The West didn’t ‘betray’ Russia: Russia betrayed its best self

(Image: Alexander Petrosyan)

Image: Alexander Petrosyan 

2016/12/28 • Analysis & Opinion, History, Politics, Russia

For the past several weeks, many in Russia and the West have been having fun with a Facebook page featuring pictures of family pets that have destroyed something with a legend underneath claiming that “the Russians did it.” That has even sparked the appearance of another page about what the Russians really did.

Now, however, we are confronted by a new outburst of a much worse phenomenon, the advancement of an argument by many Russians and some in the West that Russians aren’t to blame for what has happened in their country. Instead, the West is because it and not they are responsible for the “betrayal” of Russian democracy.

In an article in yesterday’s Moscow Times entitled “Why the West’s Betrayal of Democratic Russia Brought Us Putin,” former BBC correspondent Angus Roxburgh argues that “the West’s inability to accept Russia on equal terms after 1991 made the emergence of a nationalistic strongman inevitable.”

He says that the events across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, including Russia, were “all part of the same movement – the people rose up in all those places and overthrew totalitarianism. The Russians embraced freedom in 1991, exactly as the eastern Europeans had done.”

“But that is not how it was seen in the West. The revolutions in eastern Europe came to be viewed not just as the overthrow of communism (an experience shared with Russia itself) but as liberation from Russian occupation,” he says. “That was a grave mistake, which a quarter of a century on has brought us to the brink of a new Cold War, or something even worse.”

Putin speaking in occupied Sevastopol on the anniversary of the WW2 Victory Day to celebrate the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine conducted by his military and special services two months earlier. May 9, 2014 (Image: AFP PHOTO/ YURI KADOBNOVYURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Putin speaking in occupied Sevastopol on the anniversary of the WW2 Victory Day to celebrate the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine conducted by his military and special services two months earlier. May 9, 2014 (Image: AFP PHOTO/ YURI KADOBNOVYURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Roxburgh continues: “We in the West have to ask ourselves: Why did we treat Russia differently? The peoples of eastern Europe, with understandably bitter memories of Soviet rule, found it hard to distinguish what had oppressed them — an ideology or a nation. The West listened to the urgings of those whose views we should have been wariest of … as though Russia had not changed.”

“We invited them to join NATO, thereby making the equally liberated Russians feel unwanted and distrusted. Remember that at the point when NATO resolved to expand, in the early 1990s, there was no Vladimir Putin — there was Yeltsin, close bosom-friend of Bill Clinton, lauded as a democrat, the Yeltsin who had welcomed the freedom of the Baltic states and was praised by them for doing so.”

“There was, at that point, no threat from Russia at all, Roxburgh says. Moreover, “many senior Western figures (including Clinton’s “Russia hand,” Strobe Talbott) had great qualms at the time, because they foresaw exactly what would happen if every other country in Europe was corralled into a military alliance against Russia.”

This boy's name is Omran. His family's house in Aleppo was hit by one of the Russian bombs that flatten everything within their kill zone. Aleppo, Syria, August 2016 (Photo: Mahmoud Rislan)

This boy’s name is Omran. His family’s house in Aleppo was hit by one of the Russian bombs that flatten everything within their kill zone. Aleppo, Syria, August 2016 (Photo: Mahmoud Rislan)

“But the doubts were overwhelmed by the West’s visceral and ancestral hatred and suspicion of Russia,” he continues. “Russia needed our help even more than the eastern Europeans did. Poles had only 44 years of communism to recover from, and people were alive who remembered living in a democracy. Not so in Russia, a country that had to reinvent itself from scratch now, while its economy was in ruins.”

“We failed to help the Russians adequately. Our aid in the Nineties was pathetic,” Further, Roxburgh says, “the West ignored Russia’s attempts to recover any semblance of influence in the world. While patronizing Yeltsin as a “democrat,” it rejected him as a partner in world affairs, and caused puzzlement among democratically-minded, westward-looking Russians by casting them as NATO’s ‘enemy.’”

“For eastern Europe there was praise and inclusion. For Russia, humiliation and exclusion. And it was precisely those conditions that allowed a hard-man like Putin to come to power eight years later, promising to restore the nation’s pride. If we had handled Russia’s revolution better, there would probably have been no Putin. All the disastrous consequences might have been avoided.”

Putin's military aggression in Donbas devastated Ukrainian territories under the Russian occupation (Image: Novosti Segodnia)

Putin’s military aggression in Donbas devastated Ukrainian territories under the Russian occupation (Image: Novosti Segodnia)

And Roxburgh concludes: “At the end of this anniversary year, it is worth reflecting on the great opportunity we missed, to build a new Europe. We didn’t just betray the Russians who came out to celebrate their freedom in 1991; we betrayed the eastern Europeans who longed for security, yet ended up (in NATO!) feeling less secure than they did in the years following Russia’s democratic revolution.”

The former BBC correspondent’s points that the West failed to understand what was going on in Russia and that it failed to provide adequate assistance when such assistance could have made a real difference are absolutely true. Those are arguments the author of these lines among many others made at the time and has made many times since.

We should have given more aid, but it should have been tough love, designed to help those Russians who really wanted change rather than those who simply wanted wild capitalism and the suppression of freedom. Instead, the West followed a policy of weak neglect, one that hardly can be described as the result of “visceral and ancestral hatred and suspicion of Russia.”

But those shortcomings do not in any way justify either the specific assertions of Roxburgh’s article let alone its underlying argument.

From the very beginning, the Russians insisted on being a successor to the Soviet state they had overthrown rather than, as he suggests, committed to building something new.

From the very beginning and throughout Yeltsin’s term, the Russian government promoted xenophobia and then war against the Chechens and other “persons of Caucasus nationality,” it attacked its freely elected parliament with tanks, and it manipulated elections to ensure that the Kremlin’s people won.

Moreover, when invited to participate in Western institutions, Russian leaders in the 1990s and not just after 2000 — when Yeltsin’s appointee Putin was installed in office — demanded that Russia not be one country among others but be given a status equal to all others taken together. Moscow never wanted to be a member of NATO; it wanted to be co-owner of it.

And the non-Russians, whose feelings Roxburgh suggests the West was wrong to listen to, were in fact victims not only of communism but of Russian authoritarianism. Unlike the Russians who had to liberate themselves only from communism, the non-Russians had to work to liberate themselves from both.

That they wanted to be protected from a revival of Russian messianism and aggression is thus completely understandable and the West was right to extend NATO membership to them. In my view, it should have moved faster and included more. They didn’t have to be “corralled,” as Roxburgh suggests; they desperately wanted in because of their own experiences.

One could go on. But there is an even more fundamental problem with Roxburgh’s argument, one that is far more dangerous if it is not answered. It is his point that Russians are not responsible for what happens to them and for what they do. Someone else is always to blame. In this case, it is the West.

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Until that changes, until Russians recognize that they are and must be responsible for their fate rather than blaming others for their problems, the best self of Russia, that of Academician Sakharov, Galina Starovoitova, and so many others, will continue to be betrayed, not by the West but by themselves and their Kremlin leaders.


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Edited by: A. N.

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  • Harald Oslo Norway

    Well said, Paul! Keep up your good work!

  • freedom fighter

    because it’s true, every downfall of theirs is somehow russia’s fault, and people are mocking
    them for it…………that’s the way to do it) naa sain son?

    • Mykola Banderachuk

      anything russia touches turns to poop-huge piles of it.

      • freedom fighter

        well i say same thing but about america, and their ango saxon roots that are bended by the zionation.

    • Quartermaster

      Russia’s present problems are self-inflicted. Russians can get on the road by getting rid of the KGB thug and getting out of Ukraine and Georgia. The sanctions come off, and they can be admitted to the family of nations. At the moment it’s just a mafia state, with Putin as its face.

  • Oknemfrod

    Roxburgh is either a useful Western idiot or a paid agent of Kremlin. There’s not much to be added, Paul, to what you’ve already written to completely debunk his crap. Kudos!

    Just one extra note: Had Russia not been helped by the West in the 1990’s, it would’ve merely starved and there would have been nothing to deal with. Instead, the Russians turned around to bite the helping hand – as it had happened many times before that. This is a good lesson for the West to learn, but if history is any indication, I’m not holding my breath that it has been indeed learned.

  • anonymous

    The Russian populace has never tasted nor embraced western style democracy. The Russian populace will never demand democracy because they do not believe. Any country which politically changes from non-democratic institutions to democratic institutions depends upon the populace over all else including individuals. A populace like the Russian populace will fail in democracy every time. I repeat every time. This does not depend on outside help or influence nor on inside leadership. All such change depends on the populace which in Russian is not committed in any principal of democracy. Unfortunately, that lack of commitment will last through generations and there is little hope for change in this century. If Putin’s criminal organization somehow collapses there may be some small spark of democracy which will again fail through lack of commitment from the Russian population to be replaced by some form of non-democratic institutions.

    • zorbatheturk

      RuSSians fear democracy. They might have to stop sucking vodka and actually think.

      • anonymous

        The Russian populace are highly educated and do think well. They just do not support or believe in democracy. Alcohol has nothing to do with their lack of belief in democracy. A look at alcohol consumption world wide shows that alcohol and democracy have no common link.

        • zorbatheturk

          Vote 1 Jack Daniel’s.

        • Kruton

          Russians are murdering killers of children.

        • Czech Mate

          a century of brutal oppression might be responsible as “the highly educated populace” are defacto survivors of many purges, those who know when to keep your head down and drop on one’s knees- most of the time.

      • Czech Mate

        Democracy is responsibility and responsibility is work, hard work. I understand their fears…

    • WisconsinUSA

      The Russian people they want to be slaves. And they want to have a slave master like Putin.

    • Kruton

      #know it all nutjob

  • zorbatheturk

    So now the West is to blame for the Putin, is it? Gimme a break.

  • Terry Washington

    To paraphrase John Pilger, EVERYTHING is always the West’s fault. It was the West’s fault that it didn;t provide enough aid to post Soviet Russia(maybe true enough), the West’s fault that the newly liberated nations of Eastern Europe wanted to join NATO(as if they were being forced to do so against their will)- NOTHING is ever Russia’s fault!(be it WWII or the Cold War)

  • Y K

    The claim that “democratic” Russia was “betrayed” by the West is standard fare coming from the ex-liberal-turned-Putinoid crowd in Russia, which forms an integral (and pretty obvious) part of its self-exculpatory narrative. One thing that should not be forgotten in this context is that Russia was by no means democratic in the 1990s, far from it. It had a chance of becoming democratic one day, though, a chance its people chose to blow.

  • Czech Mate

    When it comes to ruSSkies it’s always someone else’s fault in the end.

    But the dwarf psycho really whipped them into fascist frenzy. They are now in a rabid state with a foaming mouths- anything other than deterrence and isolation would be suicide on our part.