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Book Review: Who lost Russia? From the Collapse of the USSR to Putin's War on Ukraine

10 May 2023
Reviewed by John West

Relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated drastically since the optimistic days of the 1980s and 90s. This is no doubt due to miscalculations and misunderstandings on both sides, according to Peter Conradi.  

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev enjoyed warm relations with presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. His successor Boris Yeltsin enjoyed a cordial relationship with Bill Clinton. And yet today Russia and the West, led by the US, are mired in a deadly and destructive conflict in Ukraine.

How did this seemingly promising relationship go off the rails? To understand the progressive deterioration, readers need go no further than Peter Conradi’s excellent updated book, Who lost Russia? From the Collapse of the USSR to Putin’s War on Ukraine.

Conradi, a long-time Russia-hand and journalist, documents the series of monumental events during the 1980s and 90s, namely: the collapse of the Berlin Wall and unification of Germany; liberation of central European countries from Soviet domination; disintegration of the Soviet Union and emergence of a new Russian Federation; and the end of communism.

The US believed that it had “won” the Cold War. It initially believed that Russia would become another ally similarly to Poland and Hungary in a unipolar US-dominated world. On that basis, everything would be fine. Thus, from 1989 to the 1990s, the West pushed through German unification, nuclear arms reduction agreements, and NATO membership for the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland –  in part by buying off the financially desperate Russia.

In sharp contrast, according to Conradi, Russia did not see itself as being beaten by the West in the Cold War. It believed that it was different from countries like Poland or Hungary, particularly given its enormous, resource-rich lands, and its proud history and culture. It is also a former imperial power, of which Poland and Hungary were former colonies. In sum, Russia was not prepared to meekly subordinate itself to US hegemony.

Conradi recounts that relations were unfortunately starting to sour towards the end of the 1990s. Russia experienced a big financial crisis in 1998, which many blamed on the shock therapy advice from the West and, following, its lack of support. The West also greatly underestimated Russia’s hostile reaction to NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99, especially its bombing of Belgrade.

The beginning of the new millennium, when Vladimir Putin replaced Yeltsin as Russian leader, is often portrayed as the start of the sharp deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. But in reality, relations were initially rather good. Putin was the first foreign leader to offer support to George W. Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, it was not long before a series of events saw relations deteriorate again. Russia opposed the Iraq war, and saw the “colour revolutions” of 2004-05 in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan as being organised, or at least inspired, by the West as an attempt to undermine Russia.

Conradi argues that Russia benefited during the 2000s from a big increase in oil and gas prices, which fostered a more self-confident and affluent regime. As Putin settled into power, he gradually replaced Yeltsin’s people with his own loyalists, brought to heel the business oligarchs and the media, gradually eliminated political opposition, and adopted a much more aggressive foreign policy. Putin’s popularity rose as he restored stability following the economic and political chaos of the 1990s, and lifted Russia’s international stature after the humiliation of Yeltsin’s erratic behaviour.

The surest sign that Russia and the West had become adversaries was at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, where Putin criticised the US for its “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.” The next critical event was the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit, where Germany and the US haggled over the possibility of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO, with the resultant compromise leaving them in limbo. The countries were offered the distant goal of membership, however without an immediate path through a Membership Action Plan.

Then, in 2014, a pro-Moscow Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was driven from power in the “Revolution of Dignity” after he decided, under pressure from Russia, to not sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union. There was much encouragement and support from the West for the Revolution. Indelibly, Russia responded by annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellion in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Other factors undermining Russia’s relations with the West included the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine by Moscow-backed separatists; Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Over the years, the country has been behind murders in the UK and widespread ransomware and cyber attacks.

Conradi delves into the NATO issue, which has increasingly been a leitmotif in the Russia/West relationship. There were many discussions of the issue around the time of German unification, but there was never a formal agreement that NATO membership would be withheld from former communist countries. If anything, Gorbachev made a major mistake in not extracting a NATO condition at the time of German unification, for which he held a key role, despite Russia’s parlous economic state.

While Russia reluctantly swallowed NATO membership for a number of central European countries, it is clear that Putin believes Ukraine’s application is a step too far. He will not accept that Ukraine is a separate, sovereign country. And while we may never exactly know Putin’s full motivations for invading Ukraine, the prospect of its NATO membership was clearly a factor.

The NATO issue highlights the vast gulf in perspectives between Russia and the West. Russia wants to practice 19th century geopolitics whereby great powers have a right to “spheres of influence,” and countries within those spheres are denied the agency to make their own foreign policy decisions. By contrast, the West (especially the US) believes in sovereignty and self-determination of all countries, and actively promotes democracy. Without NATO membership, the central European and Baltic nations would have remained in no-man’s land between the NATO bloc and Russia, being made vulnerable to Russian coercion. Thus, perhaps the West’s greatest mistake was to not offer Ukraine a fast track to NATO membership in 2008.

So, who lost Russia? Conradi concludes that fundamental misunderstandings on both sides dating back to the 1990s created a climate that prevented them becoming allies. Russians had the impression, fuelled by Putin, that they had been mistreated by the West. This also provides a justification for strong leadership and domestic repression, which Putin can use to protect his regime.

To my mind, however, Conradi’s text really suggests that there was an inevitable and irreconcilable gulf between the two sides. Russia is an authoritarian regime, keen on lording it over its neighbours, while the West is made up of democracies which live peacefully with their neighbours. Whatever the case, Conrad’s historical survey provides an excellent platform for understanding how Russia was lost and perhaps what led to its invasion of Ukraine.

This is a review of Peter Conradi, Who lost Russia?  From the Collapse of the USSR to Putin’s War on Ukraine (Oneworld Publications Ltd, 2022). ISBN13: 9781786070425 (Paperback).

John West is adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. His book Asian Century … on a Knife-Edge was reviewed in Australian Outlook.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.