This is the first of a two-part commentary on a Russian perspective of NATO, and the future of Russian-Western relations. Click here for part two.

One of the distinctive features of the modern Western political narrative with regard to NATO is an almost total misunderstanding of how the alliance is perceived in Russia. First and foremost, the Western political establishment seems blithely unaware of the fact that the issue of NATO is the main stumbling block in Russian-Western relations, and that any detente is impossible while that obstacle remains unresolved.

In Russia, NATO is generally viewed as part of the American war machine and an instrument of U.S. global dominance. That view is shared by almost the entire Russian political spectrum. In fact, the same view also prevails among NATO members from eastern Europe, where the alliance is seen as an instrument of U.S. influence and U.S. defense assurances.

That is why Russia is utterly baffled by U.S. accusations that the Kremlin — and President Vladimir Putin specifically — are trying to “drive a wedge between NATO partners.” No one in Moscow has ever regarded NATO as an independent entity that exists separately from the United States. There is a deep conviction in Russia that NATO is nothing more than an instrument of U.S. military policy, and that Washington will always be able to ram any decision through the NATO governing bodies, regardless of what its Western European partners might think of that decision.

That explains why any NATO enlargement is automatically regarded in Russia as a ruse to deploy U.S. forces in close proximity to Russian borders; NATO’s own role in that ruse is seen as a cover story — nothing more. The ongoing deployment of NATO forces in eastern Europe with the ostensible purpose of “containing and deterring Moscow” is seen in Russia as another piece of evidence to confirm that view. These new deployments are conducted under direct U.S. leadership, and most of the new forces deployed are American. The military presence of other NATO members in places such as the Baltic states is insignificant and purely symbolic. Washington and NATO describe these deployments as a “clear signal to Moscow.” In Moscow itself, that signal is read as clear evidence that all the Russian criticisms and concerns about NATO have always been entirely justified, and that the moderate Russian reaction to NATO’s enlargement in the 1990s and early 2000s was a colossal strategic blunder.

The Russian hawks have always insisted that the only reason for admitting the Baltic states to NATO was to give the United States a new forward-staging post for military deployment against Russia. It now turns out that the hawks were right all along. That is why Russia is now determined not to make the same mistake again; it will do all it can to prevent any further NATO encroachment into former Soviet territory — namely, into Ukraine and Georgia. It’s only a matter of time until this unspoken “red line” drawn by Moscow becomes an official stance.

The West does not realize that Russia views NATO enlargement as a threat of U.S. forces (potentially including missile systems) deployed ever closer to critical Russian targets. As a result, Western decision-makers underestimate the strength of the Russian national consensus on this issue. There is a popular opinion in the West that Russia opposes NATO only because of President Putin’s personal animus. That opinion is a gross and primitive misreading of the situation.

The Russian political elite was actively opposed to NATO enlargement even during the era of former Soviet and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That opposition was solidified by the hostile U.S. and Western reaction to the first Chechen campaign of 1994-1996. That reaction convinced Moscow that the West has no intention of accommodating Russian interests even on the most fundamental national security issues, including the protection of territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism.

It became clear that the Western approach to Russia was radically different from the approach to Germany and Japan after World War II: Those two nations were turned into U.S. satellites in exchange for U.S. security assurances and a recognition of their right to self-defense. But when the Chechen crisis broke out in Russia in the 1990s, Moscow realized that Washington had no intention of offering it any security benefits or recognizing its right to self-defense, even as a theoretical proposition. Russia was required to become a loyal U.S. satellite without receiving anything in return. What is more, the situation gave rise to a deep and widespread Russian suspicion that Washington is seeking to assure Russian status as a loyal vassal by means of further disintegration, weakening and decline of the Russian state.

The gradual conversion of the Russian elites to such a view in the 1990s was the main reason for the collapse of Russia’s pro-Western orientation in the 1990s. The proponents of a pro-Western Russian policy (which essentially implied Russia becoming a U.S. satellite) have since been completely marginalized because they cannot explain what tangible benefits such a course would bring Russia to outweigh the inevitable losses for Russian national security and statehood in general.

Even now, the few remaining Russian liberals tend to avoid any discussions on foreign policy and national defense issues. Much to the disappointment of their Western “friends,” they make it clear by doing so that a well-articulated, pro-Western political platform has essentially ceased to exist in Russia.

Russia’s efforts against NATO enlargement are a result of the foreign policy consensus that had coalesced even before the arrival of President Putin. Ever since the first Chechen crisis, the United States has come to be seen as a potential threat to the very foundations of Russian statehood, and as a foreign power that has no interest in supporting that statehood, even in return for Russian loyalty. That is why the deployment of American proxy forces in the shape of NATO are seen as a threat when they move ever closer to Russian borders without any security assurances being offered to Moscow.

Meanwhile, Washington never had any intention of offering Moscow any such assurances. It believed that sooner or later, Moscow would become a U.S. satellite in any case; it also wanted to preserve a certain freedom of maneuver with regard to Russia. Such a stance served only to deepen Russian suspicions and reinforce the vicious circle of mutual distrust.

As a result, NATO came to be seen by most Russians as a deeply hostile, anti-Russian military coalition long before the current crisis. Russians believe that NATO’s sole task is to maintain a state of confrontation with Russia, and most would subscribe to the idea that “without Russia, there would be no NATO.”

Ruslan Pukhov is the director of the Moscow-based think tank Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

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