underpinned by a large dose of paranoia and a misreading of post-communist history, that the West – and the United States, in particular – has aggressive designs on it. It is simply not true that Russia willingly gave up its empire to join the democratic West, only to be rebuffed by it. The Soviet Union had become too decrepit to hold on to its post-World War II gains or even its pre-war frontiers. The peoples of Eastern Europe, and those absorbed by the Soviet Union, were delighted to be free of Kremlin control.