For decades, the United States has always loomed large in European-Russian relations. Washington has been the omnipresent third party in dealings between Russia and Europe, serving both as a guarantor of European security and a stakeholder in the transatlantic system. But now that is open to question.
Growing uncertainty around the future of the transatlantic alliance presents new challenges for bilateral and multilateral relations between Russia, the EU, and the United States. On issues such as sanctions, NATO, and EU expansion, the unified transatlantic front of the past has begun to show cracks. Yet stuck between an increasingly activist Russia and the United States, Europe is ill-prepared to conduct a policy of “strategic autonomy” that some are calling for.
Over the past thirty years, the Western political order has gone through several iterations. The Western Europe of the Cold War, part of a divided European continent, embraced its transatlantic identity through having a shared adversary in Moscow. Then, in the post-Soviet period, the strong political and economic body represented by the European Union presumed less patronage from Washington and a subordinate role for Moscow.
In 1997, Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community established a framework for relations through a series of agreements on defense and cooperation. Thus was born a new model of relations between Russia and the West, one of whose core tenets was Moscow’s acknowledgement of Brussels as the center of the new Europe; Russia itself would become an affiliate of the new NATO/EU-centric Europe while retaining certain privileges relative to its neighbors.
Yet this system did not in fact grant Russia special privileges. It was based on the notion of gradual eastward expansion of a single EU regulatory framework through full or associate membership—neither of which Russia was offered. In the early 2000s, while many of its neighbors sought EU and NATO membership or association, Russia struggled to find its place in a community whose doors were not truly open to it. By 2007, the notion of a European Russia had receded as Moscow rejected westward integration.
More recently, since the beginning of the 2010s, we have seen a Europe in crisis—from the euro crisis, to the war in Ukraine, to the migrant crisis. Consumed with domestic problems, the EU has been too busy putting out fires within and along its borders to pursue enlargement. Europe is, for the first time, contracting rather than expanding, both literally with Brexit and conceptually with its dwindling appetite for enlargement.
After the election of Donald Trump, it is also much further from the United States. The statements made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel following the G-7 summit in May 2017—“the times in which we could rely fully on others, they are somewhat over” and “we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands”—were unprecedented, particularly coming from a deeply Atlanticist leader.
How did Russia fit into the new Europe? While NATO and the EU took great pains to distinguish between the military and political characteristics of each organization, Moscow’s perception of them as a unified, creeping threat along its borders never quite faded. In both the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the 2014 Ukraine crisis, a catalyst for conflict was the question of Euro-Atlantic expansion—in the former, Georgia’s NATO aspirations, and in the latter, Ukraine’s hopes for EU accession. The Ukrainian revolution and Russia’s subsequent takeover of Crimea upended a framework of relations between Russia and the West that had already grown quite fragile by 2014.
Conflict between Russia and the West is hardly new, but the shaky state of transatlantic unity is. One of the determining factors in the future of relations between Russia and the EU will be the resilience of the transatlantic alliance, and the foreign policy course charted by the United States.
We can say with certainty what Russia should not expect. It should not expect an anti-American Europe that will break with Washington in favor of warmer relations with Moscow. Europe would only attempt a new alliance with Russia in close cooperation with the United States. Europe perceives Russia as a threat and—either consciously or subconsciously—as the “other.” Russia would also be remiss to expect the model it has lobbied for since the Gorbachev era: a Europe that approaches Russia as a partner, rather than a subordinate. This model is seen from Brussels as little more than an attempt to establish a new sphere of influence in eastern Europe.
However, it will become increasingly difficult for Europe and the United States to maintain the same kind of unified front against Russia that has held since 2014, especially when it comes to sanctions. Europeans have begun to see the United States as using political pressure to gain economic advantages, i.e., non-market influence over competitors. Some of them view the recent package of congressional sanctions as an attempt to redraw the European gas market in favor of commercially weak U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG). While NATO remains a strong link between Europe and the United States, the dispute over goals and funding will continue to escalate, regardless of who occupies the White House.
Few Europeans seem able to clearly explain what strategic autonomy would look like in practice. Its champions say that it means boosting Europe’s military capabilities for responding to crises in its immediate neighborhood. The French Foreign Legion, which operates on France’s behalf in Africa, has been cited as an example. However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has pointed out rather sharply that NATO is still Europe’s indispensable defense provider.
Moreover, the crises on Europe’s periphery, from Ukraine to Syria to Libya, aren’t local spats that can be tidily handled by the French Foreign Legion. They are conflicts that have ensnared the largest military powers in the region, including Russia and the United States.
With the end of the “greater Europe” project, the three major players find themselves in a strange position. Neither Russia, Europe, nor the United States is able or wants to maintain what it once had. However, a new framework for relations has yet to be established, and the attempt to revive the Cold War paradigm has failed.
The uncertain state of affairs will likely endure until each player achieves a measure of domestic stability. This is especially true for the United States, but also for Russia and the EU on the eve of potentially disruptive elections. China, too, remains an ever-present wild card, given its central role in Russia’s new Eurasian policy. Moscow’s eastward shift and articulation of a Eurasian identity are perhaps the ultimate signs that the Cold War and post-Cold War eras are over.
This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.