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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Russia, a victim of its own past

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Getty Images / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY

As relations between Russia and the West grow frosty enough to qualify as Cold War II, many ask who is to blame for the new hostility -- and quite a few point fingers at the West and the United States in particular.

The pundits, including Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, say that after communism fell, Western powers were more interested in humiliating a former enemy than in helping it become free and prosperous: Russia was trampled and insulted and turned into an enemy again.

But the argument is misguided. Whatever mistakes the West may have made, Russia's course is the result of its inability to overcome its authoritarian and imperialistic legacy. And blaming the West is part of the problem.

The narrative of Russian humiliation is factually wrong. While some Western leaders spoke of "victory" after the Soviet Union's dissolution, this was meant to be a defeat of communism, not Russia -- whose first president, Boris Yeltsin, was treated as a friend. Bill Clinton's first trip abroad as president in 1993 included a meeting with Yeltsin in Vancouver, British Columbia. Despite its economic woes, Russia was included in summits of the Group of 7, the forum for leaders of top economies, and formally became its eighth member in 1998.

Some critics, Western and Russian, contrast the treatment of post-Soviet Russia with that of post-World War II Germany, which received aid to rebuild its economy under the Marshall Plan. Yet Western aid to Russia just from 1992 to 1997 totaled $55 billion (not counting private charity); Marshall Plan aid to Germany was about $1.4 billion in 1949-1951, less than $10 billion in 1997 dollars.

It is often claimed that NATO expansion to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics broke a 1990 promise to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. But a 2009 article in The Wilson Quarterly by Mark Kramer, director of Harvard's Project on Cold War Studies, convincingly argues that there was no such pledge. Indeed, NATO's eastward expansion was thought to include a path to possible Russian membership. To some extent, this was derailed by mutual misunderstandings. Still, NATO's Partnership for Peace program and later the NATO-Russia Council not only allowed for military cooperation (and Western assistance to Russia), but required NATO to consult Russia about its security concerns.

The prospect of Ukraine and Georgia's NATO membership is often said to threaten Russia with "encirclement" by hostile entities. Yet, as some Russian military experts admit, Russia's nuclear arsenal makes a military attack by NATO forces near-impossible. Most likely, the Kremlin's fear is that neighbors integrated into the democratic capitalist West may threaten its crony-capitalist regime at home -- a direction in which Vladimir Putin made clear moves even in the early 2000s, when the Bush administration treated him as an ally.

Putin played on a very real sense of humiliation and resentment among the Russian masses by promising to restore Russia's dignity as a "great power." But the cause of that humiliation is not the West but Russia's own failed communist experiment. The comparison to postwar Germany is ironic: Germany was forced by the victors to confront and repent for the crimes of its Nazi past. No such reckoning ever took place in Russia, enabling Putin's propaganda machine to celebrate Soviet "achievements" and blaming the Soviet Union's downfall on Western intrigue.

Anti-Western grievance is a major source of a dangerous authoritarian mentality in Russia. Western pundits should not be feeding that grievance with wrongheaded blame.