By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The New York Times
February 14, 2007
Foreign policy experts are still trying to parse Vladimir Putin’s weekend blast against America, which he described as a brutish country that “has overstepped its national borders, in every area.” But rather than asking what exactly motivated Mr. Putin to lash out at the U.S. in this way, the question we should be asking is: why do remarks like these play so well in Russia today?
I’ve just returned from Moscow and I can tell you what analysts there told me, what even Russian liberals reminded me of: NATO expansion. We need to stop kidding ourselves. After the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the Bush I and Clinton administrations decided to build a new security alliance — an expanded NATO — and told Russia it could not be a member.
And let’s not forget that the Russia we told to stay out in the cold was the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and his liberal reformist colleagues. They warned us at the time that this would undercut them. But the Clinton folks told us: “Don’t worry, Russia is weak; Yeltsin will swallow hard and accept NATO expansion. There will be no cost.”
So, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were invited to join NATO in 1997, and Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia followed in 2002. Lately, there has been talk of Ukraine and Georgia also joining.
I believe that one reason Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer and cold warrior, was able to come to power after Mr. Yeltsin was partly due to the negative vibes of NATO expansion. We told Russia: Swallow your pride, it’s a new world. We get to have spheres of influence and you don’t — and ours will go right up to your front door.
But now that high oil and gas prices have made Russia powerful again — the gasman of Europe — Mr. Putin is shoving Russia’s resurgent pride right back in our face. In effect, he is saying to America: “Oh, you talkin’ to me? You thought you could tell me that the cold war was over and that NATO expansion was not directed at Russia — but we couldn’t be members anyway. Did you really think we were going to believe that? Well, now I’m talkin’ to you. Get out of my face.”
Mr. Putin was only slightly more diplomatic in his Munich remarks, where he said: “The process of NATO expansion has nothing to do with modernization of the alliance. We have the right to ask, ‘Against whom is this expansion directed?’ ” We all know the answer: it’s directed against Russia. O.K., fine, we were ready to enrage Russia to expand NATO, but what have we gotten out of it? The Czech Navy?
For those of us who opposed NATO expansion, the point was simple: there is no major geopolitical issue, especially one like Iran, that we can resolve without Russia’s help. So why not behave in a way that maximizes Russia’s willingness to work with us and strengthens its democrats, rather than expanding NATO to countries that can’t help us and are not threatened anymore by Russia, and whose democracies are better secured by joining the European Union?
I got an earful on this from Russians. “NATO expansion was not necessary,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the last liberal Duma members who is ready to openly criticize the Putin government, said to me: “In the current world, Russia is not a military danger for any neighbor. It was the wrong concept. You need another architecture.”
Aleksei Pushkov, who has a foreign policy news show on Russian TV, said: “NATO expansion was a message to Russia that you are on your own. Russians were unhappy. We said: ‘The cold war is over, so what is this? They are moving a military alliance toward Russia’s border.’
“At the time of NATO expansion, I was running around the world saying one thing: ‘Don’t do it, or, if you do, stop with the Baltic states because you are losing Russia,’ ” Mr. Pushkov added. “And the answer I got was fantastic: ‘What can Russia do? What measures can you take?’ I said, ‘We can’t take any measures. You are losing an ally. Because there is a deep tectonic shift in the Russian psyche that says, ‘These guys are about exploiting Russia’s weakness. They don’t want it as an ally, but as a junior partner that will be like a little dog doing whatever they say.’ ”
I’m not here to defend an iron-fisted autocrat like Mr. Putin. But history is prologue. The fact is, we helped to create a mood in Russia hospitable to a conservative cold warrior like Mr. Putin by forcing NATO on a liberal democrat like Mr. Yeltsin. It was a bad decision and one that keeps on giving. Just when we need to be getting Russia’s help, we’re getting its revenge.
Thomas Friedman, New York Times, Russia, International Relations, NATO, news, commentary, op ed
COMMENT: “Liberal democrat.“ Don’t make us laugh. Yeltsin was a drunken corrupt block-headed opportunist who wouldn‘t leave office until Putin guaranteed him freedom from prosecution…