A quarter century after the Cold War ended, Russia is again the big bad. Officials in Washington and Brussels call the country a threat to transatlantic security, undermining institutions like NATO and the European Union, which are equated with good governance, democracy and rule of law. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine confirmed for many that the country under Vladimir Putin is a predator state, which only a unified Western military front can deter from further aggression. Yet, for years after the Soviet collapse leaders on all sides believed that Russia might become a member of the European community of nations, an equal—or at least amenable—partner of the West’s triumphant institutions. How did it go so wrong?

Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia, published this year by Routledge, is a concise attempt to answer that question. Authors Samuel Charap and Timothy J. Colton briskly trace the series of strategic blunders and zero-sum thinking that, over 25 years, squandered a unique opportunity to forge a lasting cooperative framework.

Charap and Colton are careful to blame both Moscow and the West for the present standoff, but their story reveals a somewhat lopsided dynamic, especially during Russia’s first post-Soviet decade. Again and again, Russia sought to engage with Western institutions—while insisting on its role as regional hegemon—only to be met with Western suspicion and disregard.

Already in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had floated the possibility of joining NATO, the military alliance created to contain his country. “After all, you said that NATO wasn’t directed against us, you said it was a new Europe,” Gorbachev told US Secretary of State James Baker. “So why shouldn’t we apply?” In what would become a Western pattern, Baker demurred.

Later in the decade, Boris Yeltsin raised the possibility of joining NATO and was again rebuffed. As late as the early 2000s—after NATO’s bombing campaign in the Balkans and after the military alliance absorbed the USSR’s erstwhile satellites in Central and Eastern Europe—new president Vladimir Putin was still signaling that he might be open to Russian membership as “an equal partner.”  

What the Russians were looking for, according to Charap and Colton, was a new deal for Europe, one in which they could participate on an equal footing with Western powers and that acknowledged their right to meddle in what Charap and Colton call the “In-Betweens”: former Soviet republics whose independence Russia has always had a hard time accepting. Instead, what they got was a blithe expansion of pre-existing transatlantic institutions ever closer to Russia’s borders. Moscow interpreted EU and NATO expansion as an attempt to isolate and lock it out of a growing sphere of Western prosperity and influence. Russians felt exploited during a moment of weakness, as though the West were treating their country like a defeated opponent instead of a partner. This sense of shame and resentment explains the power of Putin’s call to bring Russia “off its knees.”

On the other side, Americans and Europeans criticized Russia’s apparent unwillingness to treat its neighbors as independent states, often relying on import bans and its control of energy flows to bully wayward countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova into adopting the Kremlin line. Moreover, Western democracies objected to Russia’s incomplete political and economic reforms, which concentrated power and wealth in the hands of a small oligarchy—though cities like London and New York were happy to provide investment opportunities for Russia’s nouveau riche.

These trends came to a head in Ukraine, the second largest of the former Soviet republics. Forced to choose between an association agreement with the European Union and possible integration in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych opted for the latter. His overreaction to subsequent protests culminated in the Maidan Revolution and the collapse of his government, which Russia took for a Western-supported coup. According to Charap and Colton, Yanukovych’s “predicament was ultimately a product of zero-sum jousting between Russia and the EU, which led them to pose a binary choice to his country.”

Once again feeling locked out, Putin resorted to military pressure. Everyone Loses suggests that Putin’s push into Crimea was an attempt to “force the new Ukrainian authorities and the West to take Russia’s interests into account,” but soon escalated beyond his control into an improvised annexation. The resulting sanctions and counter-sanctions have now lasted three years and caused significant pain for Russia, the EU, and the countries caught in between.

Charap and Colton argue that the past quarter century could have played out differently if Western leaders had exercised greater imagination in the immediate post-Soviet years. Rather than simply expand “prefab” economic and security blocs, the West might have built robust institutions that included Russia and recognized the reality of its regional integration—a Soviet legacy. On the other hand, Charap and Colton criticize the Kremlin for its “idée fixe that Russia needs to be the leader of a pack of post-Soviet states in order to be taken seriously as a global power broker.” With both sides now stuck in a polarized, damaging deadlock, the authors’ recommendation is more modest: “open-ended, precondition-free dialogue on the regional order.”

Everyone Loses is an excellent survey of high-level relations between Russia and the West since the fall of the Soviet Union. Admirably evenhanded, the book manages to convey the Russian perspective without indulging in false equivalency or excusing Russian belligerence. Nor do Charap and Colton ignore Western missteps in post-Soviet Eurasia, such as overlooking corruption, far-right nationalism and human rights abuses so long as those in power are “pro-Western.” With almost all of its pages devoted to explaining how we got to the current impasse, and just a few paragraphs at the end suggesting a path forward, Everyone Loses is more clarifying than prescriptive. Yet, given the current Sturm und Drang over Russia, its clarity is refreshing.

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Remains of an Eastern Orthodox church after shelling near Donetsk International Airport.

Posted by Ben Dalton

One of a few Americans to voluntarily exile himself to Siberia, Ben Dalton was raised in Pennsylvania, from which he derived his love for crumbling industrial infrastructure. He lives in Brooklyn but is eyeing Jersey. He studied international relations at Brown University and worked in communications for the International Crisis Group and World Learning. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, and New Eurasia. Reach him at ben@nyta.us.

One Comment

  1. —“Again and again, Russia sought to engage with Western institutions—while insisting on its role as regional hegemon—only to be met with Western suspicion and disregard.”—

    As is often the case, the analysis treats the people of the Intermarium as neutral pawns between greater powers. Nothing could be further from this. Within living memory, the regime in Moscow slaughtered up to 25% of Ukrainians. Lingering fear, resentment and hatred is not a CIA conspiracy.

    There is no moral equivalence between, say Poland joining NATO, after asking and being rejected MULTIPLE times, and, say, the economic sanctions, threats of invasion, and real military invasions that come from Russia every time Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Ukraine seek economic ties with the west.

    And it isn’t a post Soviet thing. It’s been happening ever since the Grand Duchy of Muskovy conquered the Republic of Novgorod and then repeatedly slaughtered their nobility for fear of ties with the west. Since before Czar Peter the I’s decided to give a name to all the conquered people and settled upon the name “Russian”.

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