The Twilight of the Post-Soviet Space

Tr@nsit Online

Bruce P. Jackson talks about the problem of interpreting the post-war world. Specifically, the interpretation of post-Soviet states in Western policy and the manner in which interpretation shapes policy.

An accurate interpretation, such as George Kennan’s famous analysis of the “Sources of Soviet Conduct” (1947), is no guarantee of wise and effective policy, but it should give policymakers some decent options. A mistaken interpretation, such as American thinking about post-Saddam Iraq, guarantees the failure of policy.

Kennan’s intent was to interpret “the political personality of Soviet power” which is a pretty good definition of what I would call “political culture.” The political personality of power does not dictate the future conduct of states, but is does tell us the constraints on their behaviour. Even an accurate interpretation cannot tell us what post-Soviet states will do, but it should inform us what they cannot do or are highly unlikely to do.

America’s interpretations of Russia over the years have been likened to an intellectual fog “caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier.” In the early 1970’s, this was a criticism of the Liberal view of the Soviet Union. I suspect that the same kind of fog clouds Western interpretation of the post-Soviet states today in both Washington and Brussels.


From an American perspective, the modern Euro-Atlantic system began with America’s entry into WWII in 1941 and continues to this day. The history of the Euro-Atlantic can be summarized as two post-wars. During each, the lessons of the war and its immediate aftermath were translated into institutions, policies, and assumptions about the post-war world.

Since both modern post-war periods arise from the circumstances of Europe, policy invariably addressed the three great problems of Europe:

  • Turkey in Europe?
  • The Balkans
  • Russia and the West

In the post-1945 period, the Atlantic alliance was re-formed as NATO and Germany recast within the Coal and Steel Community. From the institutional framework constructed between 1946 and the early 1950’s, the post-WWII generation gave its answer to its three problems:

  • For Russia, the answer was containment.
  • For Turkey, the militarization of containment suggested a role as the Southern Flank of NATO.
  • And the answer to the murderous instability of the Balkans was Yugoslavia. A borderland between great powers – managed by a tolerable autocrat – something like today’s Ukraine..

In the post-1991 period, we did not create institutions. We just expanded them. We assumed that the European Union and NATO could be expanded, probably indefinitely but certainly so far as to create “A Europe Whole and Free.” The first post-war was about the containment of Russia, and the second post-war was about the completion of Europe.

As occurred in the years immediately after 1945, the concrete of post-war policy and opinion dried very quickly after 1991.

The reunification of Germany was rapidly followed by the expansion of NATO to include all of Central Europe. This seemed to suggest that the answer to Russia was the progressive expansion of Europe.
The wars of Yugoslav succession seemed to suggest that armed intervention could change the nature of states. And then integration into the EU could finish the historical job in the Balkans.
And, since Turkey was no longer needed for containment, Turkey could tag along to Europe or search for its post-Kemalist identity somewhere else.

Needless to say, the first lessons of the post-1991 world were in dispute in little more than a decade. By 2003, the success of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo seemed a questionable model for Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, from 1991 until 2013, some form of the expansion or integration have dominated Western policies towards the problems in Europe’s East.

Policy towards the Western Balkans is still governed by the EU’s Thessaloniki Communique which guarantees all states in the region full membership in all European institutions. Although policy towards Turkey has been nowhere near as categorical, Turkey remains in NATO and within the orbit of Europe.

Since both the Balkans and Turkey are exceptional cases, this evening I want to focus on the question of the post-Soviet states. What is the political personality of post-Soviet power?

In the post-Cold War period, what lessons did we learn about Russia and the rest? Were these lessons correct? What policies did we construct in response to our new understanding of the post-Soviet world? How did this work out for us and for them? And now after 22 years, what can we say about the second post-War period of the Euro-Atlantic?

I should point out that 22 years is quite a long time. It is the distance between WWII and Woodstock and from the Tet Offensive to the Fall of the Berlin Wall. A mid-point is as good a place as any to ask “Were we right about the post-Soviet world and its place in the West?


It is probably fair to say in 2013 that the West looks at the post-Soviet world in terms of frustration and disappointment. Compared to the mutual admiration society that characterizes German-Polish relations, few Western European states are enchanted by Russia and its neighbours.

In fact, for the last year the United States, Germany and the European Union have all been conducting strategic reviews of their Russian and Ukrainian policies. These debates have pitted the values community against economic pragmatists. But neither school of thought has prevailed. Nor has anyone altered the uncomfortable status quo.

In retrospect, it is clear that sometime during the summer of 2008, between the failed NATO Summit in the Spring and the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War that August, consensus among Western leaders about what do with the post-Soviet world disappeared. Since then, Western policy towards the post-Soviet World and has been characterized by the universal dissatisfaction of the West with its own policy.

The next test of the dispiriting stasis which constitutes the Eastern policy of the West comes this November at the Europe Union’s Summit in Vilnius. There European leaders must decide whether to allow Ukraine to formally associate with the EU or to bar Kyiv from closer relations with Europe because of a “shortfall in political values.” As Chancellor Merkel summarized the case for isolating the Ukraine, “We don’t talk to people who don’t share our values.”

(One could be forgiven for wondering just what German diplomats do if they are not talking to people who do not share their values.)

With Merkel’s pronouncement, it was agreed that decision on policy toward the post-Soviet states would be made in November. Almost by accident, the case which will define policy became Ukraine, traditionally one of the most problematic of Europe’s Eastern neighbours. How we came to this slough of geopolitical despond is an interesting story.


The first chapter might well be entitled “Irrational Exuberance,” referring to the initial period of enthusiasm for the nascent post-Soviet democracies beginning with the Rose Revolution in 2004. In that year, American politicians rushed to praise Georgian democracy and Misha Saakashvili with the urgency and decorum of American shoppers in Walmart the day after Thanksgiving.

When the Orange Revolution came along a year later, not to be outdone, Prime Minister Tony Blair offered EU membership to Ukraine days after the inauguration of President Yushchenko.

By 2007, however, the bloom was already off the rose, at least in Georgia. Despite President Bush’s uplifting rhetoric on the inevitability of democratic transformation, his speech in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square had an end of an era quality. The president did not look up from his text when someone threw an old Soviet grenade at the stage during his speech, which due to its age and shoddy manufacture did not explode. It bounced around unnoticed in the crowd until a security guard tossed it into the derelict Soviet-era subway.

A poorly-fused grenade clattering into the darkness of a forgotten Soviet subway in the Caucasus is as good a metaphor for the new period of disappointment as I can find. President Bush’s propensity to overstate his case, particularly on the transformative powers of the American model of democracy, ended up highlighting the fragmentation that was occurring in the policies of the West. By the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, the European allies led by Germany blocked the aspirations of both Georgia and Ukraine to begin preparations for NATO membership.

Any possible illusion that our policy to support revolutionary democratic change in the leading post-Soviet democracies was working – ended when Georgia and Russia went to war in August . When the shooting starts with Russia, there is little chance that a stable and prosperous democracy will be the result.

Please note: Contrary to popular opinion, the alliance did not divide in 2003 over the invasion of Iraq. It fractured in 2008 over the question of the expansion of Europe into the post-Soviet world.

By 2009, the EU had conjured up the Eastern Partnership to compensate for its lack of interest in post-Soviet states by offering a vague program of association with European institutions. The new American president succeeded in dampening the enthusiasm of Central Europe for democracy support inside the former Soviet Union by announcing a “reset” with Russia. These partial policies had two things in common: They dissatisfied their putative beneficiaries, and they brought little influence in the post-Soviet world to their authors in Brussels or Washington. Neither reset with Russia nor association with the rest of the former Soviet Union had the slightest effect on the internal character or national development of the post-Soviet semi-democracies.

Arguably, the only Eastern policy still standing is the Eastern Partnership or what remains of it. There is no doubt that between 2008 and today few believed that Western policy was bearing fruit in post-Soviet democracies or that these democracies were developing in the manner of the Visegrad states, the Baltics, or even the leading democracies in the Balkans.

As a kind of disquiet and uncertainty took hold in the policy community, another nagging question arose. Perhaps, the inefficacy of our Eastern policy was not a problem in policy development or execution after all. Perhaps, we had missed something more fundamental about the nature of post-Soviet states and their aptitude for political development. Maybe our interpretation of the political culture and dynamics of what used to be Soviet Union was simply wrong.

The problem of the interpretation of Russia and the semi-democracies and autocracies which surround it lies at the heart of the Eastern Question of the West. And, a misunderstanding of political culture and its importance could explain our myopia. Samuel Huntington observed that a vast chasm separates liberal, legalistic, Protestant, parliamentarian Western Europe – from the authoritarian, oligarchic, Orthodox, Presidential systems of Slavic Europe and Eurasia.

It is hardly a clash of civilizations, but more of a thermocline of two political cultures of greatly different internal temperatures resting against each other. Happily, it seems that vastly different political cultures even in proximity can be very stable over long periods of time. But this equilibrium works best if each culture is isolated to some extent from the other and tends to break down when exogenous shocks threaten the weaker system. For example, what happens to the major post-Soviet states if a global recession creates a crisis for their economic system? In a crisis, the political culture of these states takes on great significance.

In interpreting the behaviour of formerly Communist or post-conflict nations, we often reason from our 20 th century victories over fascism and Soviet totalitarianism. States —once free to choose — will naturally turn to European models of democracy as they did in Western Europe in the post-war period and in Central and Eastern Europe in the post–Cold War era. But that’s not always the way it has happened in Europe’s past.


Norman Davies in his Vanished Kingdoms tells the story of what happened after Alaric sacked Rome in 410 AD. As it turns out, Alaric set up the Visigothic Kingdom, which was built exclusively on the political culture, system of organization, and laws of the very Roman Empire Alaric had just helped destroy. In short, after the barbarians sack Rome, they try to rebuild an inferior model – a knock-off empire. The Visigoths lasted for about ninety years, but it was not for another 500 years that the fading political culture of Rome was superseded by a wholly new French culture.

Davies calls this extended aftermath of the Roman Fall “the post-Roman twilight.” Perhaps, we should be thinking about the implications of “the post-Soviet twilight,” wherein the depredations of Lukashenka and the maladroit lumbering of Yanukovych are merely the initial “barbarian” phase. If we were to adopt Davies’s model, we have not even begun the extended phase during which the political culture of Soviet Moscow will fade into a wasteland over the centuries.

Of course, this is an exaggeration.

But it serves to illustrate that democracies do not always pop up like tulips in the spring. There have been post-imperial transitions in European history much longer and far gloomier than the recent transition from Warsaw Pact to NATO.


If we look at the condition of post-Soviet states, they may have improved from the depths of the early 1990s, but in many cases they have not recovered to the levels of the Soviet period. None are converging with European levels of GDP per capita at the rate of Poland or the Baltic states.

Belarus is in the worst shape politically and economically since Stalin. It is a Securitate state with a brutal and clownish dictator.

The North Caucasus is even worse and has slipped beyond the control of Moscow into an ungovernable mix of warlords, radical Islam, criminal trafficking and systemic poverty.

Azerbaijan, despite its extraordinary wealth from oil and gas, has turned its back on reform and evinces no interest in free trade or association with Europe. Increasingly, the Azerbaijan of Ilham Aliyev is little more than a hereditary autocracy propped up by petrodollars.

Armenia remains isolated, flirting with political violence and the suppression of alternative political parties.

Georgia, despite eight years of reform and the recent peaceful change of government remains very much in doubt. The “good czarism” of Misha Saakashvili, which succeeded in reforming, modernizing, and Westernizing Georgia, seems to have given way to disorderly populism. And a new Prime Minister who cares little for due process or political tolerance.

Of the minor states only Moldova seems somewhat promising and intent on inching towards Europe. But the Communist Party remains the largest political party decades after the death of the communist system.

Certainly, these countries are not the children of colourful democratic revolutions. The Orange and Rose Revolutions themselves seem far less than glorious today. It would be difficult to argue, as George Bush did in his Freedom Square speech, that democracy in these countries is inevitable and that the driving force for political change is the universal belief in individual freedom.

Indeed, one is forced to the opposite conclusion. Variations on the authoritarian state seem to be the political model for post-Soviet system. Each state seems to have adapted elements of Soviet culture to its pre-existing national culture, in effect draping Russia’s old nationalities problem with the culture and inefficiency of the USSR in the 1970s.

The same frozen conflicts remain: In the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they get colder, and in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, they threaten to get much hotter. Political liberty and dissent are constrained by secret police, tax police, or bans on NGOs throughout the post-Soviet world.

But this is exactly what the “post-Soviet twilight” could be expected to look like: the remnants of an autocratic political culture jutting like shards of glass upwards through the torn fabric of the Russian and Soviet empires.

When we examine the two major powers in the post-Soviet world, Russia and Ukraine, the situation is less chaotic but potentially more dangerous. Among the minor states, the post-imperial twilight has brought a persistent disorder and insecurity, a relative isolation from European and global politics, severe limits on economic growth, and political systems that curtail civil liberties and human possibilities.

In the major states, however, there is a superficial stability. There are significant populations and resources, and both Russia and Ukraine are connected to international markets and politics. The failure of Russia or Ukraine could produce secondary effects which could harm the Euro-Atlantic, and this is what seems to be happening.


Ivan Krastev wrote recently that the “Soviet order was paralyzed by the deadly combination of political stability and economic inefficiency.” Much the same thing could be said of the economic crisis in Russia today. Political paralysis and systemic corporate mismanagement have recapitulated the economic conditions of twenty years ago and threaten the breakdown of the post-Soviet system. The negative effects of the second fall of the Soviet-derived economic system could dwarf the political collapse which marked the end of the Cold War.

Post-Soviet Russia and its rise to global influence were built on the exploitation of resources by state directed companies. Putin simply dropped the ideology of the Soviet imperial system but kept its political culture in pursuit of a primitive form of mercantile capitalism which became the post-Soviet economic system. Russia today is inseparable from the Putin’s personal reinterpretation of Soviet political culture. Putin is the architect of both managed democracy and (more significantly) the system of state-oligarchic capitalism unique to Russia.

Like all twilight systems, the same flaws which caused the imperial system to collapse and which remain embedded in its political successor will cause the post-imperial system to collapse as well. As Stephen Kotkin predicted, “Russia has inherited everything that has caused the Soviet collapse as well as the collapse itself.”

And this is what is going on in Russia at the moment. Putin and Russia’s financial elite are confronting an economic crisis for which its strategic industries and federal budget are unprepared. From the fragments of Soviet political culture, the Kremlin built a hugely wealthy oligarchic economy which threw off enough profits to finance the post-Soviet state. This economic system can function only for as long as the profits of the mismanaged “strategic industries” are sufficient to fund the lifestyles of their oligarchic owners and the social needs of 143 million Russians. In the last decade, the decline of commodity prices, increased competition, and the rising costs of Russia’s regions have overtaken profits.

In short, the slowing of a post-imperial state is already beginning at the economic level. It remains to be seen whether or not Putin can change the twilight political culture and restructure the wealth-creating industries quickly enough to avert systemic collapse.


In Ukraine, there are many of the same facets of Soviet political culture, but they have been assembled in a Ukrainian way to produce dysfunction at the political level rather an economic breakdown. Despite the lack of an IMF bailout, staggering gas prices, and lacking an agreement with the EU on free trade, Ukraine’s economy still functions. Grain, steel, coal, and pipes still get to market, and there is always the option of siphoning Russian gas from the pipelines. The same cannot be said for the political class, whose dysfunction is staggering.

Former President Kuchma once told me that the only thing that I needed to know about Ukrainian politics was that every major politician (Yanukovych, Yushchenko, Lazarenko even Yulia Timoshenko) worked in his Administration. The composition of the governing elite has been remarkably stable over time. And all have governed in much the same way as the rest of the elite: with a combination of populist rhetoric, questionable financial deals, redistribution of property by the state, selective prosecution, and consummate skill in playing audiences in East and West off against each other.

Since Ukraine’s independence, a form of the Regions Party has won the vast majority of elections. The permanence of a Regions majority reflects the consistency of a political culture with a distinct hierarchy of interests: First, the oligarchic business groups insist that the government provide political stability for them to pursue business. Second, they want the state to provide subsidies, pensions, and basic services to ordinary Ukrainians to prevent social disorder, which is bad for business. Third, the oligarchs want protection from the greed of the state, for which they are prepared to pay by ceding claims to the Russian gas trade from which the governing elite can enrich itself. Under President Kuchma, this system worked imperfectly most of the time, but it began to break down during the endlessly acrimonious political divorce of Victor Yushchenko and Yulia Timoshenko.

The tipping point was reached in January 2009 when then-Prime Minister Timoshenko, under pressure of the approaching Presidential Elections, signed an exorbitant gas contract with then-Prime Minister Putin. Timoshenko agreed to buy a large amount of gas at by far the highest price in Europe on a “Take it or pay for it all anyway” basis. Russia picked up a $60 billion windfall over European market prices which it can now ill-afford to give up. And Ukrainian business picked up an annual bill for $6 billion in additional energy costs which it can ill-afford to pay.

To shorten a long story, the gas deal led directly to the prosecution of Yulia Timoshenko when power changed hands to Yanukovych in 2010 and to the enduring political crisis with Europe which continues to this day. But, the dramatic rise in gas prices also accelerated the breakdown of the post-Soviet political system.

First, with gas prices around $480 for the next ten years, the oligarchic business groups can no longer make money, stability or not. Second, with a sliding economy and the alienation of Europe, the government in Kyiv cannot meet the social needs of average Ukrainians. Finally, with Russia bypassing the leaky and corrupt Ukrainian pipelines, the state cannot enrich itself and, therefore, begins to steal from foreign investors and Ukrainian business. Here again, the foundation of the post–Cold War Ukrainian state is starting to give way. The political culture which this generation of Ukrainian leaders inherited from the Soviet Empire proved an unreliable basis for a political system bordering on the prosperous and politically powerful European Union. Increasingly, the Ukrainian government cannot meet the demands of its core constituencies nor can it satisfy the conditions which Europeans require for access to their markets and institutions.


If Vienna is anything like Washington, the news that the two most consequential states of the post-Soviet world are teetering on the precipice will not engender a period of soul-searching among policymakers. Editorial pages will not ask, “How could we have handled Russia and Ukraine so badly?”

To the contrary, democracy promoters and human rights advocates will be delighted that Yanukovych’s Ukraine may fall apart. Hardliners in both parties in Washington will be delighted that Gazprom is going out of business and that the gates of Moscow will soon be thrown open to the corporate armies of the West.

In terms of public opinion, our misplaced enthusiasm for the various hues of revolutionary change in 2004–5 has been replaced by a constituency for indifference about what becomes of Russia and Ukraine. Obviously, this complacency is occasioned by our profound disappointment with political developments throughout the post-Soviet world, but it is reinforced by serious geo-economic factors. In Washington, there is the view that our newly discovered energy independence makes the post-Soviet world less important, that our recessionary economy limits our interests in Europe, and that the rise of Asia commands our attention elsewhere.

It is this final thought that links the period of irrational exuberance to the current period of withdrawal and complacency. In the course of less than a decade, Western policymakers first believed that democracy would necessarily triumph in the post-Soviet world, and then became firmly convinced that decline and disintegration were just as inevitable. In the first instance, certainty was advanced as a reason for political activism and, in the second instance, as the justification for diplomatic inaction.

In both policies, we are misinterpreting the East. The dire straits of the post-Soviet world are at a minimum bad news for Europe and United States. Conceivably, a Great Recession in Russia and Ukraine could be disastrous for the West. Our influence over political developments in Ukraine will not increase; it will disappear altogether. A breakdown in Putin’s economy will not produce a more docile and studious Russia, it will produce a more unpredictable and dangerous neighbour.

For many years, most Americans thought that the weakening of Russia both politically and economically would be a pretty good thing. As this outcome becomes more than a theoretical possibility, it does not look nearly so attractive. A breakdown inside Russia would return Russia to 1991. Russian energy supply would become more unreliable. Germany would have to write off its sizable foreign direct investment in the East, which would be a massive loss to German banks. EU-Russian trade would drop precipitously. Europe would enter a more profound recession. China may see its advantage in the Far East. Certainly, the Chinese will claim the energy resources in Turkmenistan and Central Asia. At a minimum, the loss of Russian energy, trade, and economic growth will put a gigantic hole in the Euro-Atlantic system and will retard recovery on both sides of the Atlantic.

In short, a functioning and prosperous twilight Russia wherein we suffer the annoyances of post-Soviet political culture and persistent corruption is far preferable to a moonless economic midnight stretching from the Carpathians to the border of China.


The situation in Ukraine is not much different. No country has ever been the bemused recipient of more Western sermonizing and proven less capable of an appropriate response, than Ukraine. But our single-minded pursuit of shared political values has neither engendered these values nor has it resulted in freeing the former Prime Minister from prison.

The first problem lies in selecting a test case to summarize all the differences the West has with the lamentable political and human rights standards of Ukraine. An emotional case such as Timoshenko’s more often than not leads to the alienation of the West and the isolation of the country in question rather than to a breakthrough on political values. More to the point, the test case we had forced upon us in Ukraine has not served to accomplish our objectives or protect our interests. While Timoshenko should certainly be released, the West has other interests in Ukraine at least as important as the fate of a particular Ukrainian politician. After all, what is the point of making a woman whom we do not really know the threshold condition for larger interests which we have not yet defined?

And this is the question that divides Europe in the summer of 2013. On the one hand, the politically suspect prosecution of Timoshenko is an affront to Western values. On the other hand, rejecting Ukraine on political grounds (and implicitly supporting the legality of the Russian gas contract) pushes Ukraine back to Russia or into bankruptcy or both.

Few European politicians want a choice between “Abandoning a defenceless woman or re-constituting the Soviet Union.” Certainly not President Barroso who picked up the phone in February to talk things over with President Yanukovych. It is too early to say whether these talks will produce more attractive choices at Vilnius, but Barroso has already negated Chancellor Merkel’s stern policy on shared values.

It seems that Merkel was mistaken. The Europe Union seems prepared to be perfectly appalled by the judicial mistakes of the Yanukovych government and still willing to compete aggressively with Russia for the political affection of Ukraine. Expressed in another way, the European Union seems to have chosen a circumscribed engagement policy over a political confrontation ending in sanctions.


In whichever way we resolve the conundrum of our policy towards Russia and Ukraine, these policy choices will take place within the larger context of politics in the Euro-Atlantic. From the United States perspective, the highest priority is a European recovery and an EU that survives its financial crisis. As I have argued, it is hard to see how either outcome is helped by an economic crisis in Russia or political disorder in Ukraine. Indeed, either event would seem to deepen Europe’s problems and unsettle America’s shaky recovery.

If European leaders are serious about opening free trade discussions with the United States, it is hard to see how an economic implosion in Europe’s East to complement the fiscal disaster in Europe’s South is the best way to get a trade bill through the Senate or to regain the confidence of capital markets. An Atlantic Free Trade Agreement will be difficult enough without having to explain to the US Senate that Europe has lost control of its Neighbourhood Policy.

Finally, there lies President Obama’s wishful “pivot to Asia.” It is one thing for a united Euro-Atlantic community — bound in a formidable NATO alliance and integrated in a free trade system comprising almost half of all global wealth. It is hard to see how China could dictate norms to such a large market and to such a powerful alliance.

It is quite another thing to sail the Pacific alone with Europe’s West divided from Europe’s East by political culture just as conclusively as Europe was once divided by Stalin, with Europe cut off from its nearest and most abundant energy supplies in Russia, and with the United States unable to access either the Trans-Caucasus or Central Asian transit to the sub-continent. In this event, the “loss” or even the temporary alienation of Russia or Ukraine will allow any passing Mandarin or Commissar from Beijing to dictate trade, security, and energy terms.

To be credible in world politics, a great power must demonstrate that it can consolidate and politically control its strategic rear. And Europe’s East is the strategic rear of the West for the purposes of an Asian pivot.


Without doubt, we have grossly misinterpreted the politics of Europe’s East after the fall of the Soviet Union. We were wrong to think that a wholly new political system had appeared overnight across the Eurasian landmass so different from its Soviet predecessor that even the term “post-Soviet” was misleading. We were wrong to assume that the maturation of these nascent democracies would proceed in much the same way that Western Europe developed after World War II or Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, we were completely wrong to see the Colour Revolutions as the reflections of our own political imagination.

The post-Soviet world is the legacy of the Czarist and Soviet empires that preceded it and remains a rough fabric sewn piecemeal from the tatters of older imperial culture. For twenty years, this world has not developed as our models predicted, and our policies and well-intended advice have had the opposite of their intended results. As a consequence, our geopolitical influence and the reach of our institutions have declined inexorably over the past two decades.

Now, we have a stark policy choice. Do we allow the two leading states in the post-Soviet world to enter into crises likely to bring the post-Soviet period to an end, and then just hope for the best? Or, do we now accept that political cultures change over centuries (not merely with the fall of an empire) and that the democratic change we hope will come to the post-Soviet world will arrive over decades of trade, association, and cultural exchange? If the latter, we will have to accept that Putin will never share our view of human rights and political values. If the latter, we will not to be able to sacrifice relations with 43 million Ukrainians over a single court case despite our sympathies.

It seems to me that the failure of the West after the fall of the Soviet Union was first indifference and then the inflation of our expectations beyond what was politically conceivable for the post-Soviet states. What should be our objective is an extended period of limited engagement with the most promising of the post-Soviet states. This engagement will take place in areas of agreement: trade, security, conflict resolution. In this manner we can gradually shape new states — possibly even European states — in the post-imperial twilight. If we decline this chance through pique or malice, Norman Davies warns us that it could be five hundred years before a new culture appears to replace the hapless, thuggish, but nonetheless imitative barbarians.

No doubt there are difficult choices to be made in striking the right balance between the imperative of long-term engagement and the protection of our values in the course of engagement. This predicament was anticipated long ago by the poet Cavafy who asked:

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

In this sense, Europe is substantially ahead of the United States in recognizing that whatever happens in the post-Soviet twilight will begin with people who do not share our values: the “barbarians,” for lack of a better word. Nothing that will happen to the barbarians or to their fragile world is foreordained or inevitable. Nevertheless, their political culture will be shaped and redirected over long periods of time by the influences of trade, travel, language, and education. Indeed, the sum of these soft, liberal forces has been known to change political culture. This is a kind of solution.


Bruce P. Jackson is the founder and President of the Project on Transitional Democracies. The Project is a multi-year endeavour aimed at accelerating the pace of reform in post-1989 democracies and advancing the date for the integration of these democracies into the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic. Jackson has written extensively about the engagement of Russia and Eastern European democracies by the European Union and the United States, on the new geo-economics of Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region, and on the energy security of Europe.

The text is based on a lecture given in Vienna on May 13, 2013, co-organized by the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue and the Institute for Human Sciences.