Russia's suspicions, unease, and sense of insecurity over Europe and the West go back to the 1700s, writes Dr David Murphy, Department of History

This week, the world has been coming to terms with the latest round of conflict in Ukraine, a continuation of a conflict that began with the Russian invasion in 2014. There has been much negative comment about the lost opportunities for diplomacy in the intervening years. While this is true, it is also worth considering how recent events fit into historic Russian concerns about security issues along its western borders.

In a significant telegram in 1946, the US ambassador to the USSR, George Kennan, noted that "at [the] bottom of Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is [a] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity". This was an extremely accurate summation and reflected the fact that Russia’s attitude to the West and its influence along its western borders had been informed over the preceding centuries.

We have a tendency to focus on former Soviet attitudes and the spotlight is currently on the actions of the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin. However, the patterns of strategic behaviour and the culture of mutual suspicion between Russia and the powers of Europe date back to the 1700s. Moreover, the fault lines of this historic tension run through current strategic "hot spots", regions that now encompass Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.

As Imperial Russia began to emerge as a major European power in the 1700s, it found itself in competition with other Nordic and European powers. Relations between neighbouring states were often tense and 18th century diplomats, such as the French ambassador, the Baron de Breteuil, noted the cultural disjoints between Russia and other European powers. In diplomatic exchanges, it became increasingly obvious that the Russian take on strategic issues was significantly different, and this often resulted in tension.

To consolidate territorial security, successive Russian regimes since then have tried to secure buffer zones between Russia and Europe. For example, territory that now forms part of the Baltic States was annexed by Russia following the Great Northern War of 1721. Finland was taken from Sweden following a war in 1809 and was absorbed into the Russian Empire. Russia was an active supporter throughout the 19th century of the partition of Poland as their acquisition of Polish territory provided a further buffer zone between Prussia and Austria.

When Putin outlined the history of the Russian-Ukraine situation, it showed an acute awareness of the long history of Russian dominance of that region. Apart from the prestige of occupying territory as a major power, these territorial acquisitions all bolstered Russian territorial security.

The fall of the Russian Empire in 1917 did nothing to change the Russian strategic worldview. In the run-up to the Second World War, the USSR gained dominance in the Baltic States and then invaded Finland in 1939. This was all in an effort to put space between itself and the Western powers. In that period, the paranoia rightly focused on Nazi Germany and, rather perversely, led to the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the invasion and partition of Poland in 1939-40. Following that war, the speed with which the USSR developed what would become the Warsaw Pact Bloc was a further reflection of their strongly held need to put space between themselves and potentially difficult neighbours.

This may seem like an inordinate level of paranoia, but what is also obvious from recent Russian announcements is that there is a sense of long-term grievances against the West. Russia was, after all, was the victim of surprise attacks by Japan in 1904 and then Nazi Germany in 1941. The list is virtually endless and includes a perceived lack of timely support in both world wars, the pressure put on the USSR during the Cold War, and the final breakup of the Soviet Union. There is a determination within the Russian political and military leadership not to be caught wrong-footed again and hence the tendency to initiate action and to escalate more quickly than the West.

And then, there is the NATO question. Successive Russian diplomats, going back to Vyacheslav Molotov in 1953, have suggested that Russia join NATO. While Molotov’s overture came at the start of the Cold War and was largely an exercise in being mischievous, later overtures were made by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and then by Putin himself in 2000. There is no reason to believe that these later attempts at dialogue were not sincere to some degree. It is worth considering whether an acceptance of these overtures would have strengthened NATO in the context of an emerging China.

It should be noted that this piece should not be mistaken as excusing recent Russian actions. The events of the last week represent a disastrous turn in world affairs. We are witnessing definitely the most sinister development in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, if not the darkest days since the Second World War. This is a brief attempt to outline the tensions, misunderstandings, and security paranoia that have informed Russia’s perception of its own strategic security situation since the 1700s.

Since that time, we have had two major phases of regime change yet strategic attitudes have remained the same. The territorial fault lines have also remained the same. It seems likely that the current conflict will develop further and who knows how many lives will be lost.

The "blame game" has already begun with commentators flagging the obvious warning signs from Ukraine 2014 or Georgia 2008. The West seems to be constantly wrong-footed and slow to act. Russia, on the other hand, is monolithic and can develop its strategy more quickly. Behind the recent events, however, there is a long historic backstory. It is a history that all sides need to understand and discuss if there is to be a de-escalation of tensions in Europe.

This article first appeared in RTÉ Brainstorm

Photo courtesy of Tong Su on Unsplash