What if the West Had Tried a Different Approach Toward Post-Cold War Russia?

The Soviet Union voluntarily agreed to negotiate an end to the Cold War with the US-led West in the late 1980’s and to bring its troops home from Europe. Shortly afterwards, the Russians threw off Communism and opened themselves up to what they hoped would be integration with the West. Polls and interviews with Russians during this period demonstrate that they had good will toward Americans, loved American culture, and admired American innovation and openness.

What did the Russians get in return?

Economic Exploitation of the 1990’s

First, US-led western financial institutions and advisers encouraged a Shock Therapy economic program on the country. This included leveraging needed debt relief and foreign aid. There was also an influx of carpetbaggers from fancy schools and think tanks in the U.S. who helped create or encouraged exploitative projects like the voucher program and the Loans for Shares grift that facilitated and legitimized the acquisition of major Soviet assets for a small group of ethically-challenged members of the nomenklatura and illicit businessmen. Within a year after Shock Therapy was implemented in early 1992, millions of Russians had been driven into poverty with life savings wiped out and salaries and pensions not being paid for months at a time. Corrupt members of the police and security services, along with black market profiteers, created organized crime enterprises that targeted Russian entrepreneurs by charging protection money under threat of violence and property destruction.

By 1994-95, Russia was experiencing a mortality crisis not seen since WWII, with an estimated million men dying from what we now refer to as diseases of despair: alcoholism, suicide, homicide, and heart attacks. Women were often forced to sell whatever they had, from cigarettes to dishes to their bodies, in an effort to provide for themselves and their families.

Yeltsin’s Authoritarianism

These economically exploitative programs were made possible by the leadership of Boris Yeltsin. Mikhail Gorbachev, for all the faults attributed to him by Russians, did not want to impose Shock Therapy. Instead, he wanted to pursue something similar to the Scandinavian model: free markets with a robust set of social programs and public ownership of certain key industries. However, he didn’t seem to have a good plan for how to realistically achieve his vision. Moreover, he was confronted with US-led financial institutions who would not grant him debt relief or significant financial aid without enacting a set of painful neoliberal economic policies that he knew Russians would not support.

Yeltsin, an ambitious rival of Gorbachev’s, had no such qualms about enacting these reforms when he was able to do so. Yeltsin’s prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, removed price controls within months after the Soviet Union was effectively dissolved and Gorbachev’s leadership had been supplanted. This affected the vast majority of both wholesale and retail goods and resulted in an inflation rate of 2500% by the end of 1992, resulting in mass poverty and hunger. In summer of 1992, Yeltsin’s deputy prime minister, Anatoly Chubais got to work on a privatization plan, a scheme by which each Russian was supposed to get a share worth about 10,000 rubles that would represent a percentage of ownership stake in major Soviet assets. Most of the shares were ultimately bought up by factory managers and black market operatives.

By September of 1993, Yeltsin had been ruling by decree – with the permission of parliament – for about a year under the guise of fixing economic problems. Parliament wanted to rescind that power and to roll back the Shock Therapy policies. Consequently, Yeltsin tried to dissolve parliament and parliamentarians threatened to impeach him for abuse of power. After the constitutional court ruled against Yeltsin’s actions, Yeltsin ordered riot police to surround the parliament building (then known as the White House) and had utilities cut. For about 2 weeks, thousands of peaceful protesters filled the streets trying to break the blockade. Yeltsin advisors thought early elections to break the standoff would be too risky due to the Polish having just voted out politicians who’d imposed a Shock Therapy program on them. On October 3, tanks were sent in to shell the parliament building after police fired on a crowd of protesters who’d entered a television station. The death toll is estimated between 187 and 2000 with hundreds more injured. Yeltsin then suspended the existing constitution.

In order to prevent any future such challenge to presidential power, Yeltsin engineered the design of a constitution with a defanged parliament that would essentially serve as a rubber stamp for the president’s prerogatives. The Clinton administration and US media at the time depicted the attack on parliament as a win for democracy and they had no complaints about the resulting Russian constitution that effectively eliminated checks and balances.

Not until Putin came to power, that is. For all of the west’s complaints about Putin’s authoritarianism, he inherited the political framework set by Yeltsin and has been able to use it to further the agenda he sets.

NATO Expansion: Russia’s Security Concerns Ignored

"Combined with claiming "victory" in the Cold War expanding NATO suggested to the Russian public that throwing off communism and breaking up the Soviet Union had probably been a bad idea. Instead of getting credit for voluntarily joining the West, they were being treated as if they had been defeated and were not worthy to be allies." – Jack Matlock

By 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had voluntarily withdrawn over 400,000 troops from Central and Eastern Europe. He had declined to use force to suppress independence movements in various Soviet republics and negotiated an end to the Cold War with U.S. president Ronald Reagan. By spring of 1991, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. This represented an historical rarity for an empire – not that it ceased to exist, but that it peacefully accepted that its moment of major dominance had run its course.

With this turn of events, it makes sense that a new security architecture could have been negotiated that would have taken into account the interests of all of Europe. This would have sought balance between Russia’s need for a buffer against invasion from its west (as it had experienced numerous times in its past, including the Nazi attack that resulted in 27 million deaths) and the Eastern European countries that had historically feared Russian domination. Furthermore, it was believed by some with more foresight at the time that the best way to encourage Russia’s development as a democracy and for peaceful coexistence on the continent was to gradually integrate Russia into the West rather than continue to treat it as an eternal enemy. That included the leadership of France and Germany. This view would later be echoed by George Kennan in his criticisms of proposed NATO expansion several years later:

"[E]xpanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking."

There is even some evidence that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe did not necessarily see Russia as an eternal enemy. By the mid-90’s, Polish Defense Minister, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, had stated that the motivation to join NATO was to suppress nationalist threats and "not to defend against a Russian attack. We see that attack as a virtual impossibility." Certainly, another way could have been found to allay nationalist concerns for Poland.

Similarly, a 1993 statement drawn up by the administration of the first Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, indicates that Russia was not then viewed as a military threat and that a measured and non-confrontational approach would be in the best interests of Ukraine:

"A non-confrontational strategy concerning Russia is warranted still more by the domestic circumstances of Ukraine….Ukraine’s national security is not threatened by Russian military expansion, but by Russia’s potential use of social, cultural and psychological means….The contradictions and dynamics in Russian-Ukrainian relations are similar to those when you try to separate two Siamese twins…..Neither Ukraine’s security nor favorable conditions for her development as a nation are possible without deep and sincere neighborly relations with Russia."

This point that Russia was not automatically assumed to be a military threat is buttressed by the fact that the Central and Eastern European nations, including Poland and the Czech Republic, had all decreased their defense budgets, shortened terms of military conscription, and disbanded many of their army divisions by 1995.

Might there have been fears that in the future Russia could have become a problem for them again? Yes, but it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t possible to muster the diplomatic skill to forge a security arrangement that would have created a more stable European environment while balancing interests. This is especially true if the US had chosen to use the massive influence and resources it had at the time to do just that.

As Matlock has stated, based on his experience behind the scenes after the Cold War ended: "There was no need to expand NATO to ensure the security of the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe. There were other ways those countries could have been reassured and protected without seeming to re-divide Europe to Russia’s disadvantage."

Despite the attempts to re-brand NATO by those who benefited from its continued existence, the military alliance did not appear to Russia as a benign institution just facilitating peace and democracy for the rest of Europe. With NATO’s purpose of defending Western Europe from the Soviet Union having ended after the Cold War concluded, the US defense industry began a strong lobbying effort to expand the alliance. This effort was particularly intense between 1996 and 1998. One of the primary organizations pushing for NATO expansion was the aptly named Committee to Expand NATO, led by an executive of Lockheed Martin, Bruce Jackson. Jackson co-founded the organization with Ronald Asmus, a former Rand analyst who worked with the future leadership of several of the Central and Eastern European states that would later become new NATO members. Asmus became known as the intellectual architect behind the idea of NATO enlargement and how to frame it in a publicly acceptable way – i.e. that the alliance was spreading peace and democracy. Interestingly, the Committee’s board membership during its active years reads like a neoconservative all-star list: Robert Kagan, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Hadley, Condoleezza Rice, and John McCain. But Democratic hawks were also deeply involved in the group and its mission, including Zbigniew Brzezinski disciple Madeleine Albright, a Czech-American.

The Committee regularly wined and dined US senators as well as politicians from Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, in addition to conducting free "defense planning seminars." Maps used during these presentations to the Poles reportedly showed arrows pointing from Russia as the origin of a hypothetical attack, playing to historical fears.

They also coordinated their lobbying efforts with the Hungarian American Foundation and the Polish American Congress (PAC). PAC, an ethnic lobbying group, actually called for Poland’s entry into NATO at their National Directors meeting in June 1991, six months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Three months later, they also called for the entry of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. One of PAC’s most prominent members and a major advocate of NATO expansion was Jan Nowak, who had worked for years for the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe. He then went on to serve as an advisor to the Carter administration, which included his friend Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-American national security advisor who harbored a deep antipathy toward Russia.

Many in the Clinton administration were initially reticent to push for NATO expansion. But the 1994 mid-term elections saw the Republicans take control of Congress and they used the administration’s caution to argue that the Democrats weren’t serious about an enlargement commitment and were too quick to appease Russia. NATO enlargement became one of the few foreign policy provisions of the Republicans’ Contract with America, calling on the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to include the democracies of Central and Eastern Europe into the alliance. It also contained a specific goal for the entry of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO by January 1999.

Those three countries would be welcomed into the alliance in 1999, despite warnings to Clinton by some experienced diplomats and foreign policy experts. A second round in 2004 under the Bush II administration, known as "the big bang" by lobbyists, consisted of seven new members: Bulgaria Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia on Russia’s border. A third round brought in Croatia and Albania five years later.

By 2009, not only had NATO greatly expanded in terms of membership by twelve new nations in Central and Eastern Europe – along with a public promise to include Georgia and Ukraine in the future, its mandate had also expanded to include peacekeeping, international policing, and counterterrorism activities.

In the meantime, the Russian leadership had begun expressing its concerns about what it saw as increasing threats to its security. Putin had complained at the Munich Security Conference of 2007 about the negative ramifications of the current international order that was driven not by international law or balance of interests but by the interests of one superpower nation. He specifically mentioned NATO’s expanded mandate as well as the nature of the enlargement of its membership. He asserted that the obvious conclusion to be drawn from NATO’s post-Cold War actions was that it was against Russia.

Subsequently, at conferences where he had an audience with western media, Putin also explained his grave concerns about the security implications of the US withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and the emplacement of missiles that have offensive capabilities in Romania and Poland. For example, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June of 2016, Putin stated:

“There’s no [nuclear] threat [from Iran], and the missile defense system [in Europe] is still being built, so we were right when we said they are deceiving us, they are not sincere with us referring to the alleged Iranian nuclear threat during the construction of the missile defense system….We know approximately which year the Americans will get a new missile that will have a range of not 500 kilometers but more, and from that moment they will start threatening our nuclear potential. We know what will be going on by years. And they know that we know…. People feel no danger and that is alarming for me. Can we see that we are dragging the world into an utterly new dimension….I don’t know where it [the deployment of the US missile defense system in Europe] might lead to but I know for sure that we will have to answer….[and Russia] will again be accused of aggressive behavior, although it is just an answer.”

The Russian leadership has proposed several times to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution to these problems. Most notably, in 2008, Putin ordered the Russian Foreign Ministry to draft a proposal that Dmitry Medvedev took to Brussels, outlining a security plan that would cover all of the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia, obviating the need for NATO’s continued existence, much less its expansion.  That, along with its other past proposals, had been rejected or ignored.

It should be noted that since it began enlargement, NATO has never publicly acknowledged that Russia has any legitimate security concerns, much less specifying what they might be.


Any country that had been economically exploited by outsiders, lost its independence, and was not allowed to have its own security interests recognized would have taken the opportunity, when possible, to regain its sovereignty and defend its security interests. That should have been totally predictable to anyone who had an ounce of knowledge of geopolitical history or a basic understanding of human psychology. The fact that it was Putin who engineered this turnaround – insisting on economic and security arrangements that are not at Russia’s expense and bolstering its ability to back them up – is what has made him the super-demon depicted by the US political class, not because he meets any objective criteria for being overly aggressive or illiberal compared to other leaders approved of or tolerated by the US.

We can’t know for certain whether a more inclusive approach would have led to a better outcome, but one thing we can say is that the approach that was in fact taken by the post-Cold War West – and has been doubled down on in the face of numerous Russian complaints over the years – turned out to be an excellent blueprint for creating the resentment and backlash by the Russian leadership that we’re currently confronted with.

Natylie Baldwin is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations, available from Amazon and other major booksellers. She blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com. Twitter: @natyliesb