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: Post-Communist Russia and the West: From Crisis to Crisis?

James Headley

In 1994, the first major post-Cold War crisis between Russia and the West occurred over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) threat to bomb the Bosnian Serbs. Five years later, a worse crisis erupted over the Kosovo war, culminating in a stand-off between Russian and NATO troops at Pristina airport. In 2003, Russia strongly opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the following year tensions emerged over the disputed election in Ukraine. In 2008, Russia’s war against Georgia was strongly condemned in the West. Disagreements have continued over the war in Syria since 2012. And in late 2013 the most severe crisis of all broke out, over Ukraine. In one sense, then, the post-Cold War period can be seen as a succession of crises in Russian-Western relations after the initial “honeymoon period”. In each case, there was talk of a new “Cold War” and soul-searching in the West over what approach should be taken towards Russia. However, after each crisis, a rapprochement followed, such that the whole period cannot be considered one of continual antagonism between Russia and the West. Nevertheless, the severity ofthe Ukrainian crisis suggests a more serious and possibly permanent schism.

This chapter examines the continuities and changes in post-communist Russian foreign policy as reflected in Russia’s relations with the West.

J. Headley (*)

Department of Politics, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

Fish, Gill, Petrovic (eds.), A Quarter Century of Post-Communism Assessed, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-43437-7_11

It argues that key features of Russia’s foreign policy approach were already in place in the early Yeltsin period: assertion of Russian national interests distinct from those of the West, insistence on Russia’s status as a great power, maintenance of Russia’s role in international institutions, and resistance to Western unilateralism and hegemony. These features clashed with key developments in Western foreign policy approaches, helping to explain the recurrent crises. Hence, the chapter also argues that there was much continuity from the Yeltsin to the Putin periods, although an economically stronger and politically more stable Russia could back up its assertive rhetoric more effectively after the chaotic first decade of post-communism. However, changing political circumstances in Russia and changing international circumstances explain why the Ukrainian crisis may mark a turning point in Russian-Western relations: a more authoritarian and conservative nationalist Russia aiming to reintegrate areas of the former Soviet space is coming up against a European Union (EU) that is seeking to engage more actively in the “shared neighbourhood”, and a United States that regards Russia as a renewed antagonist.

I will look first at the similarities and differences between Russian responses to the Yugoslav conflicts and the war in Syria. I will then consider what this shows us about the main tenets of Russian foreign policy and how they have developed in the intervening years in response to crises and as a result of political change. Then, I will show how these developments have culminated in the serious crisis in Russian-Western relations over Ukraine. I will conclude with some observations on what lessons we might draw from 25 years of post-communist Russian relations with the West.

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