Russia has had a rough year: it lost to Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest; some of its athletes were banned from competing in the Rio Olympics; and the European Union (EU) decided to renew its sanctions against Russia. Many Russians think these events are Western conspiracies designed to keep Russia down. What does this tell us about how Russia sees the West? After all, whether the Russian view is right or not, this perspective shapes Russian foreign policy. Thus, the West must make an effort to understand the Russian point of view in order to better anticipate Russian actions and make the West more secure.
Russia views the West as an aggressor to be defended against. This perception has deep historic roots dating back to the Napoleonic invasion, German Imperial and Nazi invasions, and the Iron Curtain and proxy wars of the Cold War. The 1990s offered a brief reprieve in Russian-Western relations, but the general theme has remained the same: Russia feels threatened by the West.
The Ukraine crisis is the most recent manifestation of that fact. The removal in 2014 of the democratically elected Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, who favored closer ties with Russia over the EU, was deemed by Moscow to have been orchestrated by the West. While this perception may exaggerate reality, it is not entirely unfounded.
Yanukovich’s fall from power only cemented Russia’s view of the West’s self-serving rhetoric on democracy and universal values – as a values-based imperialism used by the West when politically convenient and easily forgotten when not. The removal of Yanukovich was perceived as a political move that revealed Western hypocrisy and delegitimized rhetoric on Western values. When the United States, the EU, and several other Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia in 2015, popular perceptions of the West in Russia sank to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, with 81% and 71% of Russians holding a negative of opinion of the United States and Europe, respectively.
The Ukraine crisis is only the tip of the iceberg. Preceding the crisis were two and a half decades of assertive Western actions. Despite slightly reducing its nuclear arsenal, the United States has clearly maintained military superiority in the post-Cold War period. US military capabilities by now not only far exceed those of Russia, but with over 800 U.S. foreign military bases, the United States also has much greater global reach.
The general theme that emerges is that of the West working to expand its reach to the East and Russia perceiving this as a growing strategic threat to the homeland. This post-Cold War development has been described succinctly as the clash of the liberal West with a realist Russia. The West’s push to expand it’s influence, without a clear consideration of how such actions will be perceived by Russia suggests that the West is dangerously unaware of how its actions are perceived outside the Western sphere.
The failure to understand the Russian perspective greatly contributed to the Ukraine crisis and led to the lowest point in post-Cold War relations with Russia. While the West clearly should not formulate its foreign policy with an aim to please Russia, it is in its best interest to understand the Russian point of view; failing to do so can only hurt Western self-interest and security.