Everyone Loses
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Everyone Loses

The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia

Samuel Charap, Timothy J. Colton

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Everyone Loses

The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia

Samuel Charap, Timothy J. Colton

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About This Book

Disorder erupted in Ukraine in 2014, involving the overthrow of a sitting government, the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and a violent insurrection, supported by Moscow, in the east of the country.

This Adelphi book argues that the crisis has yielded a ruinous outcome, in which all the parties are worse off and international security has deteriorated. This negative-sum scenario resulted from years of zero-sum behaviour on the part of Russia and the West in post-Soviet Eurasia, which the authors rigorously analyse. The rivalry was manageable in the early period after the Cold War, only to become entrenched and bitter a decade later. The upshot has been systematic losses for Russia, the West and the countries caught in between.

All the governments involved must recognise that long-standing policies aimed at achieving one-sided advantage have reached a dead end, Charap and Colton argue, and commit to finding mutually acceptable alternatives through patient negotiation.

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Chapter One
Cold Peace

Where to find the roots of the disastrous scene at the Donetsk airport? One might well look to background factors such as Russian imperialism, ancestral enmities over language and religion, Soviet nationality practices, and the micro-history of Crimea and the Donbas. Although variables like these are germane at some level of abstraction, our emphasis is on dynamics in the relative foreground.
The Ukraine crisis, as we see it, comes out of self-reinforcing adversarial behaviour in the post-Soviet section of the Eurasian macroregion. Stretching over a quarter-century but gathering momentum in the second half of that time span, this contest has given rise to a belt of instability, insecurity and discontent of which Ukraine is but one part. The multidimensional rivalries percolating there encapsulate three ‘geos’ pursued by states and blocs of states: geopolitics, which is standard-issue realpolitik with special attention to attaining influence over particular countries or areas; geo-economics, or the projection of power over territory using economic means, an exercise defined by ‘the logic of war in the grammar of commerce’;1 and geo-ideas, by which we mean policies to spread normative conceptions of the good and the right beyond national borders.2
The current chapter tells the tale of the Cold Peace, in Boris Yeltsin’s evocative phrase. It is bookended by the implosion of the Soviet Union’s zone of external hegemony at the end of the 1980s, which, despite the giddiness of the moment, left some bedrock issues unresolved, and a natural inflection point in 2003–04, the highlight of which was the ‘colour revolutions’ that tore through several post-Soviet states. Later chapters will deal with the more conflictual periods to come.

The settlement-that-wasn’t

The Cold War between West and East, centred on if not confined to Europe, came undone with amazing swiftness. The outcome, while an undeniable advancement on the way things were, fell short of the promise of a continent united and democratically governed, as many had hoped. We are still living with the consequences of the unfinished business.
Europe had been cleaved for decades along geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-ideational lines. It hosted two bristling military alliances (NATO to defend Western Europe and North America, and the Warsaw Pact for the Soviet Union and its six-country bloc in East Central Europe); two economic unions (the European Community, or EC, and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or COMECON); and two ideological camps (espousing liberal democracy in the west, and collectivist autocracy in the east). The Berlin Wall, replete with barbed wire, watchtowers and minefields, epitomised the continent’s disunion.
Seismic changes originated with Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary appointed by the Soviet ‘selectorate’ in 1985. Gorbachevian perestroika was about ‘new thinking’ in foreign policy as well as remaking the Soviet Union’s hidebound internal systems. He began a loosening of the ties that bound the USSR’s European vassals – Poland, East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – to Moscow, and nudged them to mount their own perestroikas. Gorbachev’s acknowledgement in March 1988 that all socialist countries had ‘the inalienable right to decide independently their developmental path’ signified the repeal of the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ of using all means necessary, including armed intervention, to prevent defection from the bloc.
The Kremlin originally intended for change in its camp to be evolutionary; inadvertently, it opened the floodgates to revolutionary change. Marxist-Leninist governments fell one by one in a tumultuous six-month stretch in 1989, commencing with the electoral victory of the Solidarity labour movement in Poland in June and closing in December with the execution by firing squad of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. The Berlin Wall was sundered on 9 November and chunks of it carted off by jubilant spectators as souvenirs. In 1990 and 1991 came the reunification of Germany (and ipso facto the disappearance of the GDR), the self-liquidation of the Warsaw Pact and COMECON, and, most remarkable of all, the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and of the Soviet political-economic system. As the newly minted president of Czechoslovakia, the playwright and ex-dissident Václav Havel, was to tell the US Congress in February 1990, new developments were coming on at such a clip that ‘none of the familiar political speedometers is adequate’.3
In Washington, the administration of George H.W. Bush, inaugurated in January 1989, shed its initial scepticism about changes in the area and set a goal ‘to steer the Soviet ejection from Eastern Europe to a peaceful conclusion’, as James Baker, his secretary of state, said candidly in a memoir.4 For the Soviet Politburo, coping with the vicissitudes of the bloc was but one of a plethora of challenges, not merely to policy objectives but to the governability and very survival of their state. At meetings with the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, Baker found him ‘distracted and a little overwhelmed’ by socio-economic woes and separatism on the home front and a feeling of ‘losing control’ across the board.5
The burning question on the security agenda in 1989–90 was what should be done with a post-Cold War Germany. Its front-line status in the Cold War, centrality to the two world wars, and sheer demographic and economic bulk made Germany distinctive. The Soviets were goaded to act by the death throes of their handiwork, the GDR. Leaders of the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany) and the US stewed over the question of how long the opening for progress would last. Gorbachev could be dethroned, resign in exasperation or change his mind and order in the tanks, as the USSR had done against an East German workers’ uprising in June 1953. ‘We were running against a clock’, Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, wrote later, ‘but we did not know how much time was left’.6
Gorbachev’s initial goal was to administer German affairs through a revived Allied Control Commission of the occupying powers from 1945: the Soviet Union, the US, the UK and France. In 1989 he came out in favour of a bi-state Germany implanted in a ‘common European home’, a pan-European mansion of many diverse rooms, but with ‘a certain integral whole’.7 Gorbachev and his aides, notes Mary Sarotte, ‘would never think their ideas through fully, and their plans would remain vague until the end’.8 Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany gravitated from a confederation of the two Germanys to the approach that was to prevail: outright reunification, and on Western terms.9 Gorbachev signalled a green light for a merger in talks with Baker and Kohl in February 1990.10 The details were thrashed out that summer and the deed was done in October (Kohl had first forecast the transition would take ten years). The GDR would be absorbed into the pre-existing structures of the Federal Republic, the consolidated Germany would stay put in the Euro-Atlantic alliance and the EC, force levels on all sides would be drawn down, no non-German NATO troops would be based on the territory of the former GDR and the 400,000 Soviet troops there would depart by 1994.
Gorbachev originally swore that he could never accept the reborn Germany as a member of NATO, the alliance dedicated to containing the USSR. He several times recommended Germany be incorporated into the Warsaw Pact, a non-starter, after which he was briefly enamoured of dual membership of NATO and the Pact. ‘That made no sense to anyone on the American side’, recollects Baker, ‘but Gorbachev made a personal plea to the President [Bush]. “You’re a sailor. You will understand that if one anchor is good, two anchors are better.”’ Bush scoffed at the concept to Kohl, calling it ‘screwy’. Gorbachev’s fallback was German neutrality, an outcome Soviet policy preferred back in the 1950s, but he was also willing to toy with fresh scenarios. With Baker in May 1990 he made the stunning suggestion that if he could not stop Germany from joining NATO, the Soviet Union itself should apply for membership. ‘After all, you said that NATO wasn’t directed against us, you said it was a new Europe, so why shouldn’t we apply?’ It was ‘not some absurdity’, he said, but a serious question. Baker rejoined that a journalist had put the same query to him at a news conference and was otherwise noncommittal, preferring to concentrate on Germany.11
Gorbachev was eventually won over to the American position that an amalgamated German state was more of a hazard to Soviet interests if non-aligned (and with the technical capabilities to go nuclear) than if knit into an alliance system. With the Warsaw Pact on the rocks, the sole alliance on offer was NATO. Gorbachev, Scowcroft writes, ‘appeared unable to come up with a better idea than what we were urging on him’. Had he been resolute about German neutrality, ‘he perhaps could have accomplished that’.12
The long-standing German problem was thus laid to rest. Two other daunting security questions were not: What would be the new regional order once the Warsaw Pact and COMECON had vanished? And how would its Soviet/Russian metropole relate to the Western camp?
On question number one, the USSR wagered on a body known as the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), to be renamed the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1995. A child of the ephemeral East–West detente of the mid-1970s, it functioned as a roundtable for members of both alliances and Europe’s neutral countries. At a CSCE summit in Paris in November 1990, 32 nations initialled a Charter of Paris for a New Europe, saluting as their target the ‘Europe whole and free’ first hailed by Bush in 1989.13 Soviet delegates talked up the CSCE as a replacement for both the Warsaw Pact and NATO. But it was an informal grouping with a tiny staff and budget; it had no collective security mission or integrated military command; and it operated only by consensus. Unlike in NATO, which also has a consensus rule, there was no tradition of deferring to US preferences, which devalued the CSCE in the eyes of the Americans. The CSCE, as Baker summed it up, was ‘an extremely unwieldy and frustrating organization’ whose bylaws ‘give the smaller states of Europe veto power over issues far beyond their standing’.14
In another tack, Gorbachev, in several pronouncements after he disowned the Brezhnev Doctrine, advocated the ‘Finlandisation’ of East Central Europe. Post-1945 Finland was neutral in foreign affairs, traded extensively with the Soviet Union and was self-governing in its domestic affairs. Gorbachev lauded Finlandisation during a visit to Helsinki in October 1989: ‘To me, Finland is a model of relations between a big country and a small country, a model of relations between states with different social systems, a model of relations between neighbours.’15 The former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, weighed in on Gorbachev’s side. ‘In the long run’, he asked in an op-ed, ‘aren’t arrangements in Finland more useful to Soviet security than those in Eastern Europe? Is it possible to devise arrangements that would give the Soviets security guarantees (widely defined) while permitting the peoples of Eastern Europe to choose their own political future?’16
Neither recipe could have been implemented unrevised. For the CSCE to be the linchpin, it would have had to be boosted administratively and financially. At some point, it would have had to displace NATO and the EC as the primary regional organisation for collective security and economic integration. As long as the much heartier NATO and EC continued to function at their previous level and did not face challenges to their raison d’être, the West would have little incentive to empower an alternative body, particularly one where the heir to its long-time adversary had an equal say. Many regarded Finlandisation as tarnished by its power asymmetries, and Finnish–Soviet relations since 1945 had fluctuated over time; Finlandisation was not one prototype but several.17 A more relevant precedent may have been ‘Austrianisation’, harkening back to the imposition of neutrality on post-war Austria by great-power dictate in 1955. It was missing from the conversation, other than a succinct reference by Kissinger in June 1990.18
The 22 NATO and Warsaw Pact states in November 1990 signed a Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), delineating ceilings for armaments for what were still the two blocs, and created an inspection and verification regime to build confidence and reinforce stability. A follow-up at Helsinki in 1992 set limits on military personnel. Other than the CFE, which was about hardware and manpower and not about how or against whom they were to be used, no all-encompassing security framework for Europe was given serious consideration in the twilight of the Cold War. The Warsaw Pact, the ‘socialist community’ that it shielded having melted away, voted to disband in February 1991; COMECON followed suit that June. The Western duo of NATO and the EC was now the only game in town.
The talks over Germany not only yielded agreement on it remaining within NATO after reunification but also touched upon the future of the Alliance, and by implication of the security architecture of the extended region. This far-ranging issue was to be a future bone of contention. At a sitting with Gorbachev in February 1990, Baker enunciated the United States’ willingness to pledge ‘no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO [sic] one inch to the east’ upon reunification. Baker was addressing the question of whether NATO forces would be barred from the territory of the GDR, as the Soviets were demanding. But this and other diplomatic exchanges left the Soviet negotiators with the distinct impression that the prohibition would transcend East Germany and cover the other five nations stranded in the Warsaw Pact (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania). The latter position, as Joshua Shifrinson has documented, was mooted in some inter-agency memos in Washington and had been spelled out by the West German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Enlarging NATO beyond Germany was not on the table for anyone at the time; the Soviets, it has to be stressed, now believed that it would never be. The US and West Germany delivered informal assurances on limiting NATO’s geographical reach, on respect for Soviet core interests and on cooperatively figuring out a comprehensive security framework, perchance through a revamped CSCE. As Baker put it in a memo after one confab with Shevardnadze, the process ‘would not yield winners and losers. Instead, [it] would produce a new legitimate European structure – one that would be inclusive, not exclusive.’19
Gorbachev in particular bought into a broad reading of the spirit of the interchanges with the Americans, and it – plus, one has to think, a dose of wishful thinking – weighed heavily in his acceptance of the reunification scheme. When NATO several years later began preparations to take in new members to the east, he cried foul, as has each successive Russian leader since.20 In Shifrinson’s judgement, the Russians ‘are essentially correct’ in their grievance. ‘NATO expansion was to violate … the quid pro quo at the heart of the diplomacy that culminated in German reunification within NATO.’21 The policymakers who subsequently chose to enlarge NATO, to be fair, did not think that such a quid pro quo ever existed. But this divergence in views itself indicates that the overarching issue was not truly resolved. In terms of the politics of it, this ‘settlement-that-wasn’t’ became vulnerable to allegations ex post facto in Moscow, either that the West acted in bad faith, or that Gorbachev should have held out for better terms instead of giving away the store.
An aspect of the German reunification procedure that bears emphasis is the reliance on what Sarotte discerningly couches as ‘prefab’ change, a methodology hinged on the mechanical extension of existing formulas and structures rather than negotiation of mutually acceptable substitutes for them. Not only did the Federal Republic literally absorb the GDR into its pre-existing constitutional and legal order, but the newly reunified state was a full member of NATO and of the EC (to be elevated in 1993 into a European Union) to boot. Prefab had its virtues: it ‘wasted no time on conceptualizing new accords and institutions’, it did not set out to fix what was not broken, and it ‘conferred a strong element of predictability on the chaotic … overhaul of both domestic and international order’.22 In the case of German reunification, the prefab approach also paid off in almost everyone’s estimation, so much so that it became a template. To join the winners’ club, other countries must change themselves to conform with its existing rules; the institutions do not change in order to take on new members.
The paradox was, as Sa...

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