When the United States pushes a missile defense system on Europe, locating critical elements in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow refuses to believe that Iran is the target. Russian complaints are dismissed as unfounded. When NATO expansion continues not only to Russia's border, but - if the Bush administration gets its way - into integral states of the former Soviet Union, Moscow's warnings of a new Cold War are taken to be slightly crazy. Russia's top officials, incoming president Dmitri Medvedev as well as outgoing leader Vladimir Putin, are labeled as paranoid, but would a NATO including Georgia and Ukraine involve itself, say, in disputes over maltreated ethnic Russian minorities in those countries?
As the American president made his rounds last week, from the NATO summit in Bucharest to meetings with Putin, it seemed a long time since that 2001 encounter when, as President Bush put it, he glimpsed "a sense" of Putin's soul and liked what he saw. Now Putin's soul is stained with suspicion. Why does the man act as if nothing comes from the West but military threat?Might it be because, at the end of the Cold War, the nonviolent dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was matched by a beefing up of its counterpart, the Atlantic alliance? Instead of dismantling a military juggernaut defined by enmity with Moscow, Washington flexed it like a muscle, as if Moscow were still an enemy. When Mikhail Gorbachev took at face value American assurances that, if Russia acquiesced before reunified Germany's membership in NATO, the alliance would move no further east, why should new assurances be trusted?
When, within weeks of the astounding admission to NATO in 1999 of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, NATO swatted aside Moscow's urgent pleas and launched its air war against Serbia, why shouldn't Putin have responded with the 2000 announcement of "a new concept of security" - a turn away from mutuality toward the old antagonism?
Not everyone in the United States blamed Moscow. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe was characterized by no less a figure than George Kennan as "the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era." Kennan, of course, had special authority on the subject. His epoch-shaping "Long Telegram" of 1946 had included the line, "At bottom of Kremlin neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. . . . They have always feared foreign penetration."
And why not? Over the centuries, Russia has been invaded by Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Sweden, Austria, France, Great Britain, and Germany. The United States became a hyper-militarized global empire in the name of opposing Moscow. Kennan's word "containment" was translated in Russian as "strangulation." As the historian Marshall T. Poe wrote, "No nation on earth has faced such continuous and deadly military pressure." Just because you're paranoid . . .
The long-ago crimes of Joseph Stalin need not be forgotten, nor the recent authoritarian abuses of Putin's regime denied, for an American to ask whether Washington is again pursuing self-defeating policies that make escalations of tension with Moscow more likely instead of less. In the late 1940s, journalist Walter Lippmann decried Washington's quick recourse to war-talk, and the demonizing assumptions of the "totalitarian school" of Kremlinology, because both "furnished the Soviet Union with reasons, with pretexts, for an iron rule behind the Iron Curtain, and with ground for believing what Russians are conditioned to believe: that a coalition is being organized to destroy them."
Anti-Soviet orthodoxy of that time, and even its more moderate critics, took the mental unbalance of Moscow's paranoia for granted. Because American attitudes were, in contrast, assumed to be wholly realistic, the way in which Washington's defensive actions against real and imagined threats inevitably generated overreactions on the other side went unexamined.
Without drawing a moral equivalence between Stalinist communism and American-style capitalism, there can be no excuse today for repeating a pattern that guarantees a Russian move from vulnerability to belligerence. When one side in a nuclear armed contest is paranoid, the other side is, too. Madness is mutual, even when leaders seem sane. Sane? Never mind Moscow. Who would apply the word sanity for what has come lately from Washington?