As the situation in Ukraine has continued, there’s been less of the “World War III” rhetoric floating around than there was when Russia first became directly involved. Russian intervention in the Ukraine was immediately seen by many in isolation as Russian aggression against their smaller neighbor. Seen in the light of events over the last couple of decades, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Nor should it come as a surprise that NATO didn’t immediately mobilize to come to the Ukrainians’ defense.
The more you look at geopolitics, the more it becomes evident that there are very few events that are really surprises if you’ve paid attention. Russia has been working to bring its former satellite states back into the fold since the late ’90s. When the US and Poland entered into talks about the possibility of installing an American missile defense system in Poland, the Russians threatened to move Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad to neutralize the system. While the justification for the threats was that NATO was “encircling” Russia and “testing our (Russia’s) strength,” Russia has been quick to oppose any movement of one of the former Warsaw Pact states toward NATO and the West.
A great deal of Russia’s geopolitical moves have been extremely pragmatic at their base. Much of Russia’s current economic prosperity has come from the sale of oil and natural gas to Europe. Ukraine holds the primary pipelines running from Russia to Europe. The prospect of those pipelines being cut off by a break between Russia and Ukraine, regardless of the Ukrainian people’s desires, threatened Russia economically.
Russia also has been opposing the US and NATO, albeit in a much quieter fashion than it did before 1989, at just about every turn. Bosnia? Russia sided with the Serbs. Kosovo? Russia sided with the Serbs. Russia opposed the invasion of Iraq, and has supported both Iran and the Assad regime in Syria. The Russians also condemned the US for the killing of Muammar al Gaddafi in Libya. Whenever the US makes a military move, or even talks about making a military move, anywhere in the world, one can expect to find the Russians taking the other side.
There was a great deal of optimism during the Gorbachev years, especially in light of glasnost and perestroika, that only intensified during the Yeltsin years after the 1991 coup attempt. Russia was no longer the implacable enemy of the West, but had instead cast aside Communism to join the community of free nations. However, aside from Boris Yeltsin playing saxophone with Bill Clinton, there has been little sign that the optimism was justified. The FSB is now far larger than the KGB was, and in fact effectively runs the country. Even during the friendlier days of Yeltsin, the Russians still sided with groups the US had declared enemies. (The wisdom of some of these declarations has been questioned elsewhere.)
This is the beginning of a new research project that intends to dig into the continuing Russian authoritarianism and rivalry with the US and the West. Some have called the Putin years a “new Cold War.” It may prove that the Cold War never really ended in the first place.