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Holding the West together over Russia

The West has been tested by Russia in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and has passed the test to date writes Stephen Szabo .  While much of the discussion both in Europe and North America has focused on various aspects of the nature of Putin’s policies and the possible future dangers they may pose, not enough attention has been given to the perspectives of the Western alliance as a whole. Too often, the focus in the United States has been on what U.S. policy and strategy should be, with little regard for European perspectives and contributions.

This has frequently led to a tired debate over the lack of burden sharing by European allies and an ill-informed view of what Europe has been doing in response to the damage done to the Western security order. On the European side, there has been a general impression that the United States has done too little and is disengaging from Europe as part of a “pivot to Asia” or that it is too eager to use the crisis to create a new confrontation with Russia.

The recently released Transatlantic Academy report, Russia: A Test for Transatlantic Unity, makes the case that the Western response to Russian aggression has in fact been robust and Western unity has been key to limiting the damage created by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. This unity has come as a surprise to the Russian leadership — and to many in the West as well. Contrary to the tenor of much of the discussion in the U.S., there has, in fact, been a transatlantic division of labor between a geo-economic Europe, with its much larger economic and energy stake in its relationship with Russia, and an America that has used the weight of its military power to reassure its European allies and bolster deterrence.

While Europeans are more directly threatened by Russian military actions in Ukraine and the Baltic states, they have also paid a much heavier economic price for sanctions than have Americans. The European economies have suffered ten times the losses in trade with Russia than has the United States.  For example, total EU trade in goods with Russia fell from €326.5 billion in 2013 to €210 billion in 2015, while the total U.S. trade in goods with Russia dropped from $38.2 billion to $23.6 billion during that period.

Germany took the lead in shaping a unified western response to Putin’s aggression despite its being the largest economic stake holder in Russia. The Obama administration has backed up this economic approach with a military dimension at an additional cost of about $ 4 billion for new deployments to Europe, but has largely followed the European lead in a true exercise in partners in leadership.

As the current debate over the new sites in Romania and Poland for NATO’s U.S.-led missile defense system illustrate, relations with Russia will continue to be contentious, and transatlantic cooperation will remain crucial. Meanwhile, as the Transatlantic Academy fellows from both the United States and Europe point out, major changes in key western governments will occur over the next year and a half.  A new U.S. Administration will take office in January 2017, with key elections in France and Germany following later that year. Sanctions will be up for a number of renewals over that period and Western resolve will be

tested. While the sanctions had a number of objectives, perhaps most importantly they are a clear demonstration of western solidarity. Any weakening will be noticed in both Moscow and Washington. The Minsk agreement still needs to be fulfilled and the political stability of Ukraine hangs in the balance. The West now has a stake in Ukraine it did not have before Russia’s intervention. It will have to maintain its strategic focus in the face of “Ukraine fatigue,” and Europe’s more pressing challenges of refugees and continuing economic problems.

Russia will remain a power to reckon with in Europe, but the scope of constructive cooperation will remain very limited. New Western leaders who may emerge after the coming round of elections have to remain clear eyed about the limits of cooperation with the Putin government, and expect Western unity to be tested.

This article was first published by the German Marshal Fund (GMF). Stephen Szabo is an Executive Director, Transatlantic Academy with the GMF.

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