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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
[quote]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.”[/quote]
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.
[quote]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.[/quote]
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.
[quote]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.[/quote]
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.
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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