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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Bargaining with the Bear: How the Lessons Russia Drew from the End of the Cold War Have impacted its Current Worldview

Mwahaki King
Spring 2015
B.A. Diplomacy and World Affairs || Occidental College
M.A. Law and Diplomacy ||  The Fletcher School, Tufts University 

Prompt: Did the end of the Cold War impact Russia’s contemporary outlook on the world and if so, how? Make your argument in no more than four (4) pages.

Bargaining with the Bear: How the Lessons Russia  Drew from the End of the Cold War Have impacted its Current Worldview

This paper proceeds from the assumption that the lessons Russia drew from the end of the Cold War continue to shape the state’s worldview and foreign policy today. It is imperative for policy makers outside Russia to understand that the lessons Russia took from the end of the Cold War were drastically disparate from those taken by the United States of America and as such the way in which Russia approaches the outside world is remarkably different. Furthermore, it is crucial to understand the backgrounds Russia’s current leaders, towards the end of the Cold War. This comprehension will be essential for effective analysis of Russia’s modern external decisions.
A Broken Promise

A primary lesson Russians drew from the end of the Cold War was that Western assurances cannot be trusted, regardless of how benign they may appear. A deeply entrenched distrust and bitterness exists towards America and its allies due to the perceived broken promise of NATO expansion. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Soviet Union, America and West Germany entered into negotiations to address the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. While these negotiations led to the reunification of Germany the following year, they were also the source of intense friction between Russia and the West which continues to influence diplomacy between the two spheres today. The Russians maintain that America promised not to continue with eastward NATO expansion in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the reunification of Germany; and that this promise was subsequently broken as NATO added twelve Eastern Europe states to the organisation. The Americans, however assert that no such promise was ever made to the Russians. Russia was staunchly opposed to NATO expansion. To the Russians, Eastern Europe has consistently been a source of trouble on the fringes of its borders, and NATO expansion would only serve to exacerbate the problem. Moreover, the exclusion of Russia from NATO while the organisation continue to expand with Eastern European members only intensified Russian feelings of isolation and fear of attack.

Recently, documents have surfaced which demonstrate that there was no formal agreement between Russia, West Germany and America regarding NATO expansion. However, it has also been documented that as early as February 1990, America diplomats along with officials in West Germany informally began to imply that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe if Mikhail Gorbachev would guarantee German reunification. It is clear that Gorbachev acquiesced to these Western demands without a formal agreement addressing NATO expansion partially due to Gorbachev’s unorthodox trust and goodwill towards the West, but ultimately because of the considerable financial and societal quagmire the Soviet Union was facing at the time. [1]

Ultimately, while it has been proven that was never any formal agreement between Russia and the West, it is perception that is key. The perception prevails in Russia that they were cheated and betrayed by the West and while it may not be popular in the West, unless this perception is respectfully acknowledged it will continue to mar negotiations between the two entities for years to come.

Where Were You?

As stated before, understanding where the personalities currently in positions of power were as the Cold War drew to a close is vital to analysing the way in which these people make decisions for Russia today. In 1989, Vladamir Putin was a KBG officer in Dresden, East Germany. During the fall of the Berlin Wall a mob threatened to storm the building. His life was in immediate danger and Moscow ignored his myriad pleas for orders and support. Thus, he and fellow officers armed themselves and stood down the mob. As someone who had loyally served the U.S.S.R as his father before him, this complete disregard from the capital had a profound effect on his worldview. This moment is critical because Putin would go on to wield formidable power as President of Russia; and what he learnt from his harrowing experience during the fall of the Berlin Wall was that a strong show of force is extremely effective. This lesson, coupled with the bitterness Russians feel towards their loss of power on the global stage is and will continue to be potent force behind Putin’s current and future foreign policy decisions. Putin himself expressed this resentment in a 1999 interview where he discussed “returning to Moscow full of bitterness at how ‘the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe’”. [2]

Putin’s involvement in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 was done in part due to lingering resentment towards the West’s broken promise and what the state views as a threatening encroachment on its borders through NATO expansion. Furthermore while there was great condemnation from the West regarding the Russian intervention in Georgia, it was widely applauded within the Caucasus. From the local perspective, South Ossetia had triumphed over Georgia with Russian assistance and in that instance Russia was seen as the protector of the autonomy of states in the Caucasus. Domestically, Putin was also strongly praised for the annexation of Crimea due to the historical and cultural connection between Russia and Crimea. The positive public opinion gained from the annexation will not be quickly forgotten by the Russian administration as it implants future strategies. This is a highly unpopular view in the West, but ignoring the local reality would be a massive failing on the part of any state attempting to engage with Russia.


Given Russian resentments and the background of current political leaders, it is improbable that Russia will retreat when it feels threatened by the West. There is a fervent belief in the potency of “shows of strength” in the face of adversity and sanctions from the U.S. and EU only fuel Russian frustration and anger. However, as seen with Gorbachev there is a historical precedent of Russian cooperation when incentivised by increased foreign aid during times of financial and social instability.[3] If the Western powers were less dogmatic in their approach to Russia, the state may be more amenable to positive negotiations. Despite Russian distrust, the severity of the state’s economic situation would highlight that cooperation with the West would be a pragmatic decision.

However, such diplomatic altruism between the West and Russia is unlikely. The more realist prediction for their relationship is that Russia will resist current EU-imposed sanctions, turn further away from Europe and strengthen its relationship with China. This has already begun in the petroleum and natural gas industry. In 2014, Gasprom announced a major project to provide China with 38 billion cubic metres per year of natural gas beginning in 2018; in addition to other agreements that would solidify the Sino-Russian relationship. Ultimately, Russia will continue devising plans to remove its dependence on European markets and focus its attention on Asia.

  1. Sarotte, Mary Elise. “Broken Promise: What the West Really Told Moscow about NATO Expansion, A.” Foreign Aff. 93 (2014): 90 p. 96 “Gorbachev ultimately gave his assent to a united Germany in NATO in exchange for face-saving measures, such a four-year grace period for removing Soviet troops and some restrictions on both NATO troops and nuclear weapons on former East German territory. He also received 12 billion Deutsch marks to construct housing for the withdrawing Soviet troops and another three billion in interest-free credit. What he did not receive were any formal guarantees against NATO expansion.”
  2. Ibid. p. 97
  3. Ibid. pp. 95 - 96 “In May 1990, Jack Matlock, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, reported that Gorbachev was starting to look ‘less like a man in control and more [like] an embattled leader’. The ‘signs of crisis,’ he wrote in a cable from Moscow, ‘are legion’: Sharply rising crime rates, proliferating anti-regime demonstrations, burgeoning separatist movements, deteriorating economic performance’…Moscow would have a hard time addressing these domestic problems without the help of foreign aid and credit, which meant that it might be willing to compromise.” 

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