At a summit on October 20, the European Union stepped back from the threat of sanctions against Russia for its role in bombing civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The EU’s inability to arrive at consensus in the face of a Russian-supported—and, in some cases, Russian-instigated—humanitarian catastrophe begs the question, how bad does it need to get in Aleppo for Europe to do something?
Apparently, not even growing evidence that Russian forces bombed a UN relief convoy is enough to solidify consensus. If arriving at a common European approach to Russia is impossible, electoral politics in Europe and the United States are likely to put a broader transatlantic strategy even farther out of reach, at least in the short run.
EU backtracking on the threat of sanctions was a reminder of how difficult it can be to get the West on the same page vis-à-vis Russia. Reportedly, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom favored issuing a threat of sanctions against individuals and organizations connected to the bombing of Aleppo. However, Italy led a small group of countries that opposed this and instead favored broad normalization of EU relations with Moscow. As a result, consensus proved illusory, and the EU issued watered-down language about “all options” remaining on the table.
The inability of the EU’s big four (soon to be big three, following Britain’s vote to leave the bloc) to reach agreement on how to approach Russia reflects complex posturing domestically and internationally. For example, the willingness of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to play the role of spoiler may have very little to do with economics and hopes that increased trade with Russia will relieve Italy’s 11 percent unemployment rate. Instead, Rome appears just as interested in frustrating German dominance of a post-Brexit EU and thereby bolstering Italy’s position as a peer of France and Germany, politically and economically.
In contrast, France seems to have developed a stiffer backbone vis-à-vis Russia. Just a few months ago, there was talk emanating from Paris about the necessity of ending sanctions against Russia (for its March 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of parts of Ukraine) and normalizing relations, despite limited progress toward peace in eastern Ukraine. More recently, though, French President François Hollande, who is facing abysmal approval ratings and still apparently deciding whether to seek reelection in spring 2017, has begun positioning himself as a hawk on Russia. Earlier in October, his emissaries at the UN attempted to push a Security Council resolution, vocally opposed by Moscow, that would have established a truce in Aleppo and allowed for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Then, on October 11 and in light of the disaster in Aleppo, Hollande essentially disinvited Russian President Vladimir Putin to a meeting in Paris.
Meanwhile, hope springs eternal in parts of German society that through engagement, transparency, and trade, Russia can be convinced to cooperate with the West, curb its worst impulses, and end its antidemocratic, antihumanitarian policies in places like Syria and Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Thankfully, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to understand that managing Russia’s challenges precludes dialogue for its own sake. Nonetheless, as elections loom in fall 2017, she faces a variety of domestic constraints—Social Democrats attempting to differentiate themselves from her on Russia, Christian Social Union allies in Bavaria eager to increase trade with Russia, and the importance of Russian gas to Germany’s energy mix.
Lack of consensus in Europe—as well as within key European governments—stands in stark contrast to the approach likely to emanate from Washington in the coming years. If polls can be trusted, it seems very likely that Hillary Clinton will be the next U.S. president. If that happens, her administration will probably pursue a more hawkish stance toward Russia, something that Republicans in Congress will most likely welcome.
Certainly, given what Clinton has said on the campaign trail to date, including in debates with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, her administration would be willing to work with Russia on a limited set of issues where interests align, such as nuclear nonproliferation. Nonetheless, it’s also clear that she appears far more willing to push back when Russia creates problems for U.S. and Western interests. This will probably find favor among her political opponents on Capitol Hill, who have implored the administration of outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama to take a tougher stance toward Russia.
Even if there appears to be greater consensus in Washington than in Europe, the challenge for the West more broadly will be developing a common, transatlantic approach. Election politics in both France and Germany in 2017, negotiations on Britain’s terms of withdrawal from the EU, and an increased focus on the threat of returning foreign fighters as the self-proclaimed Islamic State collapses are all likely to consume energy and focus in Europe. Ultimately, these challenges will also distract from efforts to formulate and maintain a European consensus on Russia, much less a transatlantic one.
This is extraordinarily unfortunate, because the West is in dire need of a new strategy toward Russia. Certainly the West is not entirely blameless for the state of relations with Russia today, but its strategy toward Russia has been remarkably positive and consistent. That strategy has been driven by the belief that economic interdependence and other forms of interconnectedness enmesh states in a web of relationships that ameliorate security, discourage armed conflict, and lead to peaceful settlement of disputes.
Peace through interdependence worked in post–World War II Europe, but in the twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, it has utterly failed to work vis-à-vis Russia. The proof of this failure has never been more evident—note Moscow’s dismemberment of a sovereign European state for its own benefit in 2014 and its indiscriminate and arguably intentional bombing of unarmed civilians and UN personnel in 2016. Of course, Russians would argue their vital interests were at stake in each of those cases—but do the ends really justify Moscow’s means?
A new transatlantic strategy toward Russia must begin by acknowledging that Moscow—with or without Putin—is unlikely to embrace the peace-through-independence approach. Therefore, a Russia strategy that relies on incentives is unlikely to sufficiently safeguard Western interests. In contrast, a more competitive strategy is necessary: one that seeks to curb Russia’s behavior through increased costs, minimizes Russian leverage against the West, and ultimately diminishes Russia’s ability to hold Western interests at risk.
Despite the clear need for a new, more competitive transatlantic strategy toward Russia, it looks increasingly unlikely that one will emerge before the end of 2017. The best that the more hawkish crowd can hope for is to maintain what cost-imposing policies are currently in place vis-à-vis Russia, as a stopgap, until the electoral season in the leading Western powers passes.
John R. Deni is a research professor of security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and an adjunct professor at the American University’s School of International Service. The views expressed here are his alone.