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Russia expert: West needs to self-reflect on its own responsibility in Ukraine war

Marlene Laruelle, the director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, says the West needs to look at itself in the mirror and see it also helped create conditions for war to break out in Ukraine.

(CN) — It's become almost a taboo: In the West, bring up the role of NATO and the harm done by decades of “Russia bashing” as causes for the outbreak of war in Ukraine and you can get labeled a “traitor” and “apologist” for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“For me, the war is Putin’s responsibility, but the strategic deadlock that preceded it has been co-created by Russia and the West, with misunderstanding on both sides, and responsibilities on both sides,” said Marlene Laruelle, a French political philosopher and Russia expert who heads the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. “Whenever you try to bring in some nuance, then you get the accusation of being on Putin's side.”

Laruelle, a highly respected Russia scholar and author of several books on post-Soviet politics, said in fact the West bears shared responsibility for creating some of the conditions for war to erupt in Ukraine.

“Since the collapse of the communist world, there has been a kind of unipolarity moment and a vision by the U.S. and some of its partners that it would be easy to rebuild a world order where they would be dominating, especially on the European continent,” Laruelle said in a telephone interview and emails with Courthouse News.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, she said Russia's strategic concerns were dismissed by the U.S. In Russia, meanwhile, the elites rebuilt “their own legitimacy on resentment.”

She recalled how in the 1990s the U.S. and its Western partners showed contempt for the difficulties Russia faced during its traumatic attempt to fully democratize and shift to a full-market economy.

Then, after Putin came to power in 1999 and helped stabilize Russia's tottering society, the West began to paint a picture of Russia as a deeply flawed and dangerous former superpower led by an authoritarian regime reincarnating a Soviet-style totalitarianism.

But was this characterization accurate?

“I think we missed a lot by being too obsessed by the Kremlin’s authoritarian drift,” Laruelle said. “There were also great things happening in Russia: There were a cultural blossoming for all arts and cultural production; a startup business culture; a growing urban activism; people were genuinely living better; and we didn't want to see that.”

She recalled how Russia successfully hosted the 2018 soccer World Cup — the first to be played in Eastern Europe — and won praise from many in Europe and Latin America for the way Russia managed one of the world's biggest sporting events and had proven to be an efficient and modern country.

By contrast, she noted, American media accounts of the World Cup were extremely negative. American views of Russia had become even more hostile following Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, an act that shook world politics and left many experts warning of the dawn of a new Cold War as Russia was turned into a pariah.

Laruelle — like many other Russia experts in Europe, America and elsewhere — sees Washington's drive to expand NATO into Ukraine and Georgia as the principal cause for the current war in Ukraine.

“I think it was mostly about NATO expansion at the beginning and then gradually — at least in Putin's mind and in the mind of people around him — it became an identity issue: Ukraine itself cannot exist independently without challenging the vision the Russian president has of Russia itself,” she said. “It became about how Ukrainians should become Russian again, or should at least — if they want to stay Ukrainian — be pro-Russian Ukrainians.”

Laruelle said “the strategy element” of NATO expansion was a concern shared by a large part of the Russian elite.

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“They wanted their fears to be heard by the West and to put the NATO expansion discussion really on the table and so on,” she said. “The identity or imperial aspect of the relationship to Ukraine was secondary for many in the Russian elite, but not for Putin. That’s why the radical solution of the invasion arrived as a surprise for many in the Russian establishment.”

She also pointed the finger at NATO for “needing an enemy.”

“It is naive to think you can re-legitimize liberalism in the West by finding a new external enemy,” she argued. “Declarations on the victory of democracy, liberalism, and the 'free world' against a Russia embodying the absolute evil are feel-good policies. First, they do not reflect realities on the ground in our own societies. Second, if we fight to defend Ukraine, it is for its legitimate sovereignty, not because it represents democracy and liberalism against totalitarianism.”

Then there are those who cynically profit from the war, she added.

“You have a strong military-industrial complex for whom war is always good both on the Russian and the U.S. side,” she said. “So I think you have many forces that are kind of in fact pretty happy to have a conflict.”

The war in Ukraine likely has turned into the bloodiest in Europe since the end of World War II, possibly surpassing the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s in terms of death toll.

About 140,000 people died in the Yugoslav Wars. It remains unknown how many people have died so far in Ukraine, but both sides have suffered tens of thousands of deaths. Estimates put the death toll on the Russian side as high as 80,000 and on the Ukrainian side even higher.

The catastrophe in Ukraine grows out of a long history of animosity between Washington and Moscow that was ignited by Russia's turn to communism with the Russian Revolution.

“Russian media have specialized in U.S. bashing for years, but we did more or less the same Russia-bashing on our side,” she said. “I am struck for instance by the way the most respected U.S. newspapers embrace the NATO crusade and repeat military and intelligence analysis without critical distance. Where has their critical mindset disappeared?”

Laruelle specializes in the study of nationalism and illiberalism and the deteriorating state of liberal democracy in the West troubles her.

“It's not going well politically and socially both in the U.S. and in Europe,” she said. “That's why I don't like the kind of bashing of the external enemy. Russia and China have very little responsibilities for our own issues. I think the problem is at home mostly and we need to work on our own societies to try to avoid illiberalism becoming our dominant culture in a few years or in a few decades.”

Since Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, Russia has been equated to Nazi Germany and accused of being an abominable fascist state that needs to be defeated and its military rendered powerless.

Increasingly, Western elites don't just talk about the need to force Putin out of power but even dismember Russia — “decolonize” it — by creating new states based around Russia's far-flung populations of ethnic minorities in Siberia or the North Caucasus. In this view, Russia, the world's largest nation, is a holdover from 19th-century European imperialism.

“Russia’s history is one of almost ceaseless expansion and colonization, and Russia is the last European empire that has resisted even basic decolonization efforts, such as granting subject populations autonomy and a meaningful voice in choosing the country’s leaders,” said Casey Michel, a journalist, in a recent article in the Atlantic magazine. “And as we’ve seen in Ukraine, Russia is willing to resort to war to reconquer regions it views as its rightful possessions .... Once Ukraine staves off Russia’s attempt to recolonize it, the West must support full freedom for Russia’s imperial subjects.”

Laruelle said such prescriptions for dealing with problems stemming from Russia — and trumpeted widely in Poland, Ukraine and by some voices in the United States — are deeply flawed.

“It's very ideological to hope for Russia’s disintegration and it's a big policy mistake,” she said.

“The idea that ethnic minorities will create stable, prosperous and happy states is more than naive. And who tells us that the majority of ethnic minorities in Russia wants independence? I think, with some exceptions, they are happy Russian citizens, they request more cultural and linguistic rights, but no political independence,” she said. “Dreaming of Russia’s collapse wouldn’t be solving anything, it will just multiply issues for the international community for decades.”

In the big picture, she said the West's immense efforts to ensure Russia's defeat in Ukraine is being watched closely by other rising powers in the world.

Paradoxically, these countries — among them China, India, Turkey, Brazil and others — are coming up with an uncomfortable conclusion for the West, she argued. Instead of becoming more integrated into the Western-dominated economic system, they see the need to insulate their economies from Western sanctions should they ever be in a position similar to Russia's.

“Many countries in the Global South are looking at the way we are treating Russia and the economic warfare we are organizing against Moscow, and they will learn from that,” she said. “And what they will learn is that they want to de-dollarize their economies: They want to be sure they cannot be sanctioned by the West as it is doing to Russia. So, I think in the long run, it will not help the West.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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