The challenge that Russia has mounted against NATO, the European Union, and the United States ( briefly, the West) in Ukraine continues unresolved, perpetuating fears that at some point Russian forces might invade their neighbor. Western nations warn that while they do not intend to use their own militaries to meet the Russian threat, they will employ a number of highly punitive measures, mainly sanctions, that will cripple Russia, may go unheeded. Experts point to the fact that Russia not only has monetary reserves, some alternative markets, and sources of supply that would enable it to counter retaliatory measures, but also that sanctions would hurt the economies of those who deploy them, thereby reducing their willingness, in the long run, to use them. Leaving their effectiveness aside, the long-term sustainability of sanctions points to a weakness in the Western stance.
The weakness of the Western position derives from the fact that the West is a grouping of states that constitute a community of market economies and democracies of some sort, but they are far from constituting a policy community. Their definition of problems and how they should work together to address them are at significant odds with each other. Such variance is natural in a community of more than thirty states. The reality, however, is that even the most important members of the community have very different approaches and judgments on what to do on many issues. The Russian challenge has only revealed once again the absence of a policy community that can produce a unified response to the Russian challenge.
What is at the heart of the problem? The Western security community emerged at the end of the Second World War as the U.S. tried to develop the means whereby parts of Europe that had escaped Russian occupation would maintain their territorial integrity against Soviet expansion. NATO was the instrument devised to achieve this purpose. Within its framework, America would support European defense by maintaining conventional forces in Europe and ensuring Europe’s nuclear defense. In return, NATO’s European members would yield to the Americans in determining unilaterally the defense strategy of the Alliance.
During the Cold War, the US acquired the habit of deciding on what the Alliance should do, other members, albeit sometimes reluctantly, felt that they had to go along. As the Cold War thawed and Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union came to an end, the conditions that enabled the U.S. to make decisions on behalf of the entire Alliance were weakened. Rather than adjusting to the new reality and trying to affect a consensus among the members of the Alliance, particularly important ones, successive American governments continued to make decisions without sufficiently consulting the Allies and expecting everyone to conform. This has produced the public divergence with regards to what should be done in the face of the Russian challenge in Ukraine. But this is not new, similar differences were present when the Americans invaded Iraq, the British and the French bombed Libya, and the Germans agreed to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
There is also an equally important two-dimensional problem emanating from Europe and particularly the E.U. First, European members of NATO continue to rely on the U.S. for their defense, particularly in the nuclear domain (read: deterrence). However, they are never sure that such American support will be forthcoming if needed. Their fears have been compounded by Trump’s “you have to go it alone” policy. French suggestions of European strategic autonomy may be attractive but do not appear to be realistic. This is where the EU dimension comes in. The EU was established to ensure that France and Germany would never go to war again. Within the European context, Germany has been extremely reluctant to develop into a major military power, a development which Germany fears would ignite old fears of Germany’s not only economic but overall domination of Europe.
Second, the EU has not evolved to become a sufficiently integrated community that could plan its own defense. Each member appears to have their own foreign policy goals and security concerns. The result is an incoherent response to external challenges, as we are witnessing with the various positions individual EU members are displaying in the current Ukrainian crisis. The expansion of the EU to incorporate the countries of Central- Eastern Europe and the Baltic states have rendered achieving consensus on most matters in the domain of security nearly impossible.
Conclusion: With the decline of American leadership and the absence of alternatives that have taken its place, it will be difficult to meet the Ukrainian challenge. In fact, a major purpose of the challenge may well be displaying the internal divisions of the West and undermining its confidence in meeting the Russian challenge.
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