Europe-U.S.-Russia on the threshold of a new era?

Posted in Europe , Russia , United States | 20-Apr-09 | Author: Alexandros Yannis and Constant

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) stands with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev as they assemble for the second official group photograph at the G20 summit at the ExCel centre, in east London April 2, 2009.

The advent of the Obama era has given rise to the hope that the vicious cycle into which U.S.-Russian relations were locked by neo-conservative choices will be broken. But will it perhaps start an even more vicious cycle in these relations? The question and challenge today is whether the rapprochement in U.S.-Russian relations will build a more functional relationship or simply bring about a change of style within the framework of tactical moves.

In the case of the US, recession and consequent social problems, in combination with the many demanding fronts abroad, have led to a weakening of Washington's moral and strategic lustre: Washington is finding it difficult not only to convince its collocutors of the wisdom and/or necessity of its positions, but also to impose those positions by force. In fact, the U.S. economic downturn may well bring on broader geopolitical shifts due to the emergence of other power poles in the international system. So the opening of yet another front - this time, with a Russia on the rise - would entail a further fragmentation of efforts at a time when the U.S. is finding it more and more difficult to meet the challenges it is already grappling with, and broad consensus at home and abroad is imperative to the recovery of the American economy.

Meanwhile, continuing uncertainty regarding the course of the Russian economy - which is damaging even Putin's heretofore unassailable image - is increasing the likelihood of the country's political elite seeing reason and adopting a more flexible agenda. For the Kremlin to confront the worst crisis since the slump of 1998, it will need the institutions that are - for the time being - controlled to a large extent by Washington.

The consequences for Europe may be of catalytic importance. If Eurasian security and stability are to be guaranteed in the future, a radical change will have to be brought about in EU-U.S.-Russian relations. The EU cannot act on its own. This is due not only to the 'special weight' the U.S. carries around the globe, but also to the intra-EU differences over how to deal with Russia. Europe can, however, make a significant contribution when it comes to reducing antagonism and capitalizing on the opportunity presented by the Obama era.

Russia may be the biggest external relations challenge the EU is facing at this time, and it will certainly be among Obama's foreign policy priorities. The EU and U.S. both need to achieve broad consensus - or at least find a common denominator - with Russia; in the EU's case, on energy security and cooperation, while the anti-missile shield and NATO enlargement figure prominently on the U.S. agenda. But the list of pressing issues is long: Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East, terrorism, the environment. The historical moment we are traversing is a window of opportunity for defusing the conflict dynamic of recent years.

Russia, for its part, wants to rid itself of the stigma of the side vanquished in the Cold War and of the chaos that followed in the 1990s, and recover its lost dignity and role as a great power. The Kremlin is trying to establish its right to an independent voice and the respect of its partners, and to redefine its relations based on new and emerging realities - e.g., emerging regional powers with clear intentions of revising the current international system. Ultimately, Moscow - driven by its bolstered self-confidence - is, at least partly, approaching international relations through a prism of 'spheres of influence' and a return to a shifting form of 19th century European balance-of-power. We are all familiar with the havoc wreaked by this perspective in the 20th century.

The EU and the U.S. bear some responsibility in this. The selective and hesitant policy of a Europe divided by differing historical experiences, in combination with the competitive choices made by a U.S. that has yet to rid itself fully of its Cold-War reflexes, have contributed significantly to the deterioration of relations with Moscow. The danger of the now defunct post-Yalta ideological divisions giving way to a return to the nationalistic divisions of Versailles is not all that slight, but it is certainly avoidable.

Therefore, we need 21st-century solutions. And there is no better inspiration than the EU itself: the relations that it built and consolidated based on close interdependence and rule of law. So what we need right now is ideas and political will for the creation of new, 'European' solutions. These solutions, of course, will need U.S. backing, which is why Obama's presidency and his inclination toward rapprochement with Russia are so grand an opportunity.

There is no longer any of the 1990s talk of Russia's perhaps eventually joining the EU. But -- at the other extreme we are now seeing -- the marginalization of Moscow that is being attempted by certain camps would have dire consequences for Russia both domestically (strengthening of nationalistic elements to the detriment of moderates) and in terms of international conduct, as it would undermine any commitment on the part of Moscow to conduct itself responsibly in its dealing with Western partners. Thus, Russia's engagement is the key: not at the expense of eastern Europe, the Baltics and particularly part of the post-Soviet space (namely Georgia and Ukraine) but by continuous political consultations, the ability to listen to each other and the recognition that there are issues/regions where our interests diverge but our presence should not be mutually exclusive and that destabilization is not an option even if one side's strategic interests are into danger.

There are specific steps that can be taken. First, Europe needs a new security architecture in which Russia has full and equal standing. NATO will still be the bedrock of Euroatlantic cooperation, but it will have to pursue a more constructive relationship with Russia based on emerging realities. Second, Europe needs to strengthen the institutional structures bearing on interdependence with Russia. Sarkozy's proposal for the creation of an EU-Russian 'economic community' is in the right direction.

Finally, the EU and Russia need to reach a strategic settlement on their common neighbourhood. And their energy relations - instead of being approached in a win-lose mentality- may provide a context for this. It is only natural that Europe should pursue a reduction in its energy dependence on Russia; nobody wants to have all their eggs in one basket. But why should this rule out the penetration of European companies into Russia or discourage the participation of Russian companies in projects circumventing Russia? The goal is to obviate antagonism through mutually beneficial synergy.

Greece, from its part, has a role to play in all of this. It can make itself useful by taking initiatives within the EU and by making the most of its chairmanship of the OSCE, an organization that was retooled in the early 1990s for the specific purpose of gradually incorporating post-Cold War Russia into a new European security architecture. Why, then, not host an OSCE-brokered EU-U.S.-Russia summit meeting in Athens?

Alexandros Yannis is the Constantine Karamanlis Associate Professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University in Boston, and Constantinos Filis is the Head of the Russia-Eurasia and SE European Center at Panteion University's Institute for International Relations and an Senior Associate Member of St Antony's College at the University of Oxford.