The twists and turns of Russia’s development may have never been more tied to the West than they were in 1997. That summer, Moscow’s stock market began to boom as new Western-style grocery stores replaced those of the foul-smelling Soviet variety, even in Moscow’s most remote districts. A growing number of Russians began to believe that the trauma of market reform and democratization had finally started to show at least some small promise of an eventual payoff. It was therefore surprising to hear a young Moscow professional back then declare that the West wants only to make Russia weak. That protestation came not from a die-hard Communist or nationalist politician but rather from a well-spoken 30-something who had traveled abroad. Nothing, it seemed, could bridge what appeared to be an ideological divide between us.
Today, such views are common among young Russians. Western antagonism toward Russia has become a standard trope in Moscow’s official gospel since the 1998 financial crisis that derailed then President Boris Yeltsin’s Westernizing reforms and led to a bitter political battle for succession. Yeltsin’s handpicked heir, Russian President Vladimir Putin, won that struggle by resurrecting the country’s traditional political culture that many Russians hoped had been left behind in their transition. Fifteen years later, the central, centuries-old political practice of hiding reality with bluffs and façades is back in style.
Few would deny that Putin is a master of international bluster. He has rejected years of Western overtures and mocked the United States and Europe, despite their willingness to overlook Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. Rather than engage with the West, as Washington and Brussels had hoped, he has redrawn European borders and launched a war in Ukraine that has killed more than 6,000 people. All the while, he has justified his actions by blaming the West. Ukraine’s conflict, he said in February, “emerged in response to the attempts of the USA and its Western allies . . . to impose their will into “radioactive dust.”
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