A few days after Vladimir Putin was reelected president of his country in 2018, a former senior Kremlin official explained to the Voice of america how dangerous relations between the West and Russia had become.
In the conversation, almost heralding the high-voltage showdown now unfolding between the Kremlin and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over Ukraine, the former official considered that Putin believed that the rift between Russia and the Western powers was irreparable.
He also identified NATO’s eastward expansion as the key reason. The final blow came to Putin, he said, with Maidan’s popular uprising in Ukraine between 2013 and 2014, which led to the removal of his ally, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin insider, who held a high-level post in former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s government and became a central member of Putin’s team, blamed the West for the collapse of trust and lack of common ground.
“Maybe all you can do is do smaller things together to try to rebuild trust,” he said. “If we can’t do that, maybe we’ll wake up one day and someone has launched nuclear missiles,” he warned.
Kremlin officials have openly threatened in recent days to deploy tactical nuclear weapons amid mounting fears Putin is considering a new military foray into Ukraine.
This would be a repeat of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its takeover of much of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, on the border with Russia.
“There will be confrontation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said shortly after US President Joe Biden and Putin held a two-hour video conference on December 18, with the aim of defusing a growing crisis over Russian military movements near Russia. the borders of Ukraine and an accumulation of around 100,000 soldiers.
Ryabkov warned that Russia would deploy weapons previously banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), an arms control agreement reached in 1987 by the United States and the former Soviet Union. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the agreement, which expired in 2019.
Last week, in statements released by Russian media, Putin said: “If the obviously aggressive line of our Western colleagues continues, we will take appropriate retaliatory technical and military measures, we will react harshly to hostile measures.”
For Western leaders and officials, the Kremlin’s grievances and fears over NATO expansion are at best illusory or at worst a pretext to rewrite Europe’s security architecture with Putin as decisive architect.
Western officials say it makes no sense for Russia to describe the West as the aggressor, considering the hybrid war and hostile acts they accuse the Kremlin of carrying out against the West for years.
They see them more as revenge steps seeking to turn the clock back to the time when Moscow controlled half of Europe.
Western officials cite cyberattacks targeting US and European nuclear power plants and other utility infrastructure, a nerve gas murder on British soil of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
In addition to campaigns disinformation seeking to meddle in western elections and politics and the funding of the disruptive far right, as well as support for far-left populist parties as part of an effort to destabilize the European Union.
“The facts make it clear that the only aggression we are seeing on the border of Russia and Ukraine is the military build-up of the Russians and the warmongering rhetoric of the leader of Russia,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said recently.
But for Kremlin officials, the fault lies with the Western powers for not paying attention to the growing Russian frustration over NATO enlargement since the end of the Cold War.
There have been waves of new membership to the western military alliance since 1999, bringing in a dozen Central European and Baltic states that were once part of the Warsaw Pact of the Soviet Union.
On some occasions, as the expansion of the transatlantic force progressed, clashes broke out behind the scenes, mainly over Western objections to Russia “forging closer ties” with its former Soviet republics.
The issue triggered a face-to-face discussion between Putin and then-White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice during a meeting in Sochi. Rice argued that the former Soviet republics were independent states and should determine their future without what she saw as “Russian intimidation.”
And Kremlin aides have insisted that the Maidan protests were fueled by the West and not a popular uprising. Blaming the West for the return of a Cold War-like enmity and the sense of pessimism Russian officials have been displaying about East-West relations illustrate how difficult it will be to close the gap.
Putin’s pent-up resentment spilled over last week at his end-of-year press conference in Moscow during which he demanded an immediate response to his demand that NATO withdraw its forces from central and eastern Europe.
The Russian leader said his patience was running out. “You must provide guarantees. You must do that once, now, and not continue to chatter about this in conversations that will last decades, “he said.
Their demands include not only the withdrawal of troops from the former communist states that are now members of NATO, but the promise that Ukraine will not one day become a member of the Western alliance.
In effect, it would mean that the West recognizes the former Soviet states and former communist countries as part of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at The New School in New York, remains pessimistic about the prospects for talks planned next month between the United States, NATO and Russia.
In a comment, Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, says that Russia has a “special nation” mentality and warns that Putin is not alone among Russians who “do not want to revive the USSR, but rather preserve the status of his country”.
How to do that, how to alleviate Russian Cold War resentment, and at the same time not deny the rights of other, smaller sovereign states to decide their own paths, will be the key challenge facing Western negotiators when maintaining conversations in January.
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