Europe’s rupture with Russia has entered its third year. Political contacts are restricted. Economic sanctions are prolonged every six months. Information war is raging unabated. Trust is non-existent. Most important, the basic paradigm which Europe used as a framework for its relations with Russia is no more: Russia is no longer seeking to integrate with Europe, follow its ways and internalize the EU’s current values. As one looks into the future, one sees uncertainties. There is no business as usual, and will not be. Dangers and risks abound. What is the way forward? Is there a way forward?
One needs to start by recognizing the realities. The new normal of alienation and estrangement is here to stay. It is impossible to say how long, but likely a number of years. The Ukraine crisis of 2014 was not a product of miscalculation or misunderstanding. It grew out of the failure of Russia’s integration into the West following the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Communist system and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Integration was not impossible in principle, but the terms of it were never agreed upon. The West insisted on democracy and acceptance of the U.S. leadership; Moscow, on sovereignty and a zone of influence. In the end, no deal.
The failure of integration meant resumption of competition and rivalry. That the competition is unequal, and rivalry asymmetrical does not make them any less real. The conflict is very different from the Cold War, hence too close analogies with it are misleading, but it is bitter and the stakes are high. The conflict is not primarily between Russia and the European Union, but rather between Moscow and Washington, with Europe a secondary participant on the U.S. side, and a virtual battlefield in the economic and information war. Unfortunately, although no one wants a military clash, risks of direct military confrontation in Europe are uncomfortably highest in three decades.
This leads to the most urgent task of Western policy: avoidance of a head-on collision with Russia. Such a collision is unlikely as a result of a Russian bid to reconquer the Baltic countries or to invade Poland in an attempt to split the NATO alliance. Moscow has neither an intention nor an interest of doing so, all the historically-grounded Polish and Baltic fears notwithstanding. A collision, however, is not pure fantasy: a massive escalation of the simmering conflict in Donbass can provoke it, as can an accident in the air or at sea involving Russian and NATO, particularly U.S. assets. A third option is a military conflict between Russia and Turkey evoking Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
Dealing with all of these options is above all Washington’s responsibility, but NATO will have to be fully involved. At minimum, the United States/NATO, on one hand, and Russia, on the other, need to keep their few remaining channels of communication fully functional and open 24/7. It is not guaranteed that with the change of administration in Washington the link between the U.S. Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister will be as strong as it is now. With the Pentagon unwilling to broaden contacts with the Russian Ministry of Defense beyond Syria, it would make sense to revive the NATO-Russia Council, particularly its military component, and reconfigure it as a conflict-prevention mechanism. As such, it should focus on confidence-building measures and instant communication in case of emergencies.
The related task is dealing with the actual sources of conflict. The Minsk II agreement, on which the hope for peaceful settlement in Ukraine rests, is probably not implementable. Essentially, the deal takes care of Russia’s main interests: erecting a constitutional obstacle on the path of Ukraine’s NATO membership application; legitimizing those whom Ukraine calls “terrorists”; and preserving Donbass as a protected antithesis to the entire range of Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies, while handing it off to Kiev for financial support. This precisely makes Minsk II anathema to Kiev, which has every reason to block it. To be fair, one should also add that various elements in Donbass who have come to dominate the region and own its assets have as little interest as Kiev to embrace Minsk.
President Putin can probably deal effectively with the thuggish Donetsk strongmen, to ensure that they do not run contrary to his wider objectives: he has demonstrated this capacity in the past. President Obama and his successor, and Chancellor Merkel, for their part, need to watch out against those in Kiev who use periodic flare-ups in Donbass as an excuse for the slow pace of reform – which obviously undermines their oligarchical control – and who try instead to “sell” Ukraine to the West as a “bulwark of the Free World against the dark forces in the Kremlin”. In the absence of a better instrument, such outside stewardship is the principal means of war-prevention in Ukraine.
Training and equipping the Ukrainian military and providing Kiev with security assistance has made Ukraine a ward of the United States and its NATO allies, in Moscow’s eyes. Ukraine’s military modernization has been perhaps the country’s best-performing reform effort. Yet, the Obama Administration has stopped short of providing Kiev with lethal U.S. weapons, which is wise. The United States does not want Moscow to believe that it considers using Ukraine as a proxy against Russia, and does not want Kiev to believe it has full U.S. military backing in a war with a nuclear superpower. A change in that policy under the new U.S. president would make the situation less stable.
Trouble in Ukraine, however, can be precipitated as easily by a new spike of violence in Donbass as by the political mess and social tension in the country at large. The Ukraine fatigue on both sides of the Atlantic is understandable, but a collapse of the Ukrainian reform drive would be utterly destabilizing, particularly for the European Union. Now that the West “owns” Ukraine, it can only turn back from it at its own peril. As difficult and frustrating as it can be, post-Maidan Ukraine is the EU’s responsibility, which it should tirelessly exercise.
NATO’s forthcoming Warsaw summit is expected to extend the alliance’s military presence and infrastructure to the member states which used to be part of the Warsaw Pact or of the Soviet Union. Terrified by the developments in Crimea and Donbass, these countries now press for U.S. boots on the ground as the only real security guarantee. For Moscow, of course, the advance of NATO forces and infrastructure all the way to the Russian border, at one point as close as a two-hour drive to St. Petersburg, constitutes a direct threat. The military stand-off which used to divide Europe right through Europe during the Cold War is being re-created, so far in a “lite” version, in the east of the continent.
Too late to avoid this stand-off, but it should be carefully managed. Numbers of forces, their deployment patterns, the kinds of weapons and the scenarios of exercises matter. NATO’s withdrawal from the 1997 formal Act with Russia which sought to reassure Moscow by limiting the alliance’s presence in the acceding countries would be most ill-advised, but its “creative” interpretation might be even worse. Russia will certainly respond to NATO’s new steps, but it would also do well to do so in the spirit of defense sufficiency.
This year’s German presidency in the OSCE has raised hopes that some sort of a new compact on European security might be possible. Too early for that, however. Russia has broken out of the post-Cold War U.S.-designed and –upheld order, and is not racing to Canossa. The sanctions that the United States and Europe have imposed on Moscow have not broken the Kremlin’s will, and have only led to elite and popular mobilization around Vladimir Putin as the national champion. Both the sweetness of Crimea and the bitterness of the sanctions have stimulated Russian patriotism and nationalism which have come to dominate the country’s ideological environment for the first time since the Soviet times.
A new modus vivendi between the European Union/NATO and Russia can only be a truce, which does not entail any major concession from either side. The West’s values stand no risk of being compromised. In the dangerous post-2014 environment it is safety, rather than security, that is the watchword. Managing the running conflicts rather than resolving them, while preventing dangerous accidents; learning the fine art of cooperation within confrontation, in those few cases where the convergence of both sides’ interests is compelling; and, yes, trading with each other within the limits set by the sanctions and alliance solidarity – this is what the top of the West-Russia agenda looks like. Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok may rest in peace.