Europe's Nightmare Coming True: America vs. Russia...Again

And the stakes could not be any higher.

Russia is learning to live in a new harsh environment of U.S.-led economic sanctions and political confrontation with the United States. More than five months after the change of regime in Kiev, which ushered in a new era in Moscow's foreign policy and its international relations, a rough outline of Russia's new security strategy is emerging. It is designed for a long haul and will probably impact the global scene.

The central assumption in that strategy is that Russia is responding to U.S. policies that are meant to box it in and hold it down—and back. The Kremlin absolutely could not ignore the developments in Ukraine, a country of utmost importance to Russia. The armed uprising in Kiev brought to power a coalition of ultranationalists and pro-Western politicians: the worst possible combination Moscow could think of. President Putin saw this as a challenge both to Russia's international position and to its internal order.

Taking up the challenge, however, meant a real and long-term conflict with the United States. Verbal opposition to U.S. global hegemony was not enough. Unlike the 2008 Georgia war, Ukraine was not an episode that could be safely localized and bracketed. Essentially, the current U.S.-Russian struggle is about a new international order.

For the foreseeable future, Ukraine will remain the main battleground of that struggle. Moscow's tactics can change, but its core interests will not. The main goal is to bar Ukraine from NATO, and the U.S. military from Ukraine. Other goals include keeping the Russian cultural identity of Ukraine's south and east, and keeping Crimea Russian. In the very long run, the status of Crimea will be the emblem of the outcome of the competition.

In broader terms, the competition is not so much for Ukraine as for Europe and its direction. Unlike at the start of the Cold War, with its pervasive and overriding fear of communism, the present situation in Ukraine and the wider U.S. conflict with Russia can be divisive. Western Europeans generally still see no threat from Russia; they also depend on Russian energy supplies and on the Russian market for their manufacturing exports.

Russia will seek to salvage as much of its economic relationship with the EU countries as possible, especially to retain some access to European technology and investment. It will also work hard to protect the market for its energy supplies to Europe. In this effort, Moscow will focus on Germany, Italy, France, Spain and a number of smaller countries—from Finland to Austria to Greece—with which Russia has built extensive trading relations.

Ideally, Russia would want to see Europe winning back a measure of strategic independence from the United States. Moscow may hope that the U.S.-led punishment of Russia, coming as it does mainly at the expense of the EU's trade with it, can lead to Transatlantic and intra-EU divisions. Yet, the Russians already feel that for the foreseeable future Europe will follow the United States, even if at a distance. Thus, at least in the short term, Russia will have to count with a more hostile Europe.

Longer-term Russian calculations are linked with the steady emergence of Germany as a twenty-first century great power and Europe's de facto leader. This process, over time, could give the EU the character of a genuine strategic player and make Europe's relations with the United States more equitable. Even though Berlin's and Moscow's interests differ significantly, and a stronger Germany may not necessarily lead to an easy understanding with Russia, Russo-German relations are a rising priority for the Kremlin.

This calculus however, is for the distant future. For the present, Russia is seeking to compensate for the losses in its Western trade and its standing vis-a-vis Europe and the United States through a new outreach to Asia. China's importance to Russia rises, as it is the one major economy impervious to U.S.-initiated sanctions. Concerned at the same time with potentially becoming too dependent on its giant neighbor, Russia will seek to engage others, such as Japan and South Korea, but, like in Europe's case, those countries' relations with Russia will be constrained by their alliances with the United States.