PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin recently was interviewed for a fawning Russian television documentary on his decade and a half in power. Putin expressed the view that the West would like Russia to be down at the heels. He said, “I sometimes I get the impression that they love us when they need to send us humanitarian aid. . . . [T]he so-called ruling circles, elites — political and economic — of those countries, they love us when we are impoverished, poor and when we come hat in hand. As soon as we start declaring some interests of our own, they feel that there is some element of geopolitical rivalry.”
Earlier, in March, speaking to leaders of the Federal Security Service, which he once led, Mr. Putin warned that “Western special services continue their attempts at using public, nongovernmental and politicized organizations to pursue their own objectives, primarily to discredit the authorities and destabilize the internal situation in Russia.”
Mr. Putin’s remarks reflect a deep-seated paranoia. It would be easy to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as intended for domestic consumption, an attempt to whip up support for his war adventure in Ukraine. In part, it is that. But Mr. Putin’s assertion that the West has been acting out of a desire to sunder Russia’s power and influence is a willful untruth.
The fact is that thousands of Americans went to Russia hoping to help its people attain a better life. The American and Western effort over the last 25 years — to which the United States and Europe devoted billions of dollars — was aimed at helping Russia overcome the horrid legacy of Soviet communism, which left the country on its knees in 1991. It was not about conquering Russia but rather about saving it, offering the proven tools of market capitalism and democracy, which were not imposed but welcomed. The United States also spent hundreds of millions of dollars to make Russia safer from loose nukes and joined a fruitful collaboration in outer space. Avid volunteers came to Russia and donated endless hours to imparting the lessons of how to hold jury trials, build a free press, design equity markets, carry out political campaigning and a host of other components of an open, prosperous society. The Americans came for the best of reasons.
Certainly, the Western effort was flawed. Markets were distorted by crony and oligarchic capitalism; democratic practice often faltered; many Russians genuinely felt a sense of defeat, humiliation and exhaustion. There’s much to regret but not the central fact that a generous hand was extended to post-Soviet Russia, offering the best of Western values and know-how. The Russian people benefit from this benevolence even now, and, above Mr. Putin’s self-serving hysterics, they ought to hear the truth: The United States did not come to bury you.