Litmus along the Dniester

Can America, Europe and Russia come together to implement the security community promised at the end of the Cold War?

The recent France-Germany-Russia summit did not live up to either the dark fears or the exaggerated hopes expressed on the eve of the meeting in Deauville. To wit: no conspiracy against the United States, and no early lifting of the visa requirements between Europe and Russia. That said, the seaside rendezvous ended up being rather useful—President Medvedev announced his decision to accept the invitation to the NATO summit at Lisbon, and said he would consider Western proposals regarding missile defenses in Europe. In Russia, the main piece of news was the decision to develop a road map toward a visa-free regime between Russia and the Schengen countries; but turning that into a reality may take another fifteen years.

So much for the hard facts. There is something else about this summit that makes it an important and positive development. When the first trilateral meeting was held back in 1998, it was about keeping Russia in the Western orbit, even as its relations with the United States were rapidly fraying. By the time the previous two Franco-Russo-German encounters were held, between 2003 and 2005, all three countries’ relations with Washington had been strained as a result of the Iraq war. There was even talk of a new “Entente” to check Washington’s global recklessness. Nothing of the sort anymore. The U.S.-Russian “reset” has become so famous and so popular that people now talk about a “reset” also with France and Germany—as if one was needed.

What is needed is something different. There is once-in-a-decade window of opportunity at hand to implement the strategic promise made at the end of the Cold War—to create a security community spanning North America, all of Europe and the Russian Federation. Such a community would mean that whatever the differences and disputes among the countries populating that vast space, they will resolve them by peaceful means only. Military force, or the threat of force, would be out of the question. Russia, Europe and America seem to be ready to discuss this.

The thing is, solemn commitments to that effect have been made many times since the signing in 1975 of the Helsinki Final Act, notably in the Paris Charter of 1990, in the OSCE Strategic Concept of 1999, and in the NATO-Russia Acts of 1997 and 2002. The issue is not, as Russian diplomats argue, that those were only political commitments, and what is needed is legally-binding obligations. For if freely undertaken political commitments are not being implemented, who would have much faith in the sanctity and durability of legal bonds: the world is still made up of sovereign states.

The debate is anything but abstract. Just over two years ago, there was a war in Europe between Russia and Georgia. In fact, Europe was damn lucky; that war could have developed into a real collision between the United States and Russia, with dire consequences for Ukraine and many others. That war highlighted two major security problems of the Old Continent. One is Russia’s concerns about the ends of U.S. power; hence worries about NATO’s eastern enlargement, or the Bush administration plans for ballistic-missile-defense deployments in Central Europe. The other one is Russia’s neighbors’ fears of the nature of Russian power and its ambitions. Both concerns have moved off center stage, for the time being, but neither is put to rest.

Here is what could be done. The United States and NATO need to do a deal with Russia on a missile-defense system which would pool their strategic early-warning and assessment capabilities, and link—but not merge—their weapons assets, while retaining national/allied control over them, and specifying respective zones of responsibility. That would constitute a real game changer, from strategic adversity to collaboration.

Another game changer needs to emerge in Russia’s relations with its neighbors. Already, Moscow has initiated a historic rapprochement, which has borne fruit. That process needs to go deeper, to achieve what France and Germany, Poland and Germany, or indeed Russia and Germany have accomplished. It also needs to go broader, to include other European countries, such as the Baltic States. At Deauville, Dmitry Medvedev spoke for the first time about the need to bring in Romania to help solve the frozen conflict along the Dniester. Thus, Moldova emerges as a pilot project and a litmus test for budding EU-Russian security collaboration. When the Transnistrian conflict is resolved through joint efforts, Europe as a whole will have overcome more than the divide running across Moldova.