Global Pairings

Russia: Pushing Back at the United States

Looking at Russia’s recent actions in a historical context.


  • From the Russian perspective, the toppling of President Yanukovych was not an isolated incident.
  • Russia's moves in Ukraine are not projecting Russian power halfway round the world.
  • Russia's reach has been systematically dismantled by the US since the Soviet Union ended.

Russia’s rapid takeover and absorption of the Crimea is, in Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, a truly historic “Tipping Point” for the post-Cold War world.

For the first time in more than a quarter century — indeed, since the Soviet Red Army’s evacuation of Afghanistan in 1987 — a long tide of Russian retreat, shrinkage and national disintegration has been reversed.

It appears very likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin, emboldened by the success of this move, will not stop there. He nurses major historical frustrations that are widely shared among the Russian people.

Eastern Ukraine is up to 90% Russian-speaking and, in the last Ukrainian presidential election in February 2010, voted overwhelmingly for ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia is bound to encourage secessionist forces against Kiev throughout the eastern Ukraine.

History matters

For all the talk about Ukrainian unity, one cannot forget this inconvenient little historical fact: Eastern Ukraine may account for just under one third of the entire country’s population territory, but it was fully integrated into Russia economically, politically and socially for 200 years before the Russian Revolution ever happened.

Crimea is a separate case. It was transferred within the Soviet Union from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian SSR by national leader Nikita Khrushchev. He was born in Russia in an area close to what became the Ukrainian border — and had close ties to both lands.

In 1991, Crimea voted to join Ukraine rather than Russia by 54% to 46%. Even so, the Russian-speaking population in Crimea has remained around 60% of the population since then.

Given these historic ties and complexities, it is very difficult for the eastern Ukrainian region and population to sever its ties either to Moscow or to Kiev.

Mad as hell

Russia may also encourage strong secessionist forces in northern Kazakhstan. The ethnic Russian historical majority there feels that its privileges and socio-economic position have been systematically hollowed out since independence occurred in December 1991 — less than 23 years ago.

Underlying the ferociously strong sense of grievance that prevails among the Russian people against the West is one simple, overpowering emotion: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore,” (to use the classic line from Howard Beale, the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves from the classic 1976 movie “Network”).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has not just seen its historic standing and interests in its ancient zone of influence, going back hundreds of years, shrink. Worse, Russia’s reach has been systematically dismantled by the United States.

One solemn promise after another, made to the Russians, has been forgotten, ignored or scrapped. It is one thing to talk about other nations’ freedom and independence (and rejoice when they received it). It is quite another matter if those other powers then move with great deliberation to put those freed countries fully into their orbit.

A commitment not kept

In that very vein, U.S. policymakers and pundits never mention anymore another inconvenient fact: Then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev only agreed to the reunification of Germany in 1990-91 — and to a united Germany remaining within the U.S.-led NATO alliance — in return for an unqualified commitment from U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush.

That commitment was that the United States and NATO would never try and take any former Soviet satellite nation in Central Europe into NATO.

Bush 41 honored that pledge. However, his successor, President Bill Clinton — No. 42 — along with his second Secretary of State, the Czech-born Madeleine Albright, did not. In 1997-98, they energetically promoted the integration of every former Warsaw Pact member nation into NATO.

Pushing back the pushback

From the Russian view, even worse was to come. President George W. Bush (“43”), in his Warsaw speech of June 15, 2001, pledged to integrate the three tiny Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia into the NATO alliance.

This was done, even though all three nations had for almost half a century all been component republics within the Soviet Union.

When viewed from the Russian perspective, the toppling of President Yanukovych was thus not an isolated incident. To them, it was just the latest and most outrageous step in a systematic U.S.-led policy of incursions into the heart of Russia’s historic core security zone.

Russia remains the preeminent military power on the Eurasian landmass (what Sir Halford Mackinder called the Heartland that decides the destiny of the world). It is also the most heavily armed thermonuclear power on the planet. For these reasons alone, recent developments are fraught with danger far beyond the environs of Russia and Ukraine.

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About Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff is a book author, consultant and former foreign editor.

Responses to “Russia: Pushing Back at the United States”

Archived Comments.

  1. On April 4, 2014 at 4:11 am David Obey responded with... #

    Excellent article Martin. Delighted to see that you’re still “going strong”. As a longtime Russophile I’m disgusted by the Western media and politicians’ anti Russia bias. The RT satellite channel is the only one that gives the other side.

  2. On April 4, 2014 at 10:05 am Mike88888 responded with... #

    Russian retaking of land from an independent State “For the first time in more than a quarter century”? And here I thought that that the Russian takeover of part of Georgia was more recent than that.

    As for the integration of “the three tiny Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia into the NATO alliance” you might gain a little prospective by visiting the Holocaust museum in Riga. Unlike its counterpart in the US, the Baltic version has two parts — the second documents the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. One interesting display shows the proportion of the population of each Baltic state that was “removed” to make room for their Russian masters, who made every effort to Russify their subjects. It is not surprising that these Russians (whom the Baltic nations have made every effort to incorporate into their states) feel that their privileges and socio-economic position has “been systematically hollowed out” One might also note that the initiative for incorporation into NATO did not originate in the US.

    “History matters” — indeed it does. I am old enough to remember the last time a former empire reversed “a long tide of ” “retreat, shrinkage and national disintegration.” by militarily taking back “southern land” containing speakers detached from their motherland. And I remember that the “fully integrated into Russia” Ukrainians welcomed the Nazi troops as liberators until they discovered the nature of their “liberation.” Germany was then the “preeminent military power on the Eurasian landmass” and the most heavily armed power, back then but giving in to the “major historical frustrations” that were widely shared among the German people did not work out so well!

    The consequences for the German people back then might be something for the Russophiles to keep in mind today.


  3. On April 8, 2014 at 9:02 am Dan Vasii responded with... #

    There are some things to take into consideration – the historical evolution of Rusia first – it was a state founded by another nation – the Vikings looking for an alternate road to Constantinopole. They become warrion nation. Then they were conquered by another warlike population – the Tatars. Roughly between 1220-1380 they were under Tatar rule, and from these the Russian leaders took their main policies perpetrated until today: the rule of fist and the Blitzkrieg(Genghis Khan’s invention). They also repelled theTeuton invaders -and another important point is to be made: Russians NEVER forget. That is why they see the Westerners as a threat – Teutons, Polish during the Time of Trouble, the French Napoleonian La Grande Armee/The Great Army (actually in it there were a lot of Polish and other volunteers from all over Europe) and finally the Germans. What Russians do NOT remember is their incursions to conquer Constantinopole, their expansion toward Southern Europe in a very brutal style, the fact that URSS(same old Russia under a new disguise) supported and helped Hitler, and the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact should be named Hitler-Stalin. Brutality and arbitrary rule were characteristics of both Tsarist and Communist empires. The partial occupation of Poland and theKatyn massacre were the Russian revenge for the Times of Trouble. And after being the most developed nation of Europe, during the Kievan Rus’/Yaroslav the Wise, Russia remained technologically underdeveloped until now – do not be fooled by some achievements in aeronautical and space industry – while in the West the technological development was compact – from car industry to space industry, in URSS/Russia the development was punctual and of little consequence for the most population – ask the former East-Europeans that lived during Communist period and could make the comparison. Russians strived to copy the technological achievements of the West, overlooking the way of life itself that generated that kind of development – and from the times of Peter the Great, Ecaterine the Great and Stalin, Russia remained technologically underdeveloped(please name a Russian product that you know – vodka?, not exactly; ok, AKM, now that is a great achievement, only it was copied from a German assault gun).

    Only now, that we set a frame to the geopolitical situation, can we approach the Ukrainean matter: Ukraine is not a territory that Russia lost – it never been part of modern Russia, but Early Middle Age Kievan Rus’, a state that dissapeared, and the territory of modern Ukraine was part of “the Golden Horde, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Kingdom of Poland, during the 15th century these lands came under the rule of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth (since 1569), and Crimean Khanate”(Wikipedia). In the next century, it became all part of Polish kingdom, and only in 1654 the Rada(assembly of the people) voted at Pereyaslav the turning to Moscow(the Polish were Catholic, while Ukraineans were Orthodox.

    After that, in the next centuries the Ukraineans were divided between the Tsarist and Austro-Hungarian empires. After the Russian Revolution, Ukraine become independent, but after a war, was conquered by URSS. Stalin killed 6 million of Ukraineans during the famine in 1936(Holodomor), and probably as a ransom for those murders, Khrushchev gave Krimea to Ukraine.

    What nobody seem to realize is that Putin could ask it in exchange for whatever he wanted- the debt incurred by gas imports, and so on, but brutality and arbitrary force is an irresistible lure for Russian leaders, ignoring a favorite proverb quoted by Isaac Asimov: “Force is the ultimate refuge of incompetence”,