The dangerous standoff between Russia and the US-led West over Ukraine has sparked a heated debate about the nature of the conflict. While some Western pundits insist that the threat stems from “expansionist Russia”, which wants to re-establish its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, others believe that what drives the Kremlin in its hostile posturing is actually the fear of democracy.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin does not fear NATO expansion today. He fears Ukrainian democracy,” former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said in a recent interview for the Economist magazine. While this is a popular narrative within some Western political circles, it does not entirely reflect the truth.
The second is true or at least was true in the winter of 2013-14, when the dramatic events of the Maidan revolution unfolding in Kyiv gave pro-democracy Russians hope. Many of them were outraged by Putin’s intervention in the Ukrainian political conflict, the annexation of Crimea and the instigation of a war in the Donbas region. Two anti-war marches in Moscow, on March 15 and September 21, 2014, were among the largest protest actions held by the Russian opposition in the first half of the 2010s.
But soon Ukraine began to lose its appeal within Russian pro-democracy circles. This happened in large part because of the toxic nature of the Ukrainian political debate, especially on social networks, which the genuinely sympathetic liberal Russians found shocking.
Gradually, it became clear that post-Maidan nationalist and pro-Western forces did not really embrace democratic and liberal values. Ukraine began looking increasingly like a mirror image of nationalist and illiberal Russia, but with a twist – it also accommodated freelancing paramilitary groups formed by far-right and neo-Nazi elements.
Despite all the Maidan hopes for radical change and democratic transformation, it became apparent that the country was still ruled by the same clique of oligarchs, aided by networks of corrupt politicians and security agents, who ran the show before the revolution. Some new personalities emerged, but most remained in place, as did the nature of the political system. With a war in one corner of the country, powerful organised crime and way more political assassinations than Putin’s Russia saw during the same period, Ukraine came to remind Russians of the turbulent 1990s.
This state of affairs allowed the Kremlin to play a masterful game of propaganda, turning the neighbouring country into a scarecrow for what “colour revolutions” might bring. Thus, instead of a democratic model, Ukraine turned into a cautionary tale for Russians entertaining the idea that some kind of liberalisation or life without Putin would be better than the status quo.
This attitude softened somewhat after the election of moderate president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comedian whose sitcom Servant of the People was a hit in Russia as much as in Ukraine. But the idea of Ukraine becoming a beacon for Russia has faded away, at least for now.
From the Russian perspective, what happened in Ukraine after the Maidan revolution has also revealed the hypocrisy of the West. Despite its persistent rhetoric on democratic values, Brussels and Washington have been turning a blind eye to a multitude of factors that prevented Ukraine from becoming a role model for Russians. These include discriminatory language laws, which severely restrict the use of the Russian language, the glorification of Nazi collaborators in street names and public celebrations, the apparent lack of desire by the government to investigate political assassinations and the fact that oligarchs are still running the show.
All of this has fed into a long-held suspicion in Russia that the West is primarily interested in moving its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders, and not in spreading democracy and liberal values. As Putin has stated, the West is trying to create an “anti-Russia”, a hostile state serving as a proxy force and offering itself as a battlefield in the global standoff between two major nuclear powers, the US and Russia. It is not a better version of Russia, as once envisioned by Russian liberals.
That is why pundits like McFaul are wrong about the Kremlin’s NATO concerns. The fear of the West, the tendency to suspect it of being profoundly disingenuous in its declarations, such as the one about NATO being a purely defensive alliance that poses no threat to Russia, is not something invented by Putin. It is a sentiment broadly held in Russian society and related not only to the history of devastating invasions from the West but more importantly – to the last 30 years of antagonistic Western policies.
Russians have felt that the West betrayed them in the 1990s. After the Soviet Union collapsed and they emerged from the totalitarian regime, they hoped they would be offered full integration into the Western world, its military and political structures. Instead, the West invited everyone in the neighbourhood, except Russia, to join NATO and the European Union.
Unsurprisingly, the expansion of these two entities has come to be perceived by many Russians as a policy of alienating their country from its neighbours and their immediate kin in Ukraine and Belarus. They feel that they are being deliberately cornered and isolated.
The question of why integrating Russia, with its enormous nuclear arsenal, back in the 1990s was not a number one priority for the West, still remains unanswered.
In 1999, prominent Russian officials, like Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, warned that NATO expansion would trigger a siege mentality in Russia and lead to its self-isolation and authoritarianism.
His prophecy materialised in the form of Vladimir Putin, whose evolution from a supposed liberal, tacitly supported by the West in his struggle against the presumed hardliners (including Luzhkov), towards an authoritarian ruler challenging the West was gradual and never predetermined. The version of Putin we are seeing today is very much a product of the profoundly flawed and incompetent Western policies of the last 30 years. He is a creation of the West.
For the moment, the confrontation with Western powers remains by far the most important source of Putin’s legitimacy. By choosing Russia as an enemy, the US and its allies are empowering his dictatorial regime. The West would do well to step back from geopolitical adventurism and the dangerous game of brinkmanship with Putin and instead, channel its efforts towards nurturing a genuine liberal democracy and 21st century governance in a militarily neutral Ukraine.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.