Part I: Why did we return to the Cold War? A Russian view.


Recent years have been marked by sharp disputes between Russia and the United States. More and more people have started to talk about a new Cold War period. What is the Russian view? Here is a short review of how Russian vision changed throughout the years – a deconstruction of Russian discourse based on Russian media and memoirs from 1991 to 2016 to explain the motivations, fears, and frustration of Russian society in relations with the West. (Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a multi-part series.)

The Yeltsin Years 1991-1999

In the West it is generally considered that President Yeltsin’s terms were the best time for the Russia-West relationship. However, a closer examination shows that this time frame was troubled by doubts and concerns as well. One thing is indisputable – for a Russian it was this period when the country revived its psychological trauma, feeling betrayed and cheated by the West. What is the origin of such pain?

1991-1992 The initial euphoria

The story begins in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the volatility and the terrifying decline in living standards, Russian media was empowered by the euphoria of the end of the Cold War. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kommersant, Segodnya and even the military-oriented Krasnaya Zvezda published articles sharing optimism about new cooperation. Jingoist politicians like Sergey Glaz’ev or Alexandr Ruckoy even figured that Russia joining NATO to be a positive and even necessary option. This was a time of emerging hope – a hope for a world without violence and conflict, dominated by international law and multilateral treaties. At least, that is what Russians believed in. As was later stated by the architect of new Russian foreign policy Igor Ivanov in his book New Russian Diplomacy: “After 1991 Russia made a fundamental choice and became a democratic state with independent and predictable foreign policy.” (p. 3.) (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 118, from 01.10.1991, Nezavisimaya Gazeta Issue 152, from 28.11.1991, Kommersant Issue 27, from 08.07.1991)

Not only media and the general public felt this. Top officials like Foreign Minister Boris Pankin built Russian foreign policy on the idea that the end of the Cold War would transform NATO into an equal foundation for security of the “new European home.” NATO was seen as a future peacekeeping mechanism not only for the Balkans, which were then turning to civil war, but even for emerging conflicts in the former Soviet states. Moreover, opposition to NATO was seen as a path towards isolation. Certainly, when Russians imagined the alliance in this role, it was the new NATO, a partnership of equals. The old form was not in the scope of view; it was simply ignored as something unnecessary, which would disappear naturally after the end of the Cold War. (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 184, from 24.09.1992, Nezavisimaya Gazeta Issue 152, from 28.11.1991, Kommersant Issue 139, from 06.11.1991)

1992-1994 The common home and the OSCE

The harsh truth was soon seen, however. Euphoria became weaker as people and the elites saw that NATO “is not going anywhere.” The belief in integration with the West was still strong though. The OSCE (back then CSCE) was considered a new model for building a common European home. For the next six years of President Yeltsin’s terms, Russia would put all its efforts toward transforming this organization into an equal security provider for Europe and an alternative to NATO. Foreign Minister Andrey Kozirev manifested this vision during the 1992 OSCE conference in Stockholm and made his career into bringing this dream to life. Ideologically, Russia aspired to become a member of a common European home, while the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed NATO for hindering this process by empowering Cold War relics. (see Kommersant-Daily, Issue 61, from 15.12.1992, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 61, 28.03.1992)

In 1994, Kozirev’s doctrine was tested at the OSCE summit in Budapest, sparking an open confrontation between the Russian delegation, which defended the idea of the OSCE as a major security organization, and NATO members opposing this conception. For the first time since the Cold War, NATO was seen as a hostile alliance seeking to dominate the European security space and intervene in the affairs of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Russian policymakers and analysts started to describe NATO as a rudimentary organization of the Cold War mentality obsessed with reviving anti-Russian sentiment and using military force to achieve its aims. (see Kommersant-Vlast’, from 12.10.1994. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 236, 09.12.1994, Segodnya, from 18.11.1994, Segodnya, from 09.12.1994)

1995-1997 A turning point

The war in Chechnya, the expansion of NATO, and an economic dispute with the EU resulting in anti-dumping sanctions only widened the diplomatic divide. Russians came to the understanding that there is no way to be seen by the West as an equal partner. This was one of the most painful foreign policy traumas in Russian modern history. The level of frustration led to strong self-reflection from which two views emerged. Interestingly enough, this is the first time the phrase “New Cold War” became popular.

OSCE defender Andrey Kozirev and his successor Evgeniy Primakov as well as General Leonid Ivashov, a military intellectual, championed the first view. They fought back by continuing to defend the OSCE agenda. As a result, the organization was given access to the Chechen conflict. During the OSCE summit in Lisbon in 1996, Russia publicly called on the OSCE to become a counter-weight against NATO. Most Russian politicians, including Boris Yeltsin, considered this a crucial success. Meanwhile, NATO expansion was seen as an existential threat to Russian security: the West was using Russian weakness and idealism to promote its agenda through hard power. (see Kommersant-Daily’, Issue 14, from 27.01.1995. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 005, 14.01.1995, Segodnya, from 02.06.1995, Segodnya, from 24.02.1995, Izvestiya, Issue 28, 14.02.1995, Segodnya, from 24.03.1995, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Issue 041, 01.03.1996, Krasnaya Zvezda, Issue 151, from 05.07.1996)

As noted by Ivanov: “In the United States, and some countries of Western Europe, decision makers were under the influence of the victory in the Cold War and did not see a democratic Russia as an equal ally. She was, at best, given the role of junior partner. Any manifestation of independence and the desire to defend Russian position was perceived as a recurrence of the Soviet “imperial” policy” (p.15).

The second approach was to continue negotiations even as an unequal partner because the alternative meant isolation. Influential diplomats like Vitaliy Churkin and head of MGIMO Andrey Zagorskiy aimed to combat frustration through new international agreements, particularly the possible signing of the OSCE Charter promoted by Russia and the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Greater cooperation within the Partnership for Peace program was also touted to promote the Russian position within NATO decision-making. (Segodnya, from 22.07.1995, Izvestiya, Issue 94, 25.05.1995, Segodnya from 21.06.1996, Kommersant-daily, issue 13, 01.02.1996, Izvestiya from 10.01.1997, Izvestiya from 27.05.1997)

Foreign Minister Evgeniy Primakov provided the following description of that time frame in his book The World Challenged: “Though Russia has moved toward rapprochement with NATO, Russia remains staunchly opposed to NATO expansion, since it brings a military alliance right up to our borders for no real purpose. That being said, Moscow has continued the process outlined in the 1997 Founding Act to participate in the creation of the NATO–Russia Council. All twenty council members—Russia being one—focus on projects where NATO and Russia share a common goal, such as new-generation threats like international terrorism. The Founding Act had created a similar council based on a nineteen-plus-one plan. It could be surmised that one reason the West agreed to this new initiative was the disappointment of many NATO members over the operation against Yugoslavia. (…) The core issue is that the United States continues to act alone in addressing matters of great international importance” (p. 64).

1998-1999 The final years, the final blow

If the 1995-1996 shock could be described as personal, the Yugoslavian events created a shock that could be described as existential – the entire worldview of Russians changed.

NATO involvement in Kosovo was seen as a shift to something essentially contradictory to what Russia envisioned for the world order: not dialogue between Moscow and Washington or a joint peacekeeping force, like the one Russia supported in Bosnia, but brute force and a unilateral military operation. The “turn over the Atlantic” – when Prime-Minister Primakov’s jet turned back to Moscow instead of flying on to Washington for negotiations – was more than a symbolic act; it was a new modality of Russian vision filled with a sense of betrayal and threat.

President Yeltsin wrote in his memoir President’s Marathon: “The case here was not only some features of “Slavic brotherhood”, which are attributed to Russian-Serbian relations. We would have reacted the same way if we were talking about any other country – Poland, Spain, Turkey – it does not matter which one” (p. 203).

The world was once again shaped by military power; decisions were made on the basis of force and not law. And Russia, weakened by a 1998 default and the Chechen War, was not able to find itself in this new reality.

Igor Ivanov wrote in his memoir: “Military action against Yugoslavia was a kind of “testing ground” for “NATO-centrism” concept, which caused the most acute international crisis since the end of the Cold war. It damaged the foundations of international order and stability. The world returned to military force as a criteria of national security.” (p. 32).

But Russia still had enough faith in the future. Igor Ivanov, formulating a new foreign policy in 2000s, stated: “the key problem of contemporary international relations is the nature of the future world order. Will it be multipolar, taking into account the interests of the entire international community, or will the interests of one country or group of countries be imposed on everyone else?” (p. 56). Russia still hoped to gain a positive answer to this question and with this hope she entered the new millennium.

But unlike the last decade, Russia was ready to fight back for its vision of the world. In a final address on 25 March 1999, Yeltsin stated: “In fact, we are talking about NATO trying to enter the 21st century in the uniform of a world policeman. Russia will never accept this” (p. 204). (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta, issue 228, 05.12.1998, Nezavisimaya Gezeta, issue 085, 15.05.1998, Segodnya, from 22.07.1995, Izvestiya, Issue 94, 25.05.1995, Segodnya from 07.10.1998, Segodnya from 05.05.1998, Kommersant-Daily, 04.12.1998, Izvestiya from 28.10.1998, Izvestiya from 14.07.1998, Izvestiya from 25.03.1998, Izvestiya from 14.10.1998)

Elisey Boguslavskiy

Photo Source: Centre for Research on Globalization


3 thoughts on “Part I: Why did we return to the Cold War? A Russian view.

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