The West Must Now Be United on Russia
This week, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled his final trip to Europe, leaving a long list of issues for the incoming Biden administration to coordinate on with European partners. Russia will be high on this list.
Last month, an investigation by Bellingcat and CNN revealed new details about the use of banned chemical weapons by Russian security services in the attempted killing of Alexei Navalny, a leading opponent of the Kremlin. The poisoning of Navalny is just the latest in a series of Russian state-sponsored targeted killings and attempted poisonings across Europe, including in the center of Berlin.
Yet despite this record of death and destruction, the German government continues to insist on a business-as-usual approach with President Vladimir Putin. Berlin has resisted growing pressure from the U.S. Congress, the Trump administration, and many fellow EU member states to cancel or halt the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, a project that will only line the pockets of Putin and his cronies and threaten European energy security.
Nordstream 2 is a remnant of an era in Western relations with Russia when it was hoped that reformist voices would be able to exercise some control over policies of the Russian state. When Putin handed over the Russian presidency to the iPad-toting Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, Western capitals fantasized about the potential for a reset of Russia’s post-1991 path.
Instead, Putin never gave up control and since his return to the presidency four years later, he annexed Crimea, the sovereign territory of a neighboring state, and brought armed conflict back to Europe, killing thousands of people in the process in Ukraine. His forces have committed atrocities in Syria and Libya, and his intelligence services continue to sow chaos within Western democracies through targeted disinformation campaigns.
Even as the Kremlin lies to Russians about the human toll of the coronavirus pandemic, and Russians protest his rule, Putin is attempting to consolidate his grip on power for another sixteen years. Meanwhile, on Russia’s periphery, from Belarus to the Caucasus to Central Asia, crises are spreading.
The start of a new U.S. administration offers an opportunity for more effective transatlantic cooperation on Russia grounded in shared transatlantic values of freedom, democracy, and respect for the rule of law. German leaders will not be able to continue to hide behind their frustrations about the Trump administration as a rationale for business as usual with Moscow.
It is not clear, however, to what extent the Biden administration will have a willing partner in Berlin. The bipartisan imposition of sanctions by the U.S. Congress has been met with indignation by German officials. Germany should instead find a way to cancel or halt Nordstream 2 before this becomes a fait accompli due to U.S. sanctions.
Germany and the United States should instead work together to redouble support for Russia’s beleaguered civil society activists and independent media that are being designated as “foreign actors” by the Kremlin. They should engage EU partners to coordinate human-rights sanctions against those in the Russian regime that oversee targeted killings and attacks on the opposition.
The transatlantic democracies should also forge a joint stand on the upcoming Russian State Duma elections later this year. Leading Russian opposition figures have already begun to issue calls for derecognition of the Putin regime if the Kremlin, as is expected, blocks opposition candidates from participating.
They should find ways to assist the Russian people during the pandemic including through provision of vaccines, given the questions swirling about the safety of Russia’s Sputnik V.
Germany and the United States should support regional efforts like the Three Seas Initiative to promote north-south connectivity on Europe’s periphery, rather than investing in east-west commercial connections to a Russia that is currently on a different geostrategic path.
Transatlantic cooperation on the challenges facing Europe’s periphery from Belarus to the Balkans should be deepened. This is a region where Russia continues to weaponize state-sponsored corruption through projects like Nordstream 2 and uses disinformation to stall democratic reform and undermine those who aspire to join the West.
President Joe Biden is likely to prioritize this challenge early in his tenure and will seek partners in Europe for its new approach.
When, as vice-president, he met Putin in the Kremlin in 2011, he reportedly told him, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” The Biden presidency will likely mean the end of U.S. illusions about Putin’s Russia.
The question is whether German illusions about the Kremlin will end as well or whether Berlin will leave the Biden administration to tackle the Putin challenge alone.
Natalia Arno is president and founder of the Free Russia Foundation.
This is the English-language version of an article published by Die Welt on January 18, 2021.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.