Russia's Uncertain Place in Europe

A voice, but not a veto?

Though Ukraine appears to settling its bloody political crisis, establishing a durable peace in the country requires careful examination of what has happened and why. Many have already assessed the immediate causes of the crisis, including Ukraine’s internal divisions, public resentment of President Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt rule, European Union miscalculations in negotiating and Association Agreement with Yanukovych and his government, Russia’s pressure on Ukraine to reject the draft agreement, and Yanukovych’s dangerously incompetent leadership, among other forces. Yet few have thus far considered one of the most powerful forces underlying not only the recent violence, but much of Ukraine’s tragic and disappointing post-Cold War history: Russia’s uncertain place in Europe. Neither Ukraine nor Europe are likely to reach the futures their peoples seek without resolving this problem.

In May 1997, the United States and its NATO allies made one of the first formal attempts to define Russia’s role in post-Cold War Europe through the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation—an agreement that established a Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council as a forum for discussion of shared concerns and objectives. Though the Permanent Joint Council eventually failed—to be replaced by the NATO-Russia Council in 2002—it had two important and lasting consequences.

The first consequence was that the deal (together with Moscow’s gradual inclusion in the G-7, now the G-8) secured Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s acquiescence to NATO membership for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, which joined the alliance two years later, at the alliance’s fiftieth anniversary summit in 1999. While Moscow had little leverage and few options at the time, and may well have won the best possible deal under the circumstances, the first round of NATO enlargement opened the door to many more new members. Seven additional nations joined NATO in 2004 (including the three Baltic States) and two joined in 2009. The fact that some of these were never fully members of the Soviet bloc despite having had communist governments—Croatia, Slovenia and Albania were often objects of Soviet-Chinese competition rather than Western-Soviet rivalry—did little to ease the sting in Moscow.

The second consequence was the de facto codification of an unsustainable Western concept of Russia in Europe—that Moscow should have “a voice but not a veto” in security affairs, a phrase that former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott attributes to Javier Solana, then NATO’s Secretary-General. Unfortunately, though Western officials may have congratulated themselves over this clever turn of phrase, with its appealing combination of alliteration (style), calibration (substance) and ambiguity (diplomacy), it has since proven profoundly misleading—and quite damaging—for all concerned.

The core problem is that neither Washington nor European capitals were ever able to figure out how to offer Russia a meaningful voice without allowing the impression that they had delivered it a veto. Governments strove first to ensure that Russian officials would not think they had a veto, to discourage unwelcome input into their decision-making, but often seemed even more concerned with denying their domestic political opponents any opportunity to suggest that they had given away too much. As a result, American and European officials routinely proclaimed that Russia would not have a veto on important policies—bombing Serbia, expanding NATO and the EU, deploying missile defense, and so on.

Unfortunately, the U.S.-European obsession with avoiding any appearance of a Russian veto over U.S., NATO or European Union actions has relentlessly strengthened Moscow’s desire to demonstrate that it does. Every time a Western official publicly insists that Russia cannot and should not have a veto over something, Russian officials appear to feel an irrepressible urge to show that they do. This didn’t matter too much in 1999, when Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov aborted a trip to Washington in mid-air as NATO began air strikes against Serbia, but has had progressively more serious consequences over time.

In fact, European and Eurasian history from 1999 to 2008 was in many respects driven by Moscow’s efforts to develop, to test and eventually to use its veto power on key political and security issues. This is the straight line connecting Boris Yeltsin’s somewhat comical deployment of two hundred Russian soldiers to seize the Pristina airport ahead of NATO troops in 1999, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom’s ham-handed 2005 gas war with Ukraine, Russia’s support for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s 2005 statement against U.S. military bases in Central Asia, and Russia’s ruthless exploitation of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s idiotic 2008 decision to send troops into Abkhazia and South Ossetia to humiliate both Georgia and NATO. The Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 was Moscow’s first (and so far only) successful use of its veto on a major matter; American and European officials no longer consider Georgia’s NATO membership to be a serious possibility in the foreseeable future.