It's a truism that stable and friendly relations between two countries require each to look at a situation from the other's point of view. The recent tussle between Russia and the West over Georgia is a stark reminder of how the United States has fundamentally never understood Russia's point of view.
The conventional view is that Russia in recent years has been pushing away from the West. But the reverse is more accurate. The Russia-Georgia conflict is a consequence of the West's "pushing away" of Russia.
Russia needed a good friend to stand by her side the past 15 years, to counsel her on becoming an open, democratic country tightly bound to the West. Russia thought it had found a friend in America. Unfortunately, despite the desire of Russia's newly formed leadership to move closer to the West, to be integrated to Western institutions, there was no move to meet Russia partway. All issues of integration were talked away during the many years of negotiations, and all questions of economic aid ended up as miserly loans from the World Bank.
Having worked in Boris Yeltsin's government as a deputy prime minister, I know how the West tried to persuade Russia to take on the entire foreign debt of the former USSR. Russia agreed to take this very difficult step in the hope that the West would appreciate its sacrifice and begin seeing the world through its eyes. Unfortunately that did not happen. Yeltsin's government ended up with almost no allies or supporters in Russia. He was perceived as a puppet of the West, his policies dictated by the US. It should come as no surprise, then, that Vladimir Putin came to power as he did in 1999.
Now, the West considers Prime Minister Putin a foe of democracy. But he was the first to support America after 9/11, and he provided substantial help in organizing operations in Afghanistan. Putin made simple requests in return: membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), dropping visa entry requirements to European Union (EU) countries, and significant cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). All this was promised to him and none of it happened.
Let's imagine for a moment that Russia had been integrated into the West. Then the corruption of the Russian judicial system and its susceptibility to administrative pressure would be balanced by European judicial institutions and the imperfections of its electoral system would be muted by European legislation and the European parliament. The government's economic policies would be in accord with the norms of the EU and WTO and Russia's military independence would be constrained by NATO rules. The human rights situation in Russia would be very different.
The West would only win in this scenario. Instead, it has surrounded Russia with missiles and radar stations and accumulated conventional weapons in close proximity to its borders. It would be naive to expect Russia to make concessions such as ratifying the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty under these conditions. Opinion polls show that promoting pro-Western policies in Russia today without an equivalent response from the West would be political suicide for Russian leaders. Neither the military establishment nor citizens would support such concessions.
The situation in Georgia is a global embarrassment, a tale of contradictions. And, the reaction from Russians and Americans is, simply put, ironic. Russian leaders were crying crocodile tears over the genocide of Ossetians, and voicing outrage over the shelling of Tskhinvali. But they had done the very same thing in Chechnya just a few years ago. The American administration is no better, attacking Iraq for bogus reasons, destroying an entire nation, inciting further religious terrorism, and killing tens of thousands of civilians.
To understand Russia's actions in Georgia, the West must first understand that Russia does not see herself as the losing side that must be punished for the cold war. Second, there is a dangerous historic precedent: In 1919, the Entente forced Germany to sign the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. Historians suggest that the repercussions of that Treaty led to World War II. Had the Allies looked at the situation from the German point of view, history may have taken a better course.
Perhaps the conflict in the Caucasus will at least force the West to talk to Russia about real integration – WTO membership, for example. For if Russia continues to be "pushed away" – left alone with its anxieties and the anxieties of its leaders – relations will definitely sour. Do not forget how many nuclear warheads Russia has and how many Russians want to save the country's honor.
• Alfred Kokh is the author of the upcoming book, "A Crate of Vodka: An Insider View On The 20 Years That Shaped Modern Russia." He served as a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin. This text was translated by Antonina W. Bouis.