If you are a European, there may be many things you can do or say about Russia, but one thing you cannot do is ignore it. In 100 years’ time, it may be that the US will take very little interest in what Russia does. That can never be true of those who share the European continent with it.
At present, the internal problems of the European Union have led to Europe essentially tagging along behind US policy, though sometimes complaining and trying to act as a brake. If US policy towards Russia continues along existing lines, the result may be a crisis which will wreck relations with the west for decades to come.
This applies especially to US pressure for an early enlargement of Nato to include Ukraine – something which, according to opinion polls, is opposed by some two-thirds of Ukrainians. If the west does expand Nato in this way, it will take on a permanent commitment to defend Ukraine, not only against Russia, but against internal revolt. This commitment would remain, regardless of how the geopolitical balance or the situation within Ukraine might change in the future.
Such a commitment – and such a potential crisis – might still be acceptable if the west were sure of its ability to confront Russia on the territory of the former Soviet Union; if, for example, it were certain that it could quickly back up Ukraine’s Nato membership with EU membership and full social, economic and political integration into the west. But as developments in both Ukraine and the EU itself make clear, this hope is almost certainly an empty one. The results of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in March have revealed a population deeply divided on the country’s future course. Meanwhile, European officials admit candidly in private that given the economic stagnation of western Europe and the problems caused by the first round of EU enlargement, membership for Ukraine will be impossible for the foreseeable future. At the same time, American power is going to be diverted from Europe by challenges in the Muslim world and China.
One fundamental European problem in formulating policy towards Russia is a conceptual one. European attitudes are founded on the belief that Russia must be made to accept the domestic and international codes of behaviour generally followed by states that are members of the EU. Since Russia is often far from following these rules, a tough European approach seems, on the face of it, to be justified.
This approach to Europe’s neighbours is one that has had considerable success, such as in the case of Turkey. However, Europe has shown infinitely more patience and courtesy with regard to Turkey’s tortuous progress in recent decades than it has towards Russia in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But when it comes to Russia, the European approach suffers from two obvious flaws. The first is that, unlike Turkey, Russia is not being offered any prospect of EU membership in return for its compliance with EU rules. Nor, of course, unlike Turkey, is Russia ever likely to be a member of Nato. So in the security field, Russia is being asked to make enormous concessions with no real western help in return.
The other European problem is that the EU model is not the only one in the world today. There is another extremely influential teacher – the US. Under an increasingly thin cover of promoting “democracy” and “freedom”, the Bush administration has, in fact, been pursuing a crudely realist approach to the maximisation of American power and the weakening of any real or perceived rivals.
This realist approach has been exemplified by the career of Dick Cheney. It was on show again when, immediately after his recent speech in Vilnius attacking Russia for its lack of democracy, the US vice-president went on to forge new ties with the oil-rich dictators in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, and to seek to draw them into an anti-
Russian alliance. Confronted with this harshly realist American approach on their borders, it is hardly surprising that Russia is following very similar policies in response.
In this regard, western policymakers might like to engage in a small thought experiment: to imagine the response of Mr Cheney – and of the American establishment and population in general – in the face of geopolitical demands similar to those now being faced by Russia. How would they react to the extension of a hostile international military alliance to Mexico; the overthrow of US client states in Central America; and the expulsion of the US Navy from Pearl Harbor?
No matter how “democratic” the processes involved, the US would fight to the death to prevent this. Whether Russia will fight at some point in future, I do not know. I also do not want to conduct that experiment.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. His next book, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, co-authored with John Hulsman, is to be published by Pantheon in October