Should the West Have Been Tougher on Russia in the 1990s?

If you ask Russians why they support Vladimir Putin, they often point to the alleged humiliation of Russia in the 1990s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the argument goes, revanchist Western countries dismantled Russian power because they saw it as a threat, leaving the country weak and poor. A strong leader is therefore needed to confront the West and restore Russia’s rightful place among the great powers.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, the historian and hawkish Eastern Europe commentator Anne Applebaum attacked this narrative. The West didn’t humiliate Russia, she argues, on the contrary: It granted it too much influence.

In 1991, Russia was no longer a great power in either population or economic terms. So why didn’t we recognize reality, reform the United Nations and give a Security Council seat to India, Japan or others? Russia did not transform itself along European lines. Why did we keep pretending that it had? Eventually, our use of the word “democracy” to describe the Russian political system discredited the word in Russia itself.

 The crisis in Ukraine, and the prospect of a further crisis in NATO itself, is not the result of our triumphalism but of our failure to react to Russia’s aggressive rhetoric and its military spending. Why didn’t we move NATO bases eastward a decade ago? Our failure to do so has now led to a terrifying plunge of confidence in Central Europe,” Applebaum writes.

According to Applebaum, Russia should have been denied a seat in the G8 and the UN security council, and NATO should have been expanded more aggressively to protect Eastern Europe from Moscow’s clout.

In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Applebaum’s argument is compelling – but it is also dangerously ignorant of the realities of geopolitics. There is no doubt that Russia was granted more global and regional influence than the size of its economy warranted. But you could say the same about France and Britain, who are still allowed to play world power even though they effectively lost that status in the 1950s. And by the way, does anyone understand why Canada is in the G7?

The point was never to grant Russia an international status commensurate with its population size and economy, but to ensure geopolitical stability in a volatile time of transition. Historically, a country’s fall from great power status has always carried great dangers. Handling the transition properly is a matter of war and peace for world leaders.

Following World War I, Germany fell from being continental Europe’s largest military and economic power to being an impoverished state with virtually no army or foreign-policy clout. This feeling of humiliation was probably the single biggest factor leading to Hitler’s rise. In hindsight, most historians agree that the Versailles treaty was a colossal mistake – not because Germany didn’t deserver its terms or wasn’t responsible for the outbreak of the war, but because it ignored the psychological toll a sudden fall from power can take on a population. The world would almost certainly have been better off had the allied victors granted Germany a greater power status, one that it’s role as the loser of a war it started technically didn’t warrant.

Following World War II, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union learned from past mistakes. France and Britain have arguably remained successful, stable democracies in part because they were granted a slow, graceful retirement from world power status in spite of their diminished influence. France has always been prone to anti-Americanism, and it is easy to imagine nationalist demagogues gaining ground had Washington kicked France out of the UN security council or tried to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.

In Russia we are currently seeing the rise of a revanchist dictator in Vladimir Putin. But he is no Hitler. History suggests that the current rise of nationalism in Russia would be far worse if it had been denied the few vestiges of great power status it continued to hold. Keeping the country in the G8 and treating it as a regional power may have been more than its diminished size warranted, but it was nonetheless in everyone’s best interest.

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