On September 21, 2015, the Transatlantic Academy hosted the opening conference of its eighth fellowship year, focused on the theme of “Russia and the West.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine have challenged the European security order and led to the highest level of tensions between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War. This year’s Transatlantic Academy fellows will examine the various aspects of the Russia challenge and U.S. and European policy options toward Russia and its neighbors, with the aim of formulating a transatlantic strategy. This opening conference introduced the fellows and examined the successes and failures of Western strategy toward Russia in the years leading up to the Ukraine crisis, as well as the current policy debates about Russia in Europe and the United States.
Transatlantic Academy Executive Director Stephen Szabo welcomed an audience of dozens and introduced the Academy theme. On the first panel, “Western Russia Policy: Successes and Failures Before the Ukraine Crisis,” Senior Fellow Angela Stent described the record of U.S.-Russian relations after the Cold War, concluding that the U.S. idea of a productive relationship with Russia varied greatly from Russia’s idea, and that cooperation often yielded disappointment and worked best on nuclear matters where the United States treated Russia as an equal and when narrow, transactional, and in Russia’s interests. She argued that the United States underestimated Russia's determination not to accept the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fellow Nelli Babayan discussed the countries of the post-Soviet space, arguing that the West had often showed little interest in Russia’s interests in the region and Russia would continue to be a bully in the region as long as it saw its international position undermined. However, she noted, the troubled transitions towards democracy in the region could not be simply blamed on Russia. Senior Fellow Andrew Moravcsik asked what the lessons of the Ukraine crisis were as it approaches a potential equilibrium. He argued that Western and particularly European policy had been successful because of the primacy of geo-economics, and that priorities moving forward should be returning the European Union and Ukraine to economic health. GMF Senior Transatlantic Fellow Kyle Scott moderated the subsequent discussion.
The second panel, moderated by GMF Counselor and Senior Advisor for Security and Defense Policy Derek Chollet, looked at “Current Transatlantic Russia Policy Debates and Long-Term Strategy.” Senior Fellow Ulrich Speck argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ambitious goals of a sphere of control in Russia’s neighborhood and influence in the European Union and globally, but that Russia’s tools fell short of its ambitions and the West could counter Russia with resolve. Bosch Public Policy Fellow Ivan Krastev described developments in the EU as key, given that the bloc is facing a migrant crisis, a Greece/euro crisis, and a “Brexit” crisis as well as the Russia/Ukraine crisis, and that the migration crisis is dividing Germany from Central and Eastern Europe. He noted that Putin has sympathizers on both the populist left and right in Europe and that the Russian president cannot be blamed for the fact that many Europeans don’t trust their governments. OSW Fellow Marek Menkiszak described the Ukraine war as a failure for Russia despite the seizure of Crimea as control of the whole of Ukraine was its goal, stopped by Russia’s economic problems. He argued that Russia cannot modernize or give up on its imperial project under its current system.
Philip Gordon, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department and White House official in the Obama Administration, defended the accomplishments of the “reset” in a lunchtime keynote address, but noted that the U.S. relationship with Russia changed materially as soon as it became clear Putin was returning to the presidency. He said there was a case to be made for some military support to Ukraine though it would not be cost free, and argued it was unrealistic to bring Ukraine into NATO. He noted Iran as an exception where Russia remained a cooperative partner, said we should not be surprised by the Russian deployment in Syria, given Moscow’s outright hostility to democratic revolutions, and argued that the United States must accept the reality that Russia a major player in certain areas and will pursue its national interests and we will have to deal with it. Senior Fellow Marie Mendras said that a “reset” was never an option for Europe as they lived next door to Russia. She argued Russia under Putin had become more and more difficult to handle but miscalculations by the regime had made a decent Western response easier. GMF Senior Vice President for Programs Ivan Vejvoda moderated the closing discussion.