Charap and Colton see the Ukrainian crisis as part of a broader and more basic contest over Russia’s and the West’s roles in what was once the Soviet Union’s extended empire. The two sides and the hapless states caught in between have treated this conflict as a zero-sum game; the result has been a negative-sum game, with all parties suffering net losses. The authors trace the many discouraging strands of this story with great care. In their telling, NATO enlargement, the 1998–99 Kosovo war, the so-called color revolutions in former Soviet states, the failure of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia, and the Ukrainian crisis compose a pattern of mutually destructive behavior that transcends the significance of any one event. Hence, their recommendations do not offer a specific solution to the conflict in Ukraine; rather, they focus on how Russia and the Western powers might get back to constructing the kind of inclusive, jointly fashioned European-Eurasian order they once championed, at least in words.
Pleshakov covers some of the same ground as Charap and Colton and does not depart much from their equal-opportunity indictment. But he focuses more squarely on Ukraine and starts his analysis from the epicenter of the crisis: Crimea, the region where he was born and whose color and feel he knows intimately. He first recounts the relevant parts of Ukrainian history, in which he believes today’s problem are rooted. “Centuries of imperial rule by Austria, Poland, Russia, and Turkey left [Ukraine] in fragments,” a country with a “lack [of] historical definition,” he writes. Crimea has its own separate history, which sets it apart from large portions of modern Ukraine, and Pleshakov also presents that story in a highly readable form. He offers no specific recommendations for ending the Ukrainian conflict, but he urges the United States to stop trying to “impose the gift of ‘freedom’” on “divided” nations such as Ukraine and to instead adopt the principle of “do no harm.”