Ever since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict there has been numerous discussions concerning the future of the West’s relationship with Russia. The debate stretches back to 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, as a response to the actions of the pro-West and pro-NATO president Saakashvili. Currently what is the situation between Russia and the West and who is the real aggressor here?
First, let us compare the military expenditure between the countries to get an overview of how capable each country supposedly is on the international arena. According to statistics provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the US spent 610 billion USD during 2014 on their military, which amounts to nearly three times as much as the second larger spender, China. The US covers 34% of the total amount spent on military worldwide. Although the US is considered the strongest actor in the West, there are other countries in the Western alliance who also cover a considerable amount of military expenditure. When their allies, France, UK and Germany are included, this number is increased to 780 billion USD. This is far higher than for Russia which in 2014 spent 84.5 billion USD on military service. With that being said, Russia and the US each have a large share of nuclear warheads that reach a number far above a thousand.
One could draw the faulty conclusion that because of the differences in military spending, Russia is too weak to act in its own interest and should feel too inferior to dare challenge Western interests. But we already know this to be false after Georgia 2008 and Ukraine 2014. Both these countries suffered consequences when trying to create closer ties with the West, and especially with the EU and NATO. Some have argued that Russia interpreted this as weakening its own relationship with the aforementioned countries which both border to Russia. When considering this, it becomes more apparent that Russia has interests of its own and that the country will act in line with those interests if necessary. A ground pillar to understand the Russian relationship with the West is to understand why each actor behaves the way they do, and it is in this matter that opinions differ. This article will briefly explain the general viewpoints and their interpretation of the topic.
One side argues that Russia has been the aggressor all along: It is acting in a threatening way which disturbs the international order, and this leaves the West with little choice but to act to attempt to control Russia. This is done by implementing sanctions and demonstrating that the behavior of the country is not going to be without consequences. With that being said, neither of the parties will gain anything from a new Cold War, and thus neither of them will go as far as provoking one another. Hence the West tries not to agitate Russia and at the same time pressure the country in certain directions. The amount of pressure by the West against Russia without provocation remains to be seen, as many of the US senators advocate a policy which arms Ukraine for a future with Russia as a neighbour. Moreover, according to Francis Fukuyama the current situation is not a global struggle regarding ideology and political systems, but rather it stays within the borders of old Soviet and is not likely to leave that area. The motive of Russian behavior according to this perspective is to restore the dignity of the state through geopolitical goals, although the country remains weak internally.
Another take on the situation is that Russia finds itself in a defensive position struggling with a continuously expanding West. This viewpoint argues that the West bears responsibility for the situation at hand, and that the opinion of Russia trying to reinstate old Soviet and being the aggressor in this relationship is a faulty conclusion. If Ukraine and Georgia ended up joining NATO and joined the Western alliance, they would become a threat to Russia, especially as they share a border. There is little doubt that if NATO began to establish military bases too close to the Russian territory, such action would be interpreted as a huge threat to Russia and the tensions would increase drastically. This is what Putin feared would happen in Crimea, and when a coup was made to overthrow the elected pro-Russian president Yanukovych with the West backing the pro-democracy side, the West had achieved a level of influence which would not be allowed by Russia. Russian action suggests that it does not trust the West and doesn’t intend to let it have too much influence in areas of the Eastern European region. Russia itself wants to be the strongest unit in the region and will interpret any further Western expansion as an attempt to change this balance in the long term. The eastward expansion of NATO has been ongoing since the end of the Cold War, and Putin has clearly expressed that further expansion towards Georgia and Ukraine would constitute a direct threat. Moreover, as we have seen throughout the course of events, he did not hesitate to back up that statement. The optimal solution according to this viewpoint would be for Ukraine to remain a neutral state between the West and Russia so that neither of the sides become provoked into further action, something that might cost lives and further downgrade Ukraine domestically.
Today the West still pursues a policy which arms Ukraine: NATO provides both supplies and training in Western Ukraine and NATO itself claims that “The Allies believe that a sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security”. Only the future will tell how Russia chooses to respond to further Western involvement. One side argues that it is the only thing which can be done to contain Russia, while the other side labels it as folly because it further provokes Russia into once more acting militarily in order to defend its interests.