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‘No Place for Russia’: How Much Are Old US Ambitions in Europe to Blame for Russia-West Tensions Today?

January 03, 2019
Joshua Shifrinson


“No Place for Russia: European Security Institutions Since 1989”
By William H. Hill
Columbia University Press, August 2018

Why have relations between Russia and the West—particularly the United States—collapsed over the last decade? Analysts remain starkly divided. Many blame the Russian government and Vladimir Putin for seeking militarized solutions and changes to Europe’s post-Cold War status quo. Others attribute the estrangement largely to Western policy, seeing the expansion of NATO and the European Union, alongside Western efforts to assert influence in Russia’s so-called near abroad, as “provoking the Russian bear.” And still others believe an insecurity spiral is at work, as the steps each side took to advance its interests inadvertently antagonized the other and contributed to the relationship’s degradation.

William Hill’s recently published book “No Place for Russia” stakes out a variant of the second explanation. In his depiction, one cannot understand the estrangement of Russia and the West apart from Russia’s interaction with Europe’s security architecture—that is, NATO, the European Union and the often overlooked Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Here, per Hill, the real problem is Western reluctance to adapt Europe’s post-Cold War security institutions to craft a place for Russia. This was not done as part of an explicit, formal decision to isolate Russia; as Hill—with long experience as a Foreign Service officer in the former Soviet Union and with the OSCE—compellingly shows, Western security policy evolved in a series of fits and starts, without central planning. However, with U.S. policymakers (whose opinions most mattered) intending NATO to remain a closed and U.S.-dominated shop, the European Union focused on knitting Western and Central European states closer together and the OSCE quickly sidelined in European security debates, Russia was left without a guaranteed seat at the security table. That Russia was a basket case for much of the 1990s—beset by economic turmoil, political unrest and often reliant on Western assistance—only reinforced the situation, leaving Russian leaders without the wherewithal to effectively assert Russian concerns.

As a result, and even though Western states regularly sought to engage Moscow, the terms and conditions of this engagement were defined largely by the West. Thus, relations could be dialed up or back depending on Western concerns and the West’s evaluation of Russian interests independent of what Russia itself interpreted as its concerns. For precisely this reason, the primary Russian complaint throughout the post-Cold War world was Russian ill ease (and later resentment) over being forced to operate within a framework in which its interests were near automatically given second shrift. Over time, as Russian power recovered from the depths of the post-Soviet collapse and Western institutions began moving into Russia’s near abroad, the stage was set for confrontation. Even as the West sought to sustain a security order that it dominated, the relative improvement to Russian power and the growing challenge to its interests no longer made acquiescing to this situation strategically or politically palatable.

Hill’s argument contains important insights, and the evidence marshalled in the volume is impressive. For one thing, it is almost certainly true that there was a general reluctance on the part of the West to modify Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture in ways that might be more amenable to Russia—most notably, by crafting pan-European security structures that would involve both the United States and Russia or later by keeping NATO out of Eastern Europe. Indeed, it is telling that Secretary of State James Baker once bluntly declared in July 1990 that the “real risk to NATO is CSCE,” meaning the OSCE’s predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Similarly, Hill’s premise that the resulting dynamic undercut Russia’s ability to meet its self-identified security needs is amply substantiated by the growing documentary record surrounding NATO enlargement. After all, despite repeated insistence by Russian President Boris Yeltsin that NATO expansion would be inimical to Russian interests, the Clinton administration forged ahead: Although the U.S. was certainly willing to slow expansion for a year or two and promise improved NATO-Russian ties via the Founding Act, these were essentially operational adjustments to Russian strategic dilemmas. Hill aptly covers the ins and outs of European security debates in the long period running from the end of the Cold War to the mid-2010s, showing how the estrangement of Russia and the West played out in policy debates large and small across a range of actors over a quarter century. It is a commanding and rigorous historical synthesis.

That said, the volume ultimately comes up short in terms of explicitly laying out the reasons for Russia’s exclusion. Having read through the richly textured history of Europe’s post-Cold War security structures, one is nearly overwhelmed with the details. Yet, the big picture remains absent. One wants to know: Why was it that the West never found a place for Russia? Likewise, why did Russia falter in crafting a place for itself in Europe? Did Russia play a bad hand poorly? Was the West just consumed with post-Cold War victory disease, or was there a logic to its limited outreach, even perhaps a lingering fear of Moscow’s resurgence? Even if one accepts Hill’s basic premise—and many readers will and should—there is a strange absence of deep explanation for the basic pattern Hill identifies.

Just as strikingly, the volume itself suggests an answer. As Hill observes in the opening chapters, the United States under the H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations was reluctant to see the United States’ position in Europe challenged. Preventing such a challenge was no mean objective: It was not obvious that the United States would remain in Europe in the absence of a Soviet threat, just as it was a striking departure from American history for the United States to remain regularly engaged overseas in a peacetime setting. Preserving NATO and, with it, the political symbol and strategic expression of the United States’ European preeminence (and it was preeminence after 1990-1991) became the sine qua non of the United States’ European policy. Commitment to this objective, Hill’s work shows, even pushed the United States to limit the EU’s security mission and successfully suppress the CSCE. And if ensuring the U.S. remained in charge of European security after 1991 was the United States’ primary objective, then substantially revising Europe’s security systems to allow a place for Russia could be disastrous as it would have shifted the balance of power within institutional fora. Indeed, if Russia turned into a revanchist actor, then granting Moscow a seat at a changed decision-making table would be to allow the wolf into the hen house—or so a savvy strategist might have argued.

In short, even if there was never a formal decision to deny Russia a regular place at Europe’s post-Cold War security table, there seems to have been a strong implicit preference in U.S. strategic circles to keep Russia at arm’s length. Insofar as strategy is as much about the expression of underlying preferences and ideas as it is a codified plan, the implication looms large: The most powerful and influential player in post-Cold War Europe believed it had strategic reasons for crafting a system that would keep its own preeminence intact. That many of Europe’s other actors were divided both internally and among each other on their own visions for European security abetted American ambitions, allowing the United States to sustain preeminence with little pushback. It follows that, in the 2000s, once American relative power began to wane as NATO approached Russia’s border and Russian strength recovered, the United States was apt to be still less inclined to cut Russia in. Consider: If the U.S. believed it gained leverage from keeping Russia out when American power was at its height, it would certainly not want to reverse course when American power was on the downward slope.

None of this is to lay blame for current problems at the United States’ feet or to legitimate Russian actions in its near abroad; analysis, not judgment, is the focus of this essay. The point is simply that where Hill explains the estrangement of Russia and the West via the policymaking process that kept Russia out of Europe’s security architecture, one first wants to know why the security architecture looked the way it did and why there was reluctance to change the status quo. Here, Hill’s own work implies that one can seemingly explain quite a bit via the United States’ underlying preference for remaining preeminent in post-Cold War Europe and, in turn, keeping Russia on the periphery. That Hill is able to show how this process played out on the ground—in the diplomatic meeting rooms, in the summit halls, and beyond—is testament to his research, but also underscores the unanswered questions.

Still, Hill’s is a fine volume. Analysts do not yet have a single, comprehensive assessment of the Russo-American estrangement after the Cold War, but Hill’s book takes us much of the way there. The history is rich, the research extensive—indeed, it’s a veritable one-stop shop for a discussion of post-Cold War European security debates!—and the narrative lucid. If its underlying thesis raises as many questions as it answers, this is a credit to the book for its ability to engage scholars and policymakers alike. At a time when Europe’s security future looks increasingly tense, Hill’s impressive analysis of the last quarter-century helps us understand how events turned from post-Cold War euphoria to early 21st century uncertainty.


Joshua Shifrinson

Joshua Shifrinson is an assistant professor of international relations at Boston University's Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.

Photo by U.S. Army Cpl. Jordan Johnson, shared as a U.S. government work in the public domain.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.