Russia and the European balance of power

Vladimir Putin and Javier Solana
Moscow, Nov. 30, 2016: Russian President Vladimir Putin (2L) with former EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana (source: dpa)

For quite a few years already, the relationship between the Russian Federation and the United States and its NATO allies has been deteriorating. In 2014, the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia.

Russia is using aggressive rhetoric and increasing its military presence near the borders and territorial waters of NATO members, especially in the Baltic Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. It has also demonstrated its readiness to actively support insurgencies seeking the secession of certain territories belonging to Russia’s neighbors, and in 2014 it annexed Crimea, which was a legal part of Ukraine’s territory.

The Western response has consisted of sanctions, visa restrictions on selected Russian officials and some strengthening of NATO's military presence in Central Europe.

While insulting Russia, however, the White House simultaneously excluded military support for Ukraine

The situation remains volatile. Elements of a hybrid war, which makes heavy use of propaganda and cyberattacks, can already be observed. Economic sanctions, it should be acknowledged, are also weapons in this modern form of warfare.

Clearly, the Kremlin’s strategic goal is to control or at least to neutralize areas adjacent to Russia’s borders, which it traditionally considers crucial to the country’s security. Not allowing a strong NATO influence there is a critical part of the scheme. The Kremlin’s actions are also meant to validate its claim that Russia is making a comeback as a prime global power, a modern-day land empire presiding over the Eurasian landmass.

All this raises justified concerns over the right of self-determination and security of many smaller nations, especially in Central Europe and the Caucasus. However, the tensions resulting from these conflicting interests could potentially escalate into war.

Carrot and stick

Russia’s stand in this conflict is clear. It has been criticized heavily by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, which imposed economic sanctions and was not above resorting to offensive descriptions of Russia as just a regional power, in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. While insulting Russia, however, the White House simultaneously excluded military support for Ukraine. The result was that Washington's policy consisted of no carrot and only a small stick.

In the past few years, the relations between the U.S. and Russia have been allowed to deteriorate to second-rate. There has been practically no dialogue between the White House and the Kremlin. During international summits, encounters between the two presidents have been kept to a minimum.

Europe’s position in these dangerous circumstances is also weak. The EU member countries lack coordination in foreign policy and military power. As a result, its reactions as the drama unfolded have been lame and half-hearted, and the political initiative has remained with Moscow.

It is clearly in the West’s interest to help protect the sovereignty of its allies in Central Europe and of the nations in the Caucasus. However, this help must not be based on simply ignoring Russia. What is needed is a good, old-fashioned policy of a valuable carrot and a hard stick. The carrot would be a recognition of Russia’s aspirations as a global power and of its legitimate interests, the stick – a credible military deterrent.

“Credible” here means above all that the other side knows military measures will be implemented when and if they are needed.

Given the political limitations of her position – and the lack of European military power – German Chancellor Angela Merkel has handled the delicate relationship with Moscow very well. Germany’s stance toward Russia remains stern, but the chancellor has kept the two countries’ relationship on the front burner. There is toughness, but also mutual respect.

The new U.S. administration will face a big responsibility. Rex Tillerson, designated as the new secretary of state, said the right things during his Senate confirmation hearing. This inspires hope.

The main responsibility for European security, however, lies here in Europe, with the major European powers. It is their task to establish a system of coordinated foreign policy and a credible defense.

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