Staunton, May 13 – An increasing number of Russian and Western commentators are arguing that if the West had admitted Russia to NATO in the early 1990s and more generally embraced Moscow as a partner, Russia’s turns to repression and aggression under Vladimir Putin could have been avoided, Igor Gretsky says.
But a consideration of the historical record shows that there was never support in Russia for joining NATO and that Russians even in the heady days immediately after the collapse of the USSR believed that Russia must remain a world power and pursue its own court, the St. Petersburg University political scientist says (ridl.io/ru/mog-li-zapad-spasti-rossiju-ot-samoj-sebja/).
Such popular and elite attitudes were so strong, Gretsky continues, that had Boris Yeltsin ignored them and sought membership in Western institutions, he would have found himself in a minority at home and his own position would have been at risk as the elections and events of 1993 show.
Consequently, the St. Petersburg scholar says, those who are now saying that the West “could have saved Russia from itself” are wrong. The Russian people and Russian elites weren’t ready to join the West even in April 1992, and Yeltsin could not have ignored their views without putting his own position in jeopardy.
Indeed, when Yeltsin announced in August 1993 that he would not oppose NATO membership for Poland and the Czech Republic, even his pro-Western advisors like Andrey Kozyrev and Georgy Mamedov reacted with horror. And their fears were justified: Russians a few months later voted for the nationalist LDPR against the Russian president.
As Moscow commentator Aleksey Pushkov observered, “if Kremlin rulers drop Russian greatness as a key theme, they will risk losing power” to an opposition that would demand respect for that idea. In short, Yeltsin and then Putin became anti-Western not because the West didn’t embrace them, but because they were at risk of losing power if they chose otherwise.
As tends to be forgotten in both Russia and the West now, Western leaders did not promote the disintegration of the USSR. They stayed with Gorbachev far longer than many thought wise because they feared “loose nukes.” Had they believed NATO membership would have ensured Moscow’s control of such weapons, they would have offered it without hesitation.
And thus everyone must recognize that Russia’s current pursuit of the recovery of great power status and its imposition of a repressive regime are not the fault of the West but rather the reflection of Kremlin calculations about what the domestic market will bear and what its current denizens feel themselves.