President Joe Biden’s visit to Europe has prompted a flood of enthusiastic rhetoric. This reflects the relief shared in most of the continent’s capitals about the change of White House tenant.
“Today is a good day for Denmark and for transatlantic cooperation,” exulted the Danish foreign minister, welcoming US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Copenhagen ahead of Biden’s arrival in Britain for the G-7 meeting, “because today, America is back.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went further, speaking extravagantly of the “indestructible relationship between Britain and the US” and proposing a “New Atlantic Charter,” recalling that of 1941.
The summitry nonetheless does little to alter fundamentals, which remain intractable. China, not Russia, is the focus of US attention. Britain alone among rich European nations has been consistently willing to pay an acceptable share of its budget on defense. And nobody can agree what combination of stick and carrot is appropriate in addressing Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
The West needs a considered common strategy, rather than a mere succession of impulsive responses, to Kremlin initiatives. Today, it is no nearer to getting one than it was a week ago, or for that matter a year ago. It is hard to believe that Biden’s forthcoming bilateral meeting with Putin can deliver substantive results, because the US president cannot offer the one thing his Russian counterpart really wants — license to keep behaving as he does already.
The ugliness of Moscow’s gangster leadership was highlighted by its endorsement of last month’s hjiacking of a civilian airliner by Belarus, a Russian client, to seize a dissident among its passengers. Last week, the head of German intelligence asserted that Russian disinformation activities and meddling in Germany’s politics have reached “Cold War levels.”
Most European governments, however, still flinch from a confrontation with Moscow, and from adopting the measures necessary to prepare for one. Some justify reluctance to increase defense spending, or to impose tougher sanctions, by arguing that the ambitions of Putin and his associate oligarchs are largely limited to preserving their own power and increasing their personal fortunes.
The Kremlin is unlikely to start a shooting war with the West. Thus, what is the point in arming for such an eventuality?
Yet Putin has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to bolster his authority at home by acts of aggression in his near-abroad. The US is no longer willing to cover the huge gaps in Europe’s homegrown defenses. Beyond a lack of tanker aircraft and heavy-lift capability, the Europeans are seriously deficient in so-called C4ISR infrastructure for conducting internet-centric non-contact warfare of the kind the Russians favor.
The French, Italians and Germans, especially, are more interested in trade statistics: the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany being a conspicuous example. The British government delivers strident rhetoric denouncing Russian behavior, but lacks the stomach to hit the Kremlin and its friends where they would be hurt most, by expelling their billions, wives and mistresses from London.
America’s European allies have also become nervous about what the new residents of the White House may do, or not do. These are different jitters from those of the Donald Trump era, when the president administered shocks and insults for their own sake. They are nonetheless real. Biden and his advisers have shown little haste to exchange confidences with Europeans who are pathetically eager to receive them.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies were blindsided by the US decision to pull out of Afghanistan later this year, which was Biden’s personal call, against the advice of the Pentagon. They are reluctantly being forced to come to terms with the reality that, while the US president is no friend of Putin’s, Russia’s continental neighbors will have to bear most of the burden of managing the West’s relationship with him.
A prominent Finn told a friend of mine last month: “The only thing Putin understands is power.” This is undoubtedly true, though he should have added, “and strength of will.” The West is vastly richer than Russia, which has a GDP the size of Spain’s.
Europeans spend much more on defense — a combined $270 billion to Russia’s $60 billion. But Moscow has felt free to deploy force to achieve quick, limited objectives such as the 2014 seizure of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the 2008 assault on South Ossetia and Abkhazia at the expense of Georgia, justly confident that the West would make no military response.
Putin leads a relatively weak nation, but as is so often noted, he plays his hand with skill. The armed forces are the only institution in Russia that have grown stronger on his watch. They train to attack, rather than to defend, because Russians can be confident that no external enemy nurses ambitions to invade their territory.
Barry Posen, a strategy guru at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued in a recent paper that even if the US withdrew militarily from Europe, the European NATO allies are capable of defending themselves against Russian aggression — for instance, seizures of territory in the Baltic States or eastern Poland, which would only “make Europeans angry.”
A clutch of experts at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London took issue with Posen’s assertion, responding this spring: “To us it seems more plausible that some Europeans would be angry, some might be scared and others might think fighting is not worth the trouble. Alliance cohesion has not been a NATO strong suit in recent years.”
This is my own view: No matter how favorable the on-paper balance of forces is to the West, Moscow holds the psychological advantage.
Putin justifies his autocracy to his own people by presenting the West as a threat. He knows, however, that the real peril is posed by “color revolutions” — domestic unrest or outright revolt in Russia and its key neighbors such as Belarus. He blames all protests on subversion by Western agitators, and responds with ruthless oppression.
Whether or not he really believes that the West is systematically stimulating resistance to his rule, his foremost foreign policy objective is to promote instability among the NATO nations, because this weakens the allies’ confidence and moral authority to challenge his adventurism.
Entwined with this is a desire to extend Moscow’s sphere of influence over states that were once components of the Soviet Union. He views the Black Sea as a Russian lake, which explains Moscow’s fury when the US Navy proposed this spring to send two warships on a coat-trailing mission there. That mission was canceled, prompting crowing in Moscow.
Putin would respond energetically and possibly violently to a move to include Ukraine in either NATO or the European Union. He foments trouble in the Baltics. The Swedes, after decades of complacent neutrality, have become alarmed by Russia’s aggressiveness and are taking their own defense much more seriously, planning a 40% increase in military spending by 2025 (and possibly NATO membership).
One of the most dismaying phenomena of the 21st century is the rise of a “nationalist international” — a loose alliance of antidemocratic, illiberal powers, among which China and Russia are foremost. Again and again, the giants hasten to offer support to like-minded dictators on every continent, confident that by doing so they diminish the potency of democracy. They were assisted in this by the Trump administration, which showed an astonishing willingness to indulge tyrants.
Biden’s European travels should make plain to him, if it was not already, that continental opinion is deeply divided about how to manage Russia. The Baltic States want hard security guarantees from NATO. They, like the Poles, oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as increasing Moscow’s leverage on Western Europe.
The French and Italians, by contrast, seek to maximize their trade with Russia. German opinion is divided. The so-called Russlandverstleher (literally, “Russia-understander”), a faction including the country’s far right as well as a substantial part of the business community, is anti-American and supports the narrative that it is the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU that has driven Russia into an adversarial posture. Such people are untroubled by Putin’s trampling of human rights.
Meanwhile the German Atlantiker camp, of which Chancellor Angela Merkel has been standard-bearer, supports relatively firm responses to Russian excesses, including sanctions. But Merkel is on her way out, and the sanctions imposed are weak — her advocacy of Nord Stream 2 survived the 2019 assassination of a Chechen dissident in a Berlin park, an act authoritatively linked to the Kremlin.
A new difficulty is that the Russians, like the Chinese, Iranians and some nonstate actors, are turning to hard-to-trace cryptocurrencies to support and reap profits from their most disruptive foreign activities, including ransomware cyberattacks on Western institutions. Beyond doubts about the European will to challenge Moscow’s actions, there are also uncertainties about means — identifying guilty parties and making sanctions effective.
Meanwhile, some European governments have not yet come to terms with the harsh reality that, whatever courses they adopt, they are unlikely ever again to receive the ironclad support from Washington they have taken for granted since 1945, symbolized by President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin.
The US seems committed to a long cold war with China, which will dominate its foreign policy in the years ahead. Despite Biden’s desire to escape the morass of the Middle East, that region also will absorb an unwelcome share of the administration’s attention.
Biden and his foreign policy team view Russia as a disruptor, but not an existential threat like China. Unless or until the Europeans show themselves more willing to support US objectives in Asia, they would be rash to expect much help from Washington in repelling Kremlin bullying.
There will be lots more high-level American visits to Europe, and familiar declarations of transatlantic solidarity. The British will continue to cherish their vacuous mantra about the “special relationship.”
Behind the warm words, however, there is little substance. If Boris Johnson understood his history a little better, he would know that the same was true of the August 1941 Atlantic Charter drafted by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and half-heartedly acquiesced in by President Franklin Roosevelt.
Putin grasps all this. So long as he does not overreach, he can sustain his ruthless domestic polity and make trouble for the West when it suits, at little cost or risk. The Russian people seldom fail to applaud when he asserts their nation’s supposed rights at the expense of the arrogant West.
The atrophy that has fallen upon the Atlantic relationship is a loss to all parties. It is nonetheless hard to see how the damage can be repaired, because of the divergence of perceived interests between Washington and the European capitals, together with the lack of real statesmen in their foreign services.
We need some big men and women on the world stage to defend the cause of liberal democracy. In their absence, tyrants will continue to thrive.