An Antagonized Russia

The Russian navy (from left) corvette Steregushchy, destroyer Nastoichivy and frigate Admiral Gorshkov are anchored in a bay of the base in Baltiysk in Kaliningrad region, July 19, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Dissolution and Distrust

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 surprised experts and changed the global balance of power for good: the bipolar power structure shared between the United States and the Soviet Union for much of the second half of the 20th century transformed into one with the United States as the sole superpower. Russia, the political successor of the Soviet Union, was no longer a major security concern to the West until the Russian military intervention in the Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimea. Western and NATO expansion into the traditional Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe has left Russia feeling marginalized in European security affairs and has antagonized the country to the point of renewed aggression, as seen with Ukraine.

Western actions during the establishment of the Russian Federation created a narrative of distrust and the belief that Russian security was threatened by the West.  With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the markets in Russia, the country set out to reform its economic system. Russia’s initial system of reform was in a sense a type of Westernization with high levels of optimism. Within a few years distrust of the West seemed to grow in Russia: instead of receiving economic aid, it received credit and loans, creating the impression that the West “is out to capitalize and exploit its former opponent’s economic vulnerability.”[i] The Russian leadership today, specifically Putin, routinely cite point out the causes of such distrust: a “list of Russian concession to the West that have not been compensated by partners.”[ii] Such concessions include the removal of armed forces, a reeducation in a nuclear arsenal, and the shutting down of naval bases. [iii] The lack of complementary action by the West to compensate these concessions further deepened Russian mistrust.

NATO Expansion and Russian Perception

Western antagonization of Russia was stimulated from a NATO membership enlargement that did not take into regard Russian national interests, creating a Russian perception of a security threat.  NATO was formed in 1949 as a collective defense organization during the Cold War for a mutual defense of the Western Europe and the United States against a potential Soviet attack. The collapse of the Soviet Union created the impression to Western leaders that core principle of collective defense was no longer necessary. [iv] Thus, the question that was raised was under what context could NATO continue? The answer was that NATO could instead expand its membership and mission activities. Notably, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, and other Slavic states joined NATO from 1999 to 2014, a total of 12 members, increasing NATO’s size to 28. [v] Russia was, of course, opposed to such an enlargement. In 1997 Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov remarked that the Baltic countries joining NATO would be unacceptable to Russia. [vi] Russia obviously had major security concerns to such an enlargement: the inclusion of the above countries, especially the Baltic countries, meant that NATO forces and military installations could be brought next to the Russian border. NATO, unlike its Cold War counterpart the Warsaw Pact, and its continued existence discomforted Russia: the potential action of NATO establishing military bases in the Baltics seemed unnecessary and a threat to its security.

The operations conducted by NATO in Eastern Europe, the traditional Russian sphere of influence, conducted mainly without Russian input, creating a feeling of marginalization for Russia and its security concerns. From 1992 to the present-day NATO has conducted operations in the Balkan peninsula concerning the former country of Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. Most notably in 1999, NATO, citing humanitarian intervention but without UN approval due to Russian and Chinese vetoes, launched Operation Allied Force, known as the bombings of Yugoslavia. Once the bombings had commenced it became the central topic of Russian foreign policy. [vii] Russia viewed the Western actions in the Balkan crisis with concern – it was believed that such an action would create a precedent for the West and destabilize the international system. Russian political groups saw the action as an attempt of American hegemony and as a move to disrupt the international system/s balance of power. Thus, the conclusions they drew from the outcome of the Yugoslav intervention were means by which Russia could prevent its marginalization by the West. Russian political groups concluded that Russia must increase its role in maintaining world stability so as to counter the growing status of a Western-dominated world.[viii] Such conclusions were drawn to protect Russian sovereignty.

Georgia and Ukraine

In August of 2008 Georgian armed forces launched an offensive in South Ossetia to restore the territory under Georgian rule. The operation was met with a Russian response and in the aftermath two breakaway countries from Georgia were formed, both of which are regarded as Georgian territory under Russian military occupation. It should be noted that Georgia was a potential NATO state, and that the Russian operation was not only against Georgia but also against NATO plans. [ix] NATO member had “gotten used to Russian warnings” followed by no action – the Russian operation was thus also a response to NATO not seriously treating Russian objections. [x] NATO’s response, however, was not a military one, and was regarded as rather weak. [xi] As Georgia was not a NATO member, there was no indication that NATO troops would be brought to protect Georgia from the Russian intervention. Relations eventually warmed as NATO members were inconsistent in their responses and were not willing to get into a conflict over Georgia, a possible indication of what NATO might do in Ukraine.

In 2014, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power due to the Euromaidan movement, the demonstrations that had occurred due to Yanukovych’s suspension of implementing the Ukrainian-European Union Association Agreement. Ukraine was then split into East and West, where the East was more in line with integrating with Russia while the West was more with the West and the European Union. In the same year as a response, Russian troops entered Ukraine and annexed Crimea, while providing support to separatist in the eastern part of Ukraine. Much like Georgia, Ukraine was also attempting to develop a further relationship with the rest – it was a NATO candidate and was seeking closer relationships with the EU. [xii] NATO’s actions during the Georgia incident did not deter Russia from doing the same in the Ukraine. The lack of action damaged NATO’s credibility as it demonstrated a lack of willingness to confront with Russia and an incoherent message by its own members. [xiii]

Through Ukraine and Georgia, Russia attempts to reaffirm its sphere of influence to the West and demonstrate that it is not to be a marginalized power. In doing so, Russia hopes to settle its security concerns, for which the they view the West as bearing primary responsibility.


[i] Pravda, Alex. “Russia and NATO Expansion,” Society and Economy in Central and Eastern Europe, vol. 20, no. 1, The End of a Millennium: The Dynamics of External and Internal Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: Part I (1998): 92–102

[ii] Vasily V. Gatov, “Contagious Tales of Russian Origin and Putin’s Evolution,” Society 53, no. 6 (2016): 621

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Michael E. Brown, “NATO’s Biggest Mistake,” Foreign Affairs, May 05, 2014

[v] Ibid.

[vi] J. L. Black, “Russia and NATO Expansion Eastward: Red-Lining the Baltic States,” International Journal 54, no. 2 (1999): 4

[vii] Andrei P. Tsygankov, “The final triumph of the Pax Americana? Western intervention in Yugoslavia and Russias debate on the post-Cold War order,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 34, no. 2 (2001): 8

[viii] Ibid 15.

[ix] Elena Kropatcheva, “Russian-NATO Relations after the Crisis in South Ossetia in 2008,” Sicherheit & Frieden 27, no. 1 (2009): 5

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Şafak Oğuz, “NATOs Mistakes That Paved the Way for Russia-Ukraine Crisis,” Karadeniz Arastirmalari Merkezi 12, no. 45 (2015): 4

[xii] Ibid 1

[xiii] Ibid 2

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