Globalist Analysis

The Russian Challenge

How do U.S.-Russian relations compare to EU-Russian relations?

Takeaways


  • While the EU is primarily concerned with Russian gas supplies, the United States wishes to undermine Russia's quasi-monopoly on gas exports in the region.
  • Americans and Europeans will continue to have different approaches to dealing with Russia. In many ways, where we sit is where we stand.
  • Germans argue that no matter how difficult of a partner, it is vital to create policy with the Russians — rather than against them.
  • Russia's own economic dependency on its gas exports make Moscow conducive to cooperation with the West — rather than serious confrontation.
  • As far as Russian public opinion is concerned, U.S. policy toward Russia since 1991 has been both threatening and condescending.

While the direction Russia will take under new leadership is unclear, there is a good deal of potential that it may become a serious source of friction between Washington and Berlin. Without knowing who will be in the White House in January, the issues driving U.S. relations with Russia are already visible, be they dealing with Iran, Ukraine, NATO expansion, missile defense or nuclear disarmament.

As far as Russian public opinion is concerned, U.S. policy toward Russia over most of the period following 1991 has been both threatening and condescending. Putin’s public tantrums during the past couple of years have exploited that sentiment significantly.

U.S. responses to Moscow range from John McCain’s aggressive threats to toss Russia out of the G8 to less aggressive — but also rather unspecific — strategies from the Democratic candidates to date.

With a consensus on a Russia strategy missing in both Europe and the United States, there will be many traps along the road in the coming years that could evolve into more tensions within that strategic triangle.

From both Moscow and Berlin, German-Russian relations are being proclaimed as never better. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier underlined the good relations by calling for a “German-Russian modernization partnership.”

Russian President Medvedev and Foreign Minister Steinmeier know each other well from previous jobs. They had a good deal of contact when Medvedev was running Gazprom and Steinmeier was Chief of Staff under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Chancellor Merkel also met with Medvedev in March 2008 right after his election and was the first head of state to congratulate him. She also took along some high-level business leaders on the trip, as did Mr. Steinmeier.

There are many factors that define relations between Germany and Russia in a different manner than that between Russia and the United States. One of them is trade. Russian-German trade reached a record $52.8 billion in 2007, with German investment in Russia increasing 70% year on year, to $3.4 billion.

Germany is also Russia’s largest importer in Europe, and the EU is the overwhelming trade partner for Russia — dwarfing trade between Russia and the United States.

While the EU is Russia’s most important trade partner, with 52% of all trade in Russia happening with EU countries, the United States only holds sixth place, with a marginal 4%.

Another dimension is energy. Germany imports roughly 35% of its oil and 40% of its natural gas from Russia — and that is expected to increase in the coming years. In Europe, non-Russian Soviet successor states are particularly dependent upon Russian gas.

Russian gas represents 98-100% of the total natural gas consumed by Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Slovakia.

That is an equation that complicates the process of generating a coherent policy toward Russia, with different degrees and levels of dependence on Russian energy supplies.

Trade between Russia and the United States as well as U.S. energy imports from Russia are a relatively small percentage, even if they are expected to gradually increase in the gas sector. The United States does not receive a significant share of its oil or gas supplies from Moscow.

This sharp difference clearly distinguishes U.S. policy towards Russia from the Europeans’. While the EU is primarily concerned with Russian gas supplies, the United States wishes to undermine Russia’s quasi-monopoly on gas exports in the region. Washington would like to see Moscow open up its natural resources sectors, enabling investment by U.S. and other international corporations.

While the Europeans and Americans seem to share the mutual concern that Russia will continue to expand and use its energy resources as a political tool, the answers that both sides come up with will be significantly different.

Like it or not, energy dependence will be a factor determining European policies towards Russia for the decades to come. But more cooperative energy policies are only part of the solution.

A third issue involves democratization efforts and geo-strategic considerations on both sides. Many in Washington have accused Germany of granting Russia veto power over NATO enlargement during the Bucharest summit.

While one of the U.S. policy priorities in the region is the Western integration of Ukraine and Georgia, Germany and other European NATO members successfully vetoed their Monetary Award Program status during the Bucharest summit.

While valid concerns were raised about both Ukraine’s lack of public support and unstable political situation and Georgia’s open territorial conflicts with Russia, it is hard to deny that relations with Russia also played an important role in this decision.

Germans argue that no matter how difficult of a partner, it is vital to create policy with the Russians — rather than against them. Or as Steinmeier put it in Yekaterinburg in May 2008, “I am convinced that there can be no security in Europe, in the entire Eurasian area, without — much less against — Russia.”

This is understandable considering the geographical proximity and historical experience of the Europeans. Many in Berlin and in other European capitals — including Brussels — argue that Russia’s own economic dependency on its gas exports, as well as its severe demographic problems and military weakness, make Moscow conducive to cooperation with the West — rather than serious confrontation.

Putin’s new nationalism, many claim, is rather a reaction to Western triumphalism than a new Russian movement. That contrasts with American views. For example, Angela Stent of Georgetown University believes that “Russia today is neither a partner nor a friend: It is a challenge.”

The fact is that Americans and Europeans will continue to have different approaches to dealing with Russia. In many ways, where we sit is where we stand. We need an open discussion about our interests and perspectives and also the courage to acknowledge differences.

No matter who takes over in Washington next year, there will be a need to evaluate the critical role German-Russian relations will play in the future, especially in relations with the EU. This will involve a noisy battle of views and policies driven by domestic and foreign policy concerns on both sides of the Atlantic.

As Mr. Steinmeier put it, citing Dostoyevsky, “Good times do not fall from heaven. We make them ourselves.”

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About Jackson Janes

Jackson Janes is executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies

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