The speed of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, the staccato of anti-Kiev rebellions across eastern Ukraine, and the various referenda all caught the West off guard. But the West’s subsequent responses have transformed that initial confusion into political paralysis. The greatest advantage Russia enjoys today over the United States and Europe is our unwillingness to counter its militarism with a meaningful demonstration of military power, either by helping Ukraine to upgrade its military, or by increasing significantly and making permanent U.S. and NATO ground and air power deployments to the Baltic States and Poland as a deterrent to Russian expansionism. These days, even uttering the word “military” seems to send shivers of denial down the spines of Western leaders, who fear that such a 19th-century concept might “provoke” Russia into aggressive behavior. There is deep concern in a number of European capitals that any effort to strengthen the Ukrainian military or shore up NATO’s northeastern flank would be “counterproductive.” All of this begs the question of what kind of strategy will emerge from the crucial upcoming September 2014 NATO summit in Wales.Germany, France, and the United Kingdom don’t agree on much these days, but when it comes to retaliating against Russia they seem to agree that less is more. All their rhetoric notwithstanding, Europe’s “big three” seem unwilling to do anything that would significantly affect their relationship with Moscow.Last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel affirmed in an interview for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that her country’s mid- and long-term policy towards Russia will be one of continued “close partnership.” Russia’s values differ, and Putin has different views on some problems, to be sure; she criticized Russia’s behavior and called the annexation of Crimea contrary to international law. But she reaffirmed that only diplomatic means were on the table and that dialogue with Russia must continue. In short, Germany stayed the course with its Ostpolitik. One can only wonder if the literal translation of “middle” is how the new German definition of Mitteleuropa will play itself out from now on.Meanwhile, France reaffirmed that it would honor its contract to supply Russia with the Mistral class amphibious assault helicopter carrier—an offensive weapon which, according to a 2011 statement by then-Chief of the Russian General Staff General Nikolai Makarov, Russia could not develop on its own without a ten-year delay. The Baltic States are understandably shaken by the French decision; the Mistral contract is for four vessels, and there is to be a progressive transfer of technology from France. (Russia will build 20 percent of the first warship, 40 percent of the second and 80 percent of the last two.) The first will be ready for delivery to Russia in October, and the second, aptly named the Sevastopol, in mid-2015. While Ukraine still smolders, 400 Russian naval staff are to train next month in Saint-Nazaire, where the Russian Mistrals are being built. In addition to the $1.7 billion cash value of the contract, the French are counting on 400 direct and 1,000 indirect jobs tied to the project. Notwithstanding complaints about the Mistral sale from Washington and protests from the three Baltic NATO allies, keenly aware that they may at some point be a target for the platform’s versatile capabilities, the French have decided to go ahead with the deal.While the United Kingdom talks tougher than its German and French counterparts, its banking sector is vulnerable because of loans to Russia. What is more, London believes that direct U.S. or NATO military deployments in Poland and the Baltic States are too provocative an option to contemplate—a position held firmly by Berlin and to varying degrees other “old NATO” countries.But to be fair to the UK, France, and Germany, their position is not a simple one. Europe is caught in a double bind: On the one hand, the Obama Administration has indicated that it will resist deeper entanglement in Ukraine, lest America be drawn militarily into the crisis, so Europe is not as able as it traditionally was to rely on the United States to pick up the tab. Americans, meanwhile, are understandably fatigued from the 12 years of the Global War on Terror, and the Obama Administration still believes the primary challenge to U.S. interests in the coming years will come from the Asia Pacific region, not Europe. And on the other hand, Russia has managed to buy into Europe’s economies to an unprecedented extent; today German, French, and British corporate interests are an effective deterrent to issuing even tepid sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Eastern Europe.The Ukraine crisis is also beginning to fracture the European Union internally. The Continent is unable to speak about Russia with one voice not just because of intertwined economic interests, but also because Europe’s northeast, southeast, west, and south view the regional security situation differently. The Balts, the Poles, and increasingly the Scandinavians along the northeastern frontier have focused on their deteriorating security, as well as Russia’s revival of its imperial project, its military modernization, and its demonstrable willingness to use force. Further south there is more discord, even among the smaller Visegrad Four member states; Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban went so far as to declare at a recent security conference in Bratislava that Ukrainian government policy is also a problem, and that treatment of Hungarian ethnics in Ukraine is an important issue too. In Western Europe, France remains tied to the Mediterranean and North Africa, Germany is looking to preserve its larger relationship with Russia, the United Kingdom wants a minimalist approach overall, and Europe’s majority public opinion remains focused on a postmodernist project centered around pacifism, demilitarization, and collective disarmament.Overall, the sanctions the European Union has been willing to impose on Russia have largely left untouched Russia’s energy sector, the only area where Russia would feel the pain of Western retaliation. European industries continue to lobby their respective governments to set aside harsh sanctions on Russia so as to protect billions in trade. Thus Europe has put little to no pressure on the Obama Administration to deliver even a minimum-plus, not to mention any serious recommitment to the Transatlantic relationship.Occasionally there are moments in international politics that offer up clarity rather than more questions. We are at such a point when it comes to the West’s response to the crisis in Ukraine and the progressive disintegration of the European order. Bottom line: Putin’s Russia has tested the West, and it has been found wanting. The consequences of failing this test, moreover, can already be seen in other regions of the world, especially in the Asia Pacific, where China is increasingly determined to test the strength and scope of American muscle behind the “pivot.” A month after Russia severed Crimea from Ukraine, days after the Russia-supported referendum and special operations activities in eastern Ukraine, Europe’s key leaders have declared appeasement as their preferred way forward with respect to Russia. Worse still, months after the battle for Ukraine was joined, every key European player has amply demonstrated that it is either unable or unwilling to back a larger strategic consensus at the expense of national business interests. Buttressed by publics that seem to have decisively opted for the postmodern rejection of military power as a legitimate tool of statecraft, Europe is toying with a geostrategic disaster on its periphery, while Russia gears up to sign the Eurasian Economic Union agreement with Belarus and Kazakhstan.Europe’s lethargy is part of a larger collective geostrategic myopia that seems to have defined Western responses to Russian aggressions since the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. At the same time, the Obama Administration’s reluctance to abandon its “pivot to Asia” has imposed limitations on America’s ability to build consensus on a new Russia strategy for the West. Thus relations between the United States and Europe have reached an inflection point. The Obama Administration has been pulled somewhat toward the region, but it has not yet decided whether Europe’s northeastern periphery should become America’s anchor for forward deployments. The most fundamental consequence for the United States in its security relations with Europe is the shifting of the geostrategic center of gravity from Germany to Poland. As with Germany in the Cold War, Poland is very much on the front line in the confrontation with Putin’s Russia. And as with Germany before it, Poland can take the lead on NATO’s defense in the face of Russia’s aggression, provided it gets America’s support and an endorsement from the alliance. Warsaw surely understands the security imperative that the presence of Russian military on its frontier creates, but it needs help.Today the United States has the opportunity to transform the current fluid situation in central and northeastern Europe into a solid deterrent posture, and to do so at a relatively low cost. But whatever the administration decides to do, the state of strategic confusion that has marked U.S. policy up to now needs to clear up. So far, NATO’s and the EU’s lack of a coherent strategic response has laid bare the business and other domestic fault lines splitting the alliance. Just within the past week, allied solidarity has become wafer-thin in some quarters. Let’s make sure it doesn’t wear away completely.
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When it comes to responding to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Europe is caught between corporate interests, regional security differences, and thoroughly postmodern publics. But the United States can still help clear up the allies’ strategic confusion.