It is a worrying time to survey European geopolitics from across the Atlantic. Like many high officials, the Polish foreign minister is now calling for NATO troops to deploy to the border with Russia. Russia is now suing Ukraine over unpaid debt, and small nations like Serbia and Armenia are trying to navigate between Russia and the West over European Union and customs union memberships. Russia feels disrespected, and the West cannot comprehend the annexation of Crimea. It all has a deeply unsettled feeling, with the split between Russia and the U.S. at the center of it.
At the recently completed Munich Security Conference, hundreds of high-level delegates spent a long weekend together debating the many serious issues facing the world community. Dozens of heads of state and government, along with their ministers of defense and foreign affairs, met with representatives from big global defense firms, senior military officers and leaders of humanitarian non-governmental organizations to discuss international security concerns.
At the top of virtually everyone's list of worries was Europe. The confluence of the Syrian state collapse and the rise of the so-called Islamic State generated more than a million refugees headed to Europe last year, with perhaps another million right behind them in 2016. It is a deeply concerning situation for the nations of Europe, which historically have had a great deal of difficulty integrating Muslim and African immigrants into their societies.
The likelihood of a long-term, serious Russian alliance with the Chinese is remote -- the nations, cultures, languages and geopolitical positions are simply too far apart.
The recent assaults against German women in Cologne and in other cities have increased pressure on the best leader in Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Greek crisis is bubbling away and will reassert itself soon. Powerful centrifugal forces are pulling at the European Union, and a British exit ("the Brexit") is an even proposition according to most polls.
But overlaying these challenges is a larger strategic conflict that looms: increasing tension between Russia and the West, with both sides blaming the other for a new Cold War. Russian Prime Minister and former President Dimitri Medvedev, in a widely publicized speech at the Munich Conference, said that not only did he feel the Cold War was back due to the bad behavior of the West, but that the year 2016 felt to him more like 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S. quadrupling its military spending in Europe to reassure nervous NATO allies does not sit well with Russia, which sees the move as confrontational and provocative.
On the other side, U.S. Senator John McCain, who led the U.S. Congressional delegation and serves as Chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, fired back just a day later in a dramatic and powerful speech. He spoke forcefully about Russian violations of the sovereignty of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, along with backing the Assad regime in Syria, which is widely accused of war crimes and other violations of international law. He placed blame squarely on Russia and criticized U.S. leadership for not acting more vigorously.
Leaders and spokesmen from both sides of the ideological divide decried the ignorance, obstructionism and intransigence of the other side. No one seems to champion an approach of working together for solutions to all of these problems. Indeed, as Europe suffers from profound economic, political, security and cultural challenges, both Russia and the West are fiddling while Rome burns (Rome being a metaphor for Europe). What should we be doing?
From a U.S. and NATO standpoint, we need to take a distinctly transactional approach with Russia. We are clearly and thankfully not back in the Cold War, no matter what Medvedev says. We do not have millions of troops facing each other across Central Europe, huge battle fleets at sea and a pair of nuclear arsenals ready to launch on warning. There is a reasonable level of dialogue, albeit quite strained at times.
What we have is not ideal, but at least it includes the ability for our leaders to exchange ideas, occasionally cooperate and -- if they are willing to do so -- actually try to tackle the problems in the world. Exhibit A of this mildly hopeful syndrome would be the agreement to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for a decade; for all its flaws (and I am personally skeptical of ultimate success), it does serve as evidence that we can work together when our interests align.
The closest partners of Russia are places like Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and North Korea. Is this really where Russia wants to base its future?
The key for the West is to confront Russia where we must (Syria, Ukraine and Georgia for example) but cooperate where we can. And there are multiple zones of potential cooperation. Some of them include counter-terrorism (exchanging information and intelligence); counter-piracy (Russian ships have been alongside U.S., EU, NATO and other allies on this mission off East Africa for years); Afghanistan (where it is in both of our interests to resolve the insurgency and reduce the flow of opium out of the country); and possibly strategic arms limitations.
On the other hand, if you step back and look at the situation from a Russian perspective, it is a very different calculus. Russia craves respect as a civilization, as a nation and as leaders (especially Russian President Vladimir Putin). Their view is that the U.S. and NATO violated agreements at the end of the Cold War to keep the Warsaw Pact countries out of NATO and to allow Russia to avoid a world in which strong NATO forces were stationed in their "near abroad," the geographic zone immediately outside their borders. They deeply and sincerely believe this narrative.
This has led to a series of questionable choices: invading Georgia, destabilizing Moldova and most controversially invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea. A Russian would say that Ukraine and especially Crimea have been part of Russia for centuries and that any accurate plebiscite of the population in Ukraine would have been overwhelmingly in favor of union with Russia. The cry of "Novorussisyk," or "New Russia," has diminished over the past year, but was on the lips of many Russian nationalists.
The impositions of sanctions and the coincident fall in the price of oil have exacted a serious economic burden on the people of Russia. Yet they don't seem near to a breaking point. If you want to understand the fortitude of the Russian people, throw away the CIA reports and go back to reading Russian literature. For example, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a classic of redemption through suffering in a Gulag, will provide a fairly clear picture of Russian defiance in the face of adversity.
Over time, it seems more likely than not that Russia and the West will build better relations, given the geography, culture and history -- but it is far from inevitable.
Russia should realize that, in the end, its future lies with Europe and the West. The likelihood of a long-term, serious alliance with the Chinese is remote -- the nations, cultures, languages and geopolitical positions are simply too far apart. To the south are few options for alliance and integration beyond the former republics of the old Soviet Union, many of which have drifted away from the Russian orbit. Further afield, the closest partners of Russia are places like Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and North Korea. Is this really where Russia wants to base its future? Over time, it seems more likely than not that Russia and the West will build better relations, given the geography, culture and history -- but it is far from inevitable, especially given the current angst.
The best Russian strategy would be to continue to build partnerships with Europe, especially in the economic zone. Trying to find zones of cooperation with the U.S. in countering terrorism, piracy, narcotics, Afghanistan, arms control, trade and creating stability in the Levant would make sense. To do this, some behavioral modifications would be helpful, notably fully implementing the Minsk agreements in Ukraine and diminishing support to the Assad regime.
Both sides need to stop fiddling while Europe figuratively comes closer and closer to truly burning. The U.S., Europe and Russia could be partners but it will require some compromises on all sides. In the midst of this very tense set of relationships, it will take creative diplomacy and a willingness to work together to put down our fiddles and pick up the tools of diplomacy.