The Moscow River flows through this ancient seat of Russian power like a timeless reminder of a timeless country and its seemingly endless space. The Moscow European Security Conference at which I yesterday spoke is a jewel in the crown of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Now, I am no Russophobe. Indeed, as a student of Russian history my respect for this immense country is great. And, seen from Moscow it is very easy to see just how Russians see their place in Europe and Europe’s place in Russia. And yet listening to several of the day’s speeches I was reminded of a nineteenth century Russian Prime Minister Gorschakov who once described Europe as a peninsula stuck on the end of Russia. In other words what happened in Europe only did so in the context of Russia. That is not how Europe works today if it ever did. Russian concerns must of course be treated with respect but I fear that Moscow is about to miss a great opportunity to influence a Europe in more flux than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

The day was dominated by what for most Europeans and North Americans are yesterday’s issues; NATO enlargement, the defunct Conventional Forces Europe treaty and that old favorite ballistic missile defense. What has surprised me is the extent to which Moscow obsesses over American plans for a limited NATO missile defense. There is a very genuine and heartfelt belief in Moscow that plans for BMD are the thin end of a wedge that could in time threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

With the cancellation of Phase 4 of the planned system one would have thought that Moscow would now realize something the rest of us have suspected for some time; missile defense does not work, the NATO allies cannot afford it and the American taxpayer is not prepared to pay for it. The same should go for NATO’s conventional capabilities. The NATO that is being described here simply does not exist. Far from threatening Russia’s borders NATO is being reduced by most of its defense-lite members to little more than an umbrella organization for vastly different and differing states with vastly different interests and capabilities a few of whom on occasions might from time to time work together in a crisis and not very well. 

Instead Russia should focus on two things. First, the changing power relations in Europe. When the Eurozone core deepens political relations relationships with and between Europe’s new peripheral powers–Britain, the Nordic states, Russia and Turkey–will also change. Indeed, their interests will tend to align beyond existing institutional boundaries. Second, emerging security challenges and threats should be the stuff of Russia’s European and Euro-Atlantic strategy rather than trying to preserve mutually assured destruction in Europe. MAD belongs to Europe’s last century not this one.

In Yorkshire we have a saying; if you have nothing nice to say to someone talk about something else. A functional strategic agenda for Europe would necessarily promote a pan-European concept of security which is in Russia’s interest. Pandemics, economic uncertainty, energy insecurity, the rise of an instable Asia, WMD proliferation and the democratization of mass destruction, cyber-attacks, global crime focused on illicit flows of money, people and drugs, fanaticism and hatred of the sort we saw on the streets of London this week and the instability we all face to Europe’s and Eurasia’s south these are the stuff of pan-European security. Make them work and fears of a fantasy NATO will over time simply fade away.

The irony for me about yesterday’s debate is that Russia’s inner Europe-Europe border with EU and NATO members is Moscow’s one stable border shared as it is with its main trading and economic partners. In other words to this friend of Russia Moscow’s stated intent of a stable Europe and the concerns it expresses simply do not add up.  

The challenge for all we Europeans–both Russian and non-Russian–will be to put history into its shield-encrusted showcase if we are to manage together the globalization-driven tsunami of change forging towards us.  It is therefore critical that together we have the political courage to see danger for what it is, not what it was. 

To a large extent Prime Minister Gorschakov was right; Europe is indeed a peninsula stuck on the end of Russia. However, given the globalized and globalizing context of contemporary security Russia is a European power and together we are all ever more a peninsula stuck on the end of Asia.

Russia is missing a fundamental strategic point–if Russia wants to fashion a single European security space it needs to promote a new security agenda and soon.

This is a great country and I am glad I came. 

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.