Europe Inside Out

How Russia Shattered Europe's Post-Cold War Illusions

Episode Summary

Rosa Balfour and Thomas de Waal discuss Russia’s war in Ukraine, what the West got wrong, and how it is transforming EU policies.

Episode Notes

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed Europe’s relations with Moscow and with Eastern Europe, as exemplified by the EU’s energy diversification and transformation of its foreign and security policies. The war has also laid bare Europe’s flaws, including its assumptions about the transition to liberal democracy following the Cold War and delusions about Putin’s worldviews. 

Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, is joined by Thomas de Waal to unpack the current state of play, lessons to be learned from the past, and the future of relations between Brussels, Moscow, and Kyiv. A senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and an expert in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, Tom was formerly a journalist with the BBC, the Economist, and the Moscow Times.

Rosa Balfour (March 8, 2022). What Russia’s War in Ukraine Means for Europe. Carnegie Europe .

Serhii Plokhy (2015). The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Basic Books. 

Thomas Carothers. (January 2022). The End of the Transition Paradigm. Journal of Democracy. 

Shane Harris, Karen DeYoung, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Ashley Parker and Liz Sly (August 16, 2022). Road to War: U.S. Struggled to Convince Allies, and Zelensky, of Risk of Invasion. The Washington Post. 

Gwendolyn Sasse (September 13, 2022). Russia’s War in Ukraine: A Turning Point? Carnegie Europe

Episode Transcription

Europe Inside Out

Episode 1: How Russia Shattered Europe's Post-Cold War Illusions

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began on the 24th of February 2022, has transformed Europe's relations with Moscow and with Eastern Europe. 

Spurred by the war, as well as rising energy costs, the EU is weaning itself off Russian fossil fuels. It has also promised to open its doors to Ukraine and Moldova, a historic decision. 

And NATO will soon welcome two new members, Sweden and Finland. 

While such political decisions and reforms are notable in fundamentally reshaping Western and Eastern Europe, the war has also laid bare Europe's flaws, particularly in its perceptions of Russia and Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, in its assumptions about transitions to liberal democracy and delusions about Putin's world views, all of which have shaped the last 30 years of politics in Eurasia. 

While we brace for a long war, thinking about the future of Ukraine must address several unanswered questions. 

Where did Europe go wrong? 

What lessons should we draw from Europe's past? 

How will Russian, Ukrainian and European societies interact moving forward?

Welcome to Europe Inside Out, a monthly podcast from Carnegie Europe about the continent's greatest foreign policy challenges.

My name is Rosa Balfour and I am the Director of Carnegie Europe.

[00:01:29.100] - Rosa Balfour

This inaugural episode of Europe Inside Out is about Russia and Eastern Europe, a topic that has been at the top of the headlines for the better half of this year. I'm joined by Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe. A former journalist with the BBC, the Economist and the Moscow Times. Tom is an expert in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. He is the author of numerous publications, including the book Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus, for which he was awarded the James Cameron Prize for Distinguished Reporting. Tom, welcome.

[00:02:05.270] - Thomas de Waal

Great to be with you, Rosa, for this kick off inaugural podcast.

[00:02:11.390] - Rosa Balfour

So Tom, we are over half a year into Russia's war with Ukraine. How is the mood in Ukraine at the moment? We were all very surprised by the degree of resilience of Ukrainian society and the response. The expectation was that Kiev would be taken in a few weeks, whereas government and society has responded with the heroism we were not used to. How is the mood in Ukraine now?

[00:02:49.190] - Thomas de Waal

Yeah, well, I would sum it up as war, war, war. I mean, war has become the new normal in Ukraine, which is a terrible condition to be in. But, you know, I follow a lot of Ukrainians on social media, I talk to Ukrainians, I have Ukrainian friends and this war has become their life. Obviously life continues in some form, but the war dominates everything. And as you say, the main story is that Ukraine has survived, whereas there was quite a strong expectation that the Ukrainian military was not that strong, that it would be overwhelmed. Predictions were also made about the strength of the Russian military, which were fortunately wrong as well. But it's obviously going to be a long... a long haul. And we're now into a kind of war of attrition, where Ukraine is trying to take back occupied, captured regions. That's going to be a very difficult and bloody process. We're seeing an offensive now starting in Kherson province down in the south. And obviously there are massive underlying problems that are not being talked about. And I would really draw attention to the massive economic cost of this war. The fact that the whole Black Sea coast is pretty much cut off. With a few exceptions, Ukraine's river network is pretty much choked. So there's really very little functioning economy there, which is a massive problem, obviously, for a country of 40 million people. And then there are all the underlying Ukrainian problems that we talked about for years after the Maidan, about corruption, weak institutions. Unfortunately, those problems have not gone away either. But yes, of course, the headline story is this massive resilience of Ukraine, which I think even some Ukrainians themselves were kind of pleasantly surprised at how Ukraine has managed to stick together, to overcome its many political divisions and to fight off 'the Russian attack.

[00:05:04.330] - Rosa Balfour

So the EU offered membership perspective to Ukraine, Moldova and possibly to Georgia. So this is really a game changing decision, a historic one, even if the date of accession, of course, is far on the horizon. So it's not just about Ukraine, it's about the whole of Eastern Europe. Given that you know the region very well, what is your take on the mood there now?

[00:05:31.910] - Thomas de Waal

Well, obviously this is the big irony of the invasion of Ukraine that this kind of what, I guess, Putin envisaged as this kind of Russian regathering of the former Soviet republics is having exactly the opposite effect to what's intended. Moldova has suddenly made this big leap forward and is getting EU accession prospects, helped by a very dynamic Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Maia Sandu and Nicu Popescu in Moldova. And nowhere is enthusiastic about this invasion, literally. No, not even Belarus, I'm sure, which is obviously loyal on the surface. Georgia is a bit messier, they're kind of hedging their bets a bit, but they've also been offered this EU perspective and certainly Russia doesn't look any more attractive to Georgia than it did six months ago, much less so. And, you know, even places like Kazakhstan, the President there dropping some fairly heavy hints that he's not happy with what's going on. So this... It is a big game changer. Everywhere is different and of course, here there's a lot of devil in the detail, as you know, someone sitting in Brussels about what an accession prospect actually means in practice rather than on paper. But certainly it is a massive game changer that the EU, Western Europe, can no longer kind of be… Have this kind of benign neglect of this area, even if it wanted to.

[00:07:11.630] - Rosa Balfour

Yeah, the question on everybody's minds in Brussels and in other Western European capitals is ... And I think also in Kiev, is the degree to which this newfound unity will actually hold. We're heading towards a winter of discontent because of soaring inflation, because of the costs of energy, which are partially fueled by war, but also by the fact that two and a half years ago, we stumbled into a major pandemic. So, you know, with inflation and with Russia's weaponization of energy, the likelihood is that there'll be a lot of discontent around Europe. And many fear that this will weaken Europe's resolve. I have to say, and I don't know if you agree with me, but I'm actually cautiously optimistic that Europe will remain focused on supporting Ukraine, because I think the nature of the shift away from Russia is actually very real. It's real in material terms. The energy diversification cannot be reversed overnight. And if it remains in tune with the goals of the Green deal, well, this energy transition was actually on the cards anyhow, even though perhaps not at such an accelerated pace. The other thing to observe is that the types of responses that European countries and the European institutions are giving our whole of government types of responses. It's not just about providing humanitarian aid or security support. So, again, these are things that cannot … You can't press the rewind button on. They really make a difference. And then, finally, Putin's scorched earth military tactics really mean that the ideological ambiguity that many in Europe entertained about Russia is over. It's very hard for European politicians to offer appeasing terms to Putin's Russia. So in light of this, Tom, I'd like to ask you, how is this surprising European unity seen in Russia and in the region?

[00:09:31.730] - Thomas de Waal

Well, I'm definitely with you, Rosa, on this one. I think…the bad news about the Russian war in Ukraine is that Putin is in no mood to compromise. But in another way, that's good news when it comes to the international response that those who would normally a few years ago, have wanted to do deals with Russia, particularly France, Germany, Italy, they're all on side. They have no arguments. There's nothing to work with there. Russia is offering them absolutely nothing. There's no deal that they could sign up to. A bit like in 2014, there was the Minsk agreements, which was some kind of deal with Russia. Russia has blown those completely out of the water. It's invaded a sovereign country. So I think that on those grounds, the Europeans have nowhere to go. And it's the Russians themselves who are cutting off the gas through Nord Stream 1. It's the Russians themselves who have declared the energy war. So, again, there's no argument for energy cooperation with Russia.

[00:10:47.350] - Thomas de Waal

I guess ... I mean, Russia has this rather old fashioned great power view of the world, which is obviously a big part of the problem here, and has never taken the EU seriously, never taken the idea that these small states in the EU had any significance. And clearly, that was a big Russian strategic mistake. They thought that if you could talk to the right people in Paris and Berlin, than the rest of the EU would roll over. That's clearly not the case. And in a sense, the way I see it, what we're seeing here is this kind of small state solidarity with Ukraine. So many of these European EU members have a history of, you know, bad business, of being invaded by larger neighbours, and they have filled this instinctive historical solidarity with Ukraine as a result. So I think those factors are going to continue. This European solidarity, it's not going to be easy, but the Russians have really got nothing to offer here.

[00:11:51.670] - Rosa Balfour

Yeah, it also, I think, needs to be added that in this case, we're seeing countries such as Poland, the Baltic states, they're the ones who have really committed to supporting Ukraine in military terms, in security cooperation, training, humanitarian, financial aid. And they're not going to buckle. They have strong societies that believe that this is the right thing to do. So the countries where there might be more political unrest are actually those which are not shaping the response to Russia's invasion in Ukraine.

[00:12:28.150] - Rosa Balfour

I'd like to just take a step back from current affairs because a couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post published a report which underscored how unprepared governments were to listen to what the US intelligence was saying about the imminence of war. I'm sure you saw those excellent reports. And I have to say that they confirmed all my hypotheses about what was going on behind closed doors, which obviously alone I couldn't confirm those hypotheses. But at the same time, I've also been asking myself: why? And I do think, why is it that it was so hard, it was so unbelievable to think that Putin's Russia after 2014 would actually take this step of invading Ukraine. So, again, if you look at the response of the EU and the nature of the shift, also, how is it possible that such an almighty shift could take place basically overnight? So I've been thinking a lot about the past 30 years, and about how Europe has viewed Eastern Europe and Russia since the end of the Cold War. And I think if you look at Europe's policy towards Eastern Europe back in the 1990s, it hardly existed. It was all about Central Europe. It was all about the sort of enlargement ... The enlargement to countries such as Poland and the Baltic states, which then joined in 2004. And there wasn't really an idea of Eastern Europe as being a particular space. And then of course, there was Russia. Then it was ... Countries in Eastern Europe that put themselves on the map of policymakers in Western Europe. And I'm thinking of the Rose Revolution and of course, 2004, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which was a protest against the growing authoritarianism of the regime of Kuchma at the time. But it also was the first affirmation that actually Ukraine wanted to embrace certain political values that have been associated with Europe. And back then, in 2004, soon after the, in fact, in the midst of the Orange Revolution. Gerard Schröderwas the Chancellor of Germany, and he was grilled in the Bundestag about the Orange Revolution and about Germany's response and support towards it. And he said that the Orange Revolution would not distract him from his main goal of establishing a strategic partnership with Russia. And Europe’s policy has been very much like that over the years. It has been a Russia-first policy. It has been giving Moscow the role of being the successor state of the Soviet Union and therefore the key interlocutor. And it (mumble) hid all sorts of things. In the first instance, it prevented a strong policy towards Eastern Europe to develop. Admittedly, it did develop, especially after 2004. After 2009, the European neighbourhood policy was agreed upon. Trade agreements were negotiated. It was one of the reasons for which the Maidan Revolution started was because Yanukovych, then president, decided not to sign the trade agreement. So I'm not saying that Eastern Europe didn't exist, but it was slow to come upon the map of policymakers. And one of the reasons for this, in my view, was that there has been a longstanding delusion entertained in many capitals, but perhaps Berlin longer than elsewhere, about trade and socialisation as a means for transformation. There was an expectation that a strategic partnership with Russia would lead to a certain kind of modernization of the country that would gradually bring in Russia into the west, the sort of end of history paradigm. And I was wondering, Tom, can we unpack this a little bit further? I mean, what is it? What did the West get wrong in understanding Russia?

[00:17:04.570] - Thomas de Waal

First of all, you know, I think my take is different from yours. First of all, I should … Full disclosure: I was one of the Russia experts who didn't believe that Putin would invade Ukraine in February 2022. Before that, Putin had launched these rather limited operations in regions where he knew he could win a swift and fairly, fairly unbloody victory, as in Crimea or South Ossetia, where there was substantial Russian support. Anyway, I think there was a widespread perception that Putin was fairly risk averse, that he was a bit of a coward, and therefore that all this saber rattling towards Ukraine was actually might be just a big bluff because he wanted to get concessions... Smaller concessions from the West on other issues. You know, US Intelligence has been wrong before. And most people in Moscow, actually the most foreign policy establishment in Moscow who, as we now know, were completely cut out of all decision making, they also basically held that view. That was obviously completely wrong. And now those of us who thought otherwise can now see that there was a radicalization of Putin, maybe really, which happened in the last couple of years, maybe since the Pandemic, when he deeply isolated himself and began to harbour some quite deep delusions that this was possible.

[00:18:50.380] - Thomas de Waal

But I would say that those of us who got it wrong also did so for some good reasons, that we thought that be ... He wouldn't do it because it would be catastrophic for Russia, because Russia wouldn't get anywhere, it would lose much more than it gained, and that Ukraine would not crumble instantly. And all those predictions have proved to be right. It is catastrophic for Russia. Not that that does either Russia or Ukraine any good, that complete catastrophic mistake. On the kind of bigger issue. Again. I don´t.. I think there have been so many different Russias and Russia policies over the last 30 years. From the kind of democratic Russia which emerged in 1991 to the Yeltsin years, the early Putin years, the Medvedev presidency. And Russia itself, despite what's happened now, has … You know … Is more prosperous …Was until February. More free than it had been many … Probably at any time in its history. A kind of emerging middle class. So the idea that there was a kind of modernization partnership with Russia, as Angela Merkel called it, wasn't necessarily a bad policy. The idea that Russia joins the WTO and other international institutions. You work with them, they have invested in the kind of global institutional order, and therefore they're less likely to disrupt it.

[00:20:21.640] - Thomas de Waal

Now, as we know, Putin was working to different logic, but I think in the first decade of his power, he probably was with some significant caveats, was working also on the idea that Russia would join the international global order, but sort of on terms of its own. So I don't think that that policy was necessarily a mistake. I just think that there needed to be more kind of strategic planning for other scenarios written into it. And obviously, the main big mistake was this massive energy dependence on Russia, particularly by Germany. We now know what a huge mistake that was, and obviously many people were warning about that at the time. So, it was Ukraine in 2014, both Ukraine's sudden bid for Europe and then Russia's response that I think changed things radically. And that's really the kind of latest chapter begins there. 

[00:22:19.660] - Rosa Balfour

So, Tom, we've talked a lot about the past 30 years. We've talked about Ukraine, Russia, and the West and what we got wrong. Let's go back to the present and also perhaps think a little bit about the future.

[00:22:34.910] - Rosa Balfour

I suppose a counterargument to the revisionist view that we got it all wrong is to be found in the fact that many in Eastern Europe actually decided that they wanted to control their political destinies. So we've had talked about the Orange revolution, the Maidan revolution, the Rose revolution, Citizens and Belarus two years ago. Citizens across the region have actually shown that they wanted to take control of their political destinies. My own trips to Ukraine over the years have been very interesting. And every time I went, I was ... I was researching civil society. So I was engaging with a lot of people working in civil society. And I do think that I felt in personal contact, in my last trip to Ukraine, which was back in the autumn of 2019. And I went to Kharkiv. I really felt that civil society itself had gone through a geopolitical turn. This is - the phrase comes from Serhii Plokhy, who has written a wonderful book on Ukrainian history. (Mumbles). Since 2014, civil society has been mobilized because of the annexation of Crimea and invasion in Donbas. And it seems to me that this contains the real seeds of a society to come; for good and for bad. A mobilised civil society. (mumbles). A civil society that is taking on all sorts of tasks which are normally for government. Including war tasks. But a great awareness of ... A new awareness, a newfound awareness of Ukrainian identity. Regardless of the language or ethnicity of the people. Especially in Kharkiv, which is Russian speaking city with ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. Is this also your understanding? I mean, what is driving these people? Is it about geopolitics or is it a demand for democracy? If our linear thinking on the end of the Cold War has proven wrong, so how do we understand what is happening in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, etc.?

[00:25:11.370] - Thomas de Waal

Yeah, I mean, I very much like your phrase about, you know, claiming a kind of global destiny, a role for themselves in these countries. They're now 30 years old after the end of the Soviet Union. And yeah, I think ... I think our colleague Tom Carothers, in his famous essay about the end of the transition paradigm, he very much skewered it; that there was this naivety about the Western liberal model conquering everywhere the whole global space with a transition to the market economy and democracy. It isn't entirely about democracy or it's about ... it's a different kind of democracy because most of these countries are still, when it comes to Western Europe, pretty socially conservative. And that's also true, of course, a lot of Central Europe, places like Hungary and large parts of Poland as well. So it's not necessarily about this liberal democracy, but it's about getting sovereignty in the modern world and about being able to choose where you belong. And for a lot of these countries, Europe is the obvious choice. And Russia, you know, is obviously the outlier here and it's the kind of tragic outlier here because the story of the 90s, when I was living in Russia, was, again, Russia also wanting to become a “normal country”, to join the world, join Europe. And then there was this kind of backlash against that. The kind of old worm … the enemy of Russian exceptionalism that Russia had, which Putin adopted as his motto, to kind of reject everything that had happened in the 1990s. And exceptionalism became more and more extreme over time the longer Putin stayed in the Kremlin. But absolutely, I think, you know, this is what we're seeing in the Ukrainian and Georgian younger generations. The Soviet Union means nothing to them. They look at the world. They're not necessarily liberal in their outlook, but they want some kind of sovereignty for their country. And they want to, as it were, be part of this kind of global order. And Russia has absolutely nothing to offer to them. I think (mumble) it's worth making the point that a significant minority in Russia also holds that view. It may be a quarter, it may be a third. Certainly a lot of younger people, but obviously their rulers are this sixties’ and seventies’ - this last Soviet generation. Very autocratic, doesn't let the young have a voice, and it's imposed a different kind of reality on Russia.

[00:28:03.390] - Rosa Balfour

Speaking of Russia, Tom, I'd like to ask you cause Mikhail Gorbachev passed away recently, and I know you met him, and we've seen, you know, quite a few ... quite controversial and diverse positions and interpretations of what his legacy was. What is your take on this, having also met him?

[00:28:26.370] - Thomas de Waal

Yeah. Well, I mean, I met in the 90s when I lived in Russia, and when he was much more accessible. He was obviously a kind of fallen man, but still very charming, interesting to talk to. I met him three times. I had many ... was part of many conversations with him. So it's a very poignant moment for me because he had many, many faults and we shouldn't idealise the man, but I think his virtues vastly outweighed his faults. And I think he's the man, you know, who gave freedom to whole countries and a whole generation. And Central and Eastern Europe basically was surrendered without a shot, thanks to Gorbachev's restraint. And a certain decency to him, which, you know, was out of character for most Russian leaders historically. So I think we have to give credit for that. And it's obviously … the road not taken. It's a leader who wanted to be ... to have a partnership with the West, who talked about a kind of European security from Lisbon to Vladivostok. And it's a whole different path that Russia failed to follow, in part due to his mistakes, but much more due to the mistakes of others, I would say. And due to just the huge catastrophe which the end of the Soviet Union meant for ordinary Russians. And so ... I do look back with some poignancy on that. I wouldn't idealise Russia in the 1990s, but I think there was a good prospect that it would have turned out differently, you know, from how it is. In part, we can... we can allocate blame, but I would also put some blame on the kind of Western policies towards Russia at that point. In particular, a sort of market fundamentalism which was ... which was prevalent in the West at that time. That all you had to do was address the economy. There would be this magical transition to a market economy. The market economy would bestow goods on everyone. And of course, that was an immensely naive and very damaging view to take on a country like Russia, emerging from this incredibly difficult historical period.

[00:31:03.490] - Rosa Balfour

Coming back to today. And what we're talking about at the very beginning of this, about potential divisions within Europe, one which has already surfaced and which might resurface soon, is between those who would like to see a visa ban to Russians and those who would rather not. The EU has made a decision. It's a sort of compromised position, so visas are less easily available. And speaking also, we talked about Ukrainian civil society and what an extraordinary growth it has taken place there since the annexation of Crimea, essentially. And the extraordinary role and resilience of civil society in Ukraine. But at the same time, looking forward, we also need to imagine a future which is, you know, probably post Putin and, you know, whatever may happen in Russia and to Russia. How can we imagine a future in which Ukrainians and Russians will talk to each other after what has been happening? Is this pie in the sky or is it something we should aspire to?

[00:32:23.170] - Thomas de Waal

Well, I can't speak for Ukrainians who will have their own view, and maybe it's one of the last things on their mind at the moment. On Russia, I mean ... I think we have to take a longer view. And I'm a bit worried that we're seeing a lot of policy as emotional reflex, rather than policy as long-term strategy. There's a kind of punishment of the Russians we can see, which is the kind of Russian middle class tourists rather than the Russians we can't see, which is the people at the top in the Kremlin making decisions. You know, there's a very good Russian sociologist called Natalia Zubarevich who talks about four Russias. And there's the Russiaof the villages, the Russia of small industrial towns. And then there's the kind of urban Russia, mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, a few other cities, of people who’ve formed a kind of middle class who have had professional jobs, some of them in the private sector, which is much bigger … was much bigger than it used to be in Russia. And if we ask ourselves honestly how Russia will change, it's not going to change from without, it's not going to be conquered. It has to change from within. And I think that is the group we have to look to. We may find that some of them are still Russian exceptionalists. Some of them we may find a bit obnoxious. But that is a group who still broadly, I think, wants to see that kind of globalised Russia in partnership with the world and probably at the kitchen table at least, doesn't see any sense in the invasion of Ukraine. So my fear is that a lot of the policy we're seeing at the moment is rather impulsive. It's going to banning ... You know, banning these people from becoming tourists to the EU, which means banning them from travel and interacting with Europe. It's banning … You know, we have seen bans of artists and sports people from competing. All of this just seems to me rather reflexive. We've even seen Russians being banned from taking English language exams. And that just seems to me really counterproductive that you've got to somehow devise a policy that punishes the regime as much as possible, but still manages, keep some engagement with Russian society and particularly this urban, professional Russian society. So that would be my view on that topic.

[00:35:09.970] - Rosa Balfour

Yeah, we're really heading towards a sort of Western policy which needs to be very nuanced, very targeted and very sophisticated to separate the broader population from those who are perpetuating the regime.

[00:35:30.210] - Rosa Balfour

Thank you very much, Tom. This has been super interesting. I know that you and I will continue this conversation and that we are developing work on this at Carnegie Europe. Thank you very much for joining us today, Tom.

[00:35:47.240] - Thomas de Waal

Great to talk to you, Rosa as ever.

[00:35:52.430] - Rosa Balfour

For those who are interested in learning more about Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, I encourage you to follow Tom's work on Twitter at @Tom_ Dewaal. That is Tom underscore D-E-W-A-A-L. You can find me at Rosa Balfour. B-A-L-F-O-U-R. 

Thank you for listening to Europe Inside Out, a podcast by Carnegie Europe. Let us know what you think of the show by reaching out to us on Twitter at @carnegie_europe or by email at

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This episode of Europe Inside Out was produced with the support from the US mission to the EU. Our producer is Midori Tanaka. Our editor is Alexander Damiano Ricci of Bulle Media. Sound Engineering and original music by Jeremy Bouquet. 

Until the next episode, goodbye.