Even today, in many different ways, the US and Russia remain close. There is cooperation in space, not least the International Space Station. The US regularly hires Russian rockets to launch its crews to the station and to launch satellites. Russia sells advanced rocket engines to the US. Russia allows war material en route to Afghanistan to pass through its territory on Russian trains. Russia worked hand in glove with the US to successfully remove the large stocks of chemical weapons possessed by Syria. It shares intelligence on Muslim extremists including Islamic State (IS). Conceivably, it could enter the battle against IS. It has encouraged western investment including joint oil exploration of the Artic. Recently, it stood side by side with the US and the EU as they forged an agreement with Iran on its nuclear industry. At the UN Security Council, Russia and the US voted together for a resolution approving the agreement. President Barack Obama phoned President Vladimir Putin to thank him.
US diplomats are now conceding that Russia’s claim that the neo-fascist, so-called “Right Sector” in Ukraine is wreaking havoc is true. The Right Sector, in the eyes of many, was a key — and violent — element in the success of last year’s Maidan demonstrations that toppled President Viktor Yanukovich. When the Russian, French and German foreign ministers hammered out an agreement, with the support of Ukraine’s Parliamentary opposition, for Yanukovich to step down at the next election, the west totally ‘forgot’ about it in the next few days as the Maidan demonstrators drove Yanukovich into exile. Washington and other western capitals supported the ‘democratic revolution’, rather than demanding the fulfilment of the agreement. No wonder Putin was livid.
What is now needed in western capitals is an acknowledgement that they have not always gotten Russia and Putin right. For example, in the Ossetian/Georgian war in 2008, Russia was accused of starting it. In fact, as is now widely accepted in the west, it was Georgia’s bombing of the South Ossetian capital that triggered the war. Today many western observers believe that the degree of Russia’s intervention in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine is grossly overstated. Not long ago, the US commanding general in NATO warned that Russia was about to invade — an ill-informed or deceitful (depending on one’s perspective) viewpoint that was quickly shot down by the head of French intelligence.
Back in 1999 NATO’s bombing of Belgrade, which led to an independent Kosovo, went against international law because the invaders were not themselves under threat. Russia, at the UN, voted against this campaign, arguing that changing a country’s boundaries by force was illegal. If the west had not waged its Kosovo campaign, it is probable that Russia would never have taken over Crimea. Russian paranoia was understandable when the second Russian-Chechen war broke out. Many powerful Washington insiders ignored the jihadi nature of the Chechen invasion of neighbouring Dagestan, focusing only on Russian violations of human rights. Yet today emirs, controlling perhaps as much as 80 percent of the Caucasus Emirate mujahideen, have declared their loyalty to IS.
In 2011, Russia abstained from a resolution at the UN Security Council, which authorised a western initiative to use its air forces to attack those in favour of the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, in order to save civilians from being massacred. In fact, the western powers went far beyond their UN mandate and fought to bring down Qaddafi. This led to the present chaos in Libya, which is reducing the new ‘free’ state to anarchy and seems to have no end in sight. Russia felt it had been double-crossed which, indeed, it had.
Gordan Hahn, the Russian watcher, who once was a Senior Associate of Washington’s prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes: “All this demonstrates again the utter futility in expanding NATO into Russia’s sphere of influence (breaking a solemn agreement made with Russia). It undermines Western security in two respects. It has alienated Russia and transformed it into the West’s “greatest geo-political foe” that the Republican presidential candidates misconceptualise. Second, it runs directly contrary to the requirements of an effective global fight in the war against jihadism, which must include all major powers in a robustly institutionalised alliance.”
Of course Putin, on occasion, is boorish and heavy-handed, but it is no surprise that Putin has overwhelming support in his confrontation with the west. I believe the opinion polls show that he has a high 80 percent approval rating. In the last nine months, I have walked the streets of Russia on three visits, doing my own amateur poll. Russia responds to the policies and actions of the west. It is always the west that makes the first move on the chessboard. Russia has developed, writes Hahn, “carefully thought out plans designed to defeat the West, regardless of what the West may or may not do.”
The writer has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and author of the much acclaimed new book, Conundrums of Humanity — the Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Age. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org