Back when most of today’s Western decision-makers were in college, Sting had a hit song with “Russians.” It began:
In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Khrushchev said we will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too
It sometimes seems that most Western analysis of Russia has the sophistication of this song.
The simplicity of the idea that all humans are essentially the same, and that a common understanding is thus always within reach, is seductive. Its appeal stems from the fact that few things are harder than knowing someone whose views of the world are profoundly different from yours. This is why it has been so difficult for a veritable army of Western experts to explain or predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, a narrative has emerged in the West that seems to provide a basis for understanding and negotiating with Putin. According to it, Russia is pursuing its strategic interest in keeping Ukraine unallied with the West because it needs a “buffer zone” between itself and members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Some analysts have gone so far as to essentially blame the entire crisis on the West, which, so goes the narrative, ignored Russia for too long. NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without so much as paying lip service to bringing Russia in on the decision. It expanded in 2004 to include three Baltic states that border Russia, disregarding Russia’s express opposition. And when the West reached for Ukraine, the sleeping bear had finally had enough and so it reared up.