Transatlantic Telegram: Whatever happens next in Ukraine, a new European security order is emerging

We are trying something new at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. With our fellows constantly traveling back and forth around the continent, we thought we would get in the habit of exchanging letters in public, tackling the pressing issue of the day. With Ukraine on the boil, the future of the European security order is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Last week, senior fellow Ben Judah was in Lithuania, a frontline NATO state that has become the capital-in-exile of the Russian and Belarusian opposition. He sent a dispatch explaining the subtle shifts that have been destabilizing Europe’s periphery even before Russian troops started massing on Ukraine’s borders. In response, senior fellow Damir Marusic describes the sense in Washington that this crisis is both familiar and taking us into uncharted waters.

Vilnius: Russian power looms over everything

Dear Damir, 

Instead of rushing to Kyiv, where every camera crew and freelancer is now waiting for something remarkable to happen, I spent last week in Vilnius trying to get a sense of how this crisis is being felt just across the border. Three things jumped out at me. 

First, there is a pervasive feeling that a new iron curtain is descending on the continent. Interviewing Belarusian dissidents and escapees, I was struck by how divided Europe feels again. This is principally, but not exclusively, about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s repression. It’s also due to COVID-19 restrictions (which have closed borders), Western sanctions (which have dented trade), and the physical hardening of the European Union’s frontiers. As recently as three years ago, there was more of a feeling of globalization and openness—even if Belarus and Russia remained authoritarian. Today, listening to people recount their experiences running from border guards in the dead of night, or to businessmen noting how Russian and Belarusian elites have disappeared from projects, it feels like there are two different Europes again. 

Second, in my meetings with officials from the Lithuanian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, I was struck by how, for them, Belarus simply doesn’t exist anymore as an independent state. That feeling of two different Europes is also a political reality. Lithuanian officials believe that masked by COVID, the ground has been shifting under our feet. Lukashenka’s violent crackdown on the opposition has all but rendered him a vassal to Moscow. All eyes in Vilnius are on the Belarusian constitutional referendum scheduled for later this year, which would remove the country’s neutrality and non-nuclear status. This would make legal what Lithuanian officials claim they can already see happening over the border: New permanent Russian bases are springing up all across the country. Most striking is how Russian power now looms over everything. One Lithuanian official told me that to resolve a growing list of bilateral cross-border issues, it was increasingly clear Moscow needed to be consulted. Lithuania is reluctant to do so, and as a result, its isolation from its neighbor deepens. 

These two observations left me wondering about Putin’s intentions: If he has decided that a new iron curtain either suits him or has been imposed on him, is the Ukraine crisis a moment of confrontation to determine where it will lie for decades? Once one is in that frame of mind, the temptation to push the dividing line as far forward as possible becomes easier to understand. 

Finally, it’s hard to miss that despite all these fast-breaking changes, security dynamics are slow to adapt. In all my conversations, war, and what comes next, was never far away. Britain is broadly popular and praised for its security engagement. France is viewed as trying to play a constructive role. But when it comes to true fundamentals, what London or Paris or Brussels are up to, in terms of providing security, simply does not amount to much from the Baltic perspective. The only thing that really matters, according to officials from the defense committee of the Lithuanian parliament, is the presence of American troops. That, ultimately, is what NATO, and membership in the West, means to them. Only the United States guarantees their independence. 

It made me reflect on how remote and abstract ideas such as “European strategic autonomy”— let alone “Global Britain”—appeared here. Lithuanians want more (and permanent) American bases to garrison these self-described front-line states in the quickly changing landscape of Eastern Europe. But with the rise of China, how likely is this to come to pass? Or will the Ukraine crisis refocus minds in Washington on the challenges emanating from Russia? 

— Ben Judah

Washington: No going back to the way things were

Dear Ben,

It’s disorienting to be in Washington right now. On the one hand, there is an overwhelming sense of familiarity as the United States mobilizes all the formidable tools at its disposal to confront a serious security crisis on the Old Continent. On the other hand, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that this familiarity is an illusion—that, as you write, the ground has shifted fundamentally under our feet, and that there is no going back to the way things were. I know our Baltic friends may not like to hear this, but no matter what happens in Ukraine, I think the emerging order will need to rely on Europeans taking much more responsibility for their own security.

In February of last year, US President Joe Biden told the world that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” For a certain kind of Europeanist in DC, Biden’s promise is finally being made good. The withdrawal of Afghanistan may have been badly bungled—damaging both the United States’ reputation for competence and its standing as a values-first leader of the West—while loud attempts to “pivot to Asia,” appearing to come at the expense of European allies (see: the mismanaged AUKUS rollout), may have been unfortunate and counterproductive. But the United States is, indeed, finding its footing again. 

Though there was some lag in spooling up a response to this crisis, the United States is now firing on all cylinders. It is engaging with allies to ensure as unified a front as possible against Russian threats, readying what could be a crippling sanctions package against Moscow should Putin choose to attack Ukraine, and sending troops and materiel to jittery frontline NATO states as assurance. At the same time, Washington is endlessly engaging with Moscow, looking for a way to get the Russians to back down. At least superficially, it feels like the liberal world order of yesterday is being rebuilt.

But look a little closer, and you see how badly the status quo ante is out of reach. Whether Ukraine gets attacked or not, NATO’s vaunted “open door” has, for all intents and purposes, been definitively shut. The promises made in 2008 to Ukraine and Georgia that they could eventually join NATO (after France and Germany voted against extending a Membership Action Plan to both) are now seen as a strategic mistake. Though Western leaders still insist on upholding the principle that any country can choose which alliances it decides to join, they recognize that in practice that principle is a dead letter. 

Within the Normandy Format, France and Germany are pressuring Ukraine to accept Russian demands in order to avoid a destabilizing war that would not only lead to unspeakable bloodshed on Ukrainian soil, but would profoundly destabilize Europe itself. And given that the visits of both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Moscow and Kyiv were closely coordinated with Washington, it appears that Franco-German pressure on Ukraine has the tacit blessing of the White House. The frustrations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy aired in the press several weeks ago were not tied to any specific statements made by the Ukrainian leader, but likely reflect a deeper displeasure among senior US policymakers that Kyiv takes NATO and EU membership seriously. “Park Russia”—a policy that seeks to find a lasting compromise with Moscow over European security so that the United States can focus on Asia—seems to still have a pull on the strategic imaginations of several senior Biden policy aides. And for Russia to remain “parked,” Kyiv will have to acquiesce to Moscow’s demands.

The policy almost certainly played a role in triggering the current crisis. While the Biden administration had no intention of renegotiating bedrock principles of European security (including NATO’s “open door”), its desire to tie up loose ends in Europe telegraphed to Russia that the United States had one foot out the door. As you note, Putin seems to be pushing his advantage as far as it will go. He correctly understands that the post-Cold War settlement is more fragile than ever. If the United States is pivoting away, why not give the old order a shove and see what happens? If Ukraine is compelled to kneel by its own Western backers in the name of European peace, his gambit will have paid off.

It must be said that the Biden administration’s efforts to unify allies in response to Russia’s build-up have been quite successful—for now at least. While Moscow may collect some wins in Ukraine, it is facing a galvanized Western alliance on its doorstep. Longer term, however, the Kremlin probably feels justified in continuing its aggressive revisionism. It need only to look at American domestic politics to sense that today’s US commitments may not be sustainable tomorrow.

Though many Republicans in Congress may want an even more aggressive and confrontational stance against Russia, it’s clear that these lawmakers do not comfortably speak for many Republican voters that former President Donald Trump brought into the party. Tucker Carlson’s popular Russia-sympathetic diatribes on Fox News suggest that any Republican seeking national office will find it difficult to openly voice support for the kind of stances being pushed behind closed doors in Congress. Among Republican policy elites, the emerging “hawk” consensus, articulated most clearly by thinkers such as Elbridge Colby (who served in the Trump administration), is that the United States will need to prioritize Asia at the expense of Europe, and that Europeans will need to sort out security matters with Russia as best they can on their own. From influential perches at the Wall Street Journal, traditional maximalists like John Bolton still argue that the United States will need to ramp up its defense spending in order to handle both theaters at once. But they likely represent a dying breed among Republicans.

Meanwhile, Biden’s forceful use of the bully pulpit may have quieted dissent in his own ranks for the time being. But the constituency for a muscular, militarized, globe-spanning American foreign policy is waning among Democrats, too. The Bernie Sanders constituency is playing ball with the administration for the time being, but is doubtless biding its time. It will not sit quietly aside if Biden chooses not to run again in 2024.

In other words, the potential lines being drawn across the Old Continent may not be as stable as they seem. A distracted United States has, for the time being, turned its attention to Europe once again, and its overwhelming power may stabilize the situation temporarily (albeit with Ukraine’s Western aspirations a casualty—no small thing). But the temptation to pivot away from Europe is likely to continue playing a major role in shaping American foreign policy going forward. A lasting European security order will almost certainly not be based on American power guaranteeing it.

— Damir Marusic

Further reading

Image: A view of Gediminas street in Vilnius, Lithuania May 19, 2018. Photo by Ints Kalnins/Reuters.