For several months, much of the attention of American and European foreign and security policy has been focused on the Russian-Ukrainian border, where more than 100,000 Russian troops remain massed and equipped for a possible invasion. Much of the internal debate in the West during this period has focused on variables that are simply unknowable: what are Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions? What are its objectives ? And can the United States and its NATO allies dissuade him from starting a war that would radically change the geopolitical landscape of Europe, but also of the world?
Only time will tell if Putin is planning a massive invasion, a punitive raid or something in between, or if he has in fact been bluffing all along. The same applies if he seeks to upset the European political and security order, to rebalance it to take into account the change in Russia’s status since the end of the cold war, or to destabilize it in the long term through repeated exercises in this type of crisis. And the inherent uncertainties of deterrence mean that we may never know whether or not Western action has significantly altered Putin’s plans.
Despite their limitations, these debates have been useful, both in helping to clarify Russian capabilities and interests, and in better highlighting the divergent and incompatible visions that the two sides have of sovereignty, security, and governance. international order.
But the preoccupation with guessing what we cannot know has also overshadowed the extent to which the past few months of acute crisis have already answered a number of important and even existential questions that hung over the transatlantic alliance for much of the last 15 years. It is worth taking stock of them now, as the crisis could yet unfold in such a way as to eclipse or obscure them in the same way.
American commitment to European security is alive and well. European concerns about the future of NATO and its strategic relevance to the United States date back to the end of the Cold War, and they have gone through several cycles of ups and downs since then. The war in Afghanistan and its “out of theater or out of business” logic allowed the alliance to prove its worth for a time, even as the George W. Bush administration began to reduce the American military footprint in Europe. . This was followed by the Obama administration’s initial distance from European allies, exacerbated by its Asian pivot and the continued military withdrawal of forward-deployed US forces. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine reversed that trend, but the relief felt in European capitals after the decisive show of American solidarity was quickly dampened by the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
President Joe Biden has promised a return to normalcy, but his handling of transatlantic relations has seen its share of missteps and, in the case of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, chaos. But regardless of lingering concerns in Europe about Washington’s long-term strategic direction on China and the Indo-Pacific, the US response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis should allay, at least for now, the fear. that Europe becomes a peripheral theater for the American foreign and security policy-making community.
The Biden team carried out an impressive crisis management operation. There were some criticisms of the administration’s initial handling of the crisis, including the time “lost” in fruitless talks. But it is important to remember that Putin’s intentions have never been clear and remain uncertain. Talks made it possible to sound them out and test the proposal for a diplomatic resolution. Avoiding a war whose human and strategic impact would be significant at acceptable diplomatic costs was a laudable objective.
If Putin was counting on the crisis to exacerbate pre-existing divisions within the NATO alliance, he must be bitterly disappointed, as it has had the opposite effect.
Moreover, Putin benefits from tactical initiative and unified command, while the United States began the crisis in response mode at the head of a coalition with disparate and sometimes fractured strategic differences. The talks enabled the United States to organize and coordinate NATO’s response. And while it’s easy to dismiss diplomacy in the face of coercive threats like Pollyanna, process matters, especially to Washington’s European allies. Paris, Berlin and even Kiev are still not convinced of an imminent or certain invasion. Imagine their reaction if the United States had immediately started airlifting troops to Europe and shipping offensive weapons to Ukraine. We saw in 2003 what happens when the US strays too far from its allies on the warpath and Iraq does not threaten core European interests. Keeping NATO allies informed and on board for a European the response to the crisis was even more important after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after several rounds of talks, the United States conceded nothing, and it did so in conjunction with its NATO allies. Overall, the Biden team has demonstrated that it can conduct a formidable crisis management operation, dispelling any lingering doubts after the debacle in Afghanistan.
The NATO alliance has passed the test. Perhaps nothing is easier in commentary on transatlantic security than shooting European NATO members. There’s a reason Trump made it his calling card, after all. And to be fair, there is a great deal of truth in the criticisms of wealthy European states that are unwilling to shell out money to defend themselves and are unable to harmonize their disparate strategic priorities in the absence of a strong leadership and, at times, pressure from Washington. In this instance, the Biden team clearly exercised that leadership, but in a respectful and inclusive manner, which ultimately resulted in a cohesive and robust NATO response.
Yes, Germany had to be dragged, kicking and screaming all the way. And yes, Poland and the Baltic states remain skeptical and suspicious of French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to engage Putin. And yes, this answer has not yet been tested. But he moved on to a rather impressive combination of pre-emptive action and credible promises of heavy imposed costs, both in terms of economic sanctions and military deployments, should Putin decide to invade. If Putin was counting on the crisis to exacerbate pre-existing divisions within the alliance, he must be bitterly disappointed, as it has had the opposite effect.
Europe did not show up for the test. If there is is Nothing is easier in commentary on transatlantic security than to take shots at European NATO members is to take shots at European non-NATO security capabilities. So this is it. When it comes to shaping the course of this crisis, Europe has proven itself inadequate at the bilateral level and irrelevant at the European Union level. Britain’s arms airlift to Ukraine demonstrated the error of dismissing the relevance of a post-Brexit UK to European security and underscored London’s value as a close security partner, not only within NATO, but also for the EU. And the multiple channels and formats of European crisis diplomacy — such as Macron’s direct talks with Putin and Normandy-format meetings of Russian, Ukrainian, French and German officials — have given Putin more options to choose from for a exit ramp that would save his face. crisis.
But without the United States as a backstop, no European state or combination of states could hope to push or discourage Putin’s choices, and the EU as a bloc has once again demonstrated its inability to steer a European operation of crisis management – in Europe, no less. It is undoubtedly a bitter pill to swallow for the partisans of European strategic autonomy. But as in the case of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the very crisis that highlights the need and value of strategic autonomy also illustrates how far Europe is from achieving and exercising it.
For now, therefore, the United States remains the keystoneor keystone, without which the European security order would crumble – the only power capable of both galvanizing a coherent response to a crisis like this and guaranteeing the solvency of that response.
Putin knows this, and it is possible that he orchestrated this whole episode to test the resolve of Washington and NATO. Luckily for Europe, both passed the test this time around. This could change in the future, whether due to the shift in US strategic focus towards competing with China in Asia, or due to election results in Washington. But for now, supporters of a strong US commitment to European security on both sides of the Atlantic can be reassured.
Judah Grunstein is the editor of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.