Washington, Berlin And Moscow: New Alignment After Iraq?

July 23, 2003

Washington, Berlin And Moscow: New Alignment After Iraq?

 The war in Iraq has affected Russia's relations with its two most important Western partners-the United States and Germany-differently than many predicted in the run-up to the conflict.

 The war in Iraq has affected Russia's relations with its two most important Western partners-the United States and Germany-differently than many predicted in the run-up to the conflict. In March it appeared that President Putin, by joining with Germany and France in a "coalition of the unwilling" against America had reverted from his post-9/11 alliance with Washington to his pre-9/11 focus on Germany and the European Union. But, a mere four months later, the US-Russian relationship, so both Presidents Bush and Putin say, is back on track and President Putin is left questioning what concrete benefits the Moscow-Berlin-Paris axis actually brought Russia. In the wake of the war, the United States, Russia and Germany are reassessing their ties with each other.

Since the collapse of communism, the United States and Germany have agreed on the basic premise of encouraging Russia's integration into Western institutions. However, for historical, geographic and political reasons, the leaderships in Washington and Berlin have emphasized different aspects of their ties with Moscow.

Since 9/11, the Bush Administration has primarily formulated its relationship with Putin in terms of Russia's contribution to the anti-terrorist campaign, including its relations with states that are part of the "axis of evil." German interests in Russia are different-they center less squarely on the war on terror and much more on Russia's role in and relation to an expanding European Union.

After Putin's 2001 endorsement of the war on terror (a concept about which many Germans remain skeptical), and the 2002 US-Russian agreements on strategic offensive reductions, some European officials began to express concern that the new U.S.-Russian rapprochement could be to their detriment, recalling Cold War-era fears of a U.S.-Russian condominium at Europe's expense. Despite their differences over Iraq and Iran, Russia and the United States agreed on the legitimacy of using military force to fight terrorism, whereas the European attitude toward the use of force was more ambivalent.

Beginning with Chancellor Schroeder's election campaign last summer, when he used his opposition to the use of force in Iraq to win re-election, Berlin sensed a window of opportunity to ally with both Paris and Moscow. In the run-up to the war, Germany and France wooed Russia to buttress their opposition to U.S. policy.  For their part, the Russians conveyed the sense that they had been "taken for granted" and not consulted by Washington. That made them more open to Franco-German overtures. Russian opposition to the war, in turn, called into question the basic premises of the partnership with Washington in the war on terror.

As a result of the differences over Iraq, it became clear that the Cold-War era concept of the "West" no longer existed. There were at least three different "Wests"-the United States, "old" Europe and "new" Europe. In this new world, while the United States and Germany might still agree on integrating Russia into the West, Russia faced the unexpected choice of which "West" it wanted to ally with. At the end of the military campaign, many Russians realized that it was not in Russia's interest to face such a divided Euro-Atlantic community-if Russia wanted to purse closer economic and political ties with the developed democracies. Moreover, it was unclear what concrete benefits Russia had gained from its support of the Franco-German position, beyond the symbolism of high-level summitry.

The U.S.-Russian relationship has  returned to its pre-war equilibrium since the St. Petersburg and G-8 Evian summits. Washington and Moscow continue to focus on rooting out terrorism and creating a new strategic framework with a mixture of traditional security issues and the new security concerns connected with terrorism, such as organized crime and money laundering. But they are increasingly focusing on the economic dimension, particularly energy cooperation and Russia's WTO accession.  Nevertheless, the relationship, although strong rhetorically and endorsed enthusiastically by both leaders, lacks substance.  Officials from both sides hope to add more depth to their bilateral interactions as they prepare the agenda for the September Camp David summit.

The relationship between Germany and Russia, by contrast, involves a network of economic and political ties that are much denser than US-Russian ties, but can also cause more friction, because they involve concrete, day-to-day problems. Russia is, after all, Germany's neighbor, and Germany is much more directly affected by what happens within Russia and in the states that border it than is the distant United States. Germany is Russia's most important trading partner, accounting for 15% of Russia's trade, although Russia represents only 2% of Germany's trade. Germany imports more than a third of its natural gas from Russia. Thus Russia is more important for Germany than it is for the United States.  

Moreover, the German-Russian relationship is no longer primarily bilateral; it is part of the EU's broader relationship with Russia. The United States may be a more flexible partner than the EU, but the EU is economically far more important for Russia. As the EU prepares to admit Poland and the Baltic States, Russia has reluctantly had to negotiate intensively with Brussels on the issues of freedom of movement between the Kaliningrad exclave and the Russian mainland. Last November, Brussels and Moscow reached a compromise intended to facilitate travel for Russian citizens, but Putin has called for a visa-free regime between the EU and Russia, while Brussels remains wary of modifying its Schengen restrictions.

Russia used to express much more concern about NATO enlargement than about EU enlargement. However, it is now realizing than an enlarged NATO with new missions and a robust NATO-Russian Council may represent less of a challenge to Russian interests than an enlarged EU that continues to move slowly on enhancing its partnership with Russia.

Today, Russia finds itself in the novel position of observing transatlantic fissures and occasionally attempting to mediate them.  While the Paris-Berlin-Moscow alliance may have been short-lived, the Washington-Moscow partnership has rebounded. As the debate over Iraq's reconstruction and policy toward Iran continue, however, Russia may again have to maneuver a challenging path between different parts of what was once known as the West.

Angela Stent is Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University and author of Russia and Germany Reborn: Unification, the Soviet Collapse and the New Europe.