Policy Papers

Which way out of Ukraine - Versailles, Yalta or Vienna?

Alexander Titov |

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Executive Summary

  • The current conflict over Ukraine is the outcome of Russia’s post-1991 failure to integrate with the West. As a result, Russian foreign policy is reverting to its traditional great power pattern, which it briefly abandoned under Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • This requires a re-think of European security mechanisms which have been based on the assumption of Russia’s eventual conversion to a Western socio-political model.
  • Three basic models of international order are considered as a basis for a new system - the Versailles settlement (1919-1939), the Yalta system (1945-1991) and the Concert of Europe (1815-1914).
  • From  ​these ​ historical examples, two components  ​emerge as ​ vital for  ​a​  successful international system - inclusivity and flexibility.
  • Some elements of the Concert of Europe, specifically its inclusive nature and the concept of ‘diffused hegemony’, can serve as a basis for a solution to the Ukraine crisis.
  • This should take the form of a new all-inclusive mechanism for settling international disputes, particularly concerning possible enlargement of the EU and NATO in Eastern Europe.


After a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, President Obama said that ‘sometimes people don't always act rationally, and they don't always act based on their medium or long-term interests’. This echoes a remark by Chancellor Merkel who is rumoured to have said at the beginning of the current crisis, when Russia annexed Crimea following a violent overthrow of President Yanukovych by pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev, that Putin lives ‘in another world’. There is a clear bewilderment about Russia’s behaviour and motives on the part of the Western leaders.  Is a lack of rationality really the best explanation when analysing Russian foreign policy? And what can be a solution to the current impasse in Western relations with Russia?

Gorbachev’s failed search for global harmony

Historically Russian foreign policy has navigated between pro- and anti-Western extremes, which are mirrored in internal debates about Russian identity, pitting Slavophiles against Westernizers. In different guises, this debates continues to this day, most recently posing ‘Eurasianists’, proponents of Russia as a distinct civilization straddling Europe and Asia, against the ‘Russian liberals’ who support political and economic Westernisation of Russia.

The current cycle of Russian foreign policy, the end of which is unfolding now, began with Gorbachev’s radical attempt to re-define Russian (Soviet at the time) interests. Gorbachev denounced the Soviet policy of confrontation with the capitalist West. Known as the ‘New Thinking’, the basic premise of Gorbachev’s philosophy was to replace Cold War hostility and mistrust with a belief in interdependence and common values. In many ways, Gorbachev represented the Westernising strand in Russian history, although he did not intend a surrender of socialism or Soviet superpower status. Rather Gorbachev envisaged the harmonious and equal partnership of two systems, a truly Wilsonian vision of the world order.

Historian Robert English argued that the impact of new ideas and values in international relations, generated by a reformist intellectual elite within Soviet academia and the Communist Party, was the prime motivating force behind Gorbachev’s reforms in foreign policy. This, rather than the external pressure from the West, brought about the end of the Cold War before the Soviet Union collapsed. This view has been corroborated by memoirs of key decision makers on both sides.

The sudden collapse of the USSR, however, was subsequently seen as the victory of the West in the Cold War, rather than the beginning of a new type of international relations as Gorbachev had hoped. Therein lies perhaps the main seed of the current crisis.

As the USSR collapsed under internal pressure, democratic forces led by Boris Yeltsin attempted to build a Western style democracy and free market economy. The jubilant pro-Western mood was perhaps best exemplified by Gennady Burbulis, Yeltsin’s right hand man, who explained to Foreign Ministry staff in 1991 that Russia’s new foreign policy approach was to turn both heads of the Russian eagle towards the West. On that reading, the Cold War victory was a joint effort by the native Russian democracy movement and the West.

However, even at the peak of Westernisation Russians assumed the West should recognise Russia’s special status and interests. However, the West, especially influential sections in the US, believed they had won the Cold War, and did not see any need to treat Russia differently from other post-Communist countries. The US proceeded to offer no consideration of Russian sensitivities over its international status or national security in critical issues such as Western intervention in Yugoslavia or Iraq.

As the 1990s progressed, it became clear that a swift transition towards Western democracy was not happening in Russia. Russian elites began to count the costs of the Soviet collapse in foreign policy, specifically the loss of superpower status, declining influence over its neighbourhood and increasing security concerns. Gradually, the general perception within Russia itself changed from a common sense of victory in peaceful reform to a sense of Russian marginalisation as a result of defeat in the Cold War. As the defeat narrative became dominant, so grew the frustration with the post-Cold War order and a desire to challenge it.

The principal concerns for the Russian leadership have been the enlargement to the east of Western institutions, such as the EU and, above all, NATO. The two waves of NATO expansion in 1999 and 2004 brought it nearer to the Russian borders. As NATO established itself as the de facto sole security structure in Europe, Russia was excluded from its decision-making mechanisms. At the same time, the question of NATO’s purpose in the post-Cold War world remained unclear; after all it was created with a specific aim of containing the Soviet threat but what was its rationale when the Soviet Union no longer existed?

From Russia’s perspective, the Cold War security structure was retained and expanded instead of being replaced with all-inclusive security mechanisms. Instead of mutual interdependence it seemed the Western policy was to push the Western sphere of influence as far east as possible. The palpable relief among NATO leaders about the renewed sense of its purpose in containing Russia during the current crisis seems to confirm Russia’s suspicions that the military bloc’s expansion was against Russia all along, even when the country was ostensibly being welcomed into Western organisations.

The frustration with the post-Cold War momentum came most poignantly during NATO’s campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. The first major faultline between Russian and Western perceptions of international order cracked before Putin come to power or Russia gathered its economic strength. From Russia’s perspective the bombing of Yugoslavia was a violation of state sovereignty. From a Western perspective this intervention was justified on humanitarian grounds. The disagreement centred over what should constitute the basis of international law: state sovereignty or human rights. Crucially, from that point on NATO ceased to be a purely defensive alliance; and Russia had no formal means to oppose NATO interventionism.

In retrospect, the end of the Cold War created an unusual situation in international affairs. On the one hand, there were losers and winners, even though the losers only gradually came to see it as such. On the other hand, there were no clear rules on how countries, above all Russia, should behave in the new post-Cold War world. For example, no provisions were created in case of Russia’s foreign policy being at odds with the West. This did not matter while Russia was in no condition to challenge the new status quo. However, a resurgent Russia has proved to be a different matter.

Putin’s challenge to the new world order

In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy President Putin sought in 2001 a deal with the US which would recognise Russia’s status as a regional superpower in return for joining President George Bush’s ‘war on terror’. However, Russian attempts to agree a special role for itself as a principal Western partner with a responsibility for managing the post-Soviet space were rejected by the West. Moreover, the US increasingly conducted unilateral foreign policy, most notably in Iraq, bypassing international institutions such as the UN.

From around 2003-4 Russia sought to re-establish its influence in the former Soviet Union while avoiding outright confrontation with the West. This proved increasingly difficult given growing authoritarianism in Russia, as well as Western involvement in what Russia perceived as its traditional zone of security and economic interests. Particularly alarming to Putin were the colour revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). These revolutions were ostensibly inspired by the West, through diplomatic pressure and Western NGOs’ support for local oppositions, to overthrow legitimate governments friendly to Russia. The talk of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO at the Bucharest summit in April 2008 became one of the principle causes behind the Russian decision to invade Georgia in August 2008.

Meanwhile, internally Russia continued to move away from Western liberal values, dashing hopes of Russian and Western liberals that one day it would become like the West. During Putin’s two terms as President (2000-2008) state and presidential power increased. Ideologically, the 2000s were constructed as an anti-thesis of the 1990s: Putin’s stability against the chaos of the Yeltsin years, Russian nationalism against Western liberalism, re-assertion of national interests against belief in universal values.

After his re-election for a third term in 2012, Putin initiated policies to secure Russia’s autonomy from the West. These included military reforms and substantially increased spending, ‘nationalisation’ of elites (which banned officials from holding financial assets abroad), conservative laws to undermine Western liberal values (such as the ban on any content promoting homosexual lifestyle to under-18s), closer relations with the non-Western world, particularly the BRICS countries, for example to develop deals on energy with China and to establish a new development bank. Therefore, current US and EU sanctions, have to some extent played into Putin’s long-term objectives of weaning Russia off Western dependence.

Thus, the current tussle over Ukraine is about much more than controlling that country. It is an opportunity to drive home the point made by President Putin, most notably in his famous Munich speech in 2007, about Russia’s refusal to accept the post-Cold War world order dominated by the US.

The importance of Ukraine to Russia should not be underestimated. Russian elites and the public see Ukraine as essential for Russia’s security and its identity as the leader of Eastern Slav nations, a grouping known as the ‘Russian world’. As Russia’s involvement in Ukraine is perceived as a matter of national security, its tolerance against external pressure, such as Western sanctions, is considerably higher than for countries such as Yugoslavia or Syria. Thus, sanctions are unlikely to succeed in changing Russia’s behaviour.

It might be that Putin has overestimated Russia’s strength and underestimated Western resolve and the gamble over Ukraine will ruin Russia’s fragile economy and political stability. If it does not, then the West will have to re-think its approach to international relations in Europe, if not the wider world.

What to do now

It is increasingly obvious that the post-Cold War model of international relations, based on the assumption of Russia’s inevitable democratisation and/or permanent inability to effectively challenge the West, is no longer working. How should Western countries respond? Modern European history offers three models of international order which are likely to influence the emerging new system of international relations.

One obvious model would be a Versailles 2.0. This would impose strict limits on the loser, in this case Russia. This is the logical outcome of the current sanctions regime, i.e. to force Russia to accept the rules of international behaviour imposed by the Western powers. The problem with this approach is that a significant country in Europe will remain discontented with the established order, will seek its reversal at every opportunity, which in turn will mean inherent instability and substantial expenses (economic, political and ultimately military) for all actors.

Historically, this was the least successful model. Its principal weakness was its rigidity in preserving the temporary superiority of the victors in World War One. First, it excluded significant powers (Germany and Russia) from the Versailles settlement (the Treaty of Versailles and other lesser treaties signed at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919) and, second, ruled out any subsequent changes of state boundaries created by the victors in 1919. The consequent frustration of the losers, whose interests were of course not adequately represented at Versailles, meant that during the interwar decades it quickly proved ineffective as a regulatory mechanism of international order. The underlying problems were exacerbated as the discontented powers grew in strength.

In this regard, the much derided Munich conference (1938) was only a final stage in the unravelling of the Versailles settlement. The German anger at the Versailles diktat contributed, among other factors, to the popularity of the fascist National Socialist Party and influenced German revisionism in the 1930s. The inability of the Versailles system to adjust to a changing balance of power led to German determination to get by force what could not be achieved through diplomacy.

An alternative would be a move towards a ‘new Yalta’ - a European order based on a division into clear spheres of influence, with Russia, for example, controlling Eastern Ukraine, Belarus and other ex-Soviet republics except the Baltic states. This is problematic for a number of reasons. The first is that it is unacceptable to Europe and the US on ideological and moral grounds, particularly as it would undermine the right to national self-determination in Europe, seen as the basic principle of international order.

Secondly, Russia for its part lacks economic or military capacity to sustain such divisions of influence; this was a system which bankrupted the USSR. Nor does the Russian leadership want to abandon its lucrative economic relations with the West. In contrast to the Soviet Union, contemporary Russia is deeply integrated into the world economy. The Russian leadership seeks to ensure that this does not affect its ability to pursue independent foreign policy in matters critical to national security, rather than a complete isolation from the West. Most importantly, the Yalta system was based on two factors absent now - a clash of ideologies and a military-nuclear stalemate.

Another option would be to return to the nineteenth century system known as the Concert of Europe, inaugurated by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This model settled international tensions in the club of great European powers and was the most durable of the three systems. The key to the Concert of Europe’s success was its inclusiveness. This was based on the recognition by the victorious powers that a new system would be unstable if one of the principal European powers was opposed to the settlement. This meant that France, the main loser in the Napoleonic wars, was included as an equal in the club of great powers.

Ideological differences between great powers (constitutionalism in Britain and France, absolutism in Russia, Austria and Prussia) did not diminish their ability to maintain international order, while at the same time offering sufficient room to adjust to a new balance of power. Although some of these adjustments took the form of wars (for example, the Crimean War in 1854-6 and Franco-Prussian War 1870-1), the overall principle of collective responsibility for maintaining and modifying the Vienna settlement remained largely intact.

Modern values of democracy impose further limits on the applicability of this model in a contemporary world which demands fair representation of the interests of all concerned. Nevertheless, this model is the most likely de facto outcome if the current conflict over Ukraine is resolved through a compromise between Russia, US and EU, as was glimpsed in April 2014 in Geneva when preliminary steps were agreed to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine. The eventual ceasefire signed by the Trilateral Contact Group (the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine) in Minsk in September 2014 to some extent was necessitated by a Ukrainian military defeat by the rebel forces with direct Russian support. However, a long-term comprehensive solution to the crisis will have to involve the US and the EU since its underlying cause is the foundering of Russia’s relations with the West.

The original Concert of Europe precluded separate spheres of influence beyond formally recognised imperial borders, relying instead on collective administration to sustain and refine the agreement. It maintained what historian Adam Watson called ‘a diffused hegemony’ when no power could act unilaterally in matters of security without consultations with other powers. Similar formal mechanisms, particularly on eastward enlargement of Western institutions, would have prevented the current crisis over Ukraine. For example, a significant contributory factor to the hardening of the Russian stance was the EU’s refusal to involve Russia in trade discussions over Ukraine’s proposed Association Agreement in 2013.

This Agreement was the central piece of the EU's policy of Eastern Partnership, designed to bring six ex-Soviet countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, but excluding Russia) closer to the EU in political, legal and economic ways, without offering them full membership. The Association Agreement rules out membership of the rival Eurasian Customs Union, formed by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Compelling Ukraine to make an exclusive foreign policy choice, with its deep regional divisions including over foreign policy orientation, and strong economic ties with Russia, was bound to cause severe internal crisis and a strong Russian response. A recent decision to postpone the implementation of the economic package until 2016 to allay Russian fears about its impact on Russo-Ukrainian trade raises the question why the EU refused to involve Russia in discussions earlier but also points to a future international model.

The key element in this model would be to give Russia sufficient incentives to adhere to the new order, while at the same time securing essential Western interests, including the spread of democratic values in wider Europe. This could mean a neutral status for Ukraine, guarantee of its current borders (for the foreseeable future without Crimea), special provisions for the Russian-orientated minorities in Ukraine, coupled with joint EU-Russia economic aid to Ukraine to restore its economy, including an agreed Ukrainian price for Russian gas. This would end the current conflict and ensure Ukraine’s long-term integration with Europe on terms acceptable to Russia.

New formal provisions on resolving future conflicts should also be made part of the deal, for example, by giving a reformed Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the OSCE which is a collective organ of European and North American states, including Russia, which started in the 1970s as an East-West security forum), a much greater role in European security, or creating a new NATO-EU-Russia forum to replace the ineffective and largely technical NATO-Russian Council. This would by no means end conflicts of interests between such politically different entities in larger Europe as Russia and the EU have become. However, it would provide a new inclusive Europe security framework which could settle political disputes without resorting to force.

Currently, there is an apparent lack of policy ideas on Russia from both EU and US. Since Russia became more aggressive in its foreign policy under Putin, the immediate reaction is to impose sanctions to force compliance, and possibly hope for a regime change. This approach poses many questions: how long will it take to take effect? What if the new regime is not pro-Western (as is likely given the rise of nationalism in Russia)? Would the policy then be to continue to impose further sanctions and wait for a friendly regime? And for how long? And what to do in the meantime with the security questions, such as conventional and nuclear arms treaties, trade issues including the energy supplies, or international problems where Russia’s role is indispensable such as Ukraine, Iran, or Syria?

Punishing Putin through sanctions is not likely to bear fruit, since the anti-Western stance in Russia started well before Putin and represents the long-term failure of Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’. It is no accident that after Gorbachev the idealist, and the undecided Yeltsin, it is Putin the realist who has become the hard face of Russian foreign policy. Furthermore, these attitudes stem from long historical traditions, and much public support. They are compatible with the traditional patterns of Russian foreign policy, understood as an independent great power looking for security and influence abroad. Getting rid of Putin, improbable as it is, is not going to change these factors.

There is a convincing case to use the current crisis over Ukraine to re-think the West’s approach to international order, starting with a re-assessment of its relations with Russia. The end of Cold War euphoria needs to be replaced by acceptance of the need to deal with inconvenient regimes, which requires a new intellectual framework for understanding European security.

Given the absence of a Cold War style ideological rift between Europe and Russia, and their economic and cultural synergy, a new system is needed for managing deep political differences, while preserving cooperation in other spheres. European security is best advanced through mutual dependence upon which much of the European Union’s success is built. For the US, whose strategic focus is on East Asia and the Middle East, an uncompromising containment of Russia is counter-productive, as it undermines US objectives in other regions. There is ample evidence, for example, that the standoff with the West is driving Russia and China together.

Clearly, re-creation of any past model is impossible but it is also apparent that history can be helpful in pondering a new approach to European security that is needed to replace what seems to have been a transitory post-Cold War model. A twenty-first century re-invention of something like the Concert of Europe is the most likely outcome and one that is able to guarantee long-term international stability in Europe. However, this will only happen when the parties concerned realise that the best option is compromise. In the current climate this might take a while yet.

Further Reading

Vladimir Baranovski, 'Russia: a part of Europe or apart from Europe?’

International Affairs, 76, 3, 2000, pp. 443-58.

Robert English, Russia and the idea of the West: Gorbachev, intellectuals, and the end of the Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

Fyodor Lukyanov, ‘Russia–EU: The Partnership that Went Astray’, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 60, 6, 2008, pp. 1107-119.

Alfred Rieber, ‘How persistent are persistent factors?’ in Robert Legvold (ed.) Russian Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century and the Shadow of the Past (New York, Columbia University Press, 2007) pp. 205-78.

Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: the struggle to create post-Cold War Europe (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009).

Dmitri Trenin, The End of Eurasia, Russia on the Border Between Geopolitics and Globalization (Carnegie Moscow Center, 2001).

Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society (London, Routledge, 1992).

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