The current deadlock in U.S.-Russia relations seems to have engulfed nearly all dimensions of bilateral interaction and directly or indirectly affected many regions of the world. However, we should not overlook the fact that the current crisis originated in Europe in 2014 – when the long-standing dispute on the future of Eastern European countries escalated into a political conflict structured around Ukraine. The centrality of Europe to disagreements between Washington and Moscow makes Russian-American rapprochement hardly possible without a consensus on European issues. If there is to be a pathway to reconciliation, then it starts with examining America’s and Russia’s reputation in Europe, understanding the disagreements that exist, and the strategies that drive those disagreements. Only then will it possible to carve out meaningful solutions.
Washington’s Image & Moscow’s Image in Europe
Although the U.S. and Russia maintain very different stances on the situation in Europe, both countries face similarly negative perceptions in the region. In 2018, only 34% of the Dutch, 44% of Swedes, 30% of Germans, and 38% of the French viewed the US positively, while 64% of Germans called German-American relations “bad” in 2019. Russia’s image has been even poorer: last year, Russia was viewed favorably by only 23% in the Netherlands, 12% in Sweden, 35% in Germany, and 33% in France. In general, European attitudes towards Russia have remained relatively negative over the years; whereas, the U.S. enjoyed higher levels of support under the Obama Administration as recent as 2014-15.
Ironically, Washington’s loss of reputation in Europe is partly attributable to changes in the U.S. strategy on Russia. In 2014-16, the United States endeavored to stick to a common approach with the EU on the sanctions issue. Later, American policymakers departed from trans-Atlantic unity and adopted a firmer stance, introducing new anti-Russian measures even if they were not in line with the preferences and expectations of European allies. This shift in America’s foreign policy coincided with the weakening of the European consensus on Russia, which became evident in Emmanuel Macron’s interview with The Economist in 2019. When the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, this step was explicitly condemned by prominent European politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the new restrictions certainly violated the EU’s interests.
On top of that, the U.S. and Russia are frequently portrayed as equally severe threats to stability in the European region. In 2019, France and Germany established the Alliance for Multilateralism. Its main message is clear: “Multilateralism founded on respect for international law is the only reliable guarantee for international stability and peace.” This message is certainly directed at both Moscow and Washington. In 2018, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that “The U.S. under Donald Trump will not play the same role that it has in the past.” And the Trump administration has reiterated that it expects more from its European allies. Maas also stated that “Russia has been acting in an increasingly hostile manner,” which is a testament to the established narrative and presumptions regarding Russia’s motives in the region.
The U.S. and Russia not only need to improve their reputation in Europe but also have to deal with enormous regional security challenges. The present crisis in U.S.-Russia relations has virtually destroyed Europe as a coherent geopolitical region. Europe is now divided into the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Moreover, pan-European cooperation mechanisms, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), have failed to reverse the growing trend towards exclusive sub-regional arrangements and unilateralism. Accordingly, Europe has become less secure in the military sense. The demise of arms control treaties, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), jeopardizes peace and stability in the region. Third, the emergence of new dividing lines in Europe has exacerbated the problem of “in-between” states. Such countries as Ukraine and Moldova have turned into “objects of a contest among outside powers.” Thus, causing their place in the European security architecture to be unclear. The United States and Russia are the only actors in a position to address these challenges, as any solution without their participation and endorsement would be unsustainable.
Washington and Moscow have fundamentally different approaches to Europe. The over-arching disagreement is on what Europe is and what it is not. From Russia’s perspective, Russia itself is an integral part of Europe as a member of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, which is why one cannot speak of European security without heeding Russia’s positions. Therefore, Russian policymakers believe that NATO cannot ensure peace and stability in the region single-handedly, as the alliance cannot be seen as reflecting the interests of all European nations. Washington’s view is that the word “Europe” primarily refers to the European Union, NATO, and inherently “western” countries. For the U.S., Europe is not about geography, but about ideology and politics. These notions have guided U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War. Ultimately, leading to the current geopolitical climate that exists today.
As a result, the United States and Russia have had differing opinions with regard to providing security in Europe from the very beginning of the post-bipolar era. Washington has emphasized its commitment to protecting its European allies against all kinds of regional and transregional threats through deploying the NATO missile defense system, strengthening transatlantic cooperation, and expanding what Washington sees as the area of peace and democracy. Moreover, the U.S. has struggled to prevent the establishment of any kind of independent European defense force. Washington has succeeded in this undertaking, as even the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), launched by EU countries in 2018, has limited capacity to serve as a basis for independent European defense. Moscow, for its part, has stressed the need to advance disarmament and arms control in the region in order to establish a common security space from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Nevertheless, as is often the case, practice is different from theory.
Russia regarded NATO enlargement, as well as Washington’s intent to create a regional missile defense system as directed against Moscow, which was and still is hard to refute. Later, the U.S. faced criticism from Moscow over Washington’s attempts to isolate Russia from other post-Soviet countries and to undermine Russian integration projects in the region. The Russian Federation has in turn been repeatedly accused of destabilizing Europe politically and militarily. As a form of soft power projection, the Kremlin uses “frozen conflicts” and Russian minorities in the post-Soviet area to put pressure on countries of the region and to prevent their potential accession to the EU and NATO. This is exactly why the U.S. deems it necessary to counteract Russian policies in Eastern Europe: the 2014 events in Ukraine were perceived by Washington as a part of some broader strategy. Additionally, Russia has been criticized for actively working on new types of weapons and deploying modern weapon systems on its Western border (see Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad). The Kremlin, though, views its military activities as a legitimate response to Washington’s plans for European missile defense.
What is at stake?
The modern situation in Europe is typically referred to as a geopolitical contest or a new Cold War. However, this vision appears to be not entirely accurate: as noted above, U.S.-Russia tensions in the region initially resulted from minor ideological disagreements on the European security architecture, which were later exacerbated by Washington’s attempts to put into practice its own conception of Europe. We have enough evidence to say that Washington and Moscow have little to debate.
1. There is no zero-sum game.
During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union represented competing patterns of social, economic, and political development. Therefore, European countries belonging to one bloc were “lost” to the other party, and Soviet-American relations were portrayed as a zero-sum game. This is not the case anymore, as Armenia, Belarus and other member states of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) are by no means lost to Washington or Brussels. For instance, the EU and Armenia signed the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement in 2017, although Armenia is often viewed as a part of Russia’s “sphere of influence.”
2. The U.S. and Russia are not immediate threats to each other.
The Soviet Union was actively involved in numerous conflicts all over the world, including those in Latin America, which was seen in Washington as an area of specific interest. U.S. troops and weapon systems in Europe were instrumental in America’s deterrence and containment strategies, which served to restrict Soviet activities in other regions of the world. Nevertheless, times have changed; it was hypothetically possible to call the U.S.S.R. “organically expansionist,” as the idea of a world revolution had never been totally dismissed by the Kremlin before the 1980s. On the contrary, today’s Russia has never had similar ideas or plans. More importantly, Moscow has little leverage over political developments in other countries, which makes any attempts to defend Europe against Russia a waste of money.
3. Russia does not oppose democracy – it is a democracy.
It is sometimes argued that Russia should be contained simply because it violates democratic norms and principles, which are at the core of American values. There is certainly no denying the fact that democratic institutions in the post-Soviet area are insufficiently developed, but there is no link between democracy and membership in Russian-led integration structures either. In 2018, Armenia experienced a series of anti-government protests that led to a transfer of power. In 2017, Kyrgyzstan went through its first peaceful change of government through presidential elections. It seems that Russia made no attempt to alter the course of events either in Armenia or Kyrgyzstan, although both countries are members of the Russian-led EAEU.
What is to be done?
Principally, the United States and Russia should put an end to using Europe as an arena for political showdowns if they intend to retain influence and restore their reputation in the region. Together, both nations should endeavor to re-establish the European arms control framework, as a military build-up is highly unlikely to contribute positively to regional peace and security. The U.S. and Russia should revisit their European strategies and adopt an open-door policy towards the region. European and Eurasian integration projects are not irreconcilable; accession to the EAEU does not hamper cooperation with Brussels and Washington. Likewise, EU membership does not interfere with productive collaboration with Moscow. Europeans should be free to choose among alternative options, and no choice can be viewed as a security threat to any party since this threat simply does not exist. Finally, Washington and Moscow should learn to treat European nations as independent and sovereign actors that can make autonomous decisions. When Germany refuses to stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite American pressure, it is a sovereign decision in accordance with German national interests rather than a Russian subversion campaign. Similarly, pro-EU and pro-NATO sentiments in Russia’s “near abroad” are not necessarily attributable to the work of U.S.-funded NGOs. If American and Russian decision-makers base their policies on facts rather than historical prejudices, they will eventually realize that most problems in Russian-American relations derive from misperceptions and misunderstandings rather from irreconcilable differences.
Artem Kvartalnov is a Policy Researcher at The Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC). His research primary areas include democratization, international security, and European security.