(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.