By Fareed Zakaria
Over the past 2 months, we have watched what has looked like a minor version of the Cold War ramp up between the West and Russia. And it has left many people wondering, "How did we get here?" Was this confrontation inevitable or did the West mishandle Russia, from the start?
In the mishandling camp is Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, who watched from Spaso House in Moscow as Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the end of the Cold War and then the end of the Communism. He argues, as the title of his recent Washington Post essay puts it, "The United States has treated Russia as a loser since the end of the Cold War."
In the years right after the Cold War ended, several American statesmen and writers urged a more generous policy towards Moscow.
I was one of them. My logic was fairly simple. We have had two historic experiments with peace settlements after world wars. After World War I, the victors punished Germany and left it outside the new international system. It proved to be a disaster, leaving a wounded and angry Germany, pining for revenge. After World War II, on the other hand, The United States and its allies were magnanimous towards Germany and Japan, integrating those countries into the new global order. That peace, the Peace of 1945, succeeded brilliantly. And so, I thought we should do our best to try to integrate Russia into the structures of the new post-Cold War world, give it significant aid, and help it rebuild its economy and society.
Now, Western countries did provide some help, but not really on the scale that a vast country like Russia needed after the complete collapse it had gone through in the early 1990s. But if the West did not do enough, Russia also pursued policies that made integration very hard.
By the early 1990s, Moscow had launched a ferocious war against Chechnya, a part of Russia that had been seeking independence from Moscow for more than a century. Estimates vary, but many believe that the Russian army killed over 200,000 people in the first and second Chechen wars.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Moscow was ardently defending Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic as he massacred Bosnians and later Kosovars. This is not how Germany and Japan behaved after World War II as they sought integration. And at home, Russians were quickly developing a prickly resistance to outside interference and Russian politicians who urged integration with the West became marginal figures with tiny followings.
Looking at this record, the historian Anne Applebaum has argued, also in the Washington Post, that the West fundamentally misunderstood Russia. It saw the place as a quasi-Western land – think of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky – a Western country in the making if only we had put forward the right policies. In fact, she argues, Russia derives its identity from being a non-Western country, perhaps even from being an anti-Western country, in the sense that it is distinct and different from the West.
Perhaps the West could have done more to help Russia. But it does appear to me, looking back, that the Russia of the late 1980s and early 1990s – of Gorbachev and Yeltsin – may have been a special conciliatory moment in its history, a time when Russia was weak, its leadership enlightened, and its populace worn out by decades of communist failure. The mood of that country changed quickly after that, as oil prices rose in the 1990’s, the Russian economy grew, and the Russian state reasserted itself.
In Russia, there has always been a great debate, at least since the 1840s, between "Westernizers" and "Slavophiles." The Westernizers wanted Russia to become Western, while the Slavophiles felt its destiny lay in its distinctive Slavic civilization that was different from the West.
Today, at least, it looks like the Slavophiles were right.