Why America and Europe Need a Transatlantic Strategic Council

Why America and Europe Need a Transatlantic Strategic Council

Stronger U.S.-EU strategic coordination is urgently needed to prevent the possibility that regional conflicts could draw the United States and the Europeans into new forms of “hybrid warfare” against a Eurasian axis of predominantly “authoritarian” states.

On the one hand, Beijing believes that demands for Taiwanese “independence” will strengthen demands in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia for “democracy” and “independence.” On the other, by obtaining control over Taiwan, China would eliminate a major trade rival, while putting itself in a stronger position to dominate the sea lines of communications (SLOC) from the Pacific to the Arabian-Persian Gulf. Xi appears to believe that the very legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and his own personal authority will be strengthened upon China’s “unification.”

IN MARCH-APRIL 2021, prior to the June U.S.-Russia summit, Moscow deployed some 83,000 troops near eastern Ukraine and engaged in a naval blockade of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Straits. Concurrently, in a gambit to secure Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko against his domestic opponents who are seen as supported by the United States and EU, Moscow and Minsk deployed forces on the Belarus-Ukraine border to pressure Kiev—even if Lukashenko distrusts Putin and has not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

On the domestic side, Putin has hoped to deflect Russian popular attention away from domestic protests, in which many of Putin’s critics have aligned with his imprisoned political opponent, Alexei Navalny, even if they do not fully support Navalny’s movement. On the international side, Putin seeks to pressure Kiev into accepting a relative autonomy for Russophile autonomists in the Donbass, while also signaling to Kiev to stop damming the North Crimean canal that supplies 85 to 90 percent of Crimea’s water from the mainland, in accord with Kiev’s policy of “No water until de-occupation.”

In addition to providing additional military assistance to Kiev, the Pentagon sent warships into the Black Sea with Turkey’s permission at the same time that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky urged NATO to speed up Kiev’s path toward membership—a prospect that Moscow warned would make matters much worse.

After Germany, France, and the G7 called for a de-escalation of tensions, and after Biden and Zelensky proposed summit meetings with Putin, the situation calmed down. Yet renewed tensions could be sparked by recent Moldovan and NATO demands for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria. And given Erdogan’s efforts to play Russia and the United States against each other, Ankara has provocatively backed Kiev’s aspirations to join NATO and promised to expand defense cooperation by possibly selling drones to Kiev—while insisting that Turkey’s support for Ukraine is not against third countries, i.e. Russia.

And in expectation of strong U.S., European, and Turkish support (including the proposal to designate Ukraine as a major U.S. non-NATO ally), Kiev is planning to establish a “Crimean platform” at its August 2021 summit aimed at achieving the return of Crimea.

IT IS now clear that Paris and Berlin could not by themselves resolve the Russia-Ukraine dispute over the Donbass region through the Minsk Accords and Normandy Four format. Paris and Berlin could not deal alone with the strategic issues raised by NATO’s promise to bring Ukraine into membership, plus aspects of the EU’s Eastern Partnership that appeared to exclude Russian political and economic interests from Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.

The dilemma is that NATO, as illustrated by its NATO 2030 Reflection Group report, continues to assert the contradictory policy that combines “deterrence and dialogue” with the Open NATO Enlargement. Concurrently, the European Union will need to reform its political-economic policies toward Moscow as well—if tensions are to be fully abated.

Opposition to NATO and EU expansion, plus nationalist opposition to Nikita Khrushchev’s “illegal” (as re-interpreted) decision to hand Crimea from Soviet Russian control to Soviet Ukraine, helped Putin to rationalize the preclusive Russian take-over of Crimea. President Biden, NATO, the European Union, and Turkey have all subsequently declared that they will “never” recognize Moscow’s annexation. If there are any fundamental laws in politics, one is that one should never say “never.”

First, largely ineffective sanctions against Russia and Russian officials will make it even more difficult to find ways to fully cooperate with Moscow over major disputes. Certainly, U.S.-EU sanctions placed on pro-Putin elites and companies have hurt the Russian economy, and have also resulted in a severe drop in Crimean imports, exports, and tourism that has not been recuperated by Russian funding, thereby hurting Crimean inhabitants. Yet tougher sanctions have also linked Russia even closer to China and Iran—if not also tying the EU closer to China.

Second, even if Putin should somehow lose power despite (or because of) his repressive measures, it appears dubious that any future Russian leadership would agree to return Crimea to Kiev—for fear that Moscow would lose to NATO its military bases at Sevastopol that provide defense for vital trade and energy imports/exports as well as power projection into the eastern Mediterranean.

While there is a historical precedent for Russia to give up its precious territory, after Tsar Alexander II gave Alaska up to the United States in 1867, Crimea appears strategically more important for Russia now than Alaska was for Tsarist Russia then. Even Alexei Navalny, Putin’s imprisoned political opponent, has taken an ambiguous position, stating that he supports an “honest” referendum on Crimea—in criticizing Putin’s rushed referendum. But Navalny also recognizes that a mere referendum will not resolve the dispute.

Even if legally “correct,” it is not certain that returning Crimea to Ukraine is what the majority of Crimean inhabitants want. Autonomy, independence, and joint Ukrainian-Russian sovereignty are possible options. Yet it appears dubious that Moscow will accept any of the latter after having rapidly seized Crimea at such great cost.

EVEN THOUGH Russian elites tend to regard offers of dialogue by Biden and Zelensky as a victory for Putin’s refusal to capitulate, it is nevertheless still possible for Moscow and Washington to “reset” relations as then-Vice President Biden himself had supported in 2009—that is, if Washington takes a realist approach and compromises its presumed “values.”

In the effort to prevent the “return of hostile regional powers,” in the words of French president Macron, that could include Russia (and NATO-member Turkey), the United States and EU need to strengthen their support ​for the French-led rapprochement with Russia that involves sharing expertise and intelligence, a mechanism to defuse EU-Russia tensions, and working together on international crises.

What is needed is intense diplomatic engagement with Moscow that seeks to draw Russia closer to the EU and U.S./NATO. This can be achieved by formally designating Ukraine as a neutral non-aligned non-nuclear country that would not join either NATO or the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in the future—a neutral status that was initially demanded at the time of Kiev’s independence in 1991. In effect, this would mean declaring a formal halt to NATO enlargement.

According to the Minsk II accord, Kiev is supposed to grant a degree of constitutional autonomy to the Donbass region—a proposal thus far opposed by the Ukrainian parliament and extreme nationalists. Here, the United States and EU will need to press Kiev to talk directly with the autonomist movements in the Donbass instead of relying on Moscow as an intermediary—if the Ukrainian tragedy is ever to be resolved. As for Crimea, one feasible option is for the peninsula to become a demilitarized free trade zone under Russian sovereignty. This approach would permit Ukrainians and others to trade and invest. Through negotiations, Kiev could obtain some form of compensation from Moscow. 

If both Kiev and Moscow can eventually agree that the rights of pro-Russians in the Donbass under Ukrainian jurisdiction should be respected just as the rights of non-Russians in Crimea under Russian sovereignty, there might be a chance for a diplomatic breakthrough. The United States, NATO, and the EU can then work with Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey toward arms reductions/eliminations and security and confidence-building measures and UN or Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe-backed peacekeeping in the formation of a Black Sea Peace and Sustainable Development Community.

With respect to China, a new transatlantic global strategy should seek to draw Moscow away from a defense alliance with Beijing, but without attempting to turn Moscow against Beijing—once Moscow realizes that the rapid rise of China will soon reduce Russia to the role of a “junior partner.” The goal for the United States and EU should be to work with Moscow not to “constrain,” but to channel Beijing’s regional ambitions in a more positive and peaceful direction.

Given Xi Jinping’s threats to seize Taiwan, possibly as soon as 2027 if deemed “necessary,” the United States, EU, and Russia will need to bring Beijing and Taipei into a dialogue that seeks to implement a regional system of cooperative/collective security. Beijing should realize that seizing Taiwan will not prove as easy as Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and that engaging in peaceful relations with its neighbors, including Taiwan, represents a much better way for Beijing to boost its leadership role and legitimacy as a major power.

In building upon Henry Kissinger’s concept of “constructive ambiguity,” a new EU-U.S. diplomatic approach (with the EU taking the lead) should provide sufficient China-Taiwan political and economic cooperation for Beijing to be able to claim Chinese “unity,” but with enough autonomy for Taiwan that Taipei could claim to be “independent”—with the backing of joint U.S., European, and Russian security guarantees.