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How America Paved the Way for Putin

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Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is a byproduct of the choice that America made in the late 1980s, when it could have helped the Soviet Union navigate into the European mainstream, but instead tried to emasculate the Great Power to its bone.

The American ideological triumphalism in the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union; its short-sighted strategic calculation leading to the encirclement of Russia, and the breathtaking pace with which it sought to foster economic, financial and commercial links with former Soviet allies and republics in an effort to lessen their dependence on Moscow -- all coalesced into a resurgence of Russian nationalism that is predisposed to authoritarianism and imperialism.

The West's lost opportunity can be traced to the American betrayal of Mikhail Gorbachev at a time when the Soviet leader was incrementally dismantling the totalitarian apparatus in an effort to bring the Soviet Union into what he called a Common European Home (CEH).

According to the Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security Advisor, Gorbachev's CEH, which included the United States and Canada, was premised on the belief that Russia, Europe and America share "certain cultural and philosophical values associated with the European civilization, with Christian tradition - values which determine the relationship between the individual and society and between society and the state."

But Cold Warriors in the Reagan and Bush I administrations, enticed by the prospect of a systemic collapse, went for the kill. Even as they gained Soviet concessions in arms control and loosened the grip of Moscow on members of the Warsaw Pact, particularly Poland, they did not support Gorbachev's perestroika -- the restructuring of the Soviet economic system.

The embattled Soviet president was faced with an economy on the brink, with widespread food shortages, on the one hand, and a growing rebellion of anti-Western caucuses within the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which eventually led to the short-lived 1991 coup by hardliners and the collapse of the system. In less than a decade thereafter, the Westernizers who, since the time of Peter the Great, through the reign of Catherine the Great and Pyotr Stolypin, sought to emulate the cultural, economic, political and technological renaissance of the West, were decimated.

It is not as though Americans were not warned. In 1987, dissident émigré professor of Russian history, Alexander Yanov, pleaded with the American intelligentsia and the Reagan administration to support Gorbachev's reforms because the Soviet leader was not trying to save socialism as much as he was trying to save his country from fascism. Gorbachev believed the survival of the ideological left was the only way to prevent the takeover of the Soviet Union by protagonists of the "Russian Idea," the nucleus of the New Right ideology.

The Russian Idea, according to Yanov, is anti-West, anti-democracy and a "strange combination of spiritual authoritarianism, racial superiority, isolationism and imperial nationalism, which amounts to shutting the door to outside influences, yet expanding the Russian Empire which is perceived to be the sole heir to the Eastern Roman Empire."

In his book "The Russian Challenge," Yanov argued that the success of Gorbachevian reforms was the only way to break the cyclical nature of Russian political development -- reform, counter reform, stagnation and reform, counter reform and so on. Conversely, the failure of the reforms, Yanov said, will culminate in the resurgence of Slavophile nationalism that envisages the integration of Orthodox Slavs from Russia to Greece to the Balkans.

It is in this struggle that played out in the late 1980s that the United States, willy-nilly, chose the wrong side. Viewing the developments in the Soviet Union through the ideological prism and ignoring the historical pattern of political change in Russia, America and the West failed to realize what Yanov describes as the perpetual struggle "between reform striving to destroy the Russian autocracy and counter reform seeking to perpetuate it."

In the events leading up to the infamous 1991 coup which took place two days after the CPSU expelled Alexander Yakovlev, also known as the "godfather of glasnost," the West failed to see that there were three forces vying for control -- the Westernizers and the two factions of Slavophiles. Yanov classifies the two factions as Establishment Left (the anti-Western elements in the CPSU) and Dissident Right (the anti-communist forces whose recent ideologues included Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (It is not surprising -- except to NBC anchors -- that Solzhenitsyn's photograph had a pride of place in the parade at the Sochi Winter Olympics' closing ceremony).

Even though the coup was foiled, the West abandoned the incrementalist Gorbachev and threw its support behind Boris Yeltsin, a vodka-laden and boorish populist, willing to sign off on the break-up of the Soviet Union. The economic and political chaos of the Yeltsin years quickly gave way to a takeover by the Dissident Right headed by Putin, who believes that dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

As President Obama puts the finishing touches on a policy to isolate Russia to counter Putin's Ukranian maneuvers, he may want to check if he's playing right into the hands of Russia's "Old New Right." Isolation works both ways, after all; and insulating Russia from the influences of the West has been an article of faith for the Slavophiles. They regard it as osobnyachestvo, the "moral isolation from Europe."