Russia Belongs at the Center of Europe

NATO and the European Union have reached their limits. Here’s what should come next.

By , a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Vladimir Putin speaks during a press conference on the second day of the G8 summit venue of Lough Erne on June 18, 2013 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
Vladimir Putin speaks during a press conference on the second day of the G8 summit venue of Lough Erne on June 18, 2013 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
Vladimir Putin speaks during a press conference on the second day of the G8 summit venue of Lough Erne on June 18, 2013 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. WPA Pool /Getty Images

The Western attempt to expel Russia from Europe has failed. That there was such an attempt was always implicit in the strategy of seeking to admit every European country but Russia into NATO and the European Union. In this context, the NATO slogan “A Europe Whole and Free” is an explicit statement that Russia is not part of Europe.

But as French President Emmanuel Macron has reminded us, Russia is part of Europe and is simply too big, too powerful, and too invested in its immediate neighborhood to be excluded from the European security order. A continued strategy along these lines will lead to repeated Russian attempts to force its way back in. At best, this will lead to repeated and very damaging crises; at worst, to war.

A structure needs to be created that can defend the interests of NATO and the EU while at the same time accommodating vital Russian interests and preserving peace. The solution lies in a modernized version of what was once called the “Concert of Europe.”

The Western attempt to expel Russia from Europe has failed. That there was such an attempt was always implicit in the strategy of seeking to admit every European country but Russia into NATO and the European Union. In this context, the NATO slogan “A Europe Whole and Free” is an explicit statement that Russia is not part of Europe.

But as French President Emmanuel Macron has reminded us, Russia is part of Europe and is simply too big, too powerful, and too invested in its immediate neighborhood to be excluded from the European security order. A continued strategy along these lines will lead to repeated Russian attempts to force its way back in. At best, this will lead to repeated and very damaging crises; at worst, to war.

A structure needs to be created that can defend the interests of NATO and the EU while at the same time accommodating vital Russian interests and preserving peace. The solution lies in a modernized version of what was once called the “Concert of Europe.”

The current security order has reached its limit. Until 2007-2008, the expansion of the EU and NATO appeared to have proceeded flawlessly, with the admission of all the former Soviet satellites in Central Europe and the Balkans, as well as the Baltic states. Russia was unhappy with NATO expansion but did not actively oppose it. Then, however, both NATO and the EU received decisive checks, through their own overreach.

At the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008, the United States and its allies, though denied an immediate Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia because of the opposition of France and Germany, procured a promise of those countries’ eventual membership. Seen from Moscow, this created the prospect that NATO would include countries with territorial disputes (and in the case of Georgia, frozen conflicts) with Russia; that (as in the Baltic states) NATO would give cover to moves to harm the position of local Russian minorities; and that NATO would expel Russia from its naval base at Sevastopol and from the southern Caucasus.

Later that year, the Russo-Georgian War should have sounded the death knell of further NATO expansion, for it demonstrated beyond doubt both the acute dangers of territorial disputes in the former USSR and that in the last resort Russia would fight to defend its vital interests in the region, and the West would not fight. This is being demonstrated again today by the repeated and categorical statements from Washington and Brussels that there is no question of sending troops to defend Ukraine; and if NATO will not fight for Ukraine, then it cannot admit Ukraine as an ally. It is as simple as that.

The rise of China is the other factor that makes the exclusion of Russia unviable. For this project was developed at a time when Russia was at its weakest in almost 400 years and when China’s colossal growth had only just begun. This allowed the West possibilities that today have diminished enormously, if as seems likely China is prepared to strengthen Russia against Western economic sanctions.

The EU too has reached the limit of its expansion eastward. On the one hand, there is Ukraine’s size (44 million people), corruption, political dysfunction, and poverty (GDP per capita that’s one-third of Russia’s). Perhaps more importantly, EU expansion to eastern Europe no longer looks like the unconditional success story that it did a decade ago.

Romania, Bulgaria, and other states remain deeply corrupt and in many ways still ex-communist. Poland and Hungary have developed dominant strains of chauvinist and quasi-authoritarian populism that place them at odds with what were supposed to be the core values of the EU—and that in some respects bring them closer ideologically to the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. After this experience, there is no chance that the EU will admit a country like Ukraine in any foreseeable future.

An acknowledgment of these obvious truths (which are acknowledged in private by the overwhelming majority of Western officials and experts) should open the way to thinking about a new European security architecture that would incorporate NATO and the EU while reducing the hostility between these organizations and Russia. We should aim at the creation of this new system as part of the solution to the present crisis, and in order to avoid new ones.

This requires a return to a more traditional way of thinking about international politics. For a key problem of the West’s approach to Russia since the end of the Cold War is that it has demanded that Russia observe the internal rules of behavior of the EU and NATO without offering EU and NATO membership (something that is in any case impossible for multiple reasons).

In recent years and in the wider world, the U.S. establishment by contrast has loudly announced “the return of great-power politics”—and this is true enough as far as it goes. Certainly the idea of a monolithic “rules-based global order,” in which liberal internationalism acts as a thin cover for U.S. primacy, is now dead.

The problem is that most members of the U.S. establishment have become so wedded to belief in both the necessity and the righteousness of U.S. global primacy that they can see relations with other great powers only in confrontational and zero-sum terms. Rivalry, of course, there will inevitably be; but if we are to avoid future disasters, we need to find a way of managing relations so as to keep this rivalry within bounds, establish certain genuine common rules, prevent conflict, and work toward the solution of common problems. To achieve this, we need to seek lessons further back in diplomatic history.

The essential elements of a new, reasonably consensual pan-European order should be the following: a traditional nonaggression treaty between NATO and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), by which both sides pledge not to attack the other militarily. As a matter of fact, neither side has any intention of doing so, and to put this on paper would reduce mutual paranoia and the ability of establishments on both sides to feed this paranoia for their own domestic purposes.

Full diplomatic relations should be established or reestablished between NATO and the CSTO and between the EU and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. On the basis of this, intensive negotiations should be launched to achieve two goals: new arms control agreements in Europe, starting with nuclear missiles, and economic arrangements that would allow nonmembers of the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union to trade freely with both blocs, rather than forcing on them a mutually exclusive choice of trading partners.

When it comes to the avoidance and solution of conflicts, however, institutions involving all European countries are too large and too rigid to be of much use. The Russian establishment has also decided—not without reason—that these are simply excuses for Western countries to agree to a common position and then present it to Russia as a fait accompli. The need is for a regular, frequent, but much smaller and less formal meeting place for the countries that really count in European security: the United States, France, Germany, and Russia (plus the United Kingdom, if it survives as one state and emerges from its post-Brexit bewilderment).

Such a European security council would have three goals: firstly, the avoidance of new conflicts through early consultation about impending crises; secondly, the solution of existing conflicts on the basis of common standards of realism—in other words, who actually controls the territory in question and will continue to do so; and thirdly, democracy—the will of the majority of the local population, expressed through internationally supervised referendums (a proposal put forward by Thomas Graham).

Finally, a European security council could lay the basis for security cooperation outside Europe. Here, the present situation is nothing short of tragicomic. In Afghanistan, the United States, NATO, the EU, Russia, and the CSTO have an identical vital interest: to prevent that country from becoming a base for international Islamist terrorism and revolution. And for all the greater complexity of the situation, this is also true in the end of the fight against the Islamic State and its allies in the Middle East and western Africa.

Among the other benefits of such a new consultative institution would therefore be to remind both the West and Russia that while Russian and NATO soldiers have never killed each other and do not want to, there are other forces out there that have killed many thousands of Americans, Russians, and West Europeans, would gladly kill us all if they could find the means to do so, and see no moral difference whatsoever between what they see as Western and Eastern infidel imperialism.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, with John Hulsman.

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