With U.S. presidential elections fast approaching, the specter of another attempted “reset” with Putinist Russia looms over Washington. Regardless of who takes the reigns in the White House next January, there is a danger that in the hope of rebuilding relations with Moscow the administration will accommodate Russia’s European ambitions and undercut America’s security interests.
A proposed rapprochement is likely to be premised on three erroneous assumptions: that Russia has legitimate interests that do not pose a serious threat to the West; that NATO is losing its importance as a security provider; and that Washington can forge a productive partnership with Moscow.
The idea that Moscow has legitimate interests in gaining a stake in Europe’s security architecture actually challenges NATO’s existence and disguises Russia’s revisionist plans. Such a scheme was evident in the European Security Treaty drafted by Moscow after its invasion of Georgia in 2008. It claimed that Russia itself could guarantee the security of its former satellites. The Treaty was rejected but the primary goals of Kremlin security policy have remained unchanged: strategic control of the post-Soviet area, rolling back NATO, and limiting America’s role.
A second false assumption among “reseters” is that NATO is becoming redundant and that Russia’s policies are equivalent to those of the West, which also seeks to dominate countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. In reality, Russia’s neighbors voluntarily seek close ties with NATO and the EU in order to consolidate their independence and to boost their economies. Western institutions do not impose themselves on aspirant states that vigorously petition for entry as protection from Russia’s imperial designs.
Moscow has sought to impose its control by attacking and dismembering Georgia and Ukraine and it may be poised to forcibly absorb Belarus. Russia’s often touted “legitimate interests” are barely disguised claims to control the foreign, security, and alliance policies of neighbors that were once part of the Tsarist or Soviet empires. Moreover, the relentless campaign of political, social, economic, and informational subversion is a strategic calculation to dismantle Western institutions that challenge Kremlin ambitions.
The thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet empire have demonstrated that there is no viable alternative to NATO in guaranteeing the national security and territorial integrity of members. American forces are deployed in Europe to protect U.S. interests and to detect, deter, and defeat adversaries who threaten any ally. Hence, the large-scale Defender 2020 exercises in Europe this spring are designed to test Allied readiness and capabilities in the event of a Russian assault along NATO’s eastern frontier.
NATO has developed a broad arsenal of deterrents and not only in the military arena. While NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence helps deter Moscow’s direct aggression, its Centers of Excellence monitor a range of threats – from terrorism to cyber and informational. Such work is indispensable for planning and deploying effective responses to the eclectic forms of contemporary warfare. Any diminution of NATO through an American drawdown would provoke new conflicts in Europe.
The third mistaken assumption among “reseters” is that Washington can work productively with Putin’s Kremlin in confronting global challenges. In reality, in almost every suggested arena of cooperation, Moscow actively cultivates conflicts from which it gains strategic advantage and undermines America’s influence.
The Kremlin supports regimes and terrorist groups across the Middle East that are sworn enemies of the U.S. It undermines Europe’s energy security and pursues supply monopolies. Its constant threats against NATO allies along the eastern flank necessitates an enhanced Western deterrence force. It nurtures armed conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan to keep neighbors off balance and outside Western institutions. And its interventions in the Western Balkans contribute to stirring ethnic and inter-state disputes that Washington and Brussels struggle to resolve.
Western “reseters” operate on the misguided premise that Moscow follows international rules once it has signed an agreement. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the purpose of any negotiations is to trick the adversary into conceding ground for its previous aggression. The Putinists have continued Bolshevik negotiating methods designed to extract maximum concessions and to declare fraudulent guarantees. The unimplemented Six Point Peace Plan in Georgia, the broken agreement to withdraw troops from Moldova, and the violated Budapest Memorandum, which guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity, are the most glaring examples of Moscow’s duplicity.
The Kremlin will propose geopolitical agreements to the next U.S. administration that may look appealing but will be crafted to raise Russia’s influence at America’s expense. It will also push for lifting economic sanctions on oligarchs and state enterprises embroiled in Moscow’s anti-Western offensives. Washington’s policy should not sacrifice American and allied security in the forlorn hope that Russia can become a trusted partner. The last “reset” with Moscow in 2009 lowered Western defenses and culminated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another toothless agreement will simply encourage renewed Kremlin aggression against another neighbor that asserts its independence.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.