reflections

Feb 20, 2009 | 02:08 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Europe's Paralysis Over Russia

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
NATO defense ministers met Thursday in Krakow, Poland, to discuss critical topics ranging from Afghanistan to Russia to Iran. The meeting ended in disappointment for the United States — which had been looking for a consolidated position and increased support from its allies — while the other NATO members are still waiting to hear from Washington what exactly is the game plan for each of the issues. The meeting comes just two days after U.S. President Barack Obama announced that 17,000 more U.S. soldiers and Marines would deploy to Afghanistan in the coming months — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to Krakow to ask NATO for more alliance troops as well. The hope in Washington was that Gates would be able to capitalize on the new president's commitment to Afghanistan and receive a similar pledge from the European allies. But no such guarantee materialized. True, there were some small pledges of troops from the Europeans, but these numbered in the hundreds, not thousands. Even the large NATO states with the biggest troop contingents are sending relative handfuls — 600 from Germany and 500 from Italy. The other heavyweights of Europe — France, Poland and the United Kingdom — have made it clear that they have no plans to send more troops at all. The lack of enthusiasm for the Afghanistan surge was matched by growing questions among the Europeans over the military plan itself — both the overarching strategy and the lines of supply. Moreover, the Europeans are anxious to know how and to what extent the U.S. plan involves the Russians. With Russia at its back door, Europe has been divided on its ability to work within a U.S.-dominated NATO. The lines were drawn during the Cold War — though, since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has expanded and pushed right up against Russia's borders. This has complicated the issue and caused a rift among the European members of the alliance on how to handle Moscow. The larger European NATO members have teetered between wanting a united stance against Russia on one hand, and wanting to prevent any confrontation on the other. But the United States has further complicated things by sending mixed signals about its position on Russia. Washington has been negotiating with Moscow about using Russian and (formerly Soviet) Central Asian territory for an alternative route to supply troops in Afghanistan. The United States made some headway on this front when it hinted that it is open to negotiating a new arms-control treaty and that it might be willing to reconsider its position on ballistic missile defense (BMD) efforts in Central Europe. As NATO ministers were meeting Thursday, the first train of American non-military supplies left a port in Latvia to travel across Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to support forces in Afghanistan. In some ways, however, the old antagonism remains. Russia is still looking for concrete evidence that Washington is stepping back from installing BMD sites in Poland and the Czech Republic — and that it is erecting firm barriers to NATO expansion, especially where Ukraine and Georgia are concerned. There is a very real split among the Europeans on this new and confusing relationship between Washington and Moscow. Some of the European heavyweights, notably France and Germany, see the U.S.-Russian negotiations as something to be nurtured into a real rapprochement. At the Munich Security Conference earlier in February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy each emphasized the importance of cutting a deal with Russia on security and international issues. Merkel said that Russia should be included in any European security structure, and Sarkozy emphasized that NATO needs Russia in any serious international negotiation, such as talks aimed at securing an alternate supply route to Afghanistan through Iran. Meanwhile, other European states are horrified that the United States and Russia could be forming a new relationship. Poland refuses to give up on the prospect of getting an American BMD deployment on its turf to solidify U.S. military protection against Russia. Also, the British defense secretary proposed Thursday that NATO create a 3,000-strong rapid-deployment force to defend Europe. The proposal is aimed at Russia, which recently announced a similar plan to create an agile, multinational military formation within its own security alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Both the British and Russian proposals are mainly rhetoric for the time being, but London and Moscow are clearly eyeing each other. The confusion and anxiety over the U.S.-Russia relationship has nearly frozen the Europeans on all matters. The Europeans want a clear answer on the nature of the evolving relationship between Washington and Moscow before they can formulate a firm policy on any matter involving NATO — such as Afghanistan, BMD or Iran. The resulting uncertainty has spilled over into every other calculation being made by the Europeans, whether that involves EU structures or energy deals. Neither Europe nor its constituent states can formulate a policy on any major security issue until the United States has made a clear decision about where and how to cooperate with Russia, and where and how to oppose it.

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