How they so badly misjudged it:
Russia and the West do indeed have competing interests in the post-Soviet space. The problem with the realists is that they fail to see the moral, tactical and legal disparities that exist between the aims and methods of East and West. When Brussels and Washington propose EU and NATO membership, they are offering association in alliances of liberal, democratic states, achieved through a democratic, consensual process. Russia, meanwhile, cajoles, blackmails and threatens its former vassals into “joining” its newfangled “Eurasian Union,” whose similarity to the Soviet Union of yore Putin barely conceals. The right of sovereign countries to choose the alliances they wish is one Russia respects only if they choose to ally themselves with Russia. Should these countries try to join Western institutions then there will be hell to pay.
Despite all this, Cohen complains of a “Cold War double standard” in the ways we describe Western and Russian approaches to the former Soviet space. The West’s “trade leverage” to persuade Ukraine is treated benignly, Cohen writes, while Putin’s use of “similar carrots” is portrayed as nefarious. A crucial difference, however, is that when a country turns down a Western diplomatic package, as Ukraine did at the November Vilnius Summit (thus sparking the massive protests in Kiev that ultimately overthrew Yanukovych), the EU does not invade.
It should not come as a surprise why countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and other former Warsaw Pact nations that lived under the heel of Russian domination for so long might want to join the NATO alliance, which, according to its charter, is purely defensive. NATO has no designs on Russian territory and never has. But in the fervid and paranoid minds of the men running the Kremlin (and, apparently, in that of Stephen Cohen and other opponents of NATO expansion), the alliance’s defensive nature is irrelevant. If Russia were a healthy, liberal, pluralistic society at peace with itself and its neighbors, it would have nothing to fear from America, the EU, or NATO. Indeed, as crazy as it may sound today, in the 1990s, some Russian and Western leaders spoke optimistically of Moscow joining the latter two institutions. But these hopes of a European Russia were dashed when Putin came to power.
If it hadn’t been Putin, it might have been someone else. There may be something in the Russian character that wants a czar.