"Russia is a friendly, European country,” said President Vladimir Putin in a 2001 address to the Bundestag in Berlin. Putin told German lawmakers he applauded European integration, believed in the unity of European culture, and was convinced that no one had benefited from Europe’s divisions in the past. Then last November, speaking again to Germans in an interview for ARD, German national television—in sports coat and open collar—the Russian president lauded dialogue and diplomacy when it came to the crisis in Ukraine. His only concern, Putin said, was that Kiev was allowing the country to become “immersed” in “neo-Nazism.”
No matter where he was a decade and a half ago, we know what the ex-KGB officer is about today. Putin dissembles. He lies. Indeed, he may even sanction, if only in mode of “who will rid me of this troublesome priest,” the assassination of opponents at home and abroad.
He also advances a vision, Ukraine being but one piece of a larger puzzle. The Kremlin leader wants to divide Europe into spheres of influence and, in the process, show NATO and the EU to be toothless and obsolete. He seems to be pushing on an open door. Parts of “New Europe”—as we once called those young, promising democracies of Central and Eastern Europe—are drifting. Hungary’s prime minister appeases Putin by saying Hungary “needs Russia”; the Czech president refers to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “civil war”; and the Slovak prime minister argues against sanctions and says there is “no tension” between Moscow and Bratislava. Meanwhile, in “Old Europe,” turmoil over Greece, questions about the future of the euro, and tensions between north and south portend a European Union looking inward. In Washington, the Obama administration in its final 15 months is seeking deals, not discord, with longstanding European allies discombobulated by an American partner dysfunctional in the counsels of NATO.
All this, while it becomes increasingly obvious that only a robust, forward-leaning U.S. policy designed to revitalize the transatlantic relationship—and create a community resolute about standing up for our common interests and principles—will stave off the machinations of the Kremlin.
What is needed is a strategy.
First, we should be clear about what we want. After the end of the Cold War, we called for a “Europe Whole and Free.” We saw NATO and EU enlargement, working in tandem, as a means to extend Western zones of security and prosperity to the de-communizing zones of the east. We were committed in those days to the notion that states should be free to choose their political and economic systems. And, in turn, those states understood that such freedom, along with their long-term prosperity and stability, was only possible if there were no strategic “gray zone” in which nearby great powers could undermine or challenge their sovereignty.
What happened? We underestimated the time it would take for democratic institutions to sink roots and for civil society to take shape in countries that had suffered from decades of Communist rule. NATO and EU enlargement were important steps, but hardly sufficient in most cases to transform Communist countries into strong rule-of-law states with open, well-functioning market economies. It didn’t help that Washington, along with Brussels, stopped paying sufficient attention to Central and Eastern Europe. Until recently, it was easy for Washington and key capitals, such as Berlin, Paris, and London, to assume that Europe was a “settled” strategic matter. Nor did it help, justified as it might have been, that the U.S. government has “pivoted” away from Europe twice in the last 15 years, once under George W. Bush to prosecute the war on terror, and then again under the Obama administration to deal with the rise of a more truculent China.
The temptation created by the vacuum proved too great for Putin to resist. Russia fell off the wagon and returned to its old ways, invading Georgia and Ukraine, seeking to destabilize smaller allies by cyber-attacks, stirring up ethnic tensions among Russian-speakers, engaging in military threats, funding illiberal parties and NGOs, and corrupting decision-makers with backroom deals. We need to return to our vision of a Europe whole and free, and stop reacting tactically and late on all this.