As Americans ingest the constant feed of dire reports and heartbreaking photographs from the war in Ukraine, it behooves us to look at Europe’s views of a European conflict. First, these views are far from harmonious; there is, as the English Russia scholar Richard Sakwa has said, “no strategic European Union vision” on Ukraine—most members have merely been “shamed” into upping the ante in the supply of arms. Second, in general, Europe is divided between east and west: the new Scholz government in Berlin sputters to create a coherent set of policies, and in France, President Emanuel Macron won reelection despite criticism for his willingness to engage President Putin deep into the night before the invasion. In the newly extra-EU United Kingdom, Prime Minister Johnson is accused in some quarters of a kind of vicarious “Wag the Dog” scenario, in which trumpeting support for Kiev may obscure some unseemly activities at home [the most recent cover of the irreverent UK magazine, Private Eye, shows Johnson shaking hands with president Zelensky, with each saying simultaneously “Thank you for coming to my rescue”.] In the continent’s east, the Poles and Romanians have been more hawkish, the newly reelected Orban in Hungary a persistent outlier.
In the April 23-24 edition of the Financial Times there appeared an opinion piece by Ivan Krastev, chair of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a fellow at both the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the European Council on Foreign Relations. It is a thoughtful essay, titled “To isolate Russia is not in the west’s power or interest.” To support this, Krastev advances four reasons:
To isolate Russia “unconsciously adopts a discourse in which Russia as a civilization is immutable.” As 1991 showed, this is hardly so.
Isolation “closes off interest in what is happening in Russia”: there are protests against the war, albeit small in comparison with widespread public support [as a footnote to this, polling shows that the relentless tranches of U.S.-led sanctions serve to rally public opinion behind the Kremlin, and to create a “siege mentality”.]
Perhaps most important in the long run, Krastev predicts that “to bet on a world without Russia is ultimately futile, because the non-western world, which may not favor the Kremlin’s war is hardly eager to isolate Russia” [enter China, India, Brazil, South Africa and much of the African continent.]
Krastev stumbles at the last fence, however, with the fourth reason for eschewing isolation: “[It] justifies Putin’s twisted narrative that the only Russia the west can tolerate is a weak or defeated one”.
I would submit that this “narrative”, far from twisted, is in fact clear, linear, and supported by post-Cold War history. When was the west—most especially the United States, which despite all is of the most paramount importance to Russia—most “tolerant”, comfortable toward Russia? The answer, of course, is the disastrous decade of the 1990s when a largely compliant Russia welcomed the west’s alchemical application of economic “reform”; when NATO was expanded over Russia’s feeble and futile protests; when NATO attacked its key ally Serbia—contrary to the UN charter; when the United States ripped up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; when President Bill Clinton’s contempt for the increasingly tragicomic Boris Yeltsin could hardly be contained—his comment, reported by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, says it all: “Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober.”
Putin, of course, is a different proposition for the west and—like it or not—for Russia: and had we been ready to deal seriously with a country reemerging from the ashes of the 90; to acknowledge that Russia, just like the United States, has legitimate strategic security interests in its extended neighborhood [should Russia create a Monroe Doctrine for our consideration?]; and that a Ukraine in NATO is, as even most expert observers not onside with Russia have agreed, a non-starter—we might have averted the growing prospect of a prolonged stalemate in the war in Ukraine, or, worse yet, a full-blown proxy war between Russia and NATO with potentially apocalyptic results.
It is for all those reasons that while I publicly and unequivocally condemn Russia’s invasion, nonetheless points out opportunities missed along the way. To these we should not add, as Ivan Krastev advises, permanent isolation of Russia.
*David C. Speedie is an ACURA board member and was Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York from 2007 to 2017.