With Russia launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and relations between Moscow and Washington reaching unprecedented depths, one can only wonder how tensions escalated so much. 

Three decades ago, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the democratic Russian Federation, prospects for East-West cooperation were high. 

Russia became a member of the Council of Europe in 1996 and joined powerful Western democracies in forming the G8 the following year. The trend is clear: Russia saw its future as part of, or at least in partnership with, the West. 

What Went Wrong?

The current state of relations is not the product of a foregone conclusion but is in large part the consequence of strategic blunders made by the U.S.

Many blame the diplomatic drift on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Relations between Russia and the West have worsened steadily since his ascent to the Russian presidency in 1999. Putin is notorious for his suspicion of Western intentions and pursuit of aggressive foreign policy.

Russia’s disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty- demonstrated by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing invasion of the country- is often cited to show that Russia’s belligerent actions are behind the rising tensions over the past two decades. 

Putin clearly holds enormous responsibility for the deterioration of relations and is the only culprit for the current war in Ukraine. However, his foreign policy has not always been hostile to the West. Ties between Russia and the West in the early years of his presidency were described as “rapidly warming.” Putin was the first head of state to call President George W. Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and pledged his nation’s support for the American invasion of Afghanistan and its war on terror.  

More importantly, Putin made clear his intent to integrate Russia into the Western world and was even rumored to be seeking NATO membership early in his presidency. 

The 1990s and the American Empire

To understand why tensions have risen over the past two decades, one has to go back to the 1990s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was in dire straits. The economy was collapsing and the country was facing several internal political crises, as well as armed conflicts in the federal republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia. 

With Russia in shambles and China far from its meteoric rise, the 1990s were the peak of American supremacy. The spread of capitalism and democracy seemed like a fait accompli, as was famously argued in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama in his book “The End of History and the Last Man”. French Foreign Minister Huber Védrine described the U.S. as the world’s first “hyperpower”, and called for the United Nations to be more active in surveilling American actions. 

The U.S.’s enormous power allowed it to launch military interventions, including those in Yugoslavia and Iraq, without acknowledging the concerns of the UN or other foreign powers, including Russia. 

Tensions came to a head in Kosovo in 1999, when Moscow repeatedly voiced its objections to a US-led NATO intervention in the Kosovo conflict, which were simply ignored by Washington and its NATO allies. In response, Russian troops were deployed to Kosovo, resulting in a tense standoff. While this issue was resolved through diplomacy, tensions would arise again over similar US interventions in Iraq in 2003,  and Libya in 2011. 

NATO’s Eastward March

The US not only expressed its newfound hegemony with military interventions but also through the expansion of NATO in the former Eastern Bloc. NATO was formed during the Cold War to counter the risk of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Instead of dying with the Soviet Union, the alliance has outlived its purpose and has continued to expand eastwards, fueling Russian anger. This has been the main issue affecting relations between Moscow and the West

This expansion is seen as a breach of trust by Russia, which has argued that then-Secretary of State James Baker promised to then-Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would move “not one inch eastward”. Russia believes the expansion of the alliance poses a direct security threat to the country and claims the purpose of NATO is to contain Russia’s influence in its immediate neighborhood. 

With the West justifying the NATO expansion by claiming it responded to threats such as the possibility that Russia could return to the menacing behavior of the Soviet period, it would seem to be the correct policy to pursue given the current war in Ukraine. However, this was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, as shown above, Moscow, at the time, was pushing for closer relations with the West. NATO’s expansion in 1999 angered Russia, but the country remained committed to cooperation with the West. 

Similarly, when NATO further expanded in 2004, this time up to the Russian border, Putin was still following a relatively cooperative foreign policy. Russia simply warned the United States not to let relations slip into a “cold peace”. 

Russian concerns were expressed by Putin at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, where Putin strongly criticized America’s unchecked use of force and supposed ambitions of creating a unipolar world. 

Relations worsened further after the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit, when the alliance declared an open-door policy, accepting any European democracy, and thus possibly Ukraine and Georgia into the organization. 

Russia viewed this as proof that its security concerns were not being acknowledged by NATO, leading Putin to steer the country towards a more bellicose stance with regard to the West. 

NATO expansion was not justified by a belligerent Russia. Instead, Russia’s aggressiveness grew out of NATO’s eastward march. 

The costs of losing Russia have been massive. Not only is hard-won European peace broken, but the West has created an enemy out of what could have been a major partner. 

More importantly, NATO expansion has pushed Russia into the arms of China. Both countries have found a conjunction of interests, and have presented a united front against perceived Western interference in their domestic affairs. Western democracies now face a much more powerful adversary in this new Beijing-Moscow Axis. 

What comes next?

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is the culmination of twenty years of deteriorating relations between East and West. 

Russia will continue its drift towards China, solidifying both countries’ commitment to counter U.S. influence. Beijing has refused to characterize Russian military operations in Ukraine as an invasion and stated it understood “legitimate” Russian security concerns in the region. 

Losing Russia was one of the worst strategic mistakes made by the West in the early 21st century. The cost is being paid today by Ukrainians facing unprovoked aggression from Russia.

Edited by Theo Malhotra.

Featured photo by Pete Souza and obtained via the Atlantic Council under a CC Attribution 3.0 License.