Nina L Khrushcheva: What the US misunderstands about Russia

The US and Europe have consistently dismissed Russia’s security concerns relating to its former territories, and portrayed its resistance to NATO’s eastward expansion as paranoid revanchism. Until the West changes its approach, the cycle of crises will continue, with escalating risks

With thousands of Russian troops now massed near Ukraine’s border, the announcement that Russia and the United States will soon hold security talks is undoubtedly welcome. While a de-escalation of tensions is hardly guaranteed, it is a lot harder to talk past someone who is in the same room.

Russia and the West have been doing just that for most of Vladimir Putin’s 21 years in power. There was, of course, a brief honeymoon period: in 2001, US President George W. Bush famously claimed that he had looked his Russian counterpart “in the eye” and gotten “a sense of his soul,” which was “very straightforward and trustworthy.” And Putin was helpful in the early months of the US intervention in Afghanistan.

But things went downhill from there. Nowhere is the West’s consistent failure to understand Putin clearer than in American assessments of Russia’s Ukraine policy – especially the claim by senior US officials that Putin may be seeking to “reconstitute the Soviet Union” as part of a “legacy project.” It is easy to see why one might think that. Putin’s recent lament that the Soviet Union’s collapse almost exactly 30 years ago was a “tragedy” and the end of “historical Russia” was hardly the first of its kind. And the current troop buildup comes less than a decade after Russia invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea.

‘Special-nation’ mindset

But the conclusion that Putin is attempting a kind of Soviet reunification is facile. The late US diplomat and strategist George F. Kennan – the architect of America’s Cold War policy of Soviet containment, for whom I conducted research at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the 1990s – would surely take a more nuanced view. Kennan would argue that Russia’s behaviour is best explained by a “special-nation” mindset.

Echoing American exceptionalism, there is a sense among Russians that their country is a fundamentally great power with a pivotal historical role to play. According to a 2020 poll, 58% of Russians support the country following its “own special path,” and a whopping 75% think that the Soviet era was the “greatest time” in their country’s history.

Yet, crucially, only 28% of respondents report wanting to “return to the path the Soviet Union was following.” In other words, what Russians want is not to revive the USSR, but rather to preserve their country’s status and influence, which means maintaining its sphere of influence. The notion that the West could pursue an eastward expansion of NATO without pushback was always pure folly.

Kennan recognised this from the start. In 1998, when the US Senate ratified NATO’s expansion to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, he predicted that Russia would “gradually react quite adversely,” and the West would claim that is just “how the Russians are.” Since then, NATO has expanded to 11 more ex-communist countries, including three former Soviet republics. And, sure enough, Putin is now demanding that NATO deny membership to former Soviet countries and scale back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. To no one’s surprise, the US and its allies refused.

Western expectations

In fact, the West has consistently dismissed the Kremlin’s security concerns relating to ex-Soviet countries and portrayed Russian resistance to NATO’s eastward expansion as paranoid revanchism. No one is threatening Russia, the logic goes; it is Russia that is threatening its neighbours, including by invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

But the West cannot reasonably expect the Kremlin to accept at face value NATO’s claim that it is a purely defensive alliance. After all, since the end of the Cold War, NATO has edged closer and closer to Russia’s borders, embracing lands to which Russia is bound by history, geography, and security interests.

That is not all the West is getting wrong about Russia. Many in the US and Europe also seem convinced that the surge in nationalist sentiment that followed the annexation of Crimea has fizzled out for good.

Again, the reasons for this perception are easy to discern. When the fighting in eastern Ukraine became too bloody, Kremlin propagandists had to work overtime to bolster Putin’s approval ratings. And they only partly succeeded: over time, Russians grew weary of the militant rhetoric, and today, they have little appetite for war.

But this does not mean that Russians are willing to sacrifice their own perceived security. On the contrary, by ignoring Russians’ concerns about NATO, the US and Europe will bolster support for Putin. Already, just 4% of Russians blame the Kremlin for the recent troop surge, with the rest blaming the US or Ukraine.

When Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelensky, dons fatigues and praises the military, or presses for a firm commitment on the country’s NATO membership, ordinary Russians get the message that there is a security threat on the border – and it is not the Russian troops now found there. Ukrainian politicians only reinforce this impression by proclaiming that the country must prepare to retake Crimea by force.

Cold calculation

The US wants to prevent anything like a repeat of the events of 2014 in Ukraine. This seems like the fair thing to do. But geopolitics is a matter of cold calculation, not fairness. And while the “exceptional” US has long been able to act in its own strategic interest without, as one author put it, “the consequences that come with doing so,” the time may have come for it to account for new variables – namely, that Russians, too, view their country as exceptional.

Unless and until that changes, the cycle of crises will continue, with escalating, and potentially catastrophic, risks. “Such is the destructive potential of advanced modern weapons,” Kennan pointed out, “that another great conflict between any of the leading powers could well do irreparable damage to the entire structure of modern civilization.”

Nina L. Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs at The New School, is the co-author (with Jeffrey Tayler), most recently, of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones, St. Martin’s Press, 2019. (Project Syndicate)


  1. “The US and Europe have consistently dismissed Russia’s security concerns relating to its former territories, and portrayed its resistance to NATO’s eastward expansion as paranoid revanchism. Until the West changes its approach, the cycle of crises will continue, with escalating risks”

    Mafia land’s arguments are hollow. They are based on artificial fears about NATO – a purely defensive organ – that are excessively hyped-up to give mafia land a fake reason to assert its aggression amongst its neighbors. It wants to be a big player in a world in which their own place is just a little sandbox.

  2. What a bullshit. Nato never used military force in Ukraine, RuSSia did. Ukraine is in a terrible situation, thanks to RuSSia, and fully deserves military protection to prevent further bloodshed and invasions from RuSSia. After what happened and is still happening in Ukraine, RuSSia’s security concerns cannot include countries that were attacked and invaded by RuSSia.

    • The West doesn’t understand Russia? We understand very well that “Russia” invades her neighbors and wants more and more territory. What other country does that? Americans do believe they are exceptional and a force for good. Americans have never taken any territory but perhaps they should have taken Moscow after WWII, it would have saved a lot of lives.

  3. “When Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelensky, dons fatigues and praises the military, or presses for a firm commitment on the country’s NATO membership, ordinary Russians get the message that there is a security threat on the border – and it is not the Russian troops now found there.”
    Russians get the message that is hammered into their brains by the hateful lies and propaganda that is pumped into their homes by the Goebbells-loving Kremlin murder gang.
    The stupid imperialist turds have not yet worked out that Nato would not exist were it not for their seemingly endless succession of murderous psychopaths as rulers.

    • You do realise the author of this BS is Khrushchev’s granddaughter. The same guy sent from Moscow to Kyiv by Stalin, to continue Stalin’s purges in Ukraine. This bitch does not live in Russia of course, but in the hated West.

      • Off topic, but didn’t Biden threaten Putler with sanctions? All fake, only Europe can do that, and as i know these suckers, they won’t. This makes his threat a hollow threat and might encourage the rodent to finish Ukraine off.

          • Yep. Then there is the gas, the bribes, the brides… Only Europe can hurt RuSSia with ‘true’ sanctions (from hell), the US can only hurt RuSSia by arming Ukraine to the teeth.

            • Let’s hope the old fool doesn’t give Putler anything when they talk later, but I have my doubts with Biden. He seems to be the same as Obama, and will go for a fucking reset.

  4. John Bolton wrote in the Telegraph yesterday a piece called “Biden’s weakness is a danger. The West needs Britain to keep him in check.” A horde of kremkrapper trolls descended on the comments section with English names but pumping out filthy propaganda.
    Here are a couple of examples. Warning, they are seriously puke-inducing. :-

    Ale Murt
    “I don’t know. The Ukrainians killed a lot of Jews during WW2. They also seem to be persecuting Russians in Donbas. This seems less of a black and white issue than I thought.”

    Graham Leighton
    “The back stabbing War Monger John Bolton giving people advice about how to get more people killed.
    I wonder if Ukraine would even be a problem if Nato had allowed Russia to join when they wanted to years ago but the Americans said no.
    George Robertson, a former Labour defence secretary who led Nato between 1999 and 2003, said Putin made it clear at their first meeting that he wanted Russia to be part of western Europe.
    The Labour peer recalled an early meeting with Putin, who became Russian president in 2000. “Putin said: ‘When are you going to invite us to join Nato?”

    Ludwig Schoening
    “Who would really be prepared to put his own troops on the line for a deeply corrupt oligarch state like the Ukraine? That’s provided you even do have the number of troops to form a credible force to defend the Ukraine? Basically no one. Perhaps the Polish PiS might be mad enough to do so, but I doubt it.
    Taiwan, on the other hand, is a totally different issue.
    As to Iran, I believe that there isn’t really much stick left for the US, that they might use.”

    “David Bailey
    “While I agree with John about Biden, I don’t think the best policy is to tough it out with President Putin. A shooting war between US backed forces and Russian troops would probably end in disaster.
    The West is not fighting for some high principles – the problem in Ukraine is far more nuanced. The Russians only supplied military help to the rebles in Ukraine after the Kiev side started to attack the ‘rebels’ (fellow Ukrainians) with weapons.
    Likewise Crimea is full of ethnic Russians and was ‘given’ to Ukraine by Khrushchev without the consent of the population. The people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly ro rejoin Russia.”

    It’s impossible to tell if they are in St Pete or Tunbridge Wells. But they are part of putler’s war machine: verminous scum in need of a rope.

    • Junk like that is to be expected from Kremtrolls. The Savushkina operation has one purpose – dissemination of Putinist propaganda.

What is your opinion?