Russia and the West – the path not taken

  • Themes: Russia, The Lost Decade – 1990s Week on Engelsberg Ideas

The collapse of the Soviet Union drew back the Iron Curtain, integrating Eastern Europe in the Western order. Although Russia remained out in the cold, this was not inevitable. For a brief moment in the nineties, a very different Europe was imagined.

Ex-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev with Polish President Lech Walesa
Ex-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev with Polish President Lech Walesa, Moscow 1992. Credit: Wojtek Laski / Hutton Archive / Getty Images.

More than thirty years have passed since the end of the Cold War. How full of optimism we were then, and how naïve. Who among us historians and political scientists would now lyricize the end of the Cold War as the dawn of a brave new world? Those who would, will have to account for two harsh facts: that Europe remains divided, and that tyranny survives and prospers in ways that seemed unthinkable thirty years ago. What went wrong?

The short answer is Russia. Somehow, Russia was lost in the transition from Communism. Instead of arriving at a happy democratic future, it has been bogged down in the mire of authoritarianism and corruption, emerging from the trials of the 1990s as a deeply unappealing but in some ways a surprisingly effective spoiler of the European idea. Russia is not the only post-Soviet state to have succumbed to backsliding, nor even the worst. But by virtue of its size, power, and influence, it has played a particularly malign role in the region, for instance by propping up a dictatorship in Belarus, and sustaining frozen conflicts from Ukraine to Moldova to Georgia. Russia has failed to find a role in the post-Cold War European order, and has instead become a menace and a bogeyman of Europe.

That failure in part goes back to a different understanding between Moscow and the West of what actually happened in 1989. That year popular revolutions toppled Communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe – something that would have been unthinkable but for Mikhail Gorbachev’s refusal to intervene to prop up crumbling tyrannies with the force of Soviet arms. His decision was part-pragmatic, part-ideological. Pragmatic because Gorbachev realized that the fundamental problem of these regimes was that they failed to deliver for their people, and that problem could not be fixed by invading. The empire was unsustainable in the long term.

Of equal importance, however, was Gorbachev’s ideological commitment to ending the Cold War, which precluded intervention to maintain client regimes. Gorbachev sought to reinvent the Soviet Union as a moral superpower – one that did not instil fear through application of military might but exercised what Joseph Nye would later term “soft power” through its embrace of universal human values.

Global leadership and values are mutually reinforcing, which is why Gorbachev’s embrace of values was but a way of reasserting leadership. But there was a problem: there were other claimants to global leadership who were not necessarily willing to yield the mantle.

This problem came through with particular clarity when Gorbachev and US President George H.W. Bush met in Malta in December 1989 to shut the lid on the Cold War. Gorbachev travelled to Malta with a mounting sense of frustration with America. ‘The Americans are having a hard time comprehending the new world, new values,’ he complained days before his meeting with Bush. ‘They still have strong pretensions to be a world gendarme, aspirations to impose their opinion onto others, attempts to dictate.’

Gorbachev brought up values during his conversation with Bush. There was a tendency, he said testily, to present the end of the Cold War as a victory for Western (i.e. American) values. That wasn’t the case at all. It was not the Soviet Union that lost the Cold War – it was the Cold War itself that lost. The Cold War mentality that had animated policy both in Moscow and Washington had been defeated. American triumphalism was in this sense completely unjustified. ‘If someone is making a claim to the ultimate truth,’ Gorbachev averred, ‘they can expect disaster.’

Bush played along but he did not quite get what Gorbachev was driving at. For him, matters were more straightforward. Freedom won. America stood for freedom. Therefore, America won. Those same values that Gorbachev now claimed underpinned Soviet foreign policy had long underpinned America’s bid for global leadership.

Gorbachev and Bush thus had a very different understanding of both what the end of the Cold War entailed, and their two countries’ role in the post-Cold War order. With the benefit of hindsight, one might say that Bush’s understanding was better rooted in reality. After all, the fundamental fact about the world at the turn of the 1990s was the collapse of Soviet power. As the Cold War wound up, the Soviet Union found itself in the grip of a severe economic crisis. The situation was so bad that Gorbachev went cap-in-hand in search of Western credits that would keep his country afloat. This dire economic dependence weakened his hand at the very time he tried to reconceptualize Europe in ways that would meet Soviet aspirations.

Gorbachev’s idea of a future Europe centred on what he called the ‘Common European Home.’ He envisioned the East and the West moving closer in one another’s direction, with economic blocs fading away, and security alliances shedding their military components and becoming more political (before disappearing altogether). Then, finally, Europe would stand united, with the Soviet Union playing a key role, perhaps even the key role. This brave and vague vision suffered from one fatal defect: by 1990 the Soviet bloc – which was supposed to serve as one of the two pillars of this new happy order – had crumbled. The Warsaw Pact was gone. Germany was reunified on Western terms.

Gorbachev had bargained hard for his preferred solution. With the Soviet forces then still stationed in East Germany he thought he could persuade Helmut Kohl to take a reunified Germany out of NATO. Kohl was briefly tempted – but only just briefly. ‘We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat,’ Bush famously counselled the German Chancellor in February 1990. In the end, the only thing Gorbachev walked away with was a vague promise from the Americans and the Germans not to extend NATO’s jurisdiction into the former GDR, a promise that was disavowed soon after it was made. What could have he done at that point – order the tanks into the streets to reverse history? That he could not bring himself to do.

Instead, in the spring of 1990, Gorbachev floated the idea of the Soviet Union joining NATO. ‘What is NATO for?’, he asked US Secretary of State James Baker in May 1990. ‘You say NATO is not directed against us, that it’s just a defence structure. So, we’ll propose to join NATO… I think in the current situation you should not leave us in solitude.’ Gorbachev later raised the same prospect with Bush but never got anywhere. It was a fanciful idea that was wildly ahead of its time.

Soviet collapse at the end of 1991 radically changed Europe’s geopolitical environment and altered the very meaning of Europe. It was symbolic that the Maastricht Treaty, which inaugurated the European Union in its present form, was signed only weeks after the hammer-and-sickle was lowered over the Kremlin. Now, there was only one Europe. Joining that Europe became a priority for former Soviet satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. The EU itself was well out of reach for would-be aspirants because of stringent preconditions. NATO, however, offered a shortcut to the West.

It did not take long before the East Europeans began to push hard for NATO membership. Poland was especially vocal. As Lech Walesa told US President Bill Clinton in April 1993: ‘Poland cannot be left defenceless; we need to have the protection of U.S. muscle.’ The Polish (who faced the threat of Soviet intervention in 1956 and 1981), the Czechs and the Hungarians (who were invaded by the Soviets in 1968 and 1956 respectively) were under no illusion about the long-term threat from Russia. They perceived an opportunity in Moscow’s weakness and pleaded with the US to be let in. As then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeline Albright reported after touring the region in January 1994: ‘they want themselves in NATO and the Russians out.’

These aspirations were at odds with Russia’s. Russia in the early 1990s was a proverbial basket case of hyperinflation, soaring unemployment, failing social welfare and plummeting standards of living. The country’s President, Boris Yeltsin, was besieged from the left and the right by the Communists and the nationalists, who lashed out at his haphazard effort at economic reform and threatened impeachment. This running conflict with the Russian Parliament (then called the Supreme Soviet) came to head in October 1993, when Yeltsin ordered a brutal crackdown against his detractors (in some ways precipitating Russia’s eventual return to authoritarianism).

Yet amid all this chaos, Yeltsin also held out the hope of integration with the West and, like the East Europeans, pleaded for Russia’s inclusion in NATO. The idea was most clearly laid out by Yeltsin’s pro-Western Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev who put it in the following terms at an internal meeting of senior Russian diplomats: ‘The most important thing is the partnership with the US. Furthermore, one has to be [America’s] primary partner; otherwise, nothing will remain from [our] great power status.’ There was something here of Gorbachev’s idea of a Soviet-American partnership to reorder the world – beginning from Europe. Unfortunately, for Yeltsin and Kozyrev, this whole approach was going nowhere. The US policy makers were beginning to consider NATO enlargement to the East but letting Russia join was not on anyone’s agenda.

In retrospect, this is surely understandable. Russia’s ‘pro-Western’ credentials were unconvincing. The first post-crackdown election, held in December 1993, resulted in a political earthquake, with the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party, LDPR, coming in first with nearly 23% (the Communists, led by Gennadii Zyuganov, came third). ‘Every second Russian thought like Zhirinovsky,’ Walesa told Clinton after the election. He exaggerated but was he that far off? As Zhirinovsky spewed toxic rhetoric, promising to restore the Russian Empire to its former glory, who could blame the Europeans – especially the East Europeans – for their alarmism? Not long after the ill-fated election, Clinton’s National Security Adviser and an early advocate of NATO enlargement Anthony Lake remarked that Russia was already ‘going to the bad.’ Enlarging NATO was a form of hedging against that emerging Russian threat.

Another argument could be heard at that time – that Russia was simply not fit for NATO, and that if it joined the alliance, it would surely ruin it. NATO would turn into a talking club and lose all credibility. Even when the Russians carefully probed for membership on the French model (membership in the alliance but not in its military structures), they were nottaken seriously. Although Bill Clinton was personally committed to Boris Yeltsin, and even facilitated Russia’s eventual acceptance into the G7, he was unwilling to risk NATO just to satisfy Yeltsin’s craving for recognition as the key player in Europe.

It is difficult to blame the Americans, or the West Europeans, for Russia’s failure to arrive in Europe. They acted in their own self-interest as they then understood it while Russia, with its rickety, criminalized economy and quasi-imperialistic foreign policy, simply did not do enough to win acceptance as the European power that Gorbachev had once hoped it would become. Meanwhile, NATO’s eastern enlargement helped fill the vacuum left by Soviet departure from Central and Eastern Europe. As advocates of enlargement had long suggested, that helped make the region safer for democracy. The nearby example of Yugoslavia – with its internecine strife, religious hatred, and ethnic cleansing – offered a preview of one possible European trajectory that was fortunately averted. For all the things that went wrong, some things obviously went right.

And yet one still must wonder in retrospect whether there were ‘roads not taken’ that could have made a difference for Russia, bringing it closer, anchoring it in Europe, avoiding thereby its emergence as a hostile power on the EU’s doorstep. Perhaps the West – the US in particular – proved too cautious in retrospect, too suspicious of Moscow’s intentions, too mired in the legacies of the Cold War to rethink European security anew. ‘You should not leave us in solitude,’ Gorbachev pleaded in May 1990. His pleas fell on deaf years. Perhaps they should not have.

What could have happened if Russia did join NATO in the 1990s, maybe on the French model? Could that have helped them readjust to the new order in Europe, and make it its own? We’ll never know. What we do know is that the choices made in the 1990s led us where we are today, and if this is not where we want to be, we’ll have to think more carefully at the next opportunity.


Sergey Radchenko