democracy in the former Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO, to include Ukraine and Georgia. From the fall of the former Soviet Union, the United States saw itself as having a dominant role in reshaping post-Soviet social and political orders, including influencing the emergence of democratic institutions and free markets. The United States saw this almost in the same light as it saw the democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II. Having defeated the Soviet Union, it now fell to the United States to reshape the societies of the successor states.
Through the 1990s, the successor states, particularly Russia, were inert. Undergoing painful internal upheaval — which foreigners saw as reform but which many Russians viewed as a foreign-inspired national catastrophe — Russia could not resist American and European involvement in regional and internal affairs. From the American point of view, the reshaping of the region — from the Kosovo war to the expansion of NATO to the deployment of U.S. Air Force bases to Central Asia — was simply a logical expansion of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a benign attempt to stabilize the region, enhance its prosperity and security and integrate it into the global system.
As Russia regained its balance from the chaos of the 1990s, it began to see the American and European presence in a less benign light. It was not clear to the Russians that the United States was trying to stabilize the region. Rather, it appeared to the Russians that the United States was trying to take advantage of Russian weakness to impose a new politico-military reality in which Russia was to be surrounded with nations controlled by the United States and its military system, NATO. In spite of the promise made by Bill Clinton that NATO would not expand into the former Soviet Union, the three Baltic states were admitted. The promise was not addressed. NATO was expanded because it could and Russia could do nothing about it.
From the Russian point of view, the strategic break point was Ukraine. When the Orange Revolution came to Ukraine, the American and European impression was that this was a spontaneous democratic rising. The Russian perception was that it was a well-financed CIA operation to foment an anti-Russian and pro-American uprising in Ukraine. When the United States quickly began discussing the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO, the Russians came to the conclusion that the United States intended to surround and crush the Russian Federation. In their view, if NATO expanded into Ukraine, the Western military alliance would place Russia in a strategically untenable position. Russia would be indefensible. The American response was that it had no intention of threatening Russia. The Russian question was returned: Then why are you trying to take control of Ukraine? What other purpose would you have? The United States dismissed these Russian concerns as absurd. The Russians, not regarding them as absurd at all, began planning on the assumption of a hostile United States.
If the United States had intended to break the Russian Federation once and for all, the time for that was in the 1990s, before Yeltsin was replaced by Putin and before 9/11. There was, however, no clear policy on this, because the United States felt it had all the time in the world. Superficially this was true, but only superficially. First, the United States did not understand that the Yeltsin years were a temporary aberration and that a new government intending to stabilize Russia was inevitable. If not Putin, it would have been someone else. Second, the United States did not appreciate that it did not control the international agenda. Sept. 11, 2001, took away American options in the former Soviet Union. No only did it need Russian help in Afghanistan, but it was going to spend the next decade tied up in the Middle East. The United States had lost its room for maneuver and therefore had run out of time.
And now we come to the key point. In spite of diminishing military options outside of the Middle East, the United States did not modify its policy in the former Soviet Union. It continued to aggressively attempt to influence countries in the region, and it became particularly committed to integrating Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, in spite of the fact that both were of overwhelming strategic interest to the Russians. Ukraine dominated Russia’s southwestern flank, without any natural boundaries protecting them. Georgia was seen as a constant irritant in Chechnya as well as a barrier to Russian interests in the Caucasus.
Moving rapidly to consolidate U.S. control over these and other countries in the former Soviet Union made strategic sense. Russia was weak, divided and poorly governed. It could make no response. Continuing this policy in the 2000s, when the Russians were getting stronger, more united and better governed and while U.S. forces were no longer available, made much less sense. The United States continued to irritate the Russians without having, in the short run, the forces needed to act decisively.
The American calculation was that the Russian government would not confront American interests in the region. The Russian calculation was that it could not wait to confront these interests because the United States was concluding the Iraq war and would return to its pre-eminent position in a few short years. Therefore, it made no sense for Russia to wait and it made every sense for Russia to act as quickly as possible.
The Russians were partly influenced in their timing by the success of the American surge in Iraq. If the United States continued its policy and had force to back it up, the Russians would lose their window of opportunity. Moreover, the Russians had an additional lever for use on the Americans: Iran.
The United States had been playing a complex game with Iran for years, threatening to attack while trying to negotiate. The Americans needed the Russians. Sanctions against Iran would have no meaning if the Russians did not participate, and the United States did not want Russia selling advance air defense systems to Iran. (Such systems, which American analysts had warned were quite capable, were not present in Syria on Sept. 6, 2007, when the Israelis struck a nuclear facility there.) As the United States re-evaluates the Russian military, it does not want to be surprised by Russian technology. Therefore, the more aggressive the United States becomes toward Russia, the greater the difficulties it will have in Iran.