Russia and the West – a great misunderstanding?

Article by Ole Scheuermann (UWC Atlantic College ’14-’16)

The crisis between the NATO and Russia seems to escalate – first voices speak about a second, upcoming ‘cold war’. What does Putin want and, is confrontation the only possible way?


It is obvious. The relationship between the NATO, especially North America and Europa, and Russia, has never been as tense as it is right now since the fall of the Soviet Union. The West and Russia overbid each other with sanctions and since Putin has intensified his efforts to influence the development in the Ukraine, talks on a serious base seem to completely impossible. The world seems to shift to a new era of a political cold war, with no side willing to overcome all burdens that stand in the way to a sustainable, peaceful solution. Western as well as Russian media are certain who is to blame. But, who is guilty and can we do something about it?

First of all it must be said that the relationship between Russia and its Western opponents haven’t ever been this tense. The first time after the end of the cold war, most Russians had a favorable opinion of the US. Basically, that also applies to the view of the United States citizens on Russia. Also, at the beginning of the 21st century, Putin’s Russia and the West were seen by some as allies. Putin even supported the war on terrorism after 9/11 in the beginning. This was before George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the NATO expanded towards the east. Today, political support from Russia seems almost impossible. It is also difficult nowadays to find people in one of the two blocks that openly support the other. We seem to live in completely separated and divided realities.

But why did Russia and its Western opponents go away from each other? The diplomatic cooling is a process that already started long before the Ukraine crisis. It has definitely intensified since the Russian annexion of Crimea But it reaches further beyond. The process can be best described as a profound disappointment of the other partner, a feeling especially strong among the Russians. One action that can be seen as a start of our geopolitical freezing was the American invasion of Iraq and the US-withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. These actions were strongly opposed by Putin and the Russian citizens. Together with the NATO and EU enlargement towards the East, including former Soviet Union member states or affiliated countries, this can be seen as the triggering factor for our current situation. In Russia’s eyes, especially the extension of the EU and the NATO is seen as a violation of agreements made during the improvement of the Western-Russian relations under Gorbachev’s ruling. One problem about that is that Russians as well as former, Western negotiators have different claims on what was said. Also, written in the Washington Post: The Kremlin had assumed that, in return for supporting the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Washington would recognize what Moscow claimed as its “sphere of privileged interests” in the post-Soviet space. This expectation did not come true. Disagreements were further strengthened by the different handling and opinions on the so called ‘color revolutions‘ in the Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. The EU and the NATO reaching for the Ukraine, with talks about an EU-Ukraine association agreement and an inclusion of the Ukraine into the NATO can be seen as the crossed line for Russia. The EU and NATO had finally expanded its influence to Russia’s ‘front yard’. A development Russia would not like to accept.

The disillusion of the Russians after the optimism at the beginning of the 1990s went together with a rise of the Russian nationalists that have large influences in Russian politics. They push legislative action as the Russian LGBT propaganda law as well as a consequent policy towards the Ukraine, even if that means that the Russian economy is currently on the decline.

Russia is also the leader of an anti-Western movement. It has also declared itself the savior of ‘traditional values’; also, it is more and more becoming a dictatorship, again.

Today, a ‘free press’ not following the opinions of the leaders in Moscow barely exists in Russia.

It is not wrong to condemn Russia’s behavior in relation to the Ukraine crisis. Whereas as the annexion of Crimea can be justified with the right of self-determination of peoples and a disregard of the UN Security Council by the US, the actions of the Russia following the MH17 plane crash and the accusation of sending troops to the Ukraine was inexcusable. Too obvious was Putin’s agenda to disrupt the Ukraine.

Even though certain progress within Russia was made, the situation stays tense. Problems are not fully solved yet.

To sum up, it can be said that the conflict in Ukraine shows a clash of interests. The EU and the US want to expand the NATO as well as the EU, in order to integrate Eastern Europe as fast as possible into its existing power structures. Russia, who still claims to be a global leader, fears to lose its influence in Eastern Europe, also the former member countries of the Warsaw Pact. BUT: The current tension within Russia is not only bad luck and will not fade away as soon as Russia has a new president. There won’t be a new, moderate leader, as there was Gorbachev 25 years ago. Russia is still partly a democracy. The president is elected by the people, who support Putin’s policies.

The West must realize that it can only pacify the conflict within Russia by accepting Russia and Putin as an important global partner. Putin may be an unpredictable partner, but he is the head of the largest country in the world that still possesses 8000 nuclear warheads. Moreover, he is able to make compromises. Putin is no second Hitler who is immune against any action of threatening or appeasement. He is willing to accept changes, as he, for example, withdraws troops from the Ukrainian border.

The West must work together with Russia to find a sufficient long-term solution for both partners, the NATO and Russia. It cannot be a solution to slide into an era of a new cold war and anti-western sentiments. We don’t want to repeat the same mistakes again. If we cannot find a solution for Russia and the NATO coexisting next to each other, why not taking Russia into the NATO? This idea might sound far-fetched, but Russia and the NATO have more similarities than one might expect. May it be ISIS, the fear of Iran possessing nuclear weapons, or the oil and gas supply of Europe by Russia. It would be a great progress if the disagreements are overcome.


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