Russia’s Missing Peacemakers
Why the Country’s Elites Are Struggling to Break With Putin
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in November 1991, the area that extends from central Europe to Central Asia has been commonly referred to as the “post-Soviet space.” The label has always been problematic—and 30 years after its introduction, the time to retire it has come. The term misleadingly implies a degree of political, social, and economic coherence among a diverse set of countries that includes my own, Ukraine. Even more worrying, its use encourages policymakers and publics outside this geography to see the countries within it through a single lens.
This reductive approach serves the Kremlin’s imperialistic aims. Russian President Vladimir Putin spares no effort to promote the false historical narrative that Ukrainians and Russians constitute “one nation”; his recent 5,300-word opus on the subject has reportedly become compulsory reading for the Russian military. Putin wishes to reassemble the countries of the former Soviet Union and reverse what he calls the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” But for millions of people across the region, the Soviet Union’s collapse was not a catastrophe. It was a liberation.
Immediately after 1991, a shared history did unite the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union’s wreckage. But their divergent trajectories in the decades since make that common experience less and less relevant. Western countries need to stop seeing them as simply a post-Soviet space. But if this geopolitical construction is outdated, then what framework should replace it? And what changes would the shift require of the United States’ foreign policy and those of its allies? In the case of Ukraine, above all, recognizing the new reality means institutionalizing the country’s place within the West. It is time for the United States and Europe to set out a clear road map for Ukraine to finally join NATO and the European Union.
In the mid-1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program of glasnost and perestroika unleashed centrifugal forces within the Soviet Union. Constituent republics made efforts to escape Moscow’s orbit, reclaim their national identities, and find their own paths to overcoming economic hardship. Sovereign countries before their forceful capture by the Kremlin, these nations were returning to a natural equilibrium. By 1991, to the surprise of many Western policymakers, the process was complete: the Soviet Union was dissolved, and in its place were 15 independent states.
Since then, the pace of change has varied from one country to the next. Some, such as Belarus, have slowed time and tried to hold on to their Soviet heritage; others leapt as far forward as possible, as quickly as possible. The Baltic states and the nations of the former Warsaw Pact shrugged off their Soviet pasts and took steps to integrate with NATO and the EU as early as the 1990s, completing the process by 2004—right before Russian imperialism began to reemerge. Unfortunately, Ukraine and Georgia missed that historic moment. Both were left outside the door, and both later suffered Russian military attacks, at the cost of lives and territory.
Over the past two decades, Putin has attempted to restore Moscow’s control across the region, violating internationally recognized borders in the process. But the Kremlin has not been able to turn back the clock. By trying to bend the arc of history to his will, Putin has only strengthened the forces he aims to subdue. This dynamic became apparent after Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, and even more so after its 2014 attack on Ukraine.
For millions of people across the region, the Soviet Union’s collapse was not a catastrophe. It was a liberation.
The Kremlin had been exerting pressure on Kyiv long before this incursion. Putin’s persistent bullying, combined with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ill-conceived decision to give in to Moscow and reverse the pro-European course of previous governments, triggered the protests in late 2013 that turned into Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. After Yanukovych ordered police to fire on the protesters, resulting in more than 100 deaths, the Ukrainian people forced him from office. Russia invaded Crimea within days. But Ukrainians already had irreversibly changed our country’s trajectory, ensuring that no government in Kyiv would ever consider treating its citizens with the heavy hand the Russian and Belarusian governments use against their citizens today.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. Millions of young Ukrainians have not lived a single day in the Soviet Union, and many of them now have children of their own. The idea of a “common Soviet past,” already fading among older generations, means little to them. These young people have lived through two revolutions—first the 2004 Orange Revolution and then the 2014 Revolution of Dignity—and an ongoing war with Russia. For them, Ukraine has never gained independence; it has always been independent.
In Ukraine and elsewhere, cutting ties with Moscow will proceed no matter what Putin or his entourage has to say about it. The United States and its Western partners therefore have an opportunity to craft an ambitious strategy in the region, with specific policies tailored to the circumstances of individual countries and blocs.
In the case of Ukraine and Georgia, moving forward with NATO membership should be a top priority. As NATO itself declared in its 2008 Bucharest summit communiqué and reaffirmed in Brussels this year, this outcome is inevitable. Both countries already participate in NATO activities as Enhanced Opportunities Partners. Together with Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey, Ukraine’s and Georgia’s contributions are critical to ensuring security in the Black Sea. Russia is growing increasingly aggressive in the region: it is disrupting trade routes and interfering with the freedom of navigation, building up its conventional and nuclear capabilities in occupied Crimea, and using the territory as a logistical hub for its military activities in the Middle East.
Beyond security cooperation, Ukraine and Georgia are committed to deepening their economic and political integration with Europe. Along with their counterpart from Moldova, the foreign ministers of the two countries established the “Associated Trio” in Kyiv earlier this year with the express purpose of gaining eventual EU membership. For Europe, engaging with the group is an opportunity to enhance the EU’s global standing, by expanding the reach of its democratic values and strengthening its economic muscle. For the United States, this deepening cooperation will serve the Biden administration’s goals of shoring up transatlantic unity and strengthening the eastern border of democratic Europe.
No country’s geographic proximity to Russia should restrict the strategies of Washington or Brussels.
Western capitals also have an opportunity to make inroads in other countries where Moscow historically has held sway. Georgia’s neighbors in the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, deserve special consideration. Getting these relationships right can go a long way toward enhancing trust between the West and Turkey, an important NATO ally. Russia has tried to strengthen its grip by positioning itself as a peacekeeper and mediator of the region’s disputes. But the unexpected reelection of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a leader inclined to balance rather than give in to foreign powers, and the alliance between Azerbaijan and Turkey give the West an opening to limit Russia’s influence.
In Central Asia, Ukraine’s own experience is proof of Russia’s slipping control. Moscow has attempted to block Kyiv’s access to the region since 2014, but we have found ways to maneuver around the obstruction. Our persistent efforts to restore traditionally strong trade ties, develop infrastructure projects, engage diasporas, and provide opportunities for students to study in Ukraine are beginning to bear fruit.
Even in Belarus, democratic pressure is unlikely to fade in the long run, leaving an opening for the West despite the Kremlin-backed Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to cement his presidency.
Russia is still a strong regional power. But from Minsk in the west to Ulaanbaatar in the east, Moscow has long lost its monopoly on political influence.
No country’s geographic proximity to Russia should restrict the strategies of Washington or Brussels. After all, concerns about shared borders have not constrained China, which has cultivated deep ties with a number of countries that historically have fallen squarely into Moscow’s sphere of influence. At the same time, the United States and its European allies should dismiss the idea that by cooperating with the Kremlin, they can prevent a tighter Russian-Chinese partnership. Moscow already moves within Beijing’s orbit—and is likely already wary of getting even closer to a much more powerful China.
Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the EU will not just reinforce progress in Ukraine; it will also help unify the West once more.
As a player in central and eastern Europe and in the Black Sea, Ukraine has much to offer as part of NATO on matters of regional security. The country’s capable armed forces have invaluable combat experience from fighting Russian troops since the 2014 invasion. No current NATO member possesses such experience or the knowledge that comes with it. And when it comes to cybersecurity and fighting disinformation, few countries rival Ukraine’s ability to both recognize and counter Russian tactics.
Ukraine also has a vital role to play in ensuring Europe’s energy independence. For decades we have been a reliable transit country for gas supplies to Europe. We plan to remain so, despite Russia’s attempts to bypass the Ukrainian system with projects such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Ukraine offers the advantage of its unique energy infrastructure, which includes the world’s third-largest underground gas-storage facilities and 22,991 miles of pipelines. And with its huge potential for producing green hydrogen through solar and wind energy, Ukraine is well positioned to contribute to Europe’s green transition. Other elements of Ukraine’s economy show enormous promise, too, from its demonstrated capacity for digitalization to an agricultural sector with the potential to guarantee global food security.
Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the EU will not just reinforce progress in Ukraine; it will also help unify the West.
For all the progress Ukraine has made so far, the country still needs further reform. Efforts to root out corruption fall into this category. The government has already made meaningful headway, including the implementation last month of a historic land reform law—previously stalled for two decades—that will both increase transparency and boost the economy. Other crucial bills were finally passed this summer to clean up the judiciary, granting international experts a decisive vote in the process of filtering out prospective judges with dubious reputations. We are realistic about how much more there is to do to address corruption in the judicial system, the defense and security sectors, and other institutions. But the strength of the current political will is clearly evident in these brave recent steps, taken despite the enormous resistance of vested interests.
Under President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership, Ukraine is fully committed to accelerating reform efforts in line with the expectations of its European and transatlantic partners. This is what the people of Ukraine want, and they have paid a high price defending their choice. The sweep of history, too, now appears to be on their side.
But Ukraine’s own efforts will not be successful without the strong support of the EU, NATO, and the two bodies’ member states. The steps we take must be reciprocated, with all sides working toward the goal of Ukrainian membership in both organizations. The United States and Europe must recognize that Ukraine is part of the West. Only then will our current efforts prove not to be in vain.