Russian Challenge Widens Transatlantic Divide

At the very time when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was pressing NATO defense ministers last week in Budapest to take early action to include Georgia and Ukraine in the alliance, the conflict between Russia and Georgia has persuaded many European leaders to oppose this action.

For several years we have observed a gradual German shift toward increasing engagement and business ties with Vladimir Putin's Russia. Building on Gerhard Schroeder's close relationship with Putin and his current position as a highly paid senior official in the Russian energy company Gazprom, Chancellor Angela Merkel has made clear her desire to maintain close economic and political relations with Russia, most notably in her steadfast opposition at the NATO Summit in Bucharest to offering a membership action plan for NATO to Georgia and Ukraine. Her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, recently named head of the Social Democratic Party and the principal challenger to Mrs. Merkel for the chancellorship in next year's elections, raised the stakes by successfully urging his party conference to pledge a close relationship with Russia. Italy under once again Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi shares this view, while Great Britain is absorbed with the survival struggles of Gordon Brown's government, and at present is not eager to take up any more foreign challenges.

French opinion is moving into line with Germany in opposing any further expansion of NATO as shown by extensive interviews with top officials and well-informed observers in Paris. The Russia-Georgia war has been the catalyst. The transatlantic differences began with dramatically divergent interpretations of the origins of the conflict in the Caucasus. Americans view the war as overwhelmingly the result of heavy-handed Russian aggression and an attempt to dominate its former constituent republic from the days of the Soviet Union. Almost all West Europeans view the conflict as a combination of foolhardy behavior by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, expansive expressions of support for Georgia by President Bush and other Republican officials, and a Russian desire to reassert its authority in the region.

Opinions on the lessons of the conflict and the course to be pursued in future months diverge sharply on the two sides of the Atlantic. U.S. specialists continue to press for a membership action plan at some future date, and assure Georgia and Ukraine of ultimate membership in the alliance. Officials in France emphasize the need to urge caution and restraint on Georgian leaders and are quite candid in describing Saakashvili as "an impulsive risk-taker." French officials were appalled at Senator John McCain's assertion that "we are all Georgians," and participants in recent meetings in Washington were disturbed by demands from U.S. specialists and military officers "to put teeth into Article V" of the NATO treaty.

The French now have joined the Germans and Italians in insisting that relations with Russia in energy, trade, Baltic security, and assistance in negotiations with Iran and North Korea over nuclear weapons are much more important than moving Georgia and Ukraine toward alliance membership. One senior French official said that French President Nicolas Sarkozy now fully supports Chancellor Merkel's position on no early membership action plan for Georgia or Ukraine. The French and Germans accept as a reality that Russia has superior strategic interests in the region of Georgia and Ukraine and in its continued access to the Black Sea, and they are prepared to negotiate a modus vivendi with Moscow on this basis. A senior official stated firmly that "we want to cooperate with Russia on many issues and we think these are of greater importance than expanding the alliance. Russia, for its part, has to decide if control of its former Soviet republics is more important than a positive relationship with the European Union and the United States."

European officials express pleasure at the ceasefire negotiated by Sarkozy acting as the current President of the European Union. The terms of this ceasefire are presently being implemented with observers from the European Union moving into Georgia to supervise the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory. Despite support among East Europeans for punishing Russia, the European Union was able to achieve a unanimous policy in calling for Russian withdrawal from all Georgian territory except the two separatist republics, in avoiding any sanctions, and above all in leaving undisturbed the most important dimension of the relationship, the economic ties between Russia and Europe.

For the United States the important question is how far to push continued support for Georgia and the Ukraine. On the basis of current and quite broadly-based European attitudes, an attempt by a new administration in Washington to revive alliance membership for Georgia and Ukraine could quickly lead to a serious fracture in the alliance.

October 15, 2008

Samuel F. Wells, Jr. is Associate Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and a specialist on transatlantic security relations.