Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Who Lost Europe?

How the standoff in Ukraine could split NATO and kill the Asia pivot.

By , a distinguished research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Even if the United States succeeds in its last-ditch effort to prevent Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian crisis will have long-lasting reverberations for U.S. foreign policy. For the past five years, the Obama administration's focus has been on limiting overseas commitments while shifting resources from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. The current standoff with Moscow will almost certainly make that harder. In addition to further eroding the U.S.-Russian relationship, it will force Washington to take European security more seriously, reduce the prospects for a negotiated outcome in Syria, and limit the scope and ambitions of Washington's Asia rebalance.

The most direct impact of the current standoff will be on Washington's relationship with Moscow. Although the U.S.-Russia "reset" was a signal achievement of Obama's first term, bilateral relations have cooled significantly in recent years. With tension mounting over Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, crackdown on dissent and gay rights at home, and decision to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the Obama administration made a conscious decision to de-prioritize relations with Moscow, cancelling a September 2013 summit and refusing to send a high-level government delegation to the Sochi Olympics.

Nevertheless, Washington attempted to preserve limited cooperation in order to broker an end to the Syrian civil war and roll back Iran's nuclear program. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, it was becoming clear that a second round of Syria talks in Geneva were going nowhere, and that the fate of an Iranian nuclear deal would depend on direct contacts between Washington and Tehran. Coupled with the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (a priority area for U.S.-Russian cooperation during the reset), these developments were already reducing Washington's interest in partnership with Moscow. With its need for Russian cooperation significantly reduced, the invasion of Ukraine sets the stage for the U.S. to further disengage, and to pursue a harder line toward Moscow, likely for several years.

Even if the United States succeeds in its last-ditch effort to prevent Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian crisis will have long-lasting reverberations for U.S. foreign policy. For the past five years, the Obama administration’s focus has been on limiting overseas commitments while shifting resources from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. The current standoff with Moscow will almost certainly make that harder. In addition to further eroding the U.S.-Russian relationship, it will force Washington to take European security more seriously, reduce the prospects for a negotiated outcome in Syria, and limit the scope and ambitions of Washington’s Asia rebalance.

The most direct impact of the current standoff will be on Washington’s relationship with Moscow. Although the U.S.-Russia "reset" was a signal achievement of Obama’s first term, bilateral relations have cooled significantly in recent years. With tension mounting over Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, crackdown on dissent and gay rights at home, and decision to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the Obama administration made a conscious decision to de-prioritize relations with Moscow, cancelling a September 2013 summit and refusing to send a high-level government delegation to the Sochi Olympics.

Nevertheless, Washington attempted to preserve limited cooperation in order to broker an end to the Syrian civil war and roll back Iran’s nuclear program. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, it was becoming clear that a second round of Syria talks in Geneva were going nowhere, and that the fate of an Iranian nuclear deal would depend on direct contacts between Washington and Tehran. Coupled with the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (a priority area for U.S.-Russian cooperation during the reset), these developments were already reducing Washington’s interest in partnership with Moscow. With its need for Russian cooperation significantly reduced, the invasion of Ukraine sets the stage for the U.S. to further disengage, and to pursue a harder line toward Moscow, likely for several years.

But it’s not just relations with the Kremlin that will be affected. America’s European allies have frequently accused the Obama administration of taking Europe for granted. To the extent that these criticisms are justified, they reflected a belief within the administration that European security — Washington’s principal foreign policy concern for the past century — had been solved and that it was time for Europe to become a producer, rather than a consumer, of security. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian crisis has called that assumption into question.

At least until President Vladimir Putin exits the Kremlin for good, Washington is going to have to focus more on sustaining its NATO alliance commitments and providing reassurance to vulnerable states on Europe’s periphery, even if doing so undermines the Obama administration’s desire to simultaneously slash defense spending and divert resources from Europe to Asia. Washington has already taken some short-term, mostly symbolic measures to reassure its allies, including holding Article 4 consultations within NATO (invoked when a member state believes its security or independence is threatened) and dispatching additional fighter jets to the Baltic states and personnel to Poland. In the wake of the current crisis, the United States may also need to reconsider its 2012 decision to withdraw two full brigade combat teams from Europe as a cost-saving measure, and possibly consider the re-deployment of forces from traditional bases in Germany to NATO’s eastern flank. Similarly, the Ukraine crisis will strengthen opposition on Capitol Hill to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s plan to impose cost savings on the Pentagon by slashing the size of U.S. land forces following their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Russian aggression against Ukraine will also re-open the perennial debate about NATO expansion. NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit, which first promised Georgia a path into the alliance — and factored into Russia’s decision to invade South Ossetia in 2008 — made a similar commitment to Ukraine, then led by the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko. Though Yanukovych withdrew Kyiv’s application to NATO in 2010, Ukraine’s recent upheaval is sure to put this issue back on the table.

Depending on the outcome of the scheduled May 25 election, Ukraine’s new government may well seek a renewed path into NATO — especially if Russia attempts to annex Crimea, removing more than one million ethnic Russians from Ukraine’s electorate and further stoking anti-Russian sentiment elsewhere. Ukrainian NATO membership would likely provoke Moscow into a larger scale use of force, which in turn could lead to a rupture within NATO if allies proved reluctant to uphold the alliance’s mutual security commitment. Starting now, Washington will need to handle this issue with extraordinary strategic foresight, balancing Ukrainians’ right to choose their own future with recognition that a precipitous move toward NATO could prove disastrous.

Of course, the implications of the Ukrainian crisis extend beyond Europe. Though the Geneva talks were already on the road to failure, the invasion of Crimea likely eliminates the possibility that the international community will be able to impose a solution on Syria. Assad reportedly believes the Ukrainian crisis gives him a window to pursue an outright military victory. Since directly arming Syria’s fractious rebels still risks empowering a range of extremist, anti-Western groups, Washington’s options are narrowing, and it may soon have to resign itself to the prospect of Assad continuing to preside over a brutalized, unstable Syria.

Meanwhile, the administration’s Pacific ambitions may also be stymied. The corollary to Obama’s belief that European security had been solved was the decision to rebalance U.S. resources to Asia. The factors driving the rebalance, including Asia’s economic dynamism and the potential for a rising China to precipitate conflicts with neighbors, will not change. Nevertheless, Washington’s ability to give substance to its rebalance strategy will be limited by the need to take European security more seriously.

Within Asia, Washington’s challenge will be to reassure nervous allies like Japan and the Philippines that the Ukrainian crisis does not imply a weakening commitment to the principle of territorial integrity. It will also have to prevent an increasingly isolated, paranoid Russia from pursuing a strategic alignment with China. Fortunately, Russia’s disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty plays poorly in Beijing, and even a Russia increasingly alienated from the West will be reluctant to become China’s junior partner. Japan, meanwhile, remains eager to deepen cooperation with Russia, but recognizes that Moscow’s actions in Ukraine make that prospect more remote. As a result, Asia may be the only part of the world where U.S. and Russian interests will continue on largely parallel tracks, even if active cooperation is now unlikely. At best, Washington can provide quiet support for the efforts of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and others to deepen economic and security ties with Russia, which remain in the longer term U.S. interest regardless of developments in Ukraine. At worst, it will struggle to promote a stable, prosperous Asia as it copes with a wider conflict on the borders of Europe.

Jeffrey Mankoff is a distinguished research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies specializing in Russian and Eurasian affairs and a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security.

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