The Renewal of the Russian Challenge in European Security: History as a Guide to Policy

June 05, 2017
Mary Elise Sarotte
2 min read
Photo credit: rvdw footage /

Photo credit: rvdw footage /

On June 5, 2017, the Transatlantic Academy published a policy paper by Senior Fellow Mary Elise Sarotte entitled "The Renewal of the Russian Challenge in European Security: History as a Guide to Policy," the ninth in its 2017 Paper Series.

This paper argues that, to understand and deal with the renewal of the Russian challenge to European security today, it is necessary to re-examine the legacy of the end of the Cold War. Drawing on the author’s historical scholarship, it argues that during the upheaval of 1989–1991, U.S. and West German leaders worked closely together to ensure that NATO, and not any of the proposed pan-European alternatives, would be the bedrock of post-Cold War European security. There were obviously many compelling reasons to follow such a strategy, not least the enormous burden of developing a credible alternative in a short time frame, but it did have fateful consequences: By design, Russia was left on the periphery of post-Cold War European security arrangements.

The subsequent strategy of the West was the assumption, or hope, that Russia would gradually accommodate itself to this new post-Cold War reality. At first too weakened by the end of the Cold War to respond, Russia did not push back strongly, and Western leaders began to work on the assumption that Russia had in fact developed a long-term willingness to accept this outcome. The worrisome events of the past years, however, show that Russian President Vladimir Putin was ultimately unwilling to do so, and now tensions reminiscent of the Cold War have returned.

Because the Western strategy perpetuated pre-existing Cold War structures, it perpetuated old tensions as well. As a result, the current status of tense relations with Russia has a strong déjà vu element to it. Once again, NATO worries about the Russian bear menacing its neighbors to the East. Once again, Western allies huddle in consultations over how best to deal with Moscow. Once again, the nuclear specter threatens Europe, Russia, and the United States. As a result, given that the threats are familiar, the policy prescriptions are familiar — if disheartening — because they are in many cases the same policy prescriptions that guided U.S. policy during the Cold War. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will be able to develop a coherent, sustained policy approach to Russia in the face of multiple investigations into contacts between Donald Trump’s associates and Moscow. Using history as a guide to policy could help it to do so, this paper argues.