A Comedy of Errors, but Tragic

by Eugene Scherbakov

In post-Soviet Eurasia, zero-sum policies have produced — unsurprisingly — negative-sum results

In 2014, the year marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean peninsula, and fueled an insurgency in the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Since then, more than ten thousand lives have been lost in Ukraine, in a conflict for which there is no end in sight.

There have been no winners in this war: the liberal international order of which the U.S. is the greatest stakeholder has come under attack; sanctions and international opprobrium have isolated Russia and undermined its economy; and Ukraine is devastated — economically, socially, and politically. In capitals around the world, there is talk of a “second” Cold War. How did the era of promise ushered in by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 curdle — only 25 years later — into a time of real global peril? Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and Timothy J. Colton, professor of government and Russian studies at Harvard University, attempt to answer that question in their new book, whose title reflects its core message: Everyone Loses (Routledge, 2017).

Charap and Colton begin their study by noting that “Analysis done in the midst of a crisis generally tends to shed more heat than light.” And in this, “the Ukraine crisis is no exception.” Although all states party to the conflict are worse off than before the conflict began, all remain adamantly unmoved in their belief that they are in the right. There are as many fingers pointing blame as there are actors present on the stage. Everyone Loses acknowledges the arguments from all sides: the neo-imperial ambitions of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the heedless blundering of the United States, and the microhistory of Ukraine and its regions. But while parsing these perspectives, the authors also engage with the dynamics that they see as undergirding all of them: the international policymaking process between the U.S., Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet states over the course of the past quarter century. By focusing on how the crisis occurred, instead of retrospectively fitting events into a predetermined explanation of why the crisis occurred, Everyone Loses offers a model approach to writing political history in contentious times.

In their examination of the political history leading up to the breakout of hostilities in Ukraine, the authors find that the stability of broader Europe was not so much undermined or sabotaged as it was squandered by missed opportunities and carelessness. They arrive at this central conclusion: “Russia and the West implemented policies toward the states of post-Soviet Eurasia that aimed to extract gains at the other side’s expense, without regard for overlapping or shared interests.” An outcome in which everyone loses is guaranteed by policies in which gains are achieved only at another’s expense. The policies adopted in the aftermath of the Cold War did not do justice to the visions of hope that swept across the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but instead remained true — internally and mechanically — to those implemented during the Cold War. Neither side had “invested serious effort in the task of outlining or even contemplating a cooperative regional order that all parties could accept.” Indeed, “constructive, considered policy and actions in this region were the exception, not the norm, for all sides.”

The ruins of the Second World War memorial on the heights of Saur Mogila, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, May 8, 2017. The monument was damaged during hostilities in 2014, between military groups supporting the new Ukrainian government and those opposing it. (Photo: Valentin Sprinchak/TASS via Getty Images)

Charap and Colton bring considerable expertise and historical scholarship to bear on the mechanics of policymaking in this period. In a fascinating section, Everyone Loses explores how European Union and NATO expansion unfolded on the basis of a “pre-fab” institutional logic. Instead of fundamentally rewriting the rules of membership to reflect a new era, the Europeanization of the states east of Germany continued apace using the very same political mechanisms put in place when the European Union project began. This rigid approach is just one of the many factors that would lead to incompatibility, tension, and ultimately crisis among the radically different states that emerged in the wake of the Cold War order.

The authors offer insightful analysis of a range of thorny issues, including the expansion of NATO, the lack of thinking about how Russia could be integrated into the Euro- Atlantic world, and Russia’s brusque and brutal treatment of the former Soviet states. Specific events and policies, such as the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2001 and Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, are treated with balance and care. This study takes the necessary step of dispassionately analyzing — while treading carefully — the history of the past twenty-five years to understand what went wrong. We should take heed of the lessons Everyone Loses provides. As the authors conclude, “One cold war was enough.”


Samuel Charap & Timothy J. Colton | Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia | Routledge | 212 pp. | 2017 | ISBN 978-1-138-63308–7 | More about this book

Eugene Scherbakov is program assistant, International Peace and Security, Carnegie Corporation of New York.