Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
To judge from recent developments around Ukraine, the United States’ post–Cold War policy toward Russia’s neighbors might seem like a failure. Moscow has deployed more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, and U.S. efforts to de-escalate the situation have so far come up short. But Europe’s most serious security crisis in decades is not the result of Washington’s failure to achieve its core objectives in the region but, paradoxically, a symptom of its runaway success.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has sought to bolster the sovereignty of what used to be called the “new independent states,” thereby ensuring that a new Eurasian superpower did not emerge from the rubble of the Soviet Union. By encouraging these countries to forge deeper ties with the West—and to weaken their links to Moscow—Washington hoped to strengthen their independence.
But Washington’s strategy may have worked too well. Many former Soviet republics, and especially Ukraine, now want to join the Western camp—and Russia is prepared to go to war to stop them. Regardless of how the current crisis over Ukraine plays out, Russia is destined to clash again with the United States and its allies over the status of these former Soviet republics unless all parties can agree on a mutually acceptable arrangement for the regional order.
That may sound like a tall order, especially since all sides appear inclined to dig in their heels. But a recent initiative of the RAND Corporation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation offers limited grounds for optimism. The think tanks assembled a group of nongovernmental experts from the United States, the European Union, Russia, and five post-Soviet Eurasian countries and tasked them with mapping out a mutually acceptable settlement. The document they produced suggests there could be just enough common ground to escape the cycle of conflict.
In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, it was far from clear that the former republics would remain sovereign states. Many Red Army units deployed in these countries became Russian military units overnight, and several of them fought alongside separatist movements that took up arms against the newly independent governments. The former republics were also highly economically dependent on Moscow, thanks to the legacy of the centralized Soviet economy. Russia initially controlled all of the former Soviet Union’s hydrocarbon export pipelines, including those leading to the profitable European market. And decision-makers in Moscow had difficulty adjusting to the reality that their counterparts in the neighboring states were now sovereign equals under international law, not subordinate regional party bosses.
The implications for the United States were clear: unless it sought to strengthen Western ties to Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the seven other non-Baltic republics (the Westward trajectory of the Baltic republics was already clear), Moscow could, with time, reconstruct some sort of union across the Eurasian landmass. U.S. President Bill Clinton entered office in 1993, according to his top Russia adviser, Strobe Talbott, with the conviction that “we must convince everyone in the region that ‘Russia’s not the only game in town’ and that the U.S. was committed to helping what we called the new independent states survive to become old independent states.” Writing in Foreign Affairs the following year, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski articulated the intellectual architecture for this approach: “The central goal of a realistic and long-term grand strategy should be the consolidation of geopolitical pluralism within the former Soviet Union.”
Successive U.S. administrations, along with U.S. allies in Europe, did just that. Washington pushed for new pipelines that would eventually break Russia’s energy export monopoly and thus provide producer and transit countries with independent revenue streams. It lent political and financial support to regional groupings of the former republics, such as GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), that excluded Russia. It brought a new generation of military officers from these states to study at U.S. military educational institutions in hopes that they would return home with a less Russia-centric worldview than their elders who had studied in Moscow. It supported European Union efforts to encourage these states to adopt the bloc’s regulatory and technical standards, at least in part to displace the standards used by Russian-led regional organizations. And on and on.
By most measures, these efforts were enormously successful. Although pro-Russia sentiment survives in certain corners of certain capitals, the prospect of any former Soviet republic voluntarily ceding its sovereignty back to Moscow is beyond remote. Russia is not an attractive political or economic model for the region’s leaders. Its share of the imports and exports of most former Soviet republics is stagnant or steadily dwindling, and its hydrocarbon export monopoly was broken decades ago. Travel to Europe is now visa free for citizens of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. And Belarus, nominally Russia’s closest ally, received more EU Schengen zone visas per capita than any other major country in 2019.
The United States did not anticipate the ferocity with which Russia would resist its neighbors’ Westward drift.
But efforts aimed at bolstering these states’ sovereignty and independence were sometimes difficult to distinguish from efforts to reduce Russia’s influence in the region. Either way, the United States did not anticipate the ferocity with which Russia would resist its neighbors’ Westward drift. As Moscow first demonstrated by invading Georgia in 2008, what it cannot achieve through persuasion, it is prepared to impose with force.
Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, and its current mobilization of forces on Ukraine’s borders, have made it clear that the 2008 Russo-Georgian war was not an aberration. There should be no doubt that Moscow is willing to use its military might to avoid being surrounded by states that are closely linked to NATO and the EU. In some countries, such as Moldova, the Kremlin has settled for an effective veto on potential EU or NATO membership by supporting pro-Russian separatist regions and fueling territorial disputes that impede accession to Western clubs. In others such as Belarus, the mere possibility of somewhat more Western-friendly opposition forces ousting the relatively pliant regime of President Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020 was enough to trigger Russian bomber flights over the country and, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, mobilization of reserve riot police to crush protests in the event that Minsk lost control. And of course in Ukraine, Putin has now mustered the largest military buildup in Europe since the Cold War to put an end to Kyiv’s attempt to join the Western camp.
In short, pursuit of geopolitical pluralism turned out to come with costs as well as benefits. The U.S. strategy helped prevent a neo-Soviet Union from reemerging, but it did not create an alternative regional architecture that both Russia and its neighbors could accept. Nor did it account for Russia’s willingness to use military force to stop its neighbors from getting too close to the EU and NATO. (Of course, Russia’s ham-fisted approach toward these states made them even more eager to flee.) The current crisis over Ukraine is the latest and most obvious indication that continued pursuit of geopolitical pluralism in post-Soviet Eurasia will create significant risks for the United States and its allies—and especially for Russia’s neighbors.
Some might counter that the core problem is not Western policy but Russian neoimperialism. If Moscow could accept that its neighbors are fully sovereign states and allow them to align however they choose, there would be no issue. That is certainly true. But Moscow clearly doesn’t see it that way, and it is unwilling to let its neighbors make their own choices. To the contrary, it is willing to go to war, annex territory, and prop up separatist proxies to ensure that the choices of these states are limited. One may hope that Russia’s next leader will take a different tack from Putin’s. But hope is not a strategy, and in the meantime, the Russian military may well take actions in Ukraine that tie the hands of Putin’s successor.
No matter how this current crisis is resolved, Russia’s immediate neighborhood will continue to be a flash point unless Russia, the United States, European powers, and the countries of post-Soviet Eurasia—particularly those six sandwiched between Russia and Europe: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan—can reach a broad agreement on the norms, institutions, and rules that should govern states’ interactions in the region. Even if the EU and NATO were prepared to offer the post-Soviet states full membership—and they are not—continuing with the current approach risks repeated Russian assaults on them in one form or another. A mutually agreed alternative would benefit all parties. The challenge is imagining what that alternative might be.
In an attempt to do just that, the RAND Corporation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation asked a group of nongovernmental experts from the United States, Europe, Russia, and five post-Soviet Eurasian countries to hash out a mutually acceptable regional arrangement. All of the participants, including me, were acting in the capacity of private citizens and so had the ability to venture beyond the confines of their country’s policies. But all still had to consider the potential reception to any proposed agreement back home. The document we produced was by definition a compromise that did not fully reflect the views of any single author or fully satisfy any country’s maximalist goals, but it might therefore indicate where a multilateral negotiation could lead.
It was not easy to unite a group that included authors from countries, including Russia and Ukraine, that are essentially at war. But we did eventually settle on a comprehensive proposal for a revised regional order that covers security, regional conflicts, and economic integration. Our proposal would create a new consultative body for major-power engagement on regional security, new norms for the behavior of NATO and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization toward nonmembers (such as not calling into question the legitimacy of the other and its current membership), and an offer of multilateral security guarantees and other confidence-building measures to nonaligned states. It would facilitate increased multidirectional trade within the region; establish regular dialogue between the EU, the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and nonmembers of those trading blocs; and establish new rules to avoid future crises. Finally, our plan would provide mechanisms and processes to immediately improve the livelihoods of people living in regional conflict zones and eventually progress toward mutually agreed settlements.
A mutually agreed alternative to the current regional order would benefit all parties.
Our approach reflects the fact that disputes over security, regional conflicts, and regional integration are all interlinked. For example, Georgia’s separatist conflicts would need to be addressed in a mutually acceptable way if Tbilisi were to consider a nonaligned status. And conversely, these conflicts will remain unresolvable without movement toward a common approach on the regional security regime. The disputes over these issues cannot be separated, and therefore the solutions must be combined.
To see how this might work in practice, consider the hardest and most relevant case for today: Ukraine. In return for voluntarily adopting a nonaligned status, Kyiv could receive both multilateral security guarantees and Russian commitments of military restraint, including along the border area. Russia and the West would hold regular consultations on security issues and, importantly, commit to seeking mutual consensus before making changes to the regional security architecture. They would commit to respecting Ukraine’s nonalignment. The current negotiations over the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine would have been significantly accelerated as part of a new international commitment to settling the conflict. And in addition to its current free trade deal with the EU, Ukraine would benefit from a restoration of trade with Russia (now hampered by Moscow’s punitive sanctions) and the creation of a trilateral consultation mechanism with the EU and the EAEU. These arrangements would provide far greater security, stability, and prosperity to Ukraine than the status quo—even if Russia were not threatening an imminent invasion.
Of course, not everyone would welcome such an alternative arrangement, and this crisis has made it even less likely. Many consider seeking mutual agreement on a stable regional order to be tantamount to appeasement. This view has the effect of stifling debate and shutting down discussions of alternatives. It is perhaps unsurprising that our proposal faces little competition in the marketplace of ideas. Nonetheless, both Russian and Western government officials with whom we discussed our proposal—which was written before the current crisis—indicated they had little incentive to compromise. Each side believed it had the long-term advantage over the other in the region. The former could rely on the favorable balance of military power, while the latter saw its power of attraction as unstoppable. Those from the states caught in between were daunted by the polarization of their countries’ debates on these issues and by their perceived inability to influence the decisions of the major powers. One former senior Ukrainian official told us he feared that our proposal would be considered only “after a major catastrophe.” Still, we encountered many—both inside and outside government—who recognized that the status quo serves no one and were willing to consider alternatives like ours.
Europe might well be on the brink of a major catastrophe. Regardless of what the Russian government does with the huge force it has assembled around Ukraine, Putin has made clear that Russia’s waning influence in its backyard is now a problem for everyone else. Moscow’s willingness to use force to prevent its neighbors from drifting into the Western orbit means that continued pursuit of geopolitical pluralism in post-Soviet Eurasia by the United States and its allies might well lead to greater insecurity and misery for the region’s states or even to their further dismemberment. Pluralism works inside a country when there are institutions and rules that govern competition among divergent interests. In post-Soviet Eurasia, there is a lot of geopolitical competition, but no agreed-upon institutions or rules to govern that competition. Until Russia, the United States, Europe, and the states stuck in between them reach a consensus on a revised regional order, post-Soviet Eurasia will remain a source of instability and conflict. Our proposal shows that such consensus might yet be possible.