Located in the eastern part of the European continent, Ukraine has been contested by different empires throughout history, with Tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Turks all having ruled this land. Ukraine regained its independence after the Cold War, but was still unable to extricate itself from great power rivalry. The great powers have always been the dominant players in the international order, and are important factors influencing the international landscape and regional situation. Throughout the thirty years since the end of the Cold War, United States-Russian relations have been the most sensitive and fragile element of great power relations. On the morning of February 24, Russia declared war on Ukraine, triggering Europe’s most serious security crisis in the decades since the Cold War. This crisis is a major crisis not only in Russia-Ukraine relations, but also in Russia’s relationship with the West, marking a change in the way Moscow deals with the West, from dialogue in the past to the struggle of the present. The post-Cold War relationship of competition and cooperation between Russia and the West has ended. Multiple structural contradictions have accumulated, making the relationship difficult to reconcile in the short term.
First, the Russia-Ukraine war is a crisis in Russia’s security relations with NATO. Europe’s geo-security environment improved significantly after the Cold War ended, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact allowed Europe to again move toward dialogue and cooperation. However, Russia has never been able to achieve harmonious security relations with the West. Under Yeltsin’s administration, Russia even offered to join NATO. This was dismissed by the West. An offer to join NATO was also made during Putin’s [first] administration, but the United States did not respond. Under Medvedev, Russia also wanted to build a unified European security framework and called for a new European security treaty. “To achieve a breakthrough for the future, and to end almost 20 years of uncertainty and instability, requires collective political will,” he said. Moscow hoped to establish a unified and indivisible political-military security space in North America, Europe, and Central Asia. This reflected Russia’s concerns about its exclusion from the European security framework and its fears about NATO’s eastward expansion. Medvedev’s proposal reflected Russia’s attempt to change the NATO-dominated European security framework. It was an important attempt by Russia to reshape the strategic balance in Europe. However, the West reacted lukewarmly to this Russian initiative.
The West does not accept Russia’s participation in the European security-building system, and despite Russia’s opposition, it has continued to expand NATO’s membership, adopting a security policy of unilateral expansion that excludes Russia, expanding NATO’s membership from 16 to 30, gradually expanding its sphere of influence from Western, Southern and Central Europe during the Cold War to Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea region, forming a complete strategic encirclement of Russia. While NATO was admitting countries in Central and Eastern Europe, it also set its sights on the “post-Soviet space.” Most of the “post-Soviet states” have joined NATO’s “Partnership for Peace.” The West has taken advantage of those states’ historical grievances and territorial disputes with Russia to actively support their bids to join NATO, with Ukraine and Georgia being the most proactive. After the 2014 Crimea crisis, Ukraine explicitly proposed joining NATO, and NATO accepted Ukraine as an associate member in 2020, granting Ukraine “NATO Capacity Enhancement Partner” status and implementing substantive security cooperation with it. U.S. and British troops are now permanently stationed in Ukraine on a rotating basis, ostensibly for military training missions or exercises.
Russia believes that NATO’s substantive cooperation with Ukraine threatens Moscow’s security, and has touched Russia’s “strategic red line.” In his state of the nation address in April 2021, Putin said that Russia has been restrained and modest, that it wants to maintain good relations with all its international partners, and that “we really do not want to burn bridges;” that some countries should not take Russia’s modesty as weakness, and that if anyone dares to cross Russia’s “red lines,” burning or even blowing up bridges, Russia’s response will be “disproportionate, swift and tough.” But diplomatic communication between Putin and Biden has not been smooth, with the United States and NATO rejecting Russia’s core security guarantee demands. In December 2021, Russia publicly proposed a draft Russia-U.S. security guarantee treaty and an agreement on security guarantee measures between Russia and NATO member states, demanding that NATO not be expanded and that Ukraine not join NATO; that Russia and NATO not deploy short- and medium-range missiles in areas where they can strike each other; and that the two sides’ military force deployments return to the positions set out in the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation. However, the United States and NATO clearly rejected Russia’s core demands. The West clearly underestimated Russia’s strategic counterattack ability and determination. As we have seen, in the absence of fruitful negotiations between Russia and NATO, Putin abandoned diplomatic efforts, quickly declared recognition of the independence of Ukraine’s Donbas region, and sent troops directly into Ukraine. On the morning of February 24, Russia declared war on Ukraine, taking military measures to reverse NATO’s offensive posture in Ukraine. The Russia-Ukraine war means a complete rupture of Russia-NATO relations and a return to confrontation and an arms race between the two sides.
Second, the Russia-Ukraine war is a crisis in the development path of Russia’s relationship with the West. Russia’s announcement that it was sending troops to Ukraine not only has security considerations, but also has profound political intentions. As Engels said, “men, consciously or unconsciously, derive their ethical ideas in the last resort from the … economic relations in which they carry on production and exchange.” From a political science perspective, a development path is essentially a value orientation that sums up the essence and purpose of a country’s social development, embodies the profound dialectic between tradition and modernity, democratization and national conditions, and requires the establishment of mechanisms that can ensure the realization of the concept of national development.
Since Putin came to power, Russia has moved away from the West’s understanding of the path of national development, and Russian politics has begun to return to conservative politics, abandoning the democratic model marketed to Russia by the West. Putin believes that “as a sovereign country, Russia can and will independently determine for itself the timeframe and the conditions for its advancement along that path [toward democracy],” and that “democratic values must be combined with national interests. The West has criticized Putin’s “sovereign democracy” and “controlled democracy,” and by supporting anti-Putin NGOs, has created a political force in Russia that supports the Western model of democracy. At the same time, the West has shifted the focus of its efforts to promote the Western model of democracy [from Russia] to Russia’s neighboring countries. In 2009, the European Union officially launched the “Eastern Partnership” program to integrate the “post-Soviet states,” using Free Trade Area agreements as bait to bring six neighboring countries—Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine—into the Western economic and political system.
In his speech on February 24, Putin clearly announced that Ukraine would be “de-Nazified” through military action. As is well known, it was the United States’ gross interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs in 2014 that led to the demonstrations and protests to turn into “regime change” in Ukraine. Putin’s statements on Ukrainian politics imply opposition to the path of national development given to Ukraine by the West. To quote Putin aide Vladislav Surkov, in his important article Putin’s Long-lasting Empire published in 2019, the “Putinist” political model will be an effective means of Russian national survival and development for the next 100 years. According to Surkov, the “Putin model” will not only be applicable to Russia, but also has “export” potential. Thus, after “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, it seems likely that Putin will replicate the Russian “Putin model” in Ukraine and replace the “Western model” with the “Putin model.”
Again, the Russia-Ukraine war is a crisis in Russia’s diplomatic relations with the West. Starting with the reforms of Peter I in the 18th century, Russia began to Europeanize in the cultural realm, and after the reforms of Catherine II, Tsarist Russia became a European power for a time. However, Russia was once again marginalized after World War I. During the Soviet era, despite its great economic, military, scientific and diplomatic achievements, Russia remained in a protracted state of confrontation with the Western world, moving from Tsarist Russia’s position on the margins to the opposite side, becoming the Western world’s “East.” After the end of the Cold War, many Russians believed for a time that they could rejoin the Western world, once the differences between political systems and market models were eliminated. But Russia’s re-embrace of the Western world did not work out well, as the West enthusiastically accepted Central and Eastern European countries into its fold, and even considered certain “post-Soviet states” as potential targets. In the eyes of the West, Russia has always been the “other,” and European countries have likened the idea of Russia joining the EU to “an elephant getting in your bathtub.”
Putin attached great importance to the development of relations with the United States after he came to power, and hoped to completely dismantle the “sticking points” in their relations. After the September 11 attacks, Putin called George W. Bush to express his full support for the United States in the fight against terrorism. He unexpectedly opened an air transport corridor to Afghanistan to the United States, and took the initiative in sharing counterterrorism intelligence with the United States. During the Obama administration, the U.S. and Russian leaders made efforts to “reboot” relations after the Russia-Georgia war, and in the face of multiple rounds of U.S. sanctions after the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Putin did not forgo opportunities to improve relations. Russia has also taken great pains in its relations with Europe. During the Yeltsin era, Russia quickly agreed to withdraw its troops from Eastern Europe, and it supported the option of Central and Eastern Europe joining the European Union. From the 1990s until the2008 Russia-Georgia War, Russia maintained friendly diplomatic relations and relatively close economic cooperation with Europe. During the administration of Chancellor Schröder in Germany, Russia joined Germany, France, and others in opposing the U.S. war in Iraq. Under Merkel’s administration, despite the impact of sanctions from the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Russia continued to expand its energy exports to Europe, and completed construction of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline.
Throughout the thirty years since the end of the Cold War, Russia has made improving its relationship with the West one of its diplomatic priorities, and Moscow has maintained a great deal of strategic patience with the West, which once accepted Russia into the G7. However, the West has never really accepted Russia, has always seen Russia as the main security threat, and has continued to encroach upon and encircle Russia’s strategic space. The West has not only integrated former Warsaw Pact members into the Western political, economic and security system, but is also preparing to integrate the “post-Soviet space” into the West. The West has completely ignored Moscow’s desire to integrate into the West, and has exhausted Russia’s strategic patience with the Western world. Since the Biden administration came into office, the United States has reorganized the West’s “united front” against Russia, rebuilding a united diplomatic and military front against Russia. In 2021, the United States and the European Union together introduced several sanctions against Russia and expelled Russian diplomats. These joint actions left Moscow feeling there was almost zero room for improving relations with the West. In early 2022, Washington’s smear campaign against Russia reached an extreme, with the United States and Britain escalating the “Russian threat theory” into a “Russian invasion theory,” and the atmosphere for dialogue with the West was completely lost. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reluctantly compared the dialogue between the Russian and British foreign ministers on Ukraine as “a dialogue between a mute person and a deaf person.”
The Russia-Ukraine war is an important turning point in Russia’s relations with the West, reflecting the fact that the differences between Russia and the West in terms of security concepts, values and worldview are escalating into a huge “conflict” that is difficult to reconcile. Putin’s actions in Ukraine mark a complete paradigm shift Russia’s dealings with the West. Communication has become very difficult because of the huge differences in perceptions between the two sides, and the differences rapidly escalate into conflicts, which intensify into war. The Russia-Ukraine war is an outbreak of past conflicts between Russia and the West, and a violent “collision” of future pluralism and Western centrism.