William Perry says US contempt toward Russia as third-rate power after end of Cold War played a big role

The current level of aggression in US-Russian relations was caused in part by Washingtons contemptuous therapy of Moscows security concerns in the aftermath of the cold war, a former US defence secretary has said.

William Perry, who was defence secretary in Bill Clintons administration from 1994 to 1997, emphasised that in the past five years it has been Vladimir Putins military interventions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere that have driven the downward spiral in east-west relations.

But Perry added that during the course of its word in office, cooperation between the two countries militaries had improved rapidly merely a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union and that these gains were initially squandered more as a result of US than Russian actions.

In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame, Perry told, speaking at a Guardian Live event in London.

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Former US defence secretary, William Perry, talking at a Guardian Live event on Tuesday evening

Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when Nato started to expand, bringing in eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia. At that time we were working closely with Russia and they were beginning to get used to the idea that Nato could be a friend rather than an adversary … but they were very uncomfortable about having Nato right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.

In his memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, Perry writes that he argued for a slower expansion of Nato so as not to alienate Russia during the course of its initial period of post-Soviet courtship and cooperation. Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat, led the opposing argument at the time, and was ultimately supported by the vice-president, Al Gore, who argued we could manage the problems this would create with Russia.

Perry said the decision reflected a contemptuous posture among US officials towards the troubled former superpower.

It wasnt that we listened to their argument and said he dont agree with that argument, he told. Basically the people I was arguing with when I tried to set the Russian point … the response that I got was truly: Who cares what they believe? Theyre a third-rate power. And of course that point of view got across to the Russians as well. That was when we started sliding down that path.

Perry considered resigning over the issue but I concluded that my abdication would be misinterpreted as opposition to Nato membership that I greatly favoured merely not right away.

He finds the second major blunder by Washington DC as the Bush administrations decision to deploy a ballistic missile defence system in eastern Europe in the face of decided opponent from Moscow. Perry told: We rationalised[ the organizations of the system] as being to defend against an Iranian nuclear weapon they dont have any but thats another issue. But the Russians told Wait a bit, this weakens our deterrence. The questions again wasnt discussed on the basis of its merits it was just who cares about what Russia thinks. We dismissed it again.

The Obama administration has since modified the missile defence system in eastern Europe, replacing long-range with medium-range interceptor weapons but that has not mollified Russian objections.

Perry said he was opposed to such systems on technological grounds. I think theyre a trash of fund. I dont think they run, he told. In fact, when I talked to the Russians I tried to convince them not to frets, they dont run anyway but they didnt buy that.

The third factor that Perry pointed to in the poisoning of US-Russian relations was Washington DCs is supportive of pro-democracy demonstrators in the colour revolutions in former Soviet republics including Georgia and Ukraine. Perry agrees to this ethical reasons for backing such revolutions but noted their severely damaging effect on east-west ties.

After he came to office, Putin came to believe that the United States had an active and robust programme to overthrow his regime, the former defence secretary said.

And from that point on a switching went on in Putins mind that told: Im no longer going to work with the west … I dont know the facts behind Putins belief that we actually had a programme to foment revolution in Russia but what counts is he believed it.

Perry described the present tensions between Russia and Nato as having the potential of becoming very dangerous, and argued for a revolutionary reduction in nuclear arsenals and in particular the removal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles( ICBMs ). Over 1,000 ICBMs in the US and Russia remain on hair-trigger alerting, on a policy of launch-on-warning, meaning US and Russian presidents would have less than half an hour to decide whether to fire them in the event of radar and satellite data demonstrating an incoming weapon attack from the other side.

Read more: www.theguardian.com