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February 1, 2013

The Post-Soviet Twilight

The stubborn political culture of Russia and the Ukraine

On november 16, 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met reluctantly in Moscow for the annual German-Russian summit. It was widely reported that the summit, which had already been abbreviated to a few hours, did not go well. In reality, the summit succeeded in contradicting itself. Merkel infuriated Putin by suggesting that the imprisonment of the members of punk rock band Pussy Riot might be a human rights violation. This caused Putin to cite Pussy Riot as a case of illegal anti-Semitism which, he suggested, would be something Germany should understand. Despite the apparent political antagonism, the Summit concluded with German industrial giant Siemens signing a 2.5 billion euro deal with the Russian state railway for 675 railroad engines.

What is so remarkable about the outcome — Merkel playing to idealism, Putin pandering to nationalism, and both agreeing on trade — is that the November summit was the product of a hard-fought strategic review in Berlin pitting human rights romantics against economic pragmatists. Neither side won nor altered the uncomfortable status quo in any recognizable way.

Several weeks earlier, long-awaited parliamentary elections in Ukraine also produced a nonresult. Both Washington and Brussels had been waiting for at least a year for the conduct of the elections to reveal whether or not the Ukrainian authorities heard and understood the criticism of Kyiv’s atrocious political manners, including the selective prosecution of opposition figures. In the event, the elections were mostly free and fair but also imperfect and inconclusive. Yulia Timoshenko, the object of Western affection, remained in jail; and President Yanukovych, the object of our annoyance, remained in power.

It is clear that sometime during the summer of 2008, consensus among Western leaders about the post-Soviet world simply disappeared.

In retrospect, it is clear that sometime during the summer of 2008, between the failed nato Summit in the spring and the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War that August, consensus among Western leaders about what do with the post-Soviet world disappeared. Since then, Western policy towards the post-Soviet world and the “Eastern Partners” of the European Union has been characterized by the universal dissatisfaction of the West with its own policy. The dispiriting and inconclusive stasis of this year’s German-Russian summit and the October elections in Ukraine are grudgingly accepted as both metaphor for our times and confirmation that we are going nowhere. How we came to this slough of geopolitical despond and the twists and turns of how policy failed is an interesting story.

The first chapter might well be entitled “Irrational Exuberance,” referring to the initial period of enthusiasm for the nascent post-Soviet democracies beginning with the Rose Revolution in 2004. In that year, American politicians rushed to praise the impetuous President Misha Saakashvili and Georgian democracy with the urgency and decorum of shoppers in Walmart the day after Thanksgiving. When the Orange Revolution came along a year later, not to be outdone, Prime Minister Tony Blair offered eu membership to Ukraine days after the inauguration of President Yushchenko.

By 2007, however, the bloom was already off the rose, at least in Georgia. Despite President Bush’s uplifting rhetoric on the inevitability of democratic transformation, his speech in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square had a fin de siècle quality. The president did not look up from his text when someone threw an old Soviet grenade at the stage during his speech, which due to its age and shoddy manufacture did not explode, but bounced around unnoticed in the crowd until a security guard tossed it into the derelict Soviet-era subway.

The poorly-fused grenade clattering into the darkness of a forgotten Soviet subway in the Caucasus is as good a metaphor for the new period of disappointment as there is readily to hand. President Bush’s propensity to overstate his case, particularly on the transformative powers of the American model of democracy, ended up highlighting the fragmentation that was occurring in the policies of the West towards the post-Soviet world. By the nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008, the European allies led by Germany blocked the aspirations of both Georgia and Ukraine to begin preparations for nato membership. Any possible illusion that our policy to support revolutionary democratic change in the leading post-Soviet democracies was working (or could work if continued) ended when Georgia and Russia went to war in August 2008. When the shooting starts with Russia, there is little chance that a stable and prosperous democracy will be the result.

Arguably the only Eastern policy still standing in 2013 is the Eastern Partnership or what remains of it.

By 2009, the eu had conjured up the Eastern Partnership, which was intended to compensate for nato’s and the eu’s new lack of interest in post-Soviet states with a vague and insubstantial program of association with European institutions. The new American president succeeded in dampening the enthusiasm of Central and Eastern European states for militant democracy support inside the former Soviet Union by announcing a “reset” with Russia, which up to this point had been the object of a thinly disguised “neo-containment” strategy. These partial policies had two things in common: They dissatisfied their putative beneficiaries, and they brought little comfort or influence in the post-Soviet world to their authors in Washington or Brussels. Neither reset with Russia nor association with the rest of the former Soviet Union had the slightest effect on the internal character or national development of the post-Soviet semi-democracies.

Arguably, the only Eastern policy still standing in 2013 is the Eastern Partnership or what remains of it. There is no doubt that between 2008 and today few believed that Western policy was bearing fruit in post-Soviet democracies or that these democracies were developing in the manner of the Visegrad, Baltics, or even the leading democracies in the Balkans, such as Slovenia and Croatia.

As a kind of disquiet and uncertainty took hold in the policy community, yet another nagging question arose. Perhaps, the inefficacy of our Eastern policy was not a problem in policy development or execution after all. Perhaps, we had missed something more fundamental about the nature of post-Soviet states and their aptitude for political development and European integration. This would explain why we cannot predict or influence the behavior of President Putin or President Yanukovych and are regularly surprised by such ordinary events as a parliamentary election in Georgia. Our interpretation of the political culture and dynamics of what used to be Soviet space was simply wrong.

The problem of the interpretation of Russia and the semi-democracies and autocracies which surround it lies at the heart of the Eastern Question of the West. And, a misunderstanding of political culture and its importance explains our myopia. Samuel Huntington among many other historians observed that a vast chasm separates liberal, legalistic, Protestant, parliamentarian Western Europe from the authoritarian, oligarchic, Orthodox, presidential systems of Slavic Europe and Eurasia.1 It is hardly a clash of civilizations, but more of a thermocline of two political cultures of greatly different internal temperatures resting against each other. Happily, it seems that vastly different political cultures even in proximity can be very stable over long periods of time. But this equilibrium works best if each culture is isolated to some extent from the other and tends to break down when exogenous shocks threaten the weaker system. For example, what happens to the major post-Soviet states if a global recession creates an existential crisis for their economic system? In economic or political crises, the political culture of these states takes on great significance.

After the collapse of empire

In interpreting the behavior of formerly communist or post-conflict nations, we often reason from our 20th-century victories over fascism in 1945 and Soviet totalitarianism in 1989–91 that states — once free to choose — will naturally turn to European models of democracy as they did in Western Europe in the postwar period and in Central and Eastern Europe in the post–Cold War era. But that’s not always the way it has happened in Europe’s past.

Norman Davies in his Vanished Kingdoms tells the fascinating story of what happened after Alaric sacked Rome in 410 ad.2 As it turns out, Alaric set up the Visigothic Kingdom in Aquitaine, France, which was built almost exclusively on the political culture, system of organization, and laws of the very Roman Empire Alaric had just helped destroy. In short, after the barbarians sack Rome, they try to rebuild an inferior model. In the event, the Visigoths lasted for about ninety years, but it was not for another 500 years that the fading political culture of Rome was superseded by a distinctly French culture.

Davies calls this extended aftermath of the Roman Fall “the post-Roman twilight.” Perhaps, we should be thinking about the implications of “the post-Soviet twilight,” wherein the depredations of Lukashenko and the maladroit lumbering of Yanukovych are merely the initial “barbarian” phase. If we were to adopt Davies’s model, we have not even begun the extended phase during which the political culture of Soviet Moscow will fade into a wasteland over the centuries.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. But it serves to illustrate that democracies do not always pop up unaided like tulips in the spring. There have been post-imperial transitions in European history much longer and much gloomier than the recent transition from Warsaw Pact to nato.

The state of post-Soviet states

If we look at the condition of post-Soviet states, they may have improved from the depths of the early 1990s, but in many cases they have not recovered to the levels of the Soviet period, and none are converging with European levels of gdp per capita at the rate of Poland or the Baltic states.

Belarus is in the worst shape politically and economically since Stalin. It is completely a Securitate state with a brutal, clownish dictator. The North Caucasus may be even worse and has slipped beyond the control of Moscow and into an ungovernable hodgepodge of warlords, radical Islamic fundamentalism, criminal trafficking and systemic poverty.

Azerbaijan, despite its extraordinary wealth from oil and gas, has turned its back on European reform and evinces no interest in free trade or association with European institutions. Increasingly, the Azerbaijan of Ilham Aliyev is little more than a hereditary autocracy propped up by petrodollars. Significantly, the Aliyev dynasty derives its power and legitimacy directly from the career of Heydar Aliyev in the Soviet kgb and Politburo.

Armenia remains isolated, flirting with political violence and the suppression of alternative political parties. Its unit of political measure seems to be clans with guns.

Georgia, despite eight years of reform and the recent peaceful change of government in free and fair elections, remains very much in doubt. The “good czarism” of Misha Saakashvili and his party, which succeeded in reforming, modernizing, and Westernizing Georgia’s economy and political system, seems to have given way to the disorderly populism of the eccentric Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who thus far has shown no understanding of due process or political tolerance.

Of the minor post-Soviet states only Moldova — which happily does not share a border with Russia — seems promising (relative to the others) and intent on inching along towards Europe. But the Communist Party still remains its largest political party 20 years after the death of the communist system, and the Moldovan political establishment was unable to seat a president in office for almost two years after the recent elections.

Clearly, these countries are not the wholesome children of colorful democratic revolutions. And the Orange and Rose Revolutions themselves seem far less than glorious today. It would be difficult to argue, as George Bush did in the Freedom Square speech, that democracy in these countries is inevitable and that the driving force for political change is the universal belief in individual freedom.

Indeed, one is forced to the opposite conclusion. Variations on the authoritarian state (or vertical of power) seem to be the political model for post-Soviet states. Each state seems to have adapted elements of Soviet culture to its pre-existing national culture, in effect draping Russia’s old nationalities problem with the culture and inefficiency of the ussr in the 1970s.

The same frozen conflicts remain: In the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they get even colder, and in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, they threaten to get much hotter. Political liberty and dissent are constrained by secret police, tax police, libel laws, or bans on ngos throughout the post-Soviet world. But this is what the “post-Soviet twilight” could be expected to look like: remnants of an autocratic political culture jutting like shards of glass upwards through the torn fabric of the Russian and Soviet empires.

When we examine the two major powers in the post-Soviet world, Russia and Ukraine, the situation is less chaotic but potentially more dangerous. Among the minor states, the post-imperial twilight has brought a persistent disorder and insecurity, a relative isolation from European and global politics, severe limits on economic growth (excepting Azerbaijan) and political systems that limit individual civil liberties and human possibilities.

In the major states, however, there is a superficial stability. There are significant populations and resources, and both Russia and Ukraine are connected to international markets and politics. In Central Asia, the murder of an opposition leader is a nonevent. In Kyiv, however, a slight increase in the price of natural gas is a European crisis. The failure of Russia or Ukraine could produce secondary effects which could harm the Euro-Atlantic, and this is what seems to be happening.

The economic crisis in Russia

Ivan krastev wrote recently that in 1991 the “Soviet order was paralyzed by the deadly combination of political stability and economic inefficiency.”3 Much the same thing could be said of Russia today. The political paralysis combining the Putin-Medvedev duopoly with systemic corporate mismanagement have recapitulated the economic conditions of 20 years ago and threaten the breakdown of the post-Soviet system. The negative effects of the second fall of a Soviet-derived economic system could dwarf the political collapse of 1991, which marked the end of the Cold War.

As Krastev reminds us, the West has made considerable interpretive mistakes in assessing Putin’s Russia. We assumed that the outcome of Putin’s autocratic tendencies would be a strong autocracy, when in fact Russia is today only a fragile state. We assumed that a powerful Russia would assert its strength, when it has only threatened to assert power and more often than not resorted to gestures of power, such as the imprisonment of Pussy Riot and symbolic photo-ops with leather-clad motorcycle gangs.

The much-publicized Moscow middle class at protest is far from an exploited minority or a political class victimized by the ruling party. As Krastev observes, the Kremlin casually manages the Russian people but ruthlessly exploits Russia’s natural resources. This is why President Putin regards Gazprom, Rosneft, Rusal, veb, vtb, and other corporations involved in the development, export and financing of Russia’s energy and mineral resources as “strategic industries.”4

Post-Soviet Russia and its rise to global influence were built on the exploitation of resources by state companies.

Post-Soviet Russia and its rise to global influence were built on the exploitation of resources by state-directed companies. In a manner of speaking, Putin dropped the ideology of the Soviet imperial system but kept its political culture in pursuit of a primitive form of mercantile capitalism which became the post-Soviet economic system. When Krastev observes that modern Russia is “Putin’s nation,” he means (a) Russia is inseparable from the Putin’s personal reinterpretation of Soviet political culture (in much the same way that Misha Saakashvili was until very recently seen to personify modern Georgia) and (b) Putin is the architect of both managed democracy and (more significantly) the system of state-oligarchic capitalism unique to Russia.

Like all twilight systems, the same flaws that caused the imperial system to collapse and which remain embedded in its political successor will cause the post-imperial system to collapse as well. As Stephen Kotkin wrote, “Russia has inherited everything that has caused the Soviet collapse as well as the collapse itself.”5  And this is what is going on in Russia at the moment. Putin, Medvedev, and Russia’s financial elite are confronting an economic crisis for which its strategic industries and federal budget are unprepared.

The inheritance of post-Soviet Russia included a well-educated and calculating elite of kgb-trained siloviki, a centralized, resourced-based economy, and a business elite capable of only theft and the simulation of management. With these fragments of Soviet political culture, the Kremlin built a hugely wealthy oligarchic economy which threw off enough profits to finance the post-Soviet state. At the moment, 60 percent of state revenues come from taxes and income from Gazprom, Rosneft, and other fossil-fuel corporations.6 This economic system can function only for as long as the profits of aging, mismanaged “strategic industries” generate enough profits to fund the lifestyles of their oligarchic owners and the social needs of 143 million Russians. And in the last decade, the decline of commodity prices, increased competition, and the rising costs of Russia’s regions have overtaken profits.

Russia has 39 million pensioners and eighteen million other recipients of state aid. Federal transfers to regions require almost ten percent of gdp, an increase of $58 billion over 2007. By contrast, Gazprom’s total profit in 2011 was $44 billion and was down dramatically in 2012, to roughly $32 billion. Overall gas production in Russia has fallen since 2001, and these figures do not reflect the impact of oil prices at $85 per barrel or of U.S. shale gas, which will likely create a world spot price of approximately $6 per unit, or $2 under Russia’s cost of production.7

In short, the slowing of a post-imperial state is already beginning at the economic level. It remains to be seen whether or not Putin can change the twilight political culture and restructure the wealth-creating industries quickly enough to avert systemic collapse.

The political crisis in Ukraine

n ukraine, there are many of the same facets of Soviet political culture, but they have been assembled in a Ukrainian way to produce dysfunction at the political level rather an economic breakdown — at least so far. Despite the lack of imf bailout funds, staggering gas prices, the absence of eu structural funds and or even an agreement with the eu on free trade, Ukraine’s economy still functions. Grain, steel, coal, and pipes still get to market, and there is always the option of siphoning natural gas from the gas transit system. The same cannot be said for the political class, whose dysfunction is breathtaking.

Since the beginning of President Kuchma’s first administration, the composition of the governing elite has been remarkably stable, including during the Yushenko/Timoshenko period after the Orange Revolution. Both President Yushenko and Prime Minister Timoshenko came up through the previous Kuchma/Lazarenko administration and governed in much the same way as the rest of the elite: with a combination of populist rhetoric, questionable financial deals, redistribution of property by the state, selective prosecution, and consummate skill in playing audiences in East and West off against each other.

Throughout the 20 years of post-Soviet Ukraine, a form of the Regions Party has won the vast majority of elections and won again on October 28, 2012, convincingly and legally (although the latter is not as important in Kyiv as one would like it to be.) The permanence of a Regions majority reflects the consistency of a political culture with a distinct hierarchy of interests: First, the constituencies of the oligarchic business groups insist that the government provide political stability for them to pursue business and to ensure that the largess of government is divided evenly between the regions. Second, they want the state to continue to provide subsidies, pensions, and basic services to ordinary Ukrainians to prevent social disorder, which is bad for business. Third, the oligarchs want protection for themselves from the power and greed of the state, for which they are prepared to pay by ceding claims to the Russian gas trade from which the governing elite can enrich itself.

Since the start of President Kuchma’s first administration, the composition of the governing elite has been quite stable.

Under President Kuchma, this system worked most of the time, albeit imperfectly, but it began to break down during Yushenko’s and Timoshenko’s endlessly acrimonious political divorce. The combination of Yushenko’s near mystical refusal to manage Ukrainian democracy and Timoshenko’s inability to win at the ballot box without massive spending on social welfare and electoral giveaways set the stage for the explosion over a controversial gas deal with Russia.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the contract then-Prime Minister Timoshenko agreed to in January 2009 with then-Prime Minister Putin was a tipping point for post-Soviet Ukraine. Under the pressure of the approaching presidential elections, yet another Timoshenko-Yanukovych rematch, Timoshenko agreed to pay $480 per thousand cubic meters of natural gas for ten years on a “take the gas or pay for it anyway” basis. This price is by far the highest in Europe and compares unfavorably to the range of prices between $350 and $320 for Germany and Poland. In effect, Russia picked up a $60 billion windfall over a decade on European market prices, and Ukrainian business picked up an annual bill for $6 billion in additional energy costs.8

In the event, despite short-term discount financial concessions from Russia, substantial funds from the imf redirected into populist spending prior to the election, and promises from Vladimir Putin to campaign for Timoshenko personally, the Orange reformers lost the 2010 presidential elections by three percent. Obviously, the gas deal and Timoshenko’s political defeat were the necessary ingredients for the ensuing political crisis, which led to her prosecution and conviction and to the alienation of the European Union from the new Yanukovych government. But, perhaps unintentionally, the dramatic rise in gas prices began the breakdown of the post-imperial political system, which President Yanukovych presumably realized on his first day as president.

First, with gas prices around $480 for the next ten years, the oligarchic business groups can no longer make money, stability or not.9 Second, with a sliding economy and the alienation of both Europe and the imf, the government in Kyiv cannot meet the social needs of average Ukrainians (although the government papered over this shortfall through the parliamentary elections.) Finally, with gas prices falling and Russia nearly finished bypassing the leaky and corrupt Ukrainian pipelines, the state cannot enrich itself and, therefore, begins to steal from foreign investors and then from Ukrainian businesses, including prominent members of the Regions Party.

Here again the foundation of the post–Cold War Ukrainian state is starting to give way. The political culture which this generation of Ukrainian leaders inherited from the Soviet Empire proved an unreliable basis for a political system bordering on the prosperous and politically powerful European Union. Increasingly, the Ukrainian government cannot meet the demands of its core constituencies nor can it satisfy the conditions which Europeans require for access to their markets and institutions.

The irony of innocents abroad

If brussels is anything like Washington, the news that the two largest and most consequential states of the post-Soviet world are teetering at the precipice of collapse and disunion will probably not engender a period of soul-searching among policymakers. No one will ask, “How could we have handled Russia and Ukraine so badly? What were we thinking?”

To the contrary, the democracy promoters and human rights advocates will be delighted that Yanukovych’s Ukraine may fall apart, which means to them only that Yulia will be freed. Similarly, hardliners in my much maligned Republican Party will be delighted that Gazprom is going out of business and that the gates of Moscow will soon be thrown open to the victorious corporate armies of the West. “They got what was coming to them,” one might say.

In terms of American and European opinion, our misplaced enthusiasm for the various hues of revolutionary change in 2004–5 has been replaced by a constituency for complacency about what happens to Ukraine and Russia. Obviously, this complacency is occasioned by our profound disappointment with political developments throughout the post-Soviet world, but it is reinforced by serious geo-economic factors. Particularly in Washington, there is the view that our newly discovered energy independence makes the post-Soviet world less important, that our recessionary economy limits our interests in Europe, and that the rise of Asia commands our attention. And, let’s be frank, Russia and Ukraine will do what they do regardless of what the eu and the United States do or say. It is this final thought that links the period of irrational exuberance to the current period of withdrawal and complacency. In the course of less than a decade, Western policymakers first believed that post-Soviet democracy would necessarily triumph and then just as firmly became convinced that post-Soviet decline and disintegration are inevitable. In the first instance, certainty was advanced as a reason for political action and, in the second instance, as the justification for diplomatic inaction.

In both policies, we are misinterpreting the East. Ironically, the dire straits of the post-Soviet world are at a minimum bad news for Europe and United States, and conceivably a Great Recession in Russia and Ukraine could be disastrous for the West. Our influence over political developments in Ukraine will not increase; it will disappear altogether. A breakdown in Putin’s economy will not produce a more docile and studious Russia, it will produce a more unpredictable and dangerous neighbor. Here are but a few of the problems these developments pose for foreign policy and some of the ironies which attend to their resolution.

From reset to bailout?

For many years, most Americans thought that the weakening of Russia both politically and economically would be a pretty good thing. As this outcome becomes more than a theoretical possibility, it does not look nearly so attractive. A Great Recession inside Russia would return Russia to 1990–91. Russian energy supply would become more unreliable. Germany would have to write off its sizable foreign direct investment in the East, which would be a massive loss to Germany banks. eu-Russia trade would drop precipitously. (Note that U.S. shale gas won’t arrive in Europe as lng until 2020. While the Unites States has shale gas reserves in abundance, addressing environmental concerns about increased domestic production, securing congressional approval to export, and reversing America’s lng terminals to liquefy gas rather than re-gasify will take years.)  Europe will enter a more profound recession. The liberal middle class in Moscow and the technocratic oligarchs will emigrate immediately to their villas in Montenegro and Mayfair respectively. China may see its advantage in the Far East. Certainly, the Chinese will claim the energy resources in Turkmenistan and Central Asia. Putin will have no choice but to nationalize the strategic industries to protect what’s left, leaving investors in the ftse and nyse with massive losses. I could go on, but it only gets worse.

The point is that if Lehman Brothers, which was a third-rate investment bank in New York, could throw the world economy into financial crisis, imagine the social and economic impact of a Gazprom or Rusal becoming insolvent. At a minimum, the loss of Russian energy, trade, and economic growth will put a gigantic hole in the Euro-Atlantic system and will retard recovery on both sides of the Atlantic.

There are three obvious implications for policy and all three are double-edged and not without irony:

  1. At a time when the treatment of dissidents, usaid, and ngos argues that we should cancel the reset policy and stop talking with Putin altogether, we will have to step up engagement with Russia to protect our economic interests.
  2. At a time when the eu is finally ready to sue Gazprom for decades of bullying market behavior, we are going to have to help Putin reform, restructure and — dare I say it — “save” Gazprom in some more efficient form. In short, the eu cannot sue Gazprom for as much as $13.1 billion at this point in history without slitting its own throat.10
  3. And, finally, just when market forces have finally begun to bring fairly priced energy to European markets, we are going to have to think carefully about how to phase in an integrated market without dislocating major industries and millions of workers in the East.

In short, a functioning and prosperous twilight Russia wherein we suffer the annoyances of post-Soviet political culture and persistent corruption is far preferable to a moonless economic midnight stretching from the Carpathians to the border of China.

From shared values to raw influence?

The irony of Ukraine is that no country has ever been the bemused recipient of more Western advice and sermonizing and proven less capable of an appropriate response. The single-minded pursuit of shared political values has neither engendered these values nor has it resulted in freeing former Prime Minister Timoshenko from prison. Although it may seem churlish to point out, while Yulia Timoshenko may be no worse than her prosecutors, she is certainly not much better. The question for policy, however, is whether the release of Timoshenko, her return to politics, or even regime change in Kyiv is the most important objectives for Europe and the United States in Ukraine. No doubt selective political prosecution is offensive in Ukraine (although less so in Turkey and among many other of its practitioners). And no doubt, the arrest of a former prime minister is particularly egregious, although it is not deemed so in the case of Romania and Croatia, which have former prime ministers in jail. And certainly not in the United States, which has done the post-Soviet world one better by imprisoning former Ukrainian Prime Minister Lazarenko for the last ten years.

No doubt, the arrest of a former prime minister is particularly egregious, though not so in Croatia or Romania.

The central point here lies in the problems associated with selecting a test case to summarize all the differences the West has with the lamentable political and human rights standards of Ukraine. For one, an emotional case such as Timoshenko’s leads more often to the alienation of the West and the isolation of the country in question than to a breakthrough on political values. Second, it is rare to find a test case as black and white as the actions of the Burmese government against Aung San Suu Kyi. As the recent Skadden Arps report on the Ukrainian judicial system makes clear, both the government’s prosecution and the conduct of Yulia Timoshenko as prime minister raise significant legal problems. More to the point, the test case we have chosen in Ukraine (or had forced upon us) has not served to accomplish our objectives or protect our interests.

While Timoshenko should certainly be released, the West has other interests in Ukraine at least as important as the fate of a particular Ukrainian politician. After all, what is the point of making a woman whom we do not really know the threshold condition for larger interests which we have not yet defined and may not have?

Interestingly, the European Commission may have been the first to break out of the straitjacket created by making the release of Yulia Timoshenko the precondition for any kind of engagement. On December 10, 2012, the Commission announced a subtly revised policy of engagement with Ukraine which confirmed that the eu would sign an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement at the Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2013 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Moreover, in certain circumstances pertaining to political values, the eu would allow the provisional application of parts of the free trade agreement before its signing and ratification. In the first week after the statement, President Barroso spoke at length with President Yanukovych twice by telephone, thereby nullifying Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy towards Ukraine: “We do not speak to people who do not share our values.”

It seems that Merkel was mistaken. The Europe Union is prepared to be perfectly appalled by the judicial mistakes of the Yanukovych government and still willing to compete aggressively on trade and energy with Russia for the political affection of Ukraine. Expressed in another way, the European Union seems to have chosen a circumscribed engagement policy over a political confrontation ending in sanctions.

European recovery, Atlantic free trade, Asia influence

In whichever way we resolve the conundrum of our policy towards Russia and Ukraine, these policy choices will take place within the larger context of politics in the Euro-Atlantic. From the United States perspective, the highest Atlantic priority is a European recovery and an eu that survives the European financial crisis. As I have argued, it is hard to see how either outcome is helped by an economic crisis in Russia or political disorder in Ukraine. Indeed, either event would seem to deepen Europe’s problems and unsettle America’s shaky recovery and lagging job creation.

Following the logic of interdependence, if European leaders are serious about opening free trade discussions with the United States, it is hard to see how an economic implosion in Europe’s East to complement the fiscal disaster in Europe’s South is the best way to get a trade bill through the Senate or to regain the confidence of capital markets. An Atlantic Free Trade Agreement on the scale of nafta will be difficult enough without having to explain that Europe has lost control of its Neighborhood Policy.

Finally, there lies President Obama’s wishful “pivot to Asia.” It is one thing for a united Euro-Atlantic community of the eu and U.S. — bound in a formidable nato alliance and integrated in a free trade system comprising almost 50 percent of global wealth or a combined gdp of $33 trillion annually. It is hard to see how China could dictate norms to such a large market and powerful alliance.

It is quite another thing to sail the Pacific with Europe’s West divided from Europe’s East by political culture just as conclusively as Europe was once divided by Stalin, with Europe cut off from its nearest and most abundant energy supplies in Russia, and with the United States unable to access either the Trans-Caucasus or Central Asian transit to the sub-continent. In this event, the “loss” or even the temporary alienation of Russia and Ukraine will allow any passing Mandarin or Commissar from Beijing to dictate trade, security, and energy terms to both Washington and Brussels.

To be credible in world politics, a great power must demonstrate that it can consolidate and politically control its strategic rear. And Europe’s East is the strategic rear of the West for the purposes of an Asian pivot.

The legacy of empires

Without doubt, we have grossly misinterpreted the politics of Europe’s East after the fall of the Soviet Union. We were wrong to think that a wholly new political system had appeared overnight across the Eurasian landmass so different from its Soviet predecessor that even the term “post-Soviet” was misleading. We were wrong to assume that the maturation of these nascent democracies would proceed in much the same way that Western Europe developed after World War II or Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which seemed to us in hindsight as inevitable until very recently. And, we were completely wrong in 2004 in Georgia and 2005 in Ukraine to see the Color Revolutions as the reflections of our own political imagination.

The post-Soviet world is the legacy of the Czarist and Soviet empires that preceded it and remains a rough fabric sewn piecemeal from the tatters of older imperial culture. For 20 years, this world has not developed as our models predicted, and our policies and well-intended advice have had the opposite of their intended results. As a consequence, our geopolitical influence and the reach of our institutions have declined inexorably over the past two decades.

Now, we have a stark policy choice. Do we allow the two leading states in the post-Soviet world to enter into crises likely to bring the post-Soviet period to an end, and then just hope for the best? Or, do we now accept that political cultures change over centuries (not merely with the fall of an empire) and that the democratic change we hope will come to the post-Soviet world will arrive over decades of trade, association, and cultural exchange? If the latter, we will have to accept that Putin will never share our view of human rights and political values. If the latter, we will not to be able to sacrifice relations with 43 million Ukrainians over a single court case despite our sympathies.

It seems to me that the failure of the West after the fall of the Soviet Union was first indifference and then the inflation of our expectations (which quickly became demands) far beyond what was politically conceivable for the post-Soviet states. What should be our objective is an extended period of limited engagement with the most promising and important of the post-Soviet states. This engagement will take place in areas of agreement: trade, security, conflict resolution. In this manner we can gradually shape new states — possibly even European states — in the post-imperial twilight. If we decline this chance through pique or malice, Norman Davies warns us that it could be five hundred years before a new culture appears to replace the hapless, thuggish, but nonetheless imitative barbarians.

No doubt there are difficult choices to be made in striking the right balance between the imperative of long-term engagement and the protection of our values in the course of engagement. Nevertheless, this predicament was anticipated and summarized long ago by the poet C.P. Cavafy:

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.11

In this sense, Europe is substantially ahead of the United States in recognizing that whatever happens in the post-Soviet twilight will begin with people who do not share our values: the “barbarians,” for lack of a better word. Nothing that will happen to the barbarians or to their fragile world is foreordained or inevitable. Nevertheless, their political culture will be shaped and redirected over long periods of time by the influences of trade, travel, language, and education. Indeed, the sum of these soft, liberal forces has been known to change political culture. This is a kind of solution.


Bruce Pitcairn Jackson is the president of the Project on Transitional Democracies. He co-founded the U.S. Committee on NATO and served as its president from 1995–2003.

1. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993).

2. Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations (Viking, 2012), 30–31.

3. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, “Putinism Under Siege: An Autopsy of Managed Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 23:2 (July 2012).

4. For a discussion of Russia’s industry, see Thane Gustafson, “Oil’s Well That Ends Well for Russia,” Foreign Affairs (November–December 2012); and Anders Aslund, “How Putin Is Turning Russia Into One Big Enron,” Moscow Times (November 21, 2012).

5.  Cited in Krastev and Holmes, “Putinism Under Siege: An Autopsy of Managed Democracy.”

6. Will Englund and Kathy Lally, “Cumbersome Gazprom Losing Its Clout,” Washington Post (September 23, 2012).

7. Mikhail Dmitriev and Daniel Treisman, “The Other Russia: Discontent Grows in the Hinterlands,” Foreign Affairs (September–October 2012).

8. Ukrainian domestic gas prices are heavily subsidized by the government, to the fury of the imf. Since prices cannot be increased on households without bringing down the government, any increase in gas prices must lead to even greater government deficits or be passed along to business as an additional cost.

9. Since Gazprom has negotiated all its contracts to date on a bilateral basis, it is difficult to compare prices between contracts. Ukrainian officials argue that if German-Polish composite prices ($350) are used and their additional transportation costs subtracted, then Ukraine should be paying $250. If Europe’s additional transportation costs of roughly $100 are added to Ukraine’s current gas prices ($480), then Ukraine is paying the European equivalent of $580. By contrast, Belarus is buying gas from Gazprom at $120. Very roughly speaking, Ukraine is paying Gazprom $100 to $200 over European spot prices. These pricing anomalies are the subject of the current anti-trust investigation of Gazprom by the European Commission.

10. Alexander Kilyakov, “Gazprom May Lose Its Position,” Russia: Beyond the Headlines (December 27, 2012).

11. C.P. Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, trans. by Edmund Keely and Philip Shepard (Princeton University Press, 1972).