Settlement That Never Took Place: Why the Russia-West Crisis Is Rooted in the Early 1990s
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

Russia and the West still do not have a fundamental agreement on the political and economic future of such post-Soviet states as Ukraine, according to participants in the expert discussion held by the Valdai Club on December 7. Nature of the regional order in this part of the world remains an open issue, which can lead to new crises in the Russia-West relations.

The crisis in the Russia-West relations over Ukraine, which began in late 2013, became the climax of contradictions between the two sides, which have piled up since the end of the Cold War. The root of the problem is the absence of a shared vision of security for the countries in between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic structures. Since the two sides’ narratives are totally incompatible, there are almost no chances that such a vision will emerge in the near future, believe participants in the expert discussion “The Ukrainian Crisis: Quintessence of Relations between Russia and the West?” which was hosted by the Valdai Club on December 7.

The event also featured presentation of the Russian translation of the book “Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia”, written by Timothy Colton, Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies and the Chair of the Department of Government at Harvard University, and Samuel Charap, leading researcher at RAND Corporation. The book received acclaim of the audience, with Fyodor Lukyanov, the Valdai Club Research Director, saying that it represents a highly unbiased description of the Ukrainian crisis and contains a lot of factual information, shedding light on its causes.

However, the discussion was focused on the impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the Russia-West relations, rather than the crisis itself. According to Samuel Charap, there are two main schools of thought explaining the current state of affairs. One of them, widespread in the West, claims that Russia, after it lost the Cold War, wanted to completely subjugate all post-Soviet lands, and began to implement its plans as soon as it became strong enough. The second school of thought, also represented by western scholars, in particular, by John Mearsheimer, but understandably popular in Russia, says that the West pushed Russia to the corner, and Russia was forced to respond.

Both concepts suffer from flaws, Charap said, because neither policy was shaped in vacuum. Domestic policy in various countries as well as general security situation in the region should be taken into account. In addition, one should also remember about the periods of thaw, like in 2011-2012, when Russia actively cooperated with NATO on Afghanistan and bilateral meetings of top officials were unprecedentedly frequent.

The current crisis in the Russia-West relations can be traced back to the 1990s, the book’s authors claim. The end of the Cold War itself, a period that Charap calls “settlement that never took place,” was interpreted in very different ways by the two sides. According to James Goldgeier, visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Russian President Boris Yeltsin refused to understand why the West was referring to its “victory” in the Cold War. He believed that it was the Russian people who defeated communism and expected in vain that the West would treat him as an equal.

After NATO enlargement began, with corresponding decisions being taken in mid-1990s, Russian leaders began to realize that this was not going to happen. In Russia, one can often hear references to Western leaders’ promises to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand to the former Soviet sphere of influence in East Europe. The typical Western reaction is that such promises could not have been made. Nevertheless, it is clear that both Gorbachev and Yeltsin were receiving messages which could be interpreted in this way. One of such messages was sent in October 1993, during a conversation between Yeltsin and US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Goldgeier said. That was a time when the Partnership for Peace program was being developed. According to the American researcher, it came closest to a vision of inclusive security system for Europe and the post-Soviet states. What Christopher was proposing to Yeltsin was “partnership for all,” not “membership for some,” and the two sides seemed to have achieved understanding.

Moreover, as Goldgeier noted, back then, NATO expansion seemed a bad idea to both American scholars and statesmen, like Secretary of Defense William Perry and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Nevertheless, the process was initiated. Why did it happen?

According to Fyodor Lukyanov, that was caused by the Western approach “no need for anything new”: if there are workable structures, they should be expanded further. He was echoed by Goldgeier, who said that for the United States, the only way to create security on the post-Soviet space was to bring its states to the existing structures. Moreover, Americans believed that Russia should be happy, because it had on its borders “the most successful military alliance in history,” which created stability on its western borders and enabled it to focus on threats to the east and to the south.

Whereas the White House had serious doubts about the usefulness of NATO’s eastward enlargement, there was consensus in Congress. According to Goldgeier, it was supported by both pro-Russian and anti-Russia lawmakers. While the former believed that expansion of democracy and markets to the east was a good thing, the latter considered NATO enlargement a crucial factor of containment. Therefore, by mid-1990s, the decision was taken: President Clinton waited for Yeltsin’s re-election to launch the process, Goldgeier said. Even though later Russia, according to Charap, seemed to have learned to live with NATO and EU enlargement, this factor continued to poison the Russia-West relations and the membership prospect extended to Georgia and Ukraine became a red line for Moscow.

However, Goldgeier said, these two states will hardly join NATO in the next 30 years, but there will be no formal statement that the NATO door is closed to anyone. Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty reads that NATO member-states may “invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.” Saying that the door is closed would mean to violate the spirit of the treaty, he stressed.

In 2013-2014, Russia and the West entered their most serious crisis in decades with this legacy of “settlement that never took place.” Before Ukraine, there had been crisis situations in their relations, but they were manageable. Today, tensions run so high that there is even talk of direct military confrontation. According to Goldgeier, concentration of forces in East Europe makes the possibility of inadvertent military engagement “pretty high.”

Coming back to Ukraine, the experts noted that situation there will remain tense in the near future. There are certain signs of an urge to solve the crisis. According to Charap and Goldgeier, the appointment of Kurt Volker as a US special representative for Ukraine says that the US administration is serious about it. Considering that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is very reluctant to appoint people to top positions in the State Department, it means that he cares for the issue, they said. However, there is a problem with Volker: he works at the McCain Institute and is not a full-time worker at the State Department, although he reports to Tillerson directly, therefore his mandate causes certain doubts.

As for the Minsk accords, a key element of settlement in Ukraine, they will not lead to the crisis resolution, Charap said pessimistically. Russia and the West still do not have a fundamental agreement on the political and economic future of the states in between. Therefore the Minsk accords are only a temporary ceasefire. The issue of the nature of the regional order in this part of the world remains open.

Promises Made, Promises Broken? What Yeltsin Was Told About NATO in 1993 and Why It Matters James Goldgeier
Surely the Kremlin watched with no small amount of bitterness last Friday as NATO’s heads of state and government gathered for dinner at Warsaw’s presidential palace, the same building in which the Warsaw Pact — which formed the basis for the Soviet-led Cold War military alliance — was signed in 1955. The larger occasion was the NATO summit, which was hosted for the fourth time by either a former Soviet satellite state or republic.