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The Russia-Europe Bogeyman

Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010

In the aftermath of a trilateral German-French-Russian heads of state meeting, John Vinocur (or a headline writer at the Herald Tribune) wonders whether the U.S. is losing Europe to Russia. There are a few problems with this way of addressing this issue, not least of which is the fact that Russia is in no way capable of providing the same kind of partnership to Europe that the U.S. does. It also confuses an effort to harmonize relations with an alignment, and ignores the point of such a harmonization, which is to mitigate the significant power that Russia already exercises within the European security sphere through its ability to interfere with energy supplies and destabilize Europe's easternmost members.

Finally, as Vinocur points out by citing a French source at Elysée Palace, it's premature to assess whether Russia's Western turn represents a permanent, or even a durable strategic shift. If you take the 2008 Russia-Georgia War as the highwater mark of Russian belligerence toward the U.S. and NATO, certainly the past year points in that direction.

But it bears noting that in the intervening two years, Russia has essentially accomplished all of the foreign policy objectives previously driving that belligerence. NATO's eastward expansion is off the table. The U.S. European-based missile defense system has been modified and multilateralized (although as Richard Weitz's WPR column today makes clear, it remains problematic). And Russian dominance in Central Asia is re-established.

In light of that, Russia's concerns have now begun to resemble more closely those of Europe and the U.S. -- namely, China's expanding influence, both globally and in Central Asia, as well as regional stability in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

That raises the question that poses the biggest problem to this sort of Russia fearmongering: Assuming the very unlikely emergence of an alignment between Europe and Russia that did replace the trans-Atlantic relationship, in what policy and regional areas would that threaten U.S. interests? Central Asia is a contested space mainly to assure European energy security, which such an alignment would logically moot. Interests in Afghanistan overlap entirely, with differences mainly concerning method (counternarcotics policy, in particular). On Iran, Europe is very closely aligned with the U.S. view, and would more likely exercise a moderating influence on Russia than the reverse. And in terms of balancing against China, Russia's Far East territory would provide a very useful northwestern frontier to preoccupy Chinese strategists. As for counterterrorism, counterproliferation and anti-piracy, Russia has been relatively cooperative, even at the height of its belligerent period.

A lot of the anxiety these kinds of summits provoke can be traced to a lingering distrust of European diplomacy, which is seen by most Americans as not Manichean enough. But the flipside of Europe's pragmatism is that it is driven by self-interest. And it will be quite a while before it is in Europe's interest to abandon the trans-Atlantic relationship. In the meantime, a more closely harmonized relationship with Moscow not only resembles the current U.S. policy toward Russia, but is in everyone's interest.