In Russian newspapers “the West” is a term that is being used quite frequently. Even though it is applied in very different contexts and to describe various states or international organizations such as NATO or EU, the message it implies is always the same: “the West” is that hostile part of the world which is trying to weaken or even threaten Russia. At the same time, the part of the world referred to as the “West” seems to be in perpetual crisis – internally due to demographics, the growing gap between rich and poor, populism and antidemocratic movements; externally because it lost its consciousness about its common values and objectives. After the Cold War there is no common definition of what the “West” is anymore. This calls into question the sustainability of the “West’s” soft power which not only was a constituting part of its influence in general but a fundamental source of its legitimacy. Even more so after the election of Donald J. Trump, but already since the Iraq War or the Snowden scandal. This erosion began silently and slowly. Russia tries to fuel this uncertainty to weaken and divide the “West” in order to acquire a strategic advantage through a variety of measures: propaganda and disinformation, financing of antidemocratic or anti-EU/NATO parties and movements or using its economic influence as a lever. Russia seems to be a dividing force.
But the Russian threat, which both concerns Europe and the USA equally, also presents a chance for closer transatlantic cooperation. This accounts also in terms of security as the states are bound together by NATO and its Article 5. As Russia tries to support divisive forces inside the so-called “West”, the answer should be closer cooperation and coordination. Anything else would lead to a strategic weakening of Europe, the US and its allies as well institutions. A common and closely coordinated Russia policy could further strengthen transatlantic ties and communities. Therefore the EU and the US should consider the following four steps.
First, both have to be ready to maintain the sanctions against Russia if the criteria for lifting the sanctions are not fulfilled. This should clearly be communicated to the Russian leadership, for example by transferring the sanctions to an indefinite regime. This would further bear the benefit that prolonging the sanctions are less vulnerable to domestic politics in the sanctioning countries. In various countries strong lobbies strive for lifting the sanctions supported by Russian non-military influence especially in the economic sphere.
Second, the burden sharing in NATO should be taken much more seriously by the Europeans. A stronger European contribution would not only strengthen their resilience and solve a longstanding transatlantic dispute, it would also clearly communicate towards Russia that there is a strong dedication to the transatlantic partnership and a willingness to defend allies. Therefore, the newly initiated European Defense Fund is a step in the right direction.
Third, NATO allies and especially the US should clearly commit themselves to Article 5. On the one hand, this ensures the Eastern European countries of their support and the Alliance can be strengthened from within. On the other hand, this also is a way of making clear towards Russia that it won’t succeed at dividing the transatlantic partnership. This strategy should be accompanied by a constant offer of talks with Russia, for example via the NATO-Russia Council or the OSCE.
Fourth, the challenging political relations between Europe and the US on the one side and Russia on the other side should not lead to greater alienation between civil societies. The recurrence of bogeyman concepts on both sides make these contacts even more necessary. An ongoing obstacle in this regard are the complex visa applications processes. The EU and Russia have negotiated for years on a common solution. Russia demands a visa free process for state service. This would mean, that the Russian authorities would decide who is able to travel visa free and the broad population would be left out. To strengthen contacts between the populations, the EU and the US should offer visa free travel to Russian citizens, even if this would be a one-sided measure.
All these steps come at a cost, may it be in terms of political will or (financial) resources. Regarding the multiple crisis most of the European countries and the US have been going through, it will be a challenge to communicate this to the voters and persuade them of the necessity of these actions. This communication strategy has to cover different directions. On the one hand, it is not widely understood in all countries that expenses in security are a kind of investment in the future not only in terms of hard security but also regarding international trade. Germany is a vivid example for this. As a leading export nation it depends on global trade and the secure functioning of its routes and principles. Both need to be protected in a political but also military way and cannot be taken for granted. Politicians have to explain this to their voters. On the other hand, hard security policy such as armament or troop deployments can only be part of broader strategy and not be a strategy in itself. The basis for this is a better understanding of Russian discourses as well as objectives and capabilities. Here the US is a vivid example. The security community is often reluctant to understand that Russia acts out of a position of weakness. This misinterpretation is partly based on a misunderstanding of the dissolution of the Soviet Union which mainly collapsed due to internal inefficiency and not because if an arms race with the US which it could not compete with. Here not only a proper communication with the voters is needed but also a better explanation of Russian thinking itself to the security community.