Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

The Lost Peace: How the West failed to prevent a second Cold War by Richard Sakwa - A detailed account of a missed opportunity

Economic disaster and Nato expansion were among the factors that undermined the prospects of democracy in Russia

The Lost Peace: How the West failed to prevent a second Cold War
Author: Richard Sakwa
ISBN-13: 978-0300255010
Publisher: Yale University Press
Guideline Price: £25

We live in dark days. A full-scale war rages in Europe. Ukrainian cities and towns have been razed. Political opponents of the Kremlin regime are being killed and imprisoned. Russia has descended from “managed democracy” to become a “dictatorship of fear”.

Ukrainians, mainly women and children, have fled westward from a conflict that has destroyed their homes. Russians, mainly young men, have fled eastward to avoid conscription in a war they oppose while others have fled to the West to set up an opposition “media-in-exile”.

No one under 40 and perhaps few under 50 can remember there were times when hope and optimism prevailed. They were bright and brilliant days. Mikhail Gorbachev introduced, in a speech to the Council of Europe in 1989, his vision of a “new European home” stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon. It was a proclamation that the Cold War had ended.

So where did it all go wrong? In The Lost Peace, Richard Sakwa, emeritus professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, has presented a detailed argument on how the “Political West” missed its opportunity to create a stable world order and how “Neoconservatives and Liberal Interventionists” deliberately sabotaged that prospect in the interests of American primacy. They viewed themselves as the Cold War victors who had the right to impose their views on the vanquished.


In my experience the end of the Cold War was seen very differently by many citizens in Russia and elsewhere in the former USSR. To them it was the arrival of freedom from oppression combined with a naive belief that the West was a wonderland that would now share its wonders with those who had struggled for decades against oppression.

Most ordinary Russians experienced the opposite of what they had anticipated. Sakwa argues that president Clinton delegated responsibility for Russia to vice-president Al Gore, deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott and treasury secretary Lawrence Summers and that this team produced a package of economic reforms that triggered “one of the most profound economic crises in history”.

I lived through that crisis in the 1990s. I saw, from the comfort of my home in a foreigners-only compound in Moscow, how proud Russians were reduced to beggars. Each morning from my front window I watched respectably-dressed people, mainly middle-aged women, sift through our refuse bins in search of food.

But the US was not the sole contributor to this economic disaster. There were Russian economists who pursued this policy with a zealotry exceeding that of any American. They came from families of the privileged communist nomenklatura, thus ensuring there was no threat to their own personal comfort. There were grasping Russian entrepreneurs who became immensely wealthy as their compatriots slid into destitution. A class of oligarchs was born. The world of organised crime, hidden to some extent in the Soviet era, came out of the shadows and fought its merciless battles in the open. On one memorable occasion crows feasted on human flesh in a Moscow graveyard after a bomb planted by one group exploded at a grave where members of a rival group had gathered for the anniversary of the death of a former leader.

If this was what the West was like, ordinary Russians didn’t want it. The word “democrat” became a term of abuse.

The political elite would become disillusioned for other reasons. Sakwa cites many of these but it was the eastward expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders and the possible inclusion of Ukraine that had the greatest effect.

Nato, in its own defence, points out that no deal was done to halt expansion and that independent countries had a right to decide on their own security. Sakwa shows there were dozens of assurances from western leaders, including Helmut Kohl, François Mitterand and Margaret Thatcher, that this expansion would not take place. Assurances, however, are not binding and while Gorbachev may have been naive in believing them, he and the entirety of the Soviet and later Russian leadership felt betrayed.

The fears and ambitions of Russia’s neighbours, it was thought by many in the West, could be accommodated by means other than Nato membership. On this basis enlargement was opposed by a large swathe of American leaders of different hues. They included senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Sam Nunn, the anti-Soviet historian Richard Pipes, ambassador to Moscow William Burns, who later became head of the CIA, and the doyen of US Sovietologists George Kennan, who presciently warned that Russia would “sooner or later respond”.

Former US ambassador Jack Matlock put it succinctly, stating that the decision to expand Nato to the east rather than draw Russia into a co-operative arrangement to ensure European security, undermined the prospects of democracy in Russia. When he made that statement Matlock can hardly have imagined how far from democracy, human rights and the rule of law Russia would slide under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.