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3 May, 2012  ▪  Edward Lucas

Beware!

Ukraine is no longer a priority for Western countries

As the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21 approaches, Europe’s security architecture looks rickety. The confidence that once glued the countries of the North Atlantic alliance together is oozing away. What is left looks brittle and unconvincing.

The biggest problem is money. Getting European countries to spend money on defence was never easy. But Bob Gates’s remarks in June last year, as he left the office of Secretary of Defence, were as apposite as they were harsh. The alliance faced “military irrelevance” in a “dim if not dismal” future unless its European members spent more on defence. “Future US political leaders – those for whom the cold war was not the formative experience that it was for me - may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost," he said.

Nearly a year later, Europe shows no sign of having properly understood that warning. It continues to be a free-rider on American defence spending. Yet the big threats that America faces now are in the Pacific. They come from a rising China, not a declining Russia. The shift is slow, but it is inexorable. America still cares about the defence of Europe (it has twice in the past 100 years had to intervene to sort out the continent’s problems). But for the first time since 1945, it no longer sees Europe as the top priority.

The signs of America’s retreat are multiple. It is pulling out conventional forces, and wants to do the same with its battlefield nuclear weapons.It no longer pushes NATO expansion. In Ukraine’s case, that is easy: the authorities in Kiev (Kyiv) are not anymore interested in a place in the alliance’s waiting room. But the Georgians, who do yearn for inclusion in Euro-Atlantic security structures, have been given a blunt message:  don’t ask for much, because the disappointment will be all the more painful.

In Moldova Germany that has taken over the thankless task of trying to broker a deal between Russia, Ukraine, Romania and the parties to the conflict. Ten years ago, it was the other way round: Germany was on the sidelines, and America had its sleeves rolled up. Nor does America have anything to say in the debilitating row between Poland and Lithuania, which is spilling over into issues of continental importance.

Another sign is that the quality of American officials dealing with, and posted to,Europeis generally low. The continent is seen as yesterday’s problem for yesterday’s men (and women).  America “led from the back” in the Libya conflict: only making sure that the European allies were not actually defeated by their lack of smart munitions, aerial intelligence and other military necessities. Compare that with the United States’ role only a few years earlier in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The decline in bilateral relations is striking too. Poland, once America’s most loyal ally in “new Europe”, is now viscerally disappointed. The Obama administration has not produced a serious military commitment to Poland’s defence. It botched the change in the missile-defence plans, announcing them hurriedly on September 17 2009, a grim date in Poland’s history. And it has not even been able to secure visa-free travel for Poles wanting to visit the United States.  Instead, Poland looks to Germany. In November, Radek Sikorski sensationally appealed in Berlin for Germany to lead Europe. That speech also contained unmistakable messages of disappointment with Britain and America—countries that in the past were seen as strong friends of Poland.

The most high-profile American relationship in the region has been with Russia. The “reset” was launched with much fanfare—but the early gains have been followed by systematic disappointment. True, Russia has reached agreement with America on cuts in the strategic nuclear arsenal, and on transit of military material to (and now from) Afghanistan. But these were things that Russia wanted anyway. It needs cuts in nuclear stockpiles to maintain the semblance of strategic parity with the much stronger American arsenal. And it does not want the Taliban to win in Afghanistan. The decision to treat Dmitri Medvedev as if he were the real president, rather than deal with the man in charge, Vladimir Putin, looks particularly ill-judged.

The humiliating end came with the American ambassador, Michael McFaul, being hounded in the streets of Moscow by propagandists (I hesitate to call them journalists) from the Gazprom-owned NTV station. McFaul was the architect of the reset, who risked his career and his credibility by trying to improve American-Russian relations. The Kremlin shows no gratitude for it.

Yetan obituary for Euro-Atlanticism would be premature. For policy makers in Washington, DC, the continent still represents the largest block of like-minded countries. Weak and irritating allies are better than no allies at all. Together with the European Union America has huge clout—diplomatic, economic and moral—which it cannot have on its own. In organisations such as the G-20, the OECD and the WTO, American-European cooperation remains vital.

Americaretains a strategic focus on Europe in three respects: the Arctic, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean. The last of these is about oil and Israel. America will not abandon the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, or its security commitment to Israel. That means keeping a naval presence in the Mediterranean, and close cooperation with countries such as Britain (because of the UK bases in Cyprus), Italy (home to the Sixth Fleet), and Turkey.

The Arctic is a new game where America, like other countries, is feeling its way. It is an Arctic power, but NATO is not the natural channel for American interests there: the alliance’s members have radically different approaches. Norway and Russia are friends; Canada and America are rivals. NATO members such as Denmark have territorial claims that others do not recognise.

The most sensitive question is the Baltic. In their shrunken state, Russia’s armed forces are a threat only to small countries that they can drive to. This could—potentially—mean a threat to the Baltic states, especially if NATO’s security guarantee were seen as no longer valid. America has no desire to risk World War Three with Russia to defend the Baltics. So it is determined never to allow that question to be raised. It has placed a remarkable amount of time and energy into showing that it cares about the defence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The biggest shift (compared with the Bush administration’s rather more timid stance) is that it pushed through the contingency plans that make the alliance’s defence of the Baltics credible. In the event of bellicose Russian rhetoric, Polish troops would move into Lithuania (and German ones into Poland). American planes would be based at air bases in all three countries. Russia would be in no doubt that it was dealing not with three weak former colonies, but with the combined might of the Western alliance.

A good example of this new approach will be the Steadfast Jazz exercises planned for October-November 2013. These are a response to the intimidating Russian manoeuvres, Ladoga and Zapad-09, held in autumn 2009. These involved (in theory) the isolation, invasion and occupation of the Baltic states, involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, and culminating with a strategic nuclear strike on Warsaw. The message from the Kremlin was blunt: we have the capability to regain our lost Baltic provinces, and to inflict unacceptable damage on you if you try to stop us. But the attempt to intimidate the West failed. Steadfast Jazz will be a serious drill that shows that the West has the will and the capability to defend its three small allies.

The concern with the Baltics transcends old categories. Non-NATO Sweden, for example, is now a far more important American ally than, say, Greece or Portugal. Nordefco, the new Nordic defence cooperation, attracts benign American attention. Far from being a rival that weakens NATO, it is seen as a complement to it. The big push in coming years will be to persuade the Baltic states to join in too.

It is a similar story with the EU. On the face of it, the European Union is in a mess. It is preoccupied with saving the common currency, introduced far too early and with over-optimistic assumptions. That has placed a huge burden on EU solidarity and on EU institutions. There is little time, money or effort to spare for external policy—exemplified in the mediocre figure of Catherine Ashton and her hapless and misnamed External Action Service. The EU has signally failed to establish the Southern Energy Corridor, which aimed to bring gas from Central Asia and the Caucasus to central Europe via Turkey and the Balkans. Seen from outside, the EU looks debt-sodden, distracted, divided and quite possible doomed.

That perception is mistaken. Europe remains rich and strong. Nowhere else on the planet treats its people better. Decision-making may be infuriatingly slow, but behind the scenes a lot goes on. Take energy, for example. Five years ago, Europe seemed hypnotised by the power of Russia’s monopoly power in gas supply. Not any more. Europe has largely completed a series of gas interconnectors, meaning that what used to be east-west gas pipelines are now complemented by north-south ones. It is physically impossible for Russia to cut off, say, Slovakia, or Hungary. Resilience means that external pressure is pointless.

The EU has also shown that it has the political will to act against Russian market-rigging. Five years ago, the idea that the Commission would have had the backing to raid 40 offices of Gazprom affiliates in the EU in order to seize documents and computers related to allegations of anti-competitive behaviour would have seemed ludicrous. But that is exactly what happened in September 2011.

The swing state in all this is Germany. The days of Gerhard Schröder and his love-in with Vladimir Putin are gone. Angela Merkel knows that German industry minds about Russia. But she also knows that Poland is now a far more important trading partner for Germany (even with energy included). After 20 years of wishful thinking, generosity and patience, Germany has concluded that Russia is not a good bet. The smaller but richer and more trustworthy countries of central and Eastern Europe offer better returns. Russia has yet to digest the scale of the setback caused by this shift in perceptions. But it is real enough. Russia now counts for as much as the Czech Republic in German foreign trade. Nice, but no reason to make big shifts in policy.

Where does this leave Ukraine? On the sidelines, is the answer. Europe is not scared enough to make big efforts to keep an ill-run Ukraine out of the Kremlin’s grip. Like America, it has plenty of other worries. The watchword of the next decade is priorities. And if you are not a priority, watch out. 


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