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Vladimir Putin, just after being elected President again in 2012: Since then, he has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK/REUTERS)
Vladimir Putin, just after being elected President again in 2012: Since then, he has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK/REUTERS)

MARK MACKINNON

How the West lost Putin: It didn’t have to be this way Add to ...

The Western-backed revolts came alongside several tranches of eastward expansion by NATO, an alliance that Moscow sees as retaining its Cold War intent, as well as the establishment of an anti-ballistic missile shield in Europe that Russia saw as upsetting the strategic balance by eliminating its treasured nuclear deterrent.

Mr. Putin became convinced that the siloviki were right, that the West was intent on keeping Russia weak, as it had been under Mr. Yeltsin. By the beginning of his second term as President in 2004, Mr. Kasyanov and Mr. Voloshin were gone from the Kremlin. Only the KGB remained.

Barack Obama saw the damage done, and came to office in 2008 promising a “reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow. The timing was right, with Mr. Putin stepping down the same year to the theoretically junior post of prime minister in favour of one of his few remaining liberal aides, Dmitry Medvedev.

The two new presidents got along well, and Mr. Medvedev even gave Russian acquiescence (in the form of an abstention at the United Nations Security Council) to the establishment of a NATO no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. But Mr. Putin – still the most powerful man in Russia – was furious to see Russia’s goodwill again misused and the no-fly zone expanded to include airstrikes that helped rebels topple and kill Moammar Gadhafi, a long-time Kremlin ally.

Six months later, Mr. Medvedev awkwardly declared he would step aside so that Mr. Putin could return to the presidency.

“We are often told our actions are illegitimate, but when I ask, ‘Do you think everything you do is legitimate?’ they say ‘yes.’ Then, I have to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where they either acted without any UN sanctions or completely distorted the content of such resolutions, as was the case with Libya,” Mr. Putin fumed during a press conference Tuesday, his first remarks since the Ukraine crisis erupted. “Our partners, especially in the United States, always clearly formulate their own geopolitical and state interests and follow them with persistence. Then, using the principle ‘You’re either with us or against us’ they draw the whole world in. And those who do not join in get beaten until they do.”

Even while Washington was talking at home about a reset, the messages it sent to Moscow were more confrontational. Mr. Obama’s first secretary of state, Ms. Clinton, made headlines during her own 2008 bid for the presidency by stating Mr. Putin, as a former KGB agent, “doesn’t have a soul.” (Mr. Putin shot back that anyone seeking to be U.S. President “at a minimum … should have a head.”)

Even more controversial was Mr. Obama’s choice of academic Michael McFaul as ambassador to Moscow in 2011. By his own description, Mr. McFaul, who couldn’t be reached for an interview, was an expert on how popular uprisings happen in authoritarian regimes. A decade earlier, he had authored the provocatively titled book Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin. One of his first acts after arriving in Moscow was inviting several key members of the anti-Putin opposition to the U.S. embassy for a private meeting.

The opposition protests that swelled before and after that visit, and which tarred Mr. Putin’s 2012 election win, were seen in the Kremlin as more proof of Western meddling in and hostility to Russia. Mr. Putin accused Ms. Clinton of personally giving “the signal” for his opponents to rise up against him.

Since returning to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. He has backed Bashar al-Assad to the hilt in the bloody struggle for Syria, another long-time Soviet ally. Last month, he welcomed Egypt’s Abdul Fattah el-Sissi to Moscow, and offered him military aid and an endorsement of his undeclared presidential run, as Washington backed away from Cairo’s latest military man in charge. A win for the West is a loss for Moscow. And vice-versa.

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