It took a lot of moxie for Tucker Carlson to arrange a two-hour sit-down interview with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. There’s the moxie it took to brave things like threats of travel bans from the European Union. But there’s also the moxie of thinking that one is going to control an interview with Putin, which clearly did not go Carlson’s way.
Instead, Carlson got a 40-minute disquisition on the history of Ukraine, with Putin barreling on despite Carlson’s attempts to steer the conversation back to the present day. The look on Carlson’s face is hard to describe: it’s a cross between suddenly realizing you are out of your depth and having to look resolute and undaunted — simultaneously.
While not a historian of Russia or Ukraine, I am a big fan of knowing history in order to understand the worldviews that motivate state behavior. History is a site of contestation itself, and those conflicts of fact and interpretation are as important as what happens on battlefields. It’s important to know what elements of history are agreed upon and which are contested in order to make sense of the current day. I’ll leave it to others to examine Putin’s version of the history of Rus — the medieval Russian state — but the history surrounding the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent years to the present is a time period that international relations scholars like myself know well.
Putin’s recounting of that time period is not false, but is not the whole story, either. Putin points to three developments after the fall of the USSR that set the stage for the armed incursion which started in 2014. He points to promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev by the George H.W. Bush administration that were broken by Bill Clinton; covert Western support to groups in the Caucasus fighting the Russian government during the time of the George W. Bush administration; and rejection of a proposal for a multilateral missile defense program during that same administration.
On balance, although this is an area of historical contestation, he is probably right about the first. Gorbachev felt he had received promises that there would be no expansion of NATO eastward. American officials deny this. I don’t think Gorbachev misunderstood at all, and neither do others who were in a position to know. But the fuller story is that there was immense debate within the U.S. about NATO expansion and whether Russia would be invited to join the club of Western nations or not.
There were some, like George Kennan, the father of containment, who felt it was a fateful error to expand NATO but keep excluding Russia, and who correctly predicted it would eventually lead to renewed conflict with Russia and the West. But there were others, including several important European allies who lived much closer to the Russian border than Americans ever would, who justifiably felt they could not trust Russia. They were joined by voices in the U.S. that saw a unipolar moment of victory and could not possibly imagine embracing Russia as an ally.
The proposal to accept Russia as a real partner in Europe was replaced by a very much watered-down arrangement called the NATO Partnership for Peace that kept Russia as an outside observer to NATO. And when Clinton’s grand strategy of “enlargement” was unveiled, it undid any last vestige of hope that Russians had that NATO would not expand eastward against them. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were the first former Warsaw Pact nations that Clinton announced would join NATO in 1999.
When I reflect on this time period, I have sympathy for all parties. I feel for Gorbachev, who spent the remainder of his days as a reviled outcast in his own land for having believed George H.W. Bush. But I also have sympathy for the American position. In the 1990s, it was just not humanly possible to accept the former Soviet Union, which had wrought so much terror and bloodshed in its heyday, into real partnership with the Atlantic Alliance, which had been formed precisely because of that terror and bloodshed. Maybe it should have been done, but it couldn’t have been done at that moment in time. Russia’s support of Serbia in the Balkan Wars of 1992-99 seemed to vindicate that fateful decision in the eyes of many.
It is true, as Putin implied, that there was a second chance during the George W. Bush administration. There was a real opportunity, building upon the mutual sympathy shown in reaction to 9/11 and the Beslan massacre, that the U.S. and Russia were fighting on the same side at long last. But while Bush and Putin appeared to appreciate each other personally, there came provocations by both sides that meant trust was not really established.
For example, Russia launched the very first cyberattack against Estonia during this time and was encouraging break-away territories in Moldova, Georgia and other nations. The U.S. for its part added seven more countries, including the Baltics, into NATO, encouraging Georgia and Ukraine to apply to NATO as well, initiatives the Europeans wisely torpedoed. Russia’s response to Bush was to attack Georgia to teach the Georgians a geography lesson.
So while Putin may be right in saying the George W. Bush administration rejected his efforts for joint missile defense, it’s hard to see why Bush should have been expected to embrace any such plan, given the state of U.S.-Russia relations. As to Putin’s charge that the U.S. was funding rebels in the Caucasus under Bush, Putin admits that Bush seemed to be unaware of this. It would be nice to know more about that claim.
Barack Obama came into office determined to “reset” relations with Russia, but it’s more accurate to say that he blew up those relations instead. The involvement of the Obama administration in the Maidan uprising is controversial to this day. Certainly it was used as justification by Putin for the military incursion in 2014 and again in 2022. After the invasion of Crimea, Obama positioned NATO troops right up to the Russian border in the Baltics, Romania and Hungary.
And so the die was cast, probably irrevocably, for U.S.-Russian relations. Putin is right to raise the question of whether different decisions made back in the 1990s could have prevented what we see now. But Putin is wrong to suggest it’s been a wholly one-sided tragedy.
Valerie M. Hudson is a university distinguished professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.