After the demise of the Soviet empire in 1991, there certainly was a widespread view that the West had won the Cold War. But it was also generally presumed to be a victory over Communism, not Russians — who were widely seen as an oppressed people newly liberated from the totalitarian yoke. In the early 1990s, the United States eagerly embraced Russia’s fledgling democracy, its new status as a partner and ally symbolized by the cordial relationship between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin; Clinton’s first trip abroad as President, in April 1993, included a meeting with Yeltsin in Vancouver.
“Russia wasn’t even treated as an equal partner but as a favored child who was petted and given treats,” the late Elena Bonner, an icon of Soviet-era human rights activism and widow of the great physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, told me a few years ago, discussing an earlier round of laments about Russia’s wrongs at the hands of the West. (Then as now, the chorus of sympathy came in response to a Russian military adventure in a former Soviet republic trying to break away from its “sphere of influence” — Georgia.)
The “treats” were quite meaty: Western aid to Russia from 1992 to 1997 alone totaled $55 billion — not counting private charity and business investment. (In 1995, when the CIA submitted a report to the White House detailing Russian corruption that included aid money being pocketed by high-level officials, Vice President Al Gore reportedly rejected it and sent the document back with a crude epithet scrawled across the cover.) In a move that had more to do with political respect than economic reality, Russia was included in the annual forum for leaders of the world’s top economies — first in an informal “G7+1” arrangement, then, from 1998 onward, as a full member of the G8.