Europe: Americans in – Russians out?

There has emerged, and is widening, even an ideological rift between Europa and Russia that to a certain extent is due to the geopolitical conflict, not so much between Europe and Russia, but more between Washington and Moscow.

There are quite a few specific problems that have contributed to the deterioration of relations between the European Union and Russia. However, there is a general and overwhelming obstacle or impediment that has not allowed Russia, after the end of the Cold War, to become fully re-integrated into the European space, as it had been before the Bolsheviks took over in 1917. And this notwithstanding promising developments and high expectations for the radically better world than the previous one (ones) of the late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. The failure to carry through those early post-Cold War world promises has less to do with Europe, the EU or even with Russia than with the United States of America and NATO.

The first Secretary General of NATO, Lord Ismay, is credited of having been the first person to define the purposes of the alliance: ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’, a saying that during the Cold War period became a common way to describe what the North Atlantic alliance was created for. Now things have changed, but only by a third. Germany is already for some time well up and in, but the two other elements of NATO’s raison d’être are still firmly in place: Russia is out and it has been America that has been keeping Russia out since the end of the Cold War since there should (could) be only one top dog in the pack.

In his most recent book Michael Mandelbaum Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, writes that due to the humanitarian messianism of the democrats and neoconservative ideology of the republicans, American foreign policy since George Bush, the farther, has gone from failure to failure. He blames Bill Clinton for having woken up the Russian bear by expanding NATO recklessly to the borders of Russia, George W. Bush for creating the chaos in Iraq, from where ISIL emerged, and Barack Obama for letting himself to be dragged to the war against Libya (particularly by Nicolas Sarkozy) with disastrous consequences. ‘The expansion of NATO’, writes Mandelbaum, ‘over their [the Russians whatever their political affiliations of views] objections taught Russians two lessons that it was not remotely in the American interest for them to learn: that American promises were not to be trusted; and that the West would take advantage of a weak and accommodating Russia’. And he blames the Clinton administration ‘for turning Russian foreign policy from a pro-American to an anti-American orientation’. Whether it has been due more to inertia and thoughtlessness or purposeful efforts to keep Russia down and out, but Washington’s policy vis-à-vis Russia has indeed erected a new wall in Europe. Until the United States is dominating Europe, there is little room there for Russia since Russia belongs to the category of states that would prefer to be out rather than to be in but down. Dmitri Trenin writes that ‘in principle, a country of the level of economic, social and political development like Russia is able to become integrated into the contemporary Western world if one of the main conditions is met, i.e. if there is the consent of the elites as well as the majority of the population to be assimilated into the extended West under the aegis of the ‘grown-ups’, i.e. of the US, EU, NATO, and remaining at the periphery of the system’. Knowing Russia, one has but to agree with Dmitri Trenin that if such a choice would possible and realistic for countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and in principle also for Georgia, Moldova or even for Ukraine, ‘for Russia, taking account of her size, imperial past and inherited mentality of her elites as well as the majority of the population’ such an integration/assimilation (using the language of geopolitics, I would call also bandwagoning) is not realistic. If I were allowed to use French that, like Russian and some other languages, but differently from English, has les verbes pronominaux (возвратные глаголы) it would be better to say that La Russie doit plutot s’intégrée que d’être intégré (Россия должна скорее интегрироваться, чем быть интегрирована). That is to say, the conditions of its integration should have been negotiated between equal partners and not to be imposed on a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ basis.

Just a few days ago Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s ex-Secretary General, calling for the further increase of military spending of member states and for a more permanent presence of NATO forces in member-states bordering Russia, claimed that the Kremlin believes that ‘countries bordering Russia can either choose to join Russia’s so-called sphere of interest or risk military occupation if they opt for stronger ties with NATO and the EU—as seen in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine’. Leaving aside Rasmussen’s unsubstantiated claim about Russian military occupation, it is amazing that the former NATO Secretary General so off-handedly brushes away the issue of Russia’s ‘sphere of interest’, calling it ‘so-called’. Isn’t it only natural that Russia, like any country – big or small, has keen interest in whether their neighbours belong or not to a hostile military organization? I would not believe if somebody would say that Washington would remain indifferent if, say, Russia or China, or for the sake of a better argument both of them, would place their missiles with nuclear warheads on the territory of Cuba or elsewhere close to the United States, though such a step would be completely lawful in 2016, as it was in 1962.

Already in 1998 George Kennan, the father of the containment policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, warned against moving NATO to the Russian borders: ‘I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.’ In the opinion of Stephen Cohen, one of the best American experts on Russia, the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia has created a new cold war situation which ‘has all of the potential to be even more dangerous than the preceding forty-year Cold War, for several reasons. First of all, think about it. The epicenter of the earlier Cold War was in Berlin, not close to Russia. There was a vast buffer zone between Russia and the West in Eastern Europe. Today, the epicenter is in Ukraine, literally on Russia’s borders. It was the Ukrainian conflict that set this off, and politically Ukraine remains a ticking time bomb. Today’s confrontation is not only on Russia’s borders, but it’s in the heart of Russian-Ukrainian “Slavic civilization.”’

This is not so much even Russia’s growing military might, but the prospect of the emergence of Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, or using the vision of General de Gaulle – from the Atlantic to the Urals – that worries Washington most of all. This was what Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin spoke about and this was also the policy of President Putin until it became clear, especially due to the continuation of the expansion of NATO closer and closer to Russia, that in the post-Chirac-Shröeder Europe foreign policies of European countries had become subordinated to the American interests and its vision of the world. However, in Europe and especially in France, De Gaulle’s dream is still alive; it is a vision of the world, or at least of the continent where cooperation and compromises are dominating over confrontation, where there is no place for sanctions and mutual threats and where the current russophobic propaganda war in the West and anti-Western propaganda war in Russia, which both exceed even the Cold War period’s primitivism and often simply offend human intelligence, could not poison the minds. And this dream is not at all anti-American. If I may be allowed to behave a bit like some American politicians or diplomats, who love to tell the other nations what is good for them and what is bad, I would say that Washington is in dire need of allies who would behave like Jacques Chirac’s Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin did in the UN Security Council in February 2003, when warning the United States against illegal and presumptuous invasion of Iraq. And he was at that time even more prescient than he could have thought then, thirteen years ago.

If we don’t see this big picture or the background of the current crises between the EU and Russia, we cannot understand the specifics of the strained relations between them. However, these specifics, accompanied by the propaganda war that has acquired mindboggling characteristics from both sides, have poisoned the atmosphere to a such an extent that is very difficult to suddenly push on the brakes.

So, what are these specifics and can they be resolved? They can be resolved, of course, but the big background picture and the poisoned atmosphere make the achievement of any quick breakthroughs extremely difficult.

Number one among these specifics today is, in my opinion, the conflict in and around Ukraine. Daniel Treisman recently wrote, and this is a widespread view in the West, that ‘Russian President Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014 was the most consequential decision of his 16 years in power. By annexing a neighbouring country’s territory by force, Putin overturned in a single stroke the assumptions on which the post-Cold War European order has rested’. But was it? What about Kosovo? Wasn’t it separated from Serbia by illegal use of military force? Although Kosovo was not annexed by anybody, simply becoming a state governed by those KLA fighters, who in the 1990s were on Bill Clinton’s terrorist list. Shortly before NATO’s bombardment of Serbia President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, had described the KLA as, ‘without any questions, a terrorist group’. Though there are differences in legal niceties, in terms of geopolitics the cases of Kosovo and the Crimea are quite comparable. Even the fact that nether the Kosovars not the Crimeans wanted to stay respectively within Serbia and Ukraine also makes them somewhat similar. Furthermore, once having gone, it would be practically impossible to return to the status quo ante. Therefore, it would be better for Europe and Russia, while discussing issues relating to Ukraine, to bracket the issue of the status of the Crimea.

It is, of course, necessary that all the sides (and there are four of them) implement their obligations under the Minsk accords. And the main problem doesn’t lie with Moscow or even with the East Ukrainian ‘separatists’. Recently, Lilia Shevtsova has written that ‘it was apparent from the very start that Minsk trade-off was unacceptable for the Ukrainian side’. Although she accuses Russia, ‘the aggressor and revisionist state’ in her words, of forcing not only Kiev but also Berlin and Paris to accept such an accord, this remark also reveals where the real problem lies. Kiev is simply unable and unwilling, using this familiar for all the lawyers expression, to fulfil its part of the deal. And every deal is a trade-off. For Russia, the constitutional reform in Ukraine, which should grant autonomy – not independence for the Eastern parts of the country, is necessary not only for the sake of those people that live there; it is also meant to serve as an obstacle on the way of future attempts to include Ukraine in the anti-Russian alliance. This is a crucial part of the deal and the West should lean on Kiev on this issue.

Sanctions against Russia have not worked and it should have been clear from the outset that they could not help Ukraine. And probably, they were not even meant to help Ukraine. Yes, they have weakened Russia, but Russia belongs to the category of states against whom such a pressure is counter-productive. Many in the Western Europe have started understanding that. The French Parliament, 28 April 2016, passed a resolution calling the Government to lift sanctions against Russia. Recently, Alain Juillet, the former Intelligence Director of the DGSE (La direction générale de la Sécurité extérieure), wrote that the French Government, by ignoring intelligence information, was committing errors not only in the Middle East, e.g., supporting groups of so-called ‘moderates’, when in reality ‘these were groups affiliated to al-Qaida and supported by the Gulf monarchies’. Among the errors he also singled out ‘the flagrant case of Ukraine’. ‘Following the Americans’, he claims, ‘we did not anticipate all the consequences of the embargo against Russia. This has created problems for them, but look what is going on in our agricultural sector. We have cut it off from Russia’s markets’. There are EU member countries, which have shown their displeasure with anti-Russian sanctions (Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary), there are also those who have become rather lukewarm about them (Austria, France, the Czech Republic). It is really time to lift these sanctions that have not done, and in principle and foreseeably could not do, any good to anybody. Lifting the sanctions would be also a step to ease the tension between Europe and Russia and would also help the people of Ukraine. Lifting sanctions, what is requested by businesses in most European countries and even by politicians in quite a few of them, may be difficult as all kinds of Russophobes, who have gained strength during this propaganda war, would accuse European leaders of once again selling out to Putin. However, such a step, which need not be unconditional but linked to the demand of further efforts from the part of Moscow to lean on those in Eastern Ukraine who are amenable to the pressure from the East. And it should be recognised, at least tacitly, that the ball is mostly on Kiev’s side of the court.

Of course, the relations between Europe and Russia that would have been possible to build when the Cold War ended at the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s are not conceivable today. There have been too many miscalculations and too many serious mistakes that have been committed starting already from the 1990s and carried through to the 2010s. There has emerged, and is widening, even an ideological rift between Europa and Russia that to a certain extent is due to the geopolitical conflict, not so much between Europe and Russia, but more between Washington and Moscow. It has been from the outset one of the key policies of Washington not to allow the emergence a De-Gaullean Europe; so far Washington has been rather successful in the exercise of this policy. But suffering from it are the Europeans from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Can they overcome their division? It is necessary to start trying. 
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.