The invasion of Crimea and the continuing problems in Ukraine have come as a surprise to some in the West. After all, the Cold War is over, politics are changing, countries once ruled by fearsome dictators are taking their first steps toward democracy. Life is good.
Not everyone is buying into that political scenario, however, and it appears that the United States has been missing some very important signals from a key adversary, Russia. While the West likes to think that the Cold War has ended and the world is now on a new political pathway, the view from Moscow is very different.
“Overload” vs. “reset”
Perhaps the difference is best illustrated in the scene that played out before a wide swath of international media, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to hit the reset button with Russia. This bungled PR stunt left Clinton holding a huge button that read “overload” (a translation error of the Russian word) instead of “reset,” which was quickly pointed out to her by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. This insignificant faux pas, however, points up the larger issue. The United States is not really paying attention to how Russia sees things.
While the deaths of Hussein of Iraq and Qadhafi of Libya, the Arab Spring and independence and pro-Western attitudes of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic (once Soviet satellite states) may be seen as positive changes by the West, the same cannot be said for Russia’s take on things.
In fact, Russia declared that the death of one of its key allies, Moammar Qadhafi, and the interference by the West in Libyan politics (which Russia had voted against at the United Nations) effectively “killed” the “reset.” Is it any surprise, then, that Putin is digging in his heels over Syria?
Closer to home and more threatening
While the West sees as a natural political evolution the desire of former Soviet states like Georgia, Moldova and, now, Ukraine to lean toward a more European-style of governing, this is anathema to Moscow and Putin. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees as his natural prerogative the right to keep these states within the Russian sphere of influence. Russia (unbeknownst apparently to the US) never really signed on to the end of the Cold War.
What values the West had assigned to Russia were its own. Make no mistake: Russia is ruled by a dictator, whose background is deeply rooted in paranoia and distrust. It bears repeating that Putin came to power as a KGB official. That’s the way he thinks and has thought from the beginning. He’s not above lying or subterfuge: Those are the tools of his tradecraft, of the world of intelligence-gathering, of getting ahead and staying on top.
For Russia, the end of the Cold War was only a Western illusion. Current events in Ukraine should make that perfectly clear.