Eastern Europe Was Right and the West Was Wrong on Putin
This is the translation of an interview published in Le Figaro on June 27, 2022 under the headline “Heather Conley: ‘L’Europe de l’Est a eu raison et l’Ouest a eu tort’ sur Poutine.”
LE FIGARO: What are you expecting from the NATO summit?
HEATHER CONLEY: My hope is that we will see a strengthening of defense capabilities and an increased allied presence in Eastern Europe. I would like to see a strong Strategic Concept coming out of the summit that takes into account the new challenges posed by Russia and the alignment between Beijing and Moscow. Unfortunately, I see hesitation and reluctance among our allies. And I don’t think that we will see Sweden and Finland joining NATO this year.
Because Turkey imposed its veto. Can we still consider it a trustworthy ally?
Turkey remains an important member of the alliance, but it is arguably the most challenging one. The alliance underestimated the change in Erdoğan’s thinking that occurred following the 2016 coup attempt. Since then, we have been dealing with a very different kind of Turkey.
Has the United States lived up to the Ukrainian challenge?
Never before had a decision to deliver weapons to a country at war been made so quickly. It has been a great success. However, I regret the dithering before the war. We would have had enough time to provide Ukraine with defensive capabilities.
For me, the war began with the military buildup last autumn and the spring before that. It had also begun with the elimination of opponents in Russia. Evidently, the Kremlin was gearing up for war. This is when we should have provided Ukraine with more defensive capabilities, instead of merely holding a summit.
And what about today?
Today, Washington is reluctant to provide more heavy weapons to Ukraine for fear of provoking Russia. The Biden presidency is plagued by an unfortunate contradiction, a permanent tension: it wants Ukraine to win, but it does not want to antagonize the Kremlin... At some point, we will have to clarify our position.
Is the US pivot to Asia being reconsidered due to the war in Ukraine?
Prior to the Russian invasion, the United States had clearly expressed—with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the formation of the new AUKUS alliance—its desire to focus on the Pacific. This remains Biden’s policy. In Washington, some see support for Ukraine as no more than a distraction on European soil, with Asia remaining the main challenge for the United States. Others believe that because of the China-Russia alliance, Americans must focus on both theaters. Managing both challenges at the same time with pragmatism is what the Biden administration is trying to do.
Has Europe’s center of gravity shifted to the east?
Yes, but it is a natural shift. The enlargement took place a long time ago, in 2004. Eastern European countries understand the EU better now; they have gained confidence and know how to build coalitions. The war in Ukraine has amplified this change, which is quite acceptable for NATO and the United States, but less so for other European countries.
What is your assessment of Emmanuel Macron’s Russia policy?
It is a challenge to keep up with it! In general, I see it as a great power’s preference for negotiations, even if they are contrary to Europe’s interests. This position is very difficult for Eastern Europeans and for NATO members. It implies a refusal to recognize that, regarding Russia, the East was right and Western Europe was wrong. If Paris continues to prioritize its relationship with Russia, the divisions in Europe will deepen. It is the same thing with Germany. Both countries need to have a more inclusive conversation with Central Europe.
Has the link between Berlin and Washington been re-established?
Yes. When he arrived in the White House, Joe Biden made it a priority to mend the relationship with Germany, which had been damaged by Trump. This reconciliation came at a significant political cost: Washington had to accept Nord Stream 2. But without it, the relationship between the EU and the United States could not have improved.
Did Germany’s hesitations toward Ukraine harm the relationship?
No, because Germany and Joe Biden have the same fears regarding the economic consequences of war. In fact, Paris, Berlin, and Washington’s policies are relatively aligned on the matter. They support Ukraine, but they do not want to make economic sacrifices. They do not want to provoke Russia and start a third world war. That is why they restrict the delivery of heavy weapons. But if Ukrainians are not given the military means to win, the war will continue for a long time. This is a terrible dilemma.
There is another one: should we continue to pay Russia for its gas? The real question is: are we ready—yes or no—to pay the price of defending Ukraine’s sovereignty? If Ukraine does not win, we will pay the price tenfold because Russia will keep acting as it has.