Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post–Cold War International Order

| March 10, 2016
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51+ZTs25OhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the PostCold War International Order, Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2015), 248 pp., $24.95 cloth.


This concise volume, co-authored by a scholar of international relations at the  City College of New York (Menon) and a leading Washington insider now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Rumer), tries to make sense of the Ukraine crisis for a general audience. It explains the proximate as well as longer-term drivers of the conflict, and digs deeper into its likely impact on Ukraine, Russia, and Europe. The authors wisely give the United States, which has loomed in the background but has not itself been a central player in the Ukraine drama, less attention. The book also attempts to tease out some of the longer-term implications of the crisis, a much more difficult task given the speed with which the book was released and the continued evolution of events both in Ukraine and the wider region.

The book’s major contribution lies in its attempt to provide what the authors term a “first cut at explaining the context, causes, and consequences” (p. xv) of a crisis that is still very much underway. In this sense, the book sits somewhere between scholarship and journalism, seeking to explain larger forces while being aware that its conclusions cannot but remain tentative while the eventual outcome of the crisis is unknown. Though the Ukraine crisis continues unfolding—in sometimes unpredictable ways—the authors are not afraid to predict how events in and around that country will shape the international landscape over the longer term. Their conclusions in this regard are largely pessimistic and have, unfortunately, been largely borne out by the events of 2015.

Menon and Rumer also provide a dispassionate and balanced account of the crisis’ origins, eschewing the polemics that have characterized much of the debate about Ukraine in both the United States and Eu- rope over the past two years. As the authors make clear, longer-term failures of vision in Brussels, Kiev, and Moscow, as well as Washington, paved the way for the crisis, and all sides deserve a share of the blame.

The authors locate the origins of the crisis in the failure of successive Ukrainian leaders to resolve the contradictions that the country inherited  upon independence but also in decisions taken by the West (especially NATO) in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In particular, Ukrainian leaders never resolved the tension between state building and nation building in a country pieced together from the remnants of multiple empires. The Ukrainian nationalists who drove the march to independence saw the new country as the political embodiment of the Ukrainian nation, despite the fears of ethnic Russians, who remained a significant presence in the new  country’s  east and  south. As Rumer and Menon correctly note, “Ukrainians’ conceptions of foreign policy were inseparable from their various conceptions of national identity and statehood” (p. 24), primarily because of the way relations between Russia and the West developed  following the Soviet collapse.

Ukraine would have been a fragile state under the best of circumstances, but the West’s collective failure to devise a strategy for binding Russia to the post–cold war international order in Europe left Ukraine on the front lines of a geopolitical confrontation that most Ukrainian leaders and elites have strenuously sought to avoid. The crisis, therefore, is a “symptom of an even larger problem for Europe” (p. 162), namely, that “Russia . . . was not enmeshed in the transatlantic political and security networks as Germany was after World War II” (p. 162). In seeking to integrate Ukraine into Western structures while leaving Rus- sia on the outside, the United States and Europe made a confrontation with Russia inevitable.

The decision to expand NATO to the east, Menon and Rumer argue, was done largely to hedge against the potential for renewed Russian expansionism. Yet this expansion created a vicious circle, making engagement of Russia more difficult and contributing to the failure to integrate it with the West. The result was a renewed confrontation—one in which Ukraine became a valuable prize for both sides—once Russia recovered from its post-Communist hangover.

Of course, Russia should also receive a substantial amount of blame. Menon and Rumer show that Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in the Donbas region were in some ways consistent with its long-standing approaches to the post-Soviet region (p. 98), but they also went far beyond what Moscow had done in previous crises. For the authors the irony, of course, is that by acting so harshly against what it perceived as an effort by the Ukrainians to leave the Russian orbit, Moscow will only “feed resentment . . . among its vulnerable neighbors and push them to hedge against further Russian moves” (p. 100).

In challenging the post–cold war European security order so brazenly, Russia also chose to make a firm, and probably lasting, break with the West. Given Russia’s economic weaknesses and dependence on foreign financial institutions as well as foreign technology (especially in its energy industry), this break could have severe consequences for Russian competitiveness, and ultimately for the sustainability of the geopolitical challenge Putin’s Russia aims to pose to the West—a West, it argues, that never broke with the logic of containment. To be sure, Russia’s drift began well be- fore the Euromaidan protests in late 2013. Menon and Rumer briefly discuss the emergence of ideological alternatives to Westernization, such as the Eurasianism of Aleksandr Dugin, and the “Russian World” concept, which asserts the right of the Russian state to a protectorate over areas where Russian language and culture predominate. The authors argue,  however, that such ideologies were “relegated to the margins” (p. 84) of Russian  discourse until the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, when Vladimir Putin seized on them to justify a fundamentally new approach to foreign policy that emphasized Russia’s distinct, non-Western identity. This approach secured Russian influence in the post-Soviet region in the short term, but    at the price of “estrangement from the West, an increasingly challenging relation- ship with China, and a hollow partnership” (p. 105)  with its post-Soviet neighbors.

The greatest challenge for a book such as Conict in Ukraine lies in assessing the larger historical significance of events currently in the headlines. What seems crucial today may prove, over the longer term, to be of secondary or even tertiary importance, while unexpected events and contingencies can force a reassessment of what once seemed clear-cut. The book was published before Europe’s borders were overrun by masses of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria (the word “Syria” appears in the book just once), and so it has little to say about how Putin’s Russia has used the Syrian conflict to draw the West’s attention away from Ukraine, or where Ukraine fits in the larger geopolitical jigsaw puzzle that Western statesmen confront at the beginning of 2016.

That said, the authors were prescient in warning that Europe’s “ability to sustain assistance to and interest in Ukraine should not be taken for granted” (p. 154) in the face of mounting internal and external challenges. Ukraine’s own failures, as Menon and Rumer show, are less the result of geopolitical maneuvering by its larger neighbors than of its own inability to push through economic and political reform. In 1991 and again after the Orange Revolution of 2004, Ukrainian leaders had an opportunity to make a fundamental break with  the past and move toward a new, more hopeful future. Twice they failed. The Euromaidan revolution, accompanied as it was by a Russian invasion and an influx of Western aid and assistance, represented Ukraine’s greatest opportunity yet. Unfortunately, the same mix of venality and inertia that has plagued Ukraine’s political class since 1991 continues to hold up the most critical reforms, even as European interest flags.

Menon and Rumer are also unfortunately right to note that the crisis has demonstrated that “there is no longer a European security architecture that Russia and the West recognize” (p. xix). Without an agreed-upon set of rules to govern their interactions in Europe—and with Ukrainian politicians falling back into familiar habits of squabbling and corruption while Europe is distracted by the largest movement of refugees since World War II—what could prove to  be Ukraine’s last, best window of opportunity may now be closing.


The author is Deputy Director and Senior Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. He is the author of Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics (2009), and has served as an adviser on U.S.-Russia relations at the U.S. Department of State and as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 30.1

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