Twenty-Five Years After

A year since the seizure of Crimea, and we are still in shock and outrage. Elsewhere perhaps there is satisfaction, even pride. This article attempts not to distribute praise and blame but to understand where this came from and what it means.

Twenty-five years ago we thought we were at the beginning of a new Europe. In November 1990 the leaders of thirty-four countries signed the Charter of Paris for a New Europe: “Ours is a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our people have cherished for decades: … democracy … human rights … prosperity … social justice; equal security for all countries.” And later in the document: “With the ending of the division of Europe we will strive for a new quality in our security relations … Security is indivisible and the security of every participating State is inseparably linked to that of all the others.”

These were big ambitions. Yet this was a time for big ambitions. Europe was changing fast. The number of states at the Summit in 1990 is a reminder of the changes: thirty-four—the Helsinki number minus one, the GDR. Six weeks before in Moscow the four powers who were still technically sovereign in Germany had signed the Treaty that recognized the reunification of Germany and formally ended World War II. With the end of the war, it seems, the long post-war peace also ended.

The numbers also tell what happened next. The OSCE now has fifty-seven members. Six of these emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia— and Kosovo is now waiting to join; thirteen more are products of the breakup of the Soviet Union. It all happened quickly: a month after the Paris meeting, Slovenia held a plebiscite on independence. Nine months after that, the Soviet authorities gave independence to the three Baltic states. Just four months later, on Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet Union itself had ceased to exist. Many events were happening at the same time: after signing the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, the day before the Paris Summit, the Hungarian Prime Minister called for the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact within two years (it did not take so long); in the following month Lech Wałęsa won an overwhelming majority in the Polish presidential election. Meanwhile a large coalition, backed by the UN Security Council, was preparing to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

Perhaps it was a good thing that no one had time to think. If you pause and consider, you never do such things. When we look at the Baltic states today no one can doubt that the Soviet authorities did the right thing. What would have happened if they had decided to keep the Soviet Union together? The answer would probably have been bloodshed and repression. We give too little credit to those who allowed the fastest and most peaceful of decolonizations.

The difference could not have been greater with Yugoslavia. This was the crisis there that occupied Western European leaders for most of the 1990s. Twenty years after, we still don’t understand what happened in Yugoslavia, nor why. It does not help to say that it was the result of bad politics and bad leadership. Europe was unprepared; America was uninterested; and Russia had enough to do mastering its own chaos.

The saving grace of this chapter of horrors was that when we finally acted, we acted together. The Balkan wars of the early 20th century set the stage for the assignation in Sarajevo that triggered the chain reaction of interlocking alliances and World War I. By contrast the Balkan wars of the 1990s were handled by something that looked like an updated version of the Concert of Europe— known by the less evocative title of “the Contact Group” and led by the United States. This collaboration came to an end with Kosovo—which we now hear about from Russia as a justification for its actions in Georgia or Ukraine. Of all the complaints Russia raises about unilateral or illegal actions by the West, this is the weakest. Having seen the mass killings in Croatia and Bosnia, aware of the risks in Macedonia, it would have been irresponsible to do nothing in Kosovo—which probably had more reason to claim self-determination than any other part of Yugoslavia.

In spite of its strong objections to the way the conflict began, Russia played an important and constructive role in bringing it to an end. President Yeltsin appointed Victor Chernomyrdin as a special envoy, and at a G8 Summit Yeltsin negotiated the principles that became the basis for a ending the conflict (one of the few times a G8 meeting has done something useful). Chernomyrdin, with President Ahtisaari, representing the UN, persuaded Milosevic to accept these terms and the G8 principles were incorporated into UNSCR 1244, which governed Kosovo until its declaration of independence.

The 1999 was a significant year in two other ways. In March, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO—and thus found themselves in the war over Kosovo. (They thought they were joining a defensive alliance!) Then, in the last days of December 1999, Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister of Russia for the first time. As he did so, he committed himself to rebuilding the Russian state, restoring its stability and sovereignty. This he proceeded to do, in ways that did not always appeal to the West; but the achievement itself was remarkable and was welcomed by almost all Russians.

As for the methods that Prime Minister/President Putin used, they were not very different from those used by European state builders; but in most cases, as they used them two or three centuries earlier than Putin, they are remembered with admiration. (Thomas Cromwell is now being presented in a positive light on the BBC). The men of the 17th Century had an easier job: they operated in a stable, rooted society. In some cases an established tradition of the rule of law was a foundation on which other institutions could be built. Russia had few of these advantages—and those that it did have a hundred years before were swept away by Lenin and Stalin. It should not surprise us that neither the process nor the results have been pretty. Those who build states do it by concentrating power. Like Machiavelli’s Prince—a model for state builders—they prefer to be feared than loved. Today’s state builders have less time, since society is more complex and has less tolerance for chaos. They also have more sources of power to concentrate—which is both an opportunity and a danger. Nor should we be surprised that this rough domestic evolution, in a society that is still harsh by Western standards, has been accompanied by a more brutal style in foreign affairs.

The accusation that the West took advantage of Russia’s weakness in the 1990’s—and Russia was indeed a state in collapse during part of this period—does not, however, look right. Had that been the plan, NATO enlargement would have taken place earlier and more quickly. Both rounds of enlargement were accompanied by consultations with Russia; and Russia’s objections were overcome, though it seems likely that its unease was not altogether dispelled either by the NATO Russia Founding Act (in 1999) or by the NATO Russia Council (in 2002). Neither of these has the same force as membership of the NATO Council, the commitment to mutual defense, or the integrated military structure. It would be understandable if some in Moscow regarded them as window dressing.

The drive for NATO enlargement came from the countries wanting to join. Given their experiences in the post-war period (or, in the case of the Baltic states following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) the attraction of a US security guarantee is easy to understand. There was also a lobby group in Washington, mainly “Europeanists” who believed in NATO and wanted to ensure it remained relevant in Europe after the Cold War. The European members of NATO could not object; Britain, France and Germany each in different ways had the events of the 1938 and 1939 on their consciences and could hardly deny security to Poland and the Czech Republic. (For Mrs. Thatcher the word “Munich” was a symbol of national disgrace, and she refused to visit the city). For the United States, NATO is the centerpiece of its influence in Europe. This has almost always been an influence for the better; but it is awkward that the instrument of influence takes a military form.

NATO enlargement started slowly, but it gathered pace just as Russia was re-gathering its strength. This culminated in the stupidity of the Bucharest Summit at which President George W. Bush surprised both his Secretary of State and his Defense Secretary by supporting a Membership Action Plan (generally seen as a path to NATO membership) for both Ukraine and Georgia. The outcome was a standoff between the US President and the German Chancellor—conducted in polite terms, but unusual, unexpected and embarrassing. Out of this came the statement by NATO that Georgia and Ukraine would both become members of NATO. Was this a forecast or a promise? Nobody knows. On either interpretation it was ill thought-out and looks like a mistake. The war in Georgia followed.

A recent article in the NATO Review notes that the Helsinki Final Act enshrines the right of European states to be or not to be members of an alliance (sometimes referred to as the “Hamlet clause”). A refusal to enlarge NATO, it says, would have perpetuated the Cold War division of Europe. Perhaps this is true. But if the Cold War division was bad, why create a new and different division?

The statement in the Charter of Paris, that security is indivisible, is not true. In the real world security is divisible. That is what alliances do – they divide states into two groups: those who will be defended by the alliance and those who have to look after themselves. In the case of a powerful alliance like NATO this is a big difference.

On the other hand the second part of the sentence from the Paris Charter contains a profound truth: that the security of each European state is linked to the security of all the others. The insecurity of one always contains a potential for instability, endangering the security of all. This is the logic of the so called security dilemma, where an increase in military capability by one country (which sees it as defensive) may seem threatening to its neighbor. Enlarging an alliance operates in the same way. Those who join do so for defensive reasons; but each new member makes the alliance more powerful, and potentially more threatening to those outside it.

The whole story is familiar, already Thucydides writes:

“…the point was reached when Athenian strength attained a peak, plain for all to see, and the Athenians began to encroach upon Sparta’s allies. It was at this point that Sparta felt the position was no longer tolerable….” (History of the Peloponnesian War: Book I, 118)

Somewhere along the way, communication between Russia and the United States broke down. On the way to the Bucharest Summit the US thought, perhaps, that having convinced Russia to accept the enlargement twice before, in spite of talk of “red lines,” they could do so a third time. But it did not take into account the changes in Russia. Somewhere during this period the US and the major European powers (with the exception of Germany) stopped taking Russia as seriously as they had during the Cold War. Without the threat, Russia was seen as a country with economic potential, but neither helpful nor easy to deal with. The quality and quantity of analysis of Russia fell; the post of Ambassador in Moscow ceased to be what it had been. The West stopped listening.

If the West was naive, so was Russia. The Western naivety came from a casual hubris: it had won and victors do not think much. It overestimated Russian compliance or Russian weakness. Russia’s naivety is the opposite. It overestimates the West’s cleverness. The fantasy by which Russia justifies its actions in Ukraine is that the USA is manipulating domestic politics in Ukraine. (If only we could!) This is the naivety of those who work in the security services and believe nothing unless it is a secret plot. Perhaps that is how life is today in Russia; but the experience of those who work in the West is that democratic government is mostly a series of accidents.

The Russian fantasy also has the EU forcing a choice on Ukraine when, on the contrary, it always was highly divided on the subject. It was not the EU but Russia that applied economic pressure to persuade Ukraine to join an Economic Union. Behind this lay the further fantasy that membership of the European Union was just around the corner; and that this would lead almost automatically to joining NATO. Nonsense, all of it.

There are many other ways of telling this story. This version, even if true, is over simplified— reality is always more complicated. This is a story of mistakes, failures and misunderstandings. The story can also be told with a view to distributing praise and blame (mostly the latter)— since many lives have been lost or ruined. But the question of how we can return to civilized behavior is more urgent.

After so many lies it will be a long way back. A starting point might be an effort to implement the latest version of the Minsk agreement—a rather miserable document—in a serious and thorough way, with maximum transparency as a substitute for trust. Later, some frank discussion of where this all came from and what it means will be useful. We would each do well to start from the premise that we no longer understand each other.

Sir Robert Francis Cooper

KCMG, MVO (born 1947 in Essex, United Kingdom) is a British diplomat and advisor currently serving as a Special Advisor at the European Commission with regard to Myanmar. He is also a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and is an acclaimed publisher on foreign affairs.

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