Might It or Mightn’t It?

There’s something I found perplexing about Alexander Gabuev’s remarks about the “Russia that might have been” in Foreign Affairs:

The current trajectory of Russia’s foreign policy was not predestined, and there were many chances for the Kremlin to do things differently. For much of the last 20 years—even following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014—Russia had a historic opening to build a dynamic new place for itself in the international system. When Putin was sworn in as president, in May 2000, Russia was entering a period of greater possibility—both within and beyond its borders—than at any other point in its history. Internally, Russia had survived the collapse of the USSR and the tumultuous 1990s to go from an empire to an influential nation-state in the making. Despite the horrendous wars in Chechnya, Russia was, by the turn of the century, largely stable and at peace. Its planned economy had given way to an adaptable market economy. It was an imperfect but vibrant democracy.

Then, around 2003, Russia got lucky. The U.S. invasion of Iraq coupled with China’s spectacular economic boom led to a sharp increase in global commodity prices. The Kremlin’s coffers were suddenly flooded with revenues from the sale of oil, gas, metals, fertilizers, and other products on the global market. This windfall allowed Russia to quickly repay its foreign debts and nearly double its GDP during Putin’s first two presidential terms. Despite mounting corruption, most ordinary Russians found that their incomes were rising. Compared with their troubled imperial and Soviet past, Russians had never been so prosperous and, simultaneously, so free as in the first decade of the twenty-first century. With these strong economic and political foundations, Russia was well positioned to become a global power between East and West—benefiting from its links to both Europe and Asia, and focused on internal development.


When Putin came to power in 1999, the external geopolitical environment was more favorable to Russia than at almost any previous point in the modern era. No neighbor or great power posed a serious threat to Russian security. The collapse of the Soviet Union had not produced territorial disputes between Russia and its neighbors of the sort that would lead to inevitable conflicts. And until the 2014 decision to illegally annex Crimea, Moscow seemed mostly happy with its borders, including with Ukraine. The Cold War was over, and the United States treated Russia as a declining power that no longer constituted a threat to it and its allies. Instead, Washington sought to support Russia in its transition to democracy and a market economy. Foreign investment and technology helped modernize the Russian economy and started to heal the wounds caused by the country’s traumatic adoption of a new economic model in the 1990s. Exports of Russian commodities were enthusiastically purchased by many European nations.

Moscow’s relations with Germany, as well as with other major European countries such as France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, were at a historic peak. In eastern Europe, there was a Soviet legacy of economic ties and personal connections between Moscow and such countries as Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as the newly independent Baltic states. Consecutive waves of NATO and EU enlargement in the 1990s and 2000s made Russia’s neighbors to its west more prosperous and secure, and thus far less fearful of potential Russian revanchism, and opened the way for a dynamic of pragmatic and mutually beneficial engagement, which persisted for much of the 2000s. During these years, Russia and the EU discussed strengthening trade, as well as economic and energy ties. Although the EU did not invite Russia to join the union, it did offer to harmonize trade regulations and remove many of the barriers that limited ties between Moscow and Brussels.

As for its relations with the East, Russia managed to resolve a decades-old territorial dispute with China in 2005, finally putting the relationship with the new superpower on a predictable and productive footing. By then, China was the world’s largest importer of hydrocarbons, providing Russia with a new, enormous, and still expanding market. Meanwhile, with an eye on their own energy security, Japan and South Korea were also interested in helping bring Russia’s vast hydrocarbon resources in Siberia to the market. In turn, by building ties to these two technologically advanced Asian democracies, as well as to China, Russia had an opportunity to tap into the rapidly modernizing potential of the Asia-Pacific region. For the first time in its history, Moscow was able to sell its commodities to both Europe and Asia, diversifying its trade relationships and cultivating new markets as it accessed money and technology from both the West and the East.

Finally, Russia maintained Soviet-era connections to many developing countries in the diverse global South. These ties enabled Russia to keep afloat its Soviet-era industries, particularly its defense sector and civilian nuclear power, by turning contracts with countries like India and Vietnam into sources of revenue that supported domestic manufacturing.

What do I find perplexing? I don’t think you can have it both ways. The admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to NATO in 1999 makes no sense in the context of a Russia that was “a nation with an economy similar to Canada’s, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, and geopolitical neutrality”. Quite to the contrary it only makes sense in the context of Eastern European countries in fear of “Russian revanchism”.

Furthermore the rebuffing of Russia offers to join NATO, made by every leader of the post-Soviet Union Russia including Putin does not point to a Russia that would be “geopolitically neutral”. That neutrality only makes sense in the face of a hostile NATO and wouldn’t have been possible in that case. Hence my perplexity.

So which was it? Was Russia irremediably and irrevocably hostile to its neighbors? Or is Mr. Gabuev correct?

2 comments… add one
  • bob sykes Link

    As late as 2007, Putin was calling for a united Europe, “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” He wanted Russia in both the EU and NATO. The US moved Heaven and Earth to prevent that, because we feared that Russia would dominate the EU/NATO to the exclusion of the US. We succeeded in keeping Russia out of Europe. We also pushed NATO right up to the Russia border. And we tried to overthrow the governments of Georgia, Kazakhstan and Belarus (and others), and we succeeded in overthrowing the legitimate, democratically elected Ukrainian government.

    So, we, the US regime, created the current situation. Putin and the Russian leadership has been largely reactive to our initiatives. We wanted the current war, and we got it.

    China is next on the list, and we most likely will get a China war, too.

    PS. As to Crimea, the answer is, Kosovo. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. At least the Crimeans (90+% ethnic Russians) got to vote.

  • steve Link

    This sounds like a “have you stopped beating your wife question?” or maybe the wrong question. I think the countries living adjacent to Russia are probably best positioned to know if they can trust Russia and to know if Russia will allow them to function as anything more than an economic hostage. It certainly looks like former Soviet countries dont think they can trust Russia and it looks like their economies do better when they have the option of trading/working with nations other than just Russia.

    I also think it likely Russia behaved differently towards nations not part of the former Soviet bloc. Finland and Sweden weren’t convinced that Russia was hostile enough to ask to join NATO. Of course that changed.

    Slightly OT- I am finally finishing Bloodlands (started it years ago) . Reading it there should be no doubt why Ukraine is willing to fight so hard to oppose Russian occupation again. The millions of Ukrainians that Russia starved and thousands, maybe also millions, they deported or outright killed before and after the war. Its been well reported that the Russians are snatching Ukraine kids and shipping them to Russia. That has got to resonate badly with Ukraine given the history of Russia doing that in the past.

    Anyway, any suggestions on what else to read. Have read quite a bit of WW2 stuff but had never really read that much on the inter-war period on East Europe.


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