Take It From Eastern Europe: Now Is Not the Time to Go Soft on Russia
Vladimir Putin continues to undermine liberal democracy in Europe and beyond. America should not turn its back on that threat.
We read with considerable interest the recent open letter published in Politico Magazine by 103 signatories who called for a “rethinking” of U.S. policy toward Russia. The U.S. presidential campaign is a good time to rethink America’s foreign policy, and in doing so, the United States reminds other countries of the importance of open, inclusive debate. All of the letter’s signatories are people of distinction; many of them are personal friends.
But we believe that this debate will be deficient if it does not incorporate the perspective of U.S. allies in Central and East-Central Europe. We read the rebuke to the letter that POLITICO published, authored by David J. Kramer and signed by 32 others. While we share many of their concerns, we also feel compelled to present our own perspective.
Maintaining the legal and normative foundations of post-Cold War Europe has been a fundamental U.S. national interest for almost 30 years and, for NATO allies, an article of faith. The Paris Charter of 1990, the Budapest Document of 1994 and the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 enshrined respect for sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and freedom of choice as the hallmarks of a “new era.” It was the acceptance of these principles—first by the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, then by the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin—that ended the Cold War. These arrangements have brought security, stability and prosperity to most of the continent.
But Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 and, with greater brazenness, on Ukraine six years later constituted a frontal assault on these principles and the European security order. In 2014, President Vladimir Putin pronounced that order “deformed.” The hybrid war that Russia has imposed on Ukraine is now complemented by a full spectrum of other measures—from disinformation to financial corruption—that are designed to undermine liberal democracy and weaken transatlantic cohesion. These are matters of the utmost seriousness.
It is not clear whether the authors of the original open letter agree with this assessment. They rightly call for better ways to “deal effectively” with Russian hacking, electoral interference and disinformation, but they do so without drawing the necessary conclusion that these are the actions of a hostile power. They call for neither the abandonment nor the intensification of sanctions; instead they argue, counterintuitively, that the “steady accumulation” of sanctions “reduces any incentive Moscow might have to change course.” The writers support a “fair” and “acceptable” outcome in Ukraine without telling us whether this presupposes the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The authors underscore “the imperative to restore U.S.-Russian leadership in managing a nuclear world.” But they do not note that this leadership was a feature of the Cold War and that its prudent management withstood very serious challenges in that era. We share the authors’ concerns about the erosion of the arms control regime painstakingly constructed during several decades of superpower rivalry. But the United States did not consider the nuclear danger a reason to change course during a time of Cold War confrontation, and we do not see a case for doing so now.
The authors also underscore the “imperative to make safer and more stable the military standoff that cuts across Europe’s most unstable regions, from the Baltic to the Black Sea.” Here we most certainly agree. But we are puzzled that deterrence does not feature among the “existing constraints” that the authors would “preserve.” In 2014, NATO’s Newport summit restored deterrence as a key component of NATO policy; its importance has been reiterated in every summit declaration since. Yet the authors’ sole mention of deterrence couples it with the word “détente.”
What’s more, we do not agree that, as the letter says, America’s “foreign-policy arsenal [has been] reduced mainly to reactions, sanctions, public shaming and congressional resolutions.” In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. European Command budget was increased by 40 percent. That step—along with measures agreed to at recent NATO summits and the increasingly robust Western sanctions regime—have done much to defuse the dangerous dynamic unleashed by Russia’s war in Ukraine and its provocative military conduct in the Black Sea and Nordic-Baltic region. Ukraine bore the brunt of defeating Russia’s Novorossiya project—its effort to rejoin to Russia the lands in eastern and southern Ukraine originally conquered by Catherine the Great. But allied training and advisory assistance, along with International Monetary Fund and European Union support, have also reduced the threats to Ukraine’s integrity and survival. Russia remains an existential threat in Ukraine and a potential threat to East-Central Europe, but the immediate danger is attenuated. For this, Western (including U.S.) policy deserves a large share of credit.
The authors suggest the necessity for “a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility” between Moscow and Washington. But we fail to see the contradiction between such dialogue—of which there has been a considerable amount since 2014—and the defense of well-articulated and established interests. The same holds true for the maintenance of professional relations and effective communication channels between Western and Russian military, security and diplomatic establishments. We support these measures, along with any reasonable efforts that would establish meaningful cooperation against the current pandemic and climate change. But we fail to see why there must be a trade-off between these goals and core Western policies, and we will not accept one.
Finally, we have always maintained that “we must deal with Russia as it is,” as the open letter advocates. But we should have no illusions about what that means. As the letter all but states, Russia has revived the orthodoxies of the pre-1914 world: defense perimeters, spheres of influence, client states and “civilizational zones,” irrespective of the wishes of the people who inhabit them. This outlook stands in opposition to that of Western democracies. Our challenge is to manage this antagonism in ways that minimize miscalculation, preserve elements of cooperation, and make progress and compromise possible. Russia is a country that knows its interests and pursues them. We will improve neither the relationship nor our own security if we fail to do the same.
What, then, should the priorities of the West—the United States, NATO and the EU—be toward Russia?
• First, to maintain the defense and security of the Euro-Atlantic area, in close consultation and cooperation with allies. This commitment is the bedrock of the NATO alliance. It does not depend on Russia’s consent and is not diminished by the challenge China poses.
• Second, to restore the political integrity of the Euro-Atlantic area, which has been damaged by the causes of “America First” and “European strategic autonomy.” The menu of common challenges Europe and America face regarding China creates a further potential for U.S. cooperation with Europe, whereas we regard cooperation with Russia over China as a diversion and a fantasy.
• Third, to uphold the post-Cold War settlement and constrain those who would reverse it. Our cause in NATO partner and Eastern Partnership countries is not to export liberal democracy. It is to defend sovereignty and freedom of choice, and also provide meaningful but conditional support to those pursuing the goals of European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Additionally, NATO, the United States and the EU should be prepared to support these partners by all prudent means short of war, should they find themselves threatened or attacked. Finally, we should state without equivocation that the future of Belarus must be determined by its people, not its leaders, its security services or foreign powers.
• Fourth, to undertake a concerted effort to engage Russia in a restoration of the much-eroded arms control regime. That will not be accomplished by adhering to agreements that have outlived their utility. To be effective, arms control must keep pace with military-technical reality and, of course, be verifiable.
• Fifth, to strengthen the resilience and defense-mindedness of liberal democracies subjected to malign Russian activity in Western politics and business. Such activity would be significantly less toxic if Western political and business circles were not so complicit in it. The United States and the EU need to invest in joint platforms to address Russia’s alliance with corrupt entities in our own countries and develop joint mechanisms to combat it.
• Sixth, to engage in vigorous, well-substantiated dialogue with Russia—and the full spectrum of Russians. Let there be no doubt that it is Russia’s authorities who have limited the scope of dialogue.
For all of our differences with the authors of the open letter, we hope that these recommendations provide enough common ground to sustain the debate that our American friends have started. We look forward to the day when a similar debate emerges in Russia. The approaches articulated in the open letter will be much more realistic at that point than they are today.
Director, The Polish Institute of International Affairs, Warsaw
Senior Fellow, The Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, ICDS, Tallinn
Director, European Values Center for Security Policy, Prague