First, and perhaps the most important point is that historically the Russians were ignored after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Keep in mind that there was a European Union for all those former aligned states of the Warsaw bloc of Eastern Europe. And indeed, the EU expanded dramatically, and that meant full integration into these institutions, incredible wealth that they were going to be able to develop. And it was a great achievement for most of them. Look at where the Polish economy is today compared to where it was in 1989. It tells you almost everything you need to go. There have been political successes, there have been others which have been a little less so. Look to Hungary and watch Viktor Orbán be able to solidify his victory in an election that is only somewhat free and not particularly fair. But overall it was amazing. NATO has also expanded and enabled all these countries up to the Russian border to have national security, to be engaged in a process of collective security where their soldiers would be properly trained, where they would be defended by the whole alliance if they were unjustly attacked.
What did Russia get? And the answer is not much. They had shock therapy, they had a bunch of Western economic advisers who were ready to come in and say, “This is how you should restructure and reform your economy. Some of them were smart, others were theoretically correct, but had no recognition of the realities on the ground. Certainly, when I think of all the auctions that took place and how corrupt the Russians were and unable to privatize large sections of society that were completely ripped off by a bunch of oligarchs, there was no Marshall Plan for Russia. There was no major effort to integrate Russia into global institutions and architecture, even when Yeltsin was president, who was strongly aligned with the United States and had a cabinet around him that really wanted in to be a part of. Instead, you had the joint NATO-Russia council, which was never anything more than meetings that Russians could attend, but with no intention or effort to try to integrate them. Then you have the G7 plus one. What is one plus one? It’s not your spouse, plus one is a date. The next time you come, you will bring a plus a different. It was very clear to the Russians that there was not much interest.
Now why not? Why didn’t the Americans and the Europeans try after the end of the cold war, when the Americans won and the democrats won, why didn’t they do with the Russians what they did after the Second World War with the defeated Germans and the Japanese? And I think a lot of that is because the Americans didn’t go to war, because victory fell on us. And the reality is that if you have that peace dividend, you have to be willing to spend a good chunk of it to keep it. And instead, it was basically treated as free money. It has been treated as, it is a great success for globalization and eventually the Russians will find their place. So I think that was a huge missed opportunity. And it was basically, if the Russians were going to fail well, it wasn’t the responsibility of the Americans or the responsibility of the allies to do much about it.
Moreover, when the increasingly angry Russians began to take steps to restore a world order from which they felt increasingly left behind and felt increasingly humiliated, the West did not pay much attention to it and furthermore did not follow its own principles. Thus, the United States opened NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 at the Bucharest summit. They promised that these two countries would be able to join, but they had no real intention as to how they would achieve this.
And when Russia then invaded Georgia a few months later, it was in August if I remember correctly because a lot of these things happened in August, nothing. I mean very… There was an internal discussion within the Bush cabinet and Dick Cheney was angry and said, “We have to defend these guys. But the reality was that nothing had been done. There was no intention of having crippling sanctions against the Russians who would destroy their economy or provide weapons systems to the Georgians. Truly a democracy run by someone who was a bit of a firebrand who wasn’t trusted much in the United States, Mikheil Saakashvili, approximately like Zelenskyy, by the way, received an answer in the United States before the war in Ukraine. But of course, we didn’t have social media back then, you didn’t have the big picture perspective of what was happening on the ground, and the United States did next to nothing.
Then, in 2014, when the Russians invaded Ukraine, and not only annexed Crimea, but also took and denied taking territories on the ground in Donbass, in the south-east of Ukraine, which have do the Americans? And the answer is not much. Again, don’t provide weapons, don’t provide much support, limited penalties. And in fact, in 2018, when the Russians organized the World Cup, many of you remember it, and they continue to invade, they still occupy this Ukrainian territory, an active fight continues on the other side of the line of conflict, a group of European leaders flies to Russia to meet Putin and attend the World Cup.
I mean, so obviously not a lot of consequences for all of this. And so as a result of all of this, the Russians, I think themselves, had good reason to believe that they could get away with getting involved and fixing what they saw as unjust humiliation and the West wouldn’t do much about it. Now, more recently, you have a people who have actually felt more and more humiliated. The Russian economy is not doing very well, you will remember when President Obama said that Russia is not a great power, a regional power and that it is in decline. By the way, analytically, I agree with that. But if you’re the president of the United States, why do that? When you win, why do that? You never knock.
It reminded me of Obama when Trump was there at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And by the way, Obama had plenty of reasons to be very angry with Trump? Keep in mind this is the guy who started the birther movement against Obama and said he was born in Kenya, born in Indonesia, prove it, show your passport, show your birth certificate. And it became a big problem. So if you’re Obama, you absolutely have a personal animus against Trump. But then you’re President of the United States and you’re up there giving a WHCD speech, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and there’s Trump in the audience and the right thing to do as that president is nothing. The right thing to do as president is to be gracious. You succeeded. Never knock. And Obama couldn’t help it. Did a lap of honor, stuck his thumb down. He made Trump look like an idiot. You could see the humiliation and anger on Trump’s face. And in retrospect, is that something that probably motivated him more to get into politics, motivated him more to go after Obama whenever he could and undo everything Obama did when he became president? Yeah. Yeah. It’s the kind of thing that I think someone like Trump would take absolutely personally.
And does Putin take it personally against the United States for decades of what he sees as not only not paying attention, but sticking his finger and saying, “These guys are no good, these guys are no good »? Absoutely. So I think there are a bunch. And also from the Russian point of view, the United States itself is hypocritical, does not really have a footing on which to stand.
When Russia annexed Crimea, much of the language used to justify the annexation was taken from the US decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which, again, from a human rights perspective man, the Americans had many reasons to do so. But in terms of international law, it was actually a violation of international law. There’s no justification for that, so the Russians say, “Well, see, the Americans can do it, we can do it too.” Let us remember that the Americans promised international law to defend Ukraine in 1994, signed an agreement with the United Kingdom and the Russians. The Ukrainians have given up their nuclear weapons, we are going to make sure to defend their territorial integrity. Wasn’t worth the piece of paper it was printed on because when the Russians invaded 2014 the Americans don’t even talk about this document. Well, why would they care in 2022? It’s a big question.
Iraq, Afghanistan, these are wars of choice, massive violations of human rights by the United States. So is it fair that Americans call themselves, I am an American, the leader of the free world. If you’re in Russia, you say, “Listen, this is all just moral relativism, everyone’s equally bad, no one’s telling the truth, so I should be able to get away with whatever I can do from a position of power”?
Again, I want to be clear. Putin is the one who supports and commits war crimes. And no, I refuse to compare what he orders to the democratic country which has literally done nothing but want to govern itself. And there are no Nazis running the country, it’s insane. No, it is not the Taliban who cut off their heads and hands, the most abusive country in the world towards women, which harbors bin Laden. No, it’s not Iraq with massive human rights violations under Saddam Hussein historically, after they invaded Kuwait and the Americans came back and attacked them.
There are many reasons to oppose America’s history of intervention and unjust war. This is not the same as what the Russians are currently doing to the Ukrainian people. But we have to be responsible for how we got here. And if we’re going to be honest with ourselves about that, well, we need to broaden the conversation beyond just Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So that’s a bit for me.
For more weekly analysis from Ian Bremmer, subscribe to his GZERO World newsletter at ianbremmer.bulletin.com