Indeed, when Merkel asked Putin, "What is your biggest regret?" he answered, "To have trusted you"—"you," meaning the West as a whole. This response can be interpreted in two ways: on the one hand, Yeltsin's successor is alluding to the supposed "betrayal" of the West over the "promises" they made to Mikhail Gorbachev, particularly concerning the non-expansion of NATO. On the other hand, it may be an unconscious admission of Russia’s former expectations of the West—indeed, in the 1990s, Russians believed that the West would help solve the internal chaos that was plaguing their country. The "humiliation" that Russians claim in response to repeated American "provocations" not only refers to the nostalgia for the Soviet empire, but also the genuine disappointment felt by many Russians during the chaotic upheavals of the 90s.
The paradigm shift of the early 2010s
In his aforementioned New York Times piece, Roger Cohen develops his account by identifying successive inflections that transformed the Russian leader from his beginnings, where he was open to the West, or at the very least available for cooperation, into what he is today—a dictator that has re-established an iron grip over his society, prepared to remain in power for life, and always to remain implacably hostile to Western designs. Without meaning to contradict Cohen's article, we believe that there are, in fact, two significant points of rupture that specifically marked the evolution of Putin's relationship with the West.
The first major change—or rather, the first "block" of major changes—occurred in 2011 (Syria), 2012 (Putin's reelection as President), and 2014 (Crimea and Donbas).
The turning point of 2011-2012
By all accounts, when Putin was re-elected as President of the Russian Federation in 2012, he ceased to be interested in the economy; reform programs were ended, and corruption became increasingly widespread. The President was deeply concerned over the major demonstrations that swept Russian cities during the winter of 2011-2012, following the rigged general election. He subsequently launched the first measures aimed at "foreign agents"—measures that, over time, became increasingly severe. Externally, he adopted a strategy of confrontation with the West. He began to attempt a "repolarization" of the world, the clearest example of which was his approach to Syria, where we saw the Kremlin vetoing Security Council resolutions that mirrored the wishes of the Arab League. This was contrary to the established Russian doctrine at the UN of always following the lead of regional organizations; while Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador at the time, had approved the text of those resolutions in preliminary consultations, when it was time to vote, he received direct orders from Moscow to veto them.
Some have interpreted Moscow’s attitude as a reflexive reaction to Western support for the Arab Spring; however, this explanation misses the point. The Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin, in his book, What is Russia up to in the Middle East?, notes that many Russian Middle East specialists saw the Arab Spring as the result of economic, social and demographic factors. However, a conspiratorial viewpoint was put together that alleged an alliance between the United States and the Islamists, and it was this interpretation that the Kremlin chose to retain.
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