Is confrontation with Russia inevitable?
April 18th, 2014
01:24 PM ET

Is confrontation with Russia inevitable?

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.

More from GPS: Russia endangering global order

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.

More from GPS: Why Russia is spooked

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.

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Topics: Russia • Ukraine

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soundoff (258 Responses)
  1. AL

    The REAL STORY here is "Do not START a conflict that you are NOT willing to END" and this goes to the USA. They created this BIG MESS by creating this alliance with the FAR RIGHT Group in Ukraine to over throw a DEMOCRACTICALLY elected government. Good, Bad or corrupt, but he was DEMOCRATCALLY elected and it was WRONG for the USA to support this change of Government. NOW do you REALLY believe Russia is going to ALLOW what was GOOD for the USA side to be WRONG for the Russia side ???????????/

    This is all a zeal to sell GAS into a big market by USA companies and Nato Eastward Expansion and take over the Black Sea Fleet Port operations. Get your popcorn, some hot dogs and soda and WATCH the show.

    April 26, 2014 at 9:36 am |
  2. nibiro

    say no to snaction .Bill

    April 26, 2014 at 5:09 pm |
  3. RR

    Say YES to sanctions!!!!!

    April 27, 2014 at 2:01 am |
    • Talk sense

      They don't WORK! What's the point?
      The only reason that the US and EU throw a few sanctions in every now and then is because they're a token gesture . They haven't got a CLUE about how to handle Russia!

      April 28, 2014 at 12:51 am |
  4. Ted Jenkins

    My opinion is that ideas of "Slavic particularism" are similar to all ethnic identifications. A retreat from modern realities. A useful method for local elites to distract ordinary citizens from their true rational interests in civic rights, fairer distribution of wealth, increased productivity, avoidance of war and social stability. I do believe this phenomenon could've been much decreased in Russia by adequate support of the "westernizers" in Russia, truly massive and visible economic assistance, and an immediate invitation to NATO for Russia. I harken back to the 1950's and the question of "Who lost China?" The question for now is "Who lost Russia?"

    April 27, 2014 at 8:02 am |
  5. Black Guard

    Nice dig there, Jason. Yes, it actually looks like the Slavophiles were right!
    But, what's really the way out? I mean, short of playing Labeling Theory, here, what's REALLY to be done??

    April 27, 2014 at 3:07 pm |
  6. steve696

    I think the answers are yes and yes in that order. Putin would likely have pressed for Crimea in any case. But President Obama's lack of a coherent (read that "lack of any") foreign policy has allowed the decisive victory to occur both much sooner and with much less pain for Russia.

    April 27, 2014 at 4:08 pm |
  7. Rightster

    Why is there a different format for comments here as opposed to the regular articles? Standardization please!

    April 28, 2014 at 12:36 am |
  8. Fionna Amersfeld Ou

    Before a war criminal, one Javier Solana, issued an order for NATO bombers to begin the slaughter of Serbian children (over 190) and adults (2100), there were lies spread by the likes of that monstrous hypocrite Christiane Amanpour claiming 500,000 Albanians were killed by Serbian forces.

    In the end, the total number of victims in Kosovo is 2000, and that includes Serb armymen and Albanian paramilitary, previously on FBI terrorist list (so-called Kosovo Liberation Army). That is 250 TIMES LESS than what Amanpour was fraudulently claiming.

    To wit, the number of casualties during the NATO illegal war against Serbia in the Serbian province of Kosovo ("Kosovo-Metohija" officially) is smaller than the number of civlians murdered in the rest of Serbia by the NATO, and just the other day former German foreign minister admitted he knew that the NATO bombing was illegal when it was happenning and remains so to this day.

    May 1, 2014 at 2:46 pm |
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  13. zortilonrel

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch since I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch! "One who's our friend is fond of us one who's fond of us isn't necessarily our friend." by Geoffrey F. Albert.

    December 15, 2020 at 8:32 pm |
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