Time to Think Beyond Crisis Management with Russia

February 15, 2022
Photo credit: Petuhov.Aleksandr / Shutterstock.com
If there is one positive aspect to say about the current crisis with Russia, it is this: Russia’s attempts at threatening Ukraine have helped to solidify the transatlantic alliance after four years of Trump, a key objective of President Joe Biden’s administration.

With concerted efforts at consultation and cooperation, Washington is leading a well-coordinated West, unimaginable two years ago.

But beyond crisis management, there is little strategic thinking on the West’s long-term approach toward Russia’s new level of assertiveness in Europe and the future of European security. The West has been strong in reaction to Russia’s blunt and easily identifiable threats and ultimatums. It is still lacking in action.

Nostalgic for the optimism of the 1990s, when the European Union and NATO were expanding in tandem, today’s West is not pushing for a version of European order beyond the prevention of war. (And it is within Russia’s power to prevent the prevention of war.) A backwards-looking, reactive West has lost control of European security. Russia is setting the agenda and has a seat at the table.

When the West was the preeminent force after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it had a message of “Europe whole and free” to tell. Now the roles are reversed. Russia is defining the narrative around European security, while the West offers no coherent, viable alternative. Are we back to containing Russia in Europe? Is enlargement still on the table as an offer, or will Russia have a de facto veto right after this crisis? What do we want the map of Europe to look like in 10 or 20 years?

Though the West may muster the courage to stand up to Russia today and perhaps even succeed in defusing this crisis, Russia is playing the long game.

Russia’s assertiveness and the West’s retraction is not limited to Europe and the tug-of-war over Ukraine. Recent events in Kazakhstan, in which Russia and China were more actively involved than the West, elicited no response from the United States or Europe. And from the Balkans to Mali and beyond, Russia is filling the vacuum left by the West’s weakness.

Though the West may muster the courage to stand up to Russia today and perhaps even succeed in defusing this crisis, Russia is playing the long game. Barring a revolution or coup d’état, Russia’s military power is going to grow over time. With Moscow already acting the way it is now, it is legitimate to ask how it will behave in Europe in the future. Even if the threatened war does not come around this time, the West may not be able to deter Russia if it tries once again in a couple of years to upend Europe’s security.

The last time the West assembled a vision for the European order, together with the not-yet-defunct Soviet Union, was in November 1991. This was for the ambitious Charter of Paris for a New Europe. French President François Mitterrand called it the “anti-Congress of Vienna.” More than a meeting of great powers, the charter articulated an international order infused by universal human values, democracy, and the right of nations big and small to choose their security arrangements.

Together with its predecessor, the Helsinki Final Act from 1975, the charter will celebrate its jubilee in 2025. If the West does not find a lasting approach toward Russia’s new assertiveness in Europe, the Charter of Paris will be the last gasp of a dying dream. It is time for the United States and Europe to think beyond the frantic crisis management over Ukraine and to get ahead in the competition for a new order in Europe.