Russia Feels Slighted As West Fears Its Resurgence

Georgia Crisis Stirs Concern In Ukraine

As NATO meets to consider a response to Russia's military actions in Georgia, there is renewed attention on another former Soviet republic that's also on Russia's radar: Ukraine.

The Kremlin has been unapologetic about its actions in Georgia. Russian officials have repeatedly, forcefully and sometimes emotionally insisted that Russia has the right to protect its soldiers and those it calls citizens.

In the West, the country's actions have spurred concerns about a resurgent, muscle-flexing Russia. Newspaper cartoons depict a snarling bear — an image not seen since Soviet times.

Russia is growing vastly more confident, and it feels slighted by the West, experts say.

Loss Of Empire

Fifteen years ago, after the Soviet Union fell apart, scientists were forced to work as taxi drivers, and soldiers were reduced to wearing rags. The standard of living, never great, plummeted.

Victor Kremeniuk, with the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, says everything Russians were used to suddenly disappeared.

"The empire for many people was the major sense of their existence. Now, it's no more," he recalls.

But Russia is no longer on its knees: It is developing a new identity.

While Kremeniuk does not endorse Russia's actions in Georgia, he says Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's harsh words in recent years have reflected widespread and growing frustration.

"It was regarded as poor, retarded, you know, just underdeveloped, and so on," Kremeniuk says. "Now, under Mr. Putin, Russia has finally emerged as a more or less well-to-do nation, but it wanted to have the feeling that now it will be regarded by the other nations differently, with more respect."

A Neglected Relationship?

Rose Gottemoeller of the Carnegie Moscow Center says the Bush administration did not adequately respond to Russian concerns.

"Washington has been neglecting the relationship with Russia profoundly over the last eight years," Gottemoeller says. "We've had a situation time and time again when President Bush has gone to a summit meeting, you know, declared his cooperation with his good friend President Putin, and then he's gone back to Washington and nothing has happened."

Some in the Bush administration argue that Russia is simply unwilling to acknowledge the post-Soviet realities. Nikolai Zlobin, a Russian analyst with the Washington-based World Security Institute, says the West is also inflexible.

"Why, for 15 years after the end of Cold War, West did do very little to make Russia an ally and friend," Zlobin says. "Every Russian leader came to power saying reasonable things about the West and, sooner or later, something happens which will turn them anti-American."

Zlobin doesn't pretend the new Russia is easy to deal with. At home in Russia for a brief visit, he is stunned at the growth of nationalism and anti-American feeling.

"I talk to my friends. ... They basically say America is extremely selfish country and doesn't understand that other people may have different ideas, different agendas, different approaches," Zlobin says.

Threats Of Isolation

Putin has made his concerns known repeatedly, calling NATO absorption of Russia's neighbors Georgia and Ukraine "red lines." U.S. support for the independence of Kosovo has been another issue of contention.

If the West can redraw European boundaries against the wishes of Russia and its ally Serbia, then Russia argues it can redraw boundaries, too. Kremeniuk says the U.S. was also unduly provocative in the way it set up anti-missile defenses in Russia's backyard.

"They do not trust that this effort undertaken by the U.S. in Europe is against Iran or against terrorist launches," Kremeniuk says. "They still think that this is against Russia. Why, what is the reason that instead of inviting both nations to cooperate closely, they fight each other on that?"

It's unclear what the aftershocks of Russia's recent actions in Georgia will be. As Gottemoeller notes, Russia's friends and neighbors, like Belarus and Kazakhstan, have been noticeably silent about this attack on another former Soviet state.

"All of them are in a stupor because they don't know what to say. They don't want to speak out and support Russia, but on the other hand, they don't want to come out and oppose Russia," Gottemoeller says.

Washington's threats of isolating Russia are widely discussed in Moscow, but the Kremlin has leverage it can use — it is Europe's key supplier of energy. And analysts say if the West turns away from Russia, Russia has options. It can turn East to new emerging powers like India and China.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.