The Ukraine crisis will end inevitably in a redivision of Europe

Thirty years ago we awoke to a world in which both the Cold War and the Soviet Union were history. The titanic ideological struggle of the 20th century had ended with the victory of liberal democracy over totalitarian communism less than 50 years after the crushing defeat of an equally repulsive fascism. While local ethnic wars brewed in the Balkans and the Caucasus, great power conflict had been banished from the European continent. As the sole remaining superpower, the United States had the opportunity to reshape the European security order to foster a lasting peace and ever expanding prosperity.

Today, we greet the new year against the background of mounting tension and potential war in Europe. Russia’s military buildup along the Ukraine border and virulent anti-Ukraine and anti-West rhetoric have raised alarms about an impending Russian invasion. In an effort to deter Moscow, the United States has worked to rally its European allies and partners behind a set of punishing sanctions should Russia attack. While threatening the use of force, Russia has pressed for negotiations, first with the United States, that would codify a new division of Europe, pushing Russia’s sphere of influence westward into Europe, to undo what it sees as a 30-year offensive that has brought hostile Euro-Atlantic institutions to its doorstep.  

The United States has agreed to talks this month, but there is no obvious path to overcome what seem to be irreconcilable differences between Washington and Moscow on the foundations of European security.  

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Was there another path during the past 30 years that would have led to a more hopeful present?  Would a decision to fully develop the Partnership for Peace — which brought all the countries of the region, including Russia, into a structure built around the core NATO countries — have given Russia a greater stake in the system? Could the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have provided the foundation for a pan-European security structure in which Russia was fully invested? Would, if not the eschewing of NATO expansion but, rather, a slower pace, have provided greater opportunity to modify Russia’s assessment of the alliance and even offered a credible path toward Russian membership? We will never know. History does not entertain the subjunctive mood.

But we are probably talking about the degree of rivalry between Russia and the United States, not a lost opportunity at partnership. It was only a matter of time before the longstanding American effort to expand the realm of democratic states in Europe, as a pillar of its security, eventually would crash against Russia’s historical effort to extend its security perimeter as deep as possible into Europe to protect a political regime that is fundamentally alien to prevailing Western European norms and stands aside from the historical trajectory of European development toward ever greater democracy.  

Once tRussia had begun to recover from the profound political and socio-economic crisis of the first post-Soviet decade under President Putin, the only question was when and where Moscow would take a stand against what it has seen as Washington’s encroachment on its security. It is, in fact, remarkable that Russia has thrown down the gauntlet only now, when its margin of safety in Europe is at its narrowest since the Russian Empire was established 300 years ago and entered the European balance-of-power system.

In this light, today’s events are just the latest version of a contest between Russia and Europe that has spanned the past three centuries. The dividing line between Europe and the Russian sphere of influence in Europe has gravitated westward and eastward over time as a consequence of periodic trials of arms. The results have been codified by treaties at the end of the military contests forged at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Yalta Conference in 1945, and Helsinki Final Act in 1975.

What is unique about the current situation is that Moscow insists on redrawing the map of Europe before a major test of arms and not as a consequence of one. If the United States (and the West as a whole) engages, the outcome is not likely to be a stable security structure with a clear dividing line, but rather one in which the competition for Ukraine — through which the line will be drawn — moves into a different phase, centered more on shaping the country’s internal development through active engagement inside Ukraine, rather than by force of arms from outside. 

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The United States and its European partners will seek to consolidate a pro-Western Ukrainian state that can be fully integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions, whereas Russia will act to prevent that consolidation and draw individual pieces of Ukraine solidly into its orbit. The challenge is to reduce the risk that this contest will end in a trial of arms and construct one in which victory will come instead from the steady accumulation of incremental advantage over time. 

This outcome should not be beyond the capabilities of today’s diplomats. But it will require that they make the focus of negotiations not matters of irreconcilable principles but pragmatic steps to defuse tensions. Neither side is about to capitulate, but both are likely to agree to measures that meet their minimal security needs, while leaving open the possibility of achieving their ultimate goals in the future. So let the diplomacy begin.

Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was senior director for Russia on the U.S. National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.