The end of 2021 was marked by hair-raising confrontation between the two greatest nuclear powers, the US and Russia, over Ukraine - a country defending itself against Russian aggression since 2014. It suddenly felt like the ghost of Caribbean crisis has come to life, threatening us with nuclear Armageddon.
It was the culmination of a year-long standoff, which began with the Biden administration and its Ukrainian allies attempting a more assertive policy towards Russia.
In a major change of tack, which coincided with Biden’s arrival in the White House a year ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made several moves that were meant as a slap to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face.
He sanctioned Russia’s ally in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, and outlawed TV channels associated with him. He brought the issue of Russian-occupied Crimea back into the spotlight by announcing the Crimean platform. Most irritatingly for the Kremlin, he launched a campaign, co-ordinated with influential DC lobbyists, for Ukraine’s membership of Nato.
That, quite expectedly, triggered Moscow’s heavy-handed response. By April, nearly 100,000 Russian troops were deployed not far from the Ukrainian border in a menacing show meant to signal Putin’s readiness to go to war, should one of his “red lines” be crossed by the perceived adversary.
The interim result of this year-long confrontation, now interrupted by US President Joe Biden and Putin agreeing to launch negotiations, can be illustrated by two publications on the website of the Atlantic Council – a Nato-linked think-tank, which advocates hawkish policies towards Russia.
The first one, released a couple of weeks before Russia started pulling troops to the Ukrainian border in March 2021, was a proposed Ukraine strategy for the Biden administration. The document called for granting Ukraine membership action plan for Nato should Russia prove “intransigent” in peace talks. It called for arming Ukraine and stepping up Nato’s naval activities near Russian shores in the Black Sea. Finally, it unequivocally stated the goal of derailing Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would allow Russia to supply gas to Western Europe bypassing Ukraine.
The second Atlantic Council document, signed by an even more stellar cohort of American diplomats and top brass military commanders, was published in the last days of 2021. The goals it set were markedly less ambitious. It contained no more talk about Nato membership plans for Ukraine and only mentioned Nord Stream 2 in the context of putting pressure on Berlin into suspending the project, should Russia invade. But it still called for providing weapons to Ukraine and for a more assertive military posture in the Black Sea.
As the dust settles, Putin has good reasons to believe that his blackmailing of the West with the prospect of full-out war in Ukraine has worked. Nato membership is clearly off the table, with Russia having embarked on a counter-offensive and demanding that Nato guarantees its non-expansion into post-Soviet space.
Nord Stream 2 is completed and awaits certification by the German regulator. Despite token gestures towards the US allies, Berlin appears to be largely unfazed by the Russian invasion panic which was fanned by the Biden administration at the end of 2021 in the last-ditch attempt to shut down the project, with the newly formed German government as the target audience.
The only real big loss for Putin is Medvedchuk’s exclusion from political life in Ukraine at the start of the new election cycle. That diminishes Russia’s chances of altering Ukraine’s course by political means. But there is no doubt that Putin will keep trying to salvage his protégé.
But the most significant result of the standoff is clarity. Putin demonstrated where his red lines are, beyond which the prospect of war becomes all too real. He means it. The prospect of Nato in Ukraine raises the same kind of panic as Soviet missiles in Cuba did in the US. Putin knows he will have Russian society rallying behind him if that prospect becomes real and he will need to act. He benefits from confrontation through adversarial legitimisation. It prolongs his political life.
But in setting out his own red lines, Putin also exposed America’s own limitations with regard to Ukraine. Towards the end of December, the US administration was making it abundantly clear that it would not sacrifice American soldiers for the Ukrainian cause. At the end of the day, Russia proved that it cares more about Ukraine’s future than the US does and it is prepared to make significantly greater sacrifices to keep its most important neighbour militarily and politically neutral.
There is symbolism in the fact that it happened right at the time when ex-Soviet people were marking the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. It’s not just Biden’s attempt to change the Ukrainian equation, which hit the wall in December 2021, but the entire set of policies implemented by successive American administrations in the ex-Soviet space over the last 30 years.
These policies boiled down to alienating Russia from its closest neighbours by the means of welcoming and actively nudging every East European country towards Euroatlantic integration, while explicitly denying that prospect to just one country – Russia. It was never properly articulated in public or put to open debate. Rather, it developed on an ad hoc basis, as a sum total of disappointments with Russia’s deficient democracy in the 1990s, a deeply ingrained xenophobia towards Russians, greatly fuelled by America’s newly acquired allies in Eastern Europe, and the loss of the enemy by Cold War hawks and the military-industrial complex they are being paid by.
The divergence of perceptions began right at the time when Russians defeated the communist regime in the August 1991 revolution, precipitating the collapse of the USSR four months later. The Russians saw the end of the USSR as a common victory, achieved together with the West. But in no time then-president George Bush Sr was already announcing the US victory in the Cold War.
Despite that, there was still an immense enthusiasm for embracing the West in the Russian Federation – a new country that emerged as the largest fragment of what used the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. A poll conducted by Levada Centre in November 1991 showed 80% of Russians having a positive attitude to the US; compare it with 12% in January 2012.
The Russians were emerging from a totalitarian sect, into which the vast majority of them were born and thus deprived of crucial knowledge as to how the outer world worked. Dazed and confused, they immediately plunged into the wild world of capitalism accompanied with social Darwinism of the Novi Russky new rich, extreme poverty, rampant crime and regional wars.
They surely are to blame for many bad choices made in the following decades. Yet it was the American-led West which should have been the adult in the room. But despite its messianic ambition of spreading democracy around the world, the West shamefully failed in this role, triggering a domino chain of events that led to the current standoff.
Throughout the 1990s, the Russians were patiently waiting for their turn to be invited to the Euro-Atlantic club, sensing – with their characteristic self-depreciation – that they could be unworthy and it was all their own fault. But towards the end of the decade, it started dawning on the political establishment in Moscow that despite all the smiles and token gestures like Russia-NATO council of G8 membership, the US was playing the good old geopolitical chess in which Russia was not an ally, but a rival.
The West’s indifference bordering on sympathy towards Chechen terrorism and its divide-and-rule policy in the Balkans all contributed to the changing attitudes. But Nato expansion was always the main grievance. From Russia’s perspective it all amounted to a creeping Versailles.
In 1999, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov wrote in a Kommersant op-ed: “Through its expansion and military action [he was referring to the bombing of Belgrade], Nato essentially provokes Russia into self-isolation and nurtures sieged fortress sentiments. Such a fortress would be a gift to those circles in Nato which are still seeking a justification for their mighty arsenal and military programmes”.
Back at the time, Luzhkov formed a tandem with prime minister Yevgeny Primakov fighting for power against Yeltsin’s young nominee for president – Vladimir Putin. They were seen by Russian liberals and the West as conservative dinosaurs standing in the way of progress and further rapprochement with the West. The latter was firmly on Putin’s side in this rivalry.
Luzhkov’s article turned out to be prophetic. As the West set itself on a collision course with Russia by expanding Nato and starting – right at the same time – to counter Russian energy projects in Europe, Putin’s Russia began moving, very slowly and gradually, towards self-isolation and authoritarian rule. Its behaviour was now dictated by the logic of a larger and far more powerful nuclear monster than Russia itself encroaching on its immediate neighbourhood.
The vector of Russia’s development and Putin’s personal evolution as a leader was predetermined by the bad strategic choices made in Western capitals. As it deals with extremely intransigent and unpredictable Putin in 2022, the West is facing its own Frankenstein.
The war in Ukraine is the collision moment in this confrontation. A more direct involvement of the West will open up a truly apocalyptic prospect for the whole world.
Leonid Ragozin is an independent journalist based in Rīga. He covers Russian and Ukrainian politics for a variety of Western media outlets. He co-authored multiple editions of Lonely Planet Guides to Russia, Ukraine and other countries. He tweets at @leonidragozin