“Our Biggest Mistake Is That We Trusted You Too Much”

tags: Russia, Putin, Trump

Jeffrey A. Engel is the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Author or editor of 10 books on American foreign policy and the American presidency, his most recent is When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

... In Putin’s retelling, Western leaders also promised to welcome the Soviets (and their successors) with open arms, embracing what Gorbachev called their shared “European common home.” This did not happen either. The European Union did not beckon, and it took 18 years for Russia to join the World Trade Organization, by which time their honorary membership in the G-7 cohort of the world’s most advanced economies had been rescinded.

Most dire of all, Western leaders also broke their fundamental security promises. In Putin’s version of events, President George H. W. Bushand a host of European leaders agreed to curtail NATO’s expansion eastward in exchange for Soviet compliance on German unification. NATO instead moved hundreds of miles closer to Russia’s Western border, incorporating former Soviet allies and regions, in Putin’s eyes violating the spiritof that critical informal accord.

Invocation of these failed promises fuel Putin’s distrust of the democratic forces Gorbachev unleashed. Stationed in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell, he witnessed the Kremlin’s new Western-leaning leadership fail even to defend its own troops—HIS troops—when threatened by East German mobs. “Moscow is silent,” was all he heard in response to his pleas for reinforcements. Democracy meant the “paralysis of power,” he subsequently concluded.

He promised instead to make Russia strong and respected again, in part by avoiding his predecessor’s essential blunder. “The biggest mistake our country made was that we put too much trust in” the United States and its allies, Putin recently declared. The word only appears in his vocabulary as an epithet, highlighting a historical lesson Russians should well heed.

Reality is more complicated. The history of Russian-American relations over the past quarter century cannot be reduced to a single declarationof promises kept or broken, especially as the question of Washington’s supposed promise to contain NATO has spawned a vibrant historiographical debate. Yet arguments among historians ultimately mean politically less than Putin’s masterful manipulation of historyto bolster his own fortunes. Russia’s woes can be blamed on others, he repeatedly claims, arguing America’s “mistake was that you saw this trust as a lack of power and you abused it,” while lambasting weak Russian leaders for naively allowing their country to be betrayed.

Only one prominent global leader today still believes trust can overcome Putin’s animus. He happens to be president of the United States. Even as Donald Trump campaigned against the naïve trust previous generations of American leaders placed in international organizations, international treaties, and the international marketplace, deriding the very notion of a world built on trust rather than hard power, he has consistently made an exception when it comes to his counterpart in the Kremlin. ...

Read entire article at AHA Today

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