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Russia’s near abroad looks very different there than from here | Column

Should or can Russian sensitivities be taken into account by the United States and its Western partners?
This columnist will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. [ILLUSTRATION BY DON BROWN  |  Tampa Bay Times]
This columnist will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. [ILLUSTRATION BY DON BROWN | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Feb. 14

Editor’s note: This column is from one of the writers who will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs from Tuesday night through Friday. For details about the conference, go to stpetersburgconferenceonworldaffairs.com.

One of the many dilemmas facing the United States is how to react to Russian policy toward the many nations and ethnic groups that had been in, or close to, the former Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has been quoted as saying, was a “geopolitical tragedy.”

Many Western experts have debated, even today, what Putin meant by that, or what its implications are for Russian, American and others’ foreign and domestic policies.

Russian recent moves have included the annexation of Crimea, support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, recognition of and increased influence in breakaway regions of Georgia and pressure on Belarus. Even though the Kremlin may not be advocating the resurrection of some or all of the USSR, the zero-sum mindset of Russians, and most Westerners, has made Russian activities in the near abroad obstacles to improving relations with Russia and to cooperation on issues of common concern.

The basic perception influencing the Kremlin is that Russia cannot afford to rely on the good will of its former Western competitors, who in Moscow’s view have taken advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse by, for example, extending NATO membership up to Russia’s borders. The Kremlin is convinced that the United States and the European Union’s actions in Ukraine in the last few years have been directed at Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO, further surrounding Russia with "enemies.“

Kent Brown [Provided by Kent Brown]

For Putin, the key concern remains that the former Soviet political entities known as Republics not become weapons of Russia’s real or potential opponents (for example, the United States, Germany, the EU and China). And Putin must clearly have been concerned that former Warsaw Pact states, and former Yugoslavia, not also become tools of anti-Russian policies, through close alignment with EU policies and NATO (Moscow must regard former Warsaw Pact ally Poland as an instigator within the EU and NATO of anti-Russian policies).

Is Russia exaggerating Western willingness and intentions to keep Russia surrounded by hostile powers? Moscow should, and perhaps does, take into account the West’s own ambivalence toward trying to recruit new EU (and NATO) members from former Soviet republics and the Warsaw Pact allies. France recently voted in EU councils against a closer relationship with some former Yugoslav republics and others known as “Eastern Partners.” Not only France among EU members is concerned with closer integration with some Eastern European polities, many of whom are instinctively anti-Russian.

President Emmanuel Macron’s veto over closer West-East European integration is probably not designed to curry favor with the Russians, but even if it is, will it make a difference in Moscow’s perception of a hostile West? Should or can Russian sensitivities be taken into account by the United States and its Western partners? At least in the United States, the Congress’ hostility toward Russia (part of the current U.S. domestic struggle for power) means any improvement will be a long time in coming.

Kent Brown was ambassador to the Republic of Georgia from 1992-95. Before that, he served on the U.S. Conventional Arms Negotiating team, and in addition served in Prague, Moscow and at NATO in Brussels.

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