Richmond World Affairs Council

Putin’s Russia, Part III: Western Encroachment

So Russia is sliding into economic decline, but why does political support for Putin remain high amidst the economic downturn?

To truly understand the average Russian’s mindset, we have to examine the historical, political, and social frameworks that have shaped their way of life and observing the world.

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NATO Expansion
In 1990, during the negotiations between the US and USSR over German reunification, USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev and US Secretary of State James Baker discussed NATO expansion in the context of a reunified Germany.

Baker told Gorbachev that “if the US maintained its military presence in Germany within the NATO framework, there will be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or military presence one inch to the East.” It’s debatable whether Baker truly meant the US would limit NATO expansion—some sources suggest the US meant NATO would not expand into only Eastern Germany—but for Gorbachev, this was an agreement extended by the US not to expand into Eastern Europe, countries that were part of the USSR’s Warsaw Pact. It was a sign of respecting the USSR’s security interests in its sphere of influence and a promise.

However, this verbal agreement was never codified into a formal treaty between the two nations and followed through. Since then, NATO expansion has inched steadily closer and closer to the USSR and Russia. As communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, more and more former Soviet satellite states that bordered Russia joined NATO and began to house NATO military bases. Putin has decried NATO’s gradual encirclement of western Russia as an effort to increase insecurity and destabilize Russia before it becomes a powerful challenger to the prevailing regional status quo.
For Russia, the rising specter of NATO in its backyard is a dangerous military threat and painful reminder of how the US reneged on its promise to the country.

EU Expansion
Russia so far has resisted membership in the EU in order to preserve its economic and political sovereignty and maintain its currency and laws instead of conforming to EU standards.

However, former Russian territories have not chosen the same outcome. Similar to NATO enlargement, the European Union has almost doubled in members since its founding in 1993 to encompass most Eastern European countries now.  In choosing to join the EU, for Putin, these Eastern European states are putting political and economic ties with other European countries on a higher pedestal than the close relations they have historically shared with Russia. They are dismissing Russia’s role in the center stage of their domestic and foreign affairs, and that is not agreeable with Putin. The former Russian territories are escaping the central actor’s sphere of influence.

This is the narrative Russia has been asserting in staking its claim in the Ukraine Crisis. Putin attributes Western encroachment in Russian affairs—specifically US-driven NATO expansion and Western involvement in Ukraine—as the cause of forcing Russia’s hand in Ukraine.

Ukraine Crisis
Since the mid-1990s, Russia has opposed EU and NATO eastward expansion and intervention in Russian affairs, such as the West’s support for the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine during the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2008 military conflict in Georgia.

In 2013, when pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suddenly abandoned an agreement with the EU for closer trade and political relations in favor of maintaining close ties with Russia, pro-Western demonstrations began in Ukraine. There were reports that the Ukrainian government had come under pressure from Russia not to sign the historic EU deal. Moreover, Putin offered Ukraine a counter-deal, promising to lend the country some much needed financial assistance and reduce its gas debts to Russian oil giant, Gazprom, by a third, and wanted Ukraine to join its own EU-like customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Through these actions, Putin made it clear that Russia would not allow the West to turn “Little Russia” into another bastion of the West.

After the “coup” of Ukraine’s democratically elected and Russia-friendly President Yanukovych, a pro-Western and staunchly anti-Russian government came to power. Putin was alarmed at this renewed prospect of losing its neighbor to the West in the end. He responded by seizing control of the former Russian territory of Crimea, a strategic peninsula he feared would come to host a NATO naval base in the near future if Ukraine continued to pursue a pro-Western path.

Since then, Russia has been providing weapons, financial assistance, and “little green men” (secret Russian troops) to rebels in Eastern Ukraine fighting the central government to establish their own pro-Russia state, and Russians have been supporting  their President’s actions.
A January 2015 public opinion pollshowed the highest ever recorded levels of negative perceptions of the West in Russia. 81% of the people surveyed had a negative perception of the US while a mere 13% held a positive view. 71% viewed the EU negatively while 20% retained a positive perception. Just one year earlier, prior to Yanukovych’s ousting and the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the results were 44% to 43% for the US and 34% to 51% for the EU.

Putin and his fellow Russians believe encroaching Western expansion threatened Russia’s vested interests in retaining Ukraine within its sphere of influence.

Although Russians may agree with Putin’s actions in keeping Ukraine within its embrace, surely they will begin to protest the rising numbers of dead Russian soldiers returning home as the economy declines? How does Putin sustain high levels of domestic support in the face of such dire circumstances?

Putin has engineered Russian politics, the economy, and society into one lean green political machine that maintains support for his rule.

-Shrina Patel