Is America Returning to Europe?

Stanley R. Sloan

President Obama’s request that Congress approve a billion dollar fund to enhance defense in Europe represents two major changes in administration policy. First, it proposes to reverse the “pivot” or “rebalancing” reductions in the U.S. involvement in European security (without removing a fortified focus on Asia). Second, it asks the Congress to provide additional funds at a time when the overall goal is to reduce defense spending.

These changes are a natural consequence of President Putin’s continuing campaign against Ukraine’s sovereignty. This campaign has already included seizure of the Crimea as well as introduction of Russian-controlled military forces and weapons aimed at destabilizing Eastern and Southern Ukraine. It has directly threatened the previously-accepted rules of modern international politics. In addition, NATO allies in Russia’s immediate neighborhood fear that the Russian tactics now deployed in Ukraine might soon be used to threaten their security and domestic well-being. Ironically, “neutral” European Union members Sweden and Finland, now feel much less comfortable outside NATO.

Putin’s Ukraine offensive created dilemmas for the United States and its European allies. Both the United States and the Europeans had come to assume that Russia had more-or-less bought into the post-Cold War status quo, even if there were gray areas around its borders and complaints about NATO enlargement. The United States decided it could depend on Russia to transport U.S. astronauts to and from the international space station. Europeans became even more dependent on Russian energy sources as well as markets for European products. And, many Europeans became intellectually and emotionally dependent on the wishful thinking that they no longer had to worry about Russia, even if the Russian Federation fell far short of European democratic standards. This false assumption led European countries in 1996 to invite Russia to join the Council of Europe – the pan-European organization dedicated to democracy and human rights.

All of this has made it difficult to sanction Russia sufficiently to change directions in Ukraine. Ukraine is not a NATO member and does not seem likely to qualify for membership anytime soon. So there is no NATO collective defense commitment for Ukraine. And, while President Putin and his controlled media blame NATO’s advance toward its borders for the current problems, I doubt that Putin believes there is any offensive military threat to Russia. Rather, he sees a political and economic threat, posed by NATO and the European Union, to the current Russian system of governance and to his strongman rule. In fact, the Russian people would be well-served in the long run by a more democratic government with a free press and rule of law rather than the heavy-handed rule of Putin.

In the meantime, while the United States and its NATO allies will not join the fight in Ukraine against the Russian invaders, it is logical that they should provide as much assistance as possible to help Ukraine reform its political and economic system as well as strengthen its ability to defend its sovereignty.

The bottom line is that the security situation in Europe is not settled. Russia under Putin is a dissatisfied, revisionist power, intending to alter the status quo in its favor. While the United States and its European allies try to support reform in Ukraine, President Putin will do everything possible to complicate the process. His recent behavior suggests that he will take the low-hanging fruit (the Crimea) and work on ripening other targets with the clandestine and propaganda tools that have been deployed against Ukraine.

This is a particularly serious test for the European Union, as it is divided between the members in the East who feel threatened by the “new Russia” and those further from the Russian border who want to preserve economic benefits of their ties with the angry bear to the East.

The big question now may be whether the U.S. Congress will approve any “European Reassurance Package” at a time when the Administration and Congress have been arguing that our allies should do more on behalf of their own security. Approval of the package would clearly signify an American return to a leadership role in European security, perhaps something that President Putin never anticipated or calculated as a potential result of his actions against Ukraine.

Stanley R. Sloan retired as Senior Specialist in international security policy for the Congressional Research Service. Since then, he has taught courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Vermont’s Middlebury College.

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