A few days after Vladimir Putin was reelected his country’s president in 2018, a former top Kremlin official outlined to VOA how perilous relations had become between the West and Russia. In a wide-ranging conversation, almost foretelling the high-stakes clash developing now between the Kremlin and NATO over Ukraine, he said Putin believed the fracture between Russia and Western powers was irreparable.
And he identified NATO’s eastward expansion as the key reason. The final blow came for Putin, he said, with the 2013-14 popular Maidan uprising in Ukraine that led to the ouster of his ally, then Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin insider, who occupied a senior position in former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s government and went on to become a core member of Putin’s team, blamed the West for a collapse of trust and the lack of common ground. “Maybe all that can be done is to do smaller things together to try to recreate trust,” he said. “If we can’t do that, maybe we will wake up one day and someone will have launched nuclear missiles.”
Fast forward and Kremlin officials have been openly threatening in recent days to deploy tactical nuclear weapons amid rising fears that Putin is considering a further military incursion into Ukraine. This would be a repeat of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its seizure of a large part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, bordering Russia.
“There will be confrontation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin held a two-hour video conference Dec. 18, aimed at defusing a burgeoning crisis over Russian military movements near Ukraine's borders and an amassing of around 100,000 troops.
Ryabkov warned that Russia would deploy weapons previously banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an arms control deal struck in 1987 by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, which expired in 2019.
Last week, in remarks broadcast by Russian media, Putin said, “If the obviously aggressive line of our Western colleagues continues, we will take adequate, retaliatory military-technical measures [and] react toughly to unfriendly steps.”
For Western leaders and officials, the Kremlin’s grievances and fears over NATO’s expansion are delusional at best, or at worst a pretext to redraft the security architecture of Europe with Putin as the deciding architect.
Western officials say it is nonsensical for Russia to paint the West as the aggressor, considering the hybrid warfare and hostile acts they accuse the Kremlin of conducting against the West for years. They see these as revanchist steps seeking to turn the clock back to when Russia controlled half of Europe.
Western officials cite cyber-attacks targeting American and European nuclear power plants and other utility infrastructure, a nerve gas assassination on British soil of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, disinformation campaigns seeking to meddle in Western elections and politics and the funding of disruptive far-right and far-left populist parties as part of an effort to destabilize the European Union.
“Facts are a funny thing and facts make clear that the only aggression we are seeing at the border of Russia and Ukraine is the military build-up by the Russians and the bellicose rhetoric by the leader of Russia,” Jen Psaki, U.S. President Joe Biden’s spokeswoman, told reporters last week.
But for Kremlin officials, the blame rests with the Western powers for their failure to heed the building Russian frustration over NATO’s enlargement since the end of the Cold War. There have been waves of new admissions to the Western military alliance since 1999, bringing in a dozen central European and Baltic states that were once members of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact.
At times as the enlargement proceeded, ugly behind-the-scenes clashes erupted, notably over Western objections to Russia “establishing closer ties” with its former Soviet republics. The issue triggered a face-to-face argument between Putin and then-White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during a meeting in Sochi. Rice maintained that the former Soviet republics were independent states and should determine their future without what she saw as Russian intimidation.
And Kremlin aides have been adamant that the Maidan protests were Western-fomented and not a popular uprising. The blaming of the West for the return of Cold War-like enmity, and the sense of pessimism Russian officials have been displaying about East-West relations, illustrates how difficult it will be to bridge the rift.
Putin’s pent-up resentment spilled out last week at his end-of-the-year press conference in Moscow during which he demanded an immediate answer to his demand that NATO withdraw its forces from central and eastern Europe. The Russian leader said he was running out of patience. “You must provide guarantees. You must do that at once, now, and not keep blathering on about this for talks that will last decades,” he said.
His demands include not only troop withdrawals from former communist states that are members of NATO but a promise that Ukraine will not one day become a member of the Western alliance. In effect, it would mean the West recognizes former Soviet states and ex-communist countries as part of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at The New School in New York, remains pessimistic about the prospects for planned talks next month among the United States, NATO and Russia. In a commentary this week, Khrushcheva, a great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, says Russia has a “special-nation” mindset and warns Putin isn’t alone among Russians who “want not to revive the USSR, but rather to preserve their country’s status.”
How that can be done, how Russian Cold War resentment can be soothed, while at the same time not denying the rights of other, smaller sovereign states to decide their own paths, will be the key challenge facing Western negotiators when they hold talks in January.