Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia
A recent book by Samuel Charap and Timothy Colton—two outstanding Russia experts of two distinctly different generations—will probably not go unnoticed given its grandly pessimistic title. Their topic, of course, is timely, since tensions between the West and Russia are clearly on the rise, and their recommendations for avoiding catastrophe are reasonable if not earth-shattering. Both parties must “make painful compromises” since “insuring a new Cold War would be the height of policy negligence.” A fresh standoff would bring only losses and difficulties for everyone involved. The authors are for peace and against war, for a win-win strategy and against a lose-lose one, for all that is good and against any sort of evil.
Platitudes aside, there are things to admire in the book. Its most impressive feature is a deep and detailed historical picture of the evolution of the post-Cold War world. Charap and Colton direct their readers’ attention to developments that are rarely addressed, making their volume indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the emergence of contemporary Russia and its current policies. But while the narrative and some of their attendant explanations are worthy, the “ideology” underlying their effort deserves some scrutiny.
The authors proceed from the assumption that Russia was, and presumably still is, on the defensive against the West that humiliated it during the transition from the Cold War to the “Cold Peace,” spurning its request to be more deeply integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures such as NATO and the European Union and destroying its self-confidence by supporting a series of “color” revolutions. I strongly agree with the thesis that the West missed its chance to integrate Russia into the Free World during the first decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, holding out instead for a transformation that could never happen. To presume Russia could become a “normal country,” able to combat its legacy of imperialism and transform itself into a liberal democracy, was as naive as the hope that Germany would embrace democracy and tolerance after its defeat in World War I. Indeed, Russia has never agreed to withdraw from any significant part of post-Soviet Eurasia (a continuity in Russian policy from Yeltsin to Putin).1 But from here the authors head in a disturbingly wrong direction.
The “understanding” of Russia that the authors exhibit quickly turns into what might be called a “soft vindication.” To them, Russia and its neighbors have produced “a unique post-imperial landscape” in which “the former empire is arrayed around the ex-metropole physically,” giving Russia “immense advantages in dealing with its neighbors.” Even though Russia relies on “soft coercion” rather than “soft power” while dealing with these new nations, the authors suggest that it should be granted “special privileges” in the region: “Is it realistic to think that Russia, an order of magnitude weightier than the states at its doorstep, would have no influence upon them?” While they acknowledge the sovereignty of those post-Soviet states they call “in-betweens,” Charap and Colton note that “Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova cannot count on restoring their territorial integrity so long as Moscow considers that allowing them to do so would facilitate their membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions.” In other words, a “realistic” approach should be based on the assumption that the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors is in fact conditional, and the very fate of the “in-betweens” must be subject to consent between Russia and the West.
The authors distinguish between two groups of “in-betweens”: The first group, the “lucky” one, was “appropriated” by the West in the 1990s before Russia’s resurgence, while the second, less-privileged group became the object of conflict. These latter nations should take into consideration all of Russia’s “concerns” and be happy that, as Charap and Colton put it, “Moscow does not have an authoritarian-promotion agenda, analogous to EU and U.S. democracy promotion.” In other words, the West should “understand” Russia and have realistic goals. It should try to improve the current situation rather than radically favor the “in-betweens.” This advice sounds very practical, but not very encouraging.
In explaining why they advocate such an approach, the authors reveal the weakness of the analysis behind it. Charap and Colton believe that the main troubles in today’s world stem from the mutual attempts of Russia and the West to prevail against each other.” These “zero-sum” policies create a constant rivalry on many fronts—geopolitical, geo-economical and even “geo-ideological,” as the authors put it—that is playing out in all of the post-Soviet states in Europe. It is a confrontation between the two blocs in Eurasia: the well-established EU and the newly born EEU.
Russia exercises pressure on the “in-betweens” and will continue to do so as long as the in-betweens hope to become incorporated into the Western bloc. In describing Moscow’s policies toward Ukraine, the authors remind us that Putin, presumably a person of great decency and politeness, “had run through all the standard plays in Russia’s foreign-policy playbook…by the time he decided to use the Russian military” in Crimea. In other words, Russia will rely on pure force if the West continues its claims; therefore, “zero-sum policies…produce negative-sum results [and it is no surprise that] all major players are worse off today that they were when the crisis began.”
The authors call for reconciliation between the West and Russia—for avoiding a new Cold War and for preventing the conflict from jumping to other regions (as happened in Syria). But two major questions arise here, each connected with the negative effects that, according to Charap and Colton, might befall all the countries involved into the current showdown.
In speaking about a “negative-sum game,” the authors should detail the “negative” effects on West, specifically Europe and the United States. Yet they say only that there is no longer any “peace dividend” and that the United States was forced to allocate around $4 billion to expand its military presence in East and Central Europe in 2016 and 2017. But that’s about 40 times less than the cost of the “war on terror” for both 2016 and 2017—hardly a major reason for avoiding the confrontation. Moreover, Europe’s deteriorating trade and investment relations with Russia arise more from Russia’s internal economic problems due to falling oil prices than from the sanctions levied by the parties on one another.
Therefore, the main argument—that the West damages itself quite significantly by engaging into confrontation with Russia—seems unproven. The situation instead resembles the Cold War years, when the West defeated the Soviet Union in economic competition without exhausting itself, even while spending a much greater share of its gross domestic product on military personnel and technologies than it spends today.
Meanwhile, the impact on Russia and even on Ukraine is not straightforwardly negative. Of course, both countries have suffered in recent years—but their leaders appear to be even better off than before. Putin doesn’t care about ordinary Russians’ woes; the war in Ukraine raised his approval ratings and consolidated his grip on the nation. Even for the Ukrainian political elite the war has become a source of personal enrichment (their trade with the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas has been brisk, and the military suppliers especially profit greatly), restoring the country’s corruption to previous levels. While the fortunes of democratic nations and those of their leaders tend to rise and fall together, it’s deeply misguided to assume the same of states that are effectively “captured” by kleptocrats. In these states a loss for the people can be a win for the top officials—in which case Charap and Colton’s thesis simply makes no sense. They argue that the Kremlin should consider Russia’s recent losses to be unbearable—but in fact Moscow’s rulers count these as distinctive wins that keep Russia running in the direction they desire.
In sum, Charap and Colton provide us with a brilliant historical analysis of the time before the Cold War, fumble in their interpretation of what happened after, and tell us surprisingly little about how to move further. The reconciliation they suggest, in which the West takes the first step, seems unpromising, and will certainly be unproductive if it comes at the expense of the poor “in-betweens.” Any hope that Russia will change its course due to its losses is simply misplaced, because the country’s leadership profits from the current state of affairs. One should remember the words of Alexander Haig, Jr., during his Senate confirmation hearings in 1981: “There are more important things than peace.” The “Cold Peace” in particular, I would add.
1Vladislav Inozemtsev, “Vernarrt in die Vergangenheit: Die Wurzeln des Putinismus reichen bis in die neunziger Jahre zurück” Internationale Politik (January/February 2017), pp. 74–83.