Widening US-Europe Split Over Russia

The growing divergence between US defense policy and European energy security goals stands out clearly in the recently passed US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2020. It spells out US policy priorities and objectives, including the fact that the US officially views Russia as an adversary with whom the US is engaged in the kind of major power confrontation not seen since the end of the Cold War. This policy has been shaped by the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, which served as a catalyst for refocusing the strategic priorities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) toward containing the threat of Russian expansion. While the US and Nato have invested heavily in building a military shield stretching from the Baltics to the Black Sea, the reality is that this shield is pierced by gas pipelines that simultaneously bolster Russian economic connectivity to Europe while undermining the efficacy of Nato’s focus on Russian containment. The result is that the 2020 NDAA underscores divergence rather than common purpose in US-European policy toward Russia.

President Donald Trump recently signed into law the 2020 NDAA, a policy document that defines the defense priorities of the US and the funding needed to achieve them. The 2020 NDAA budgets some $718 billion toward this end. One of the major focuses of the 2020 NDAA is the containment and deterrence of what it calls “Russian aggression,” exemplified by Russia’s actions toward Ukraine. The US has earmarked significant funds to bolster the US military presence in both the Baltics and the Black Sea through an aggressive program of military exercises focused on the rapid reinforcement of military forces in Europe to confront the perceived threat from Russia.

The NDAA is a political document. It sets policy, but does not actually provide budget authority, which is reserved for subsequent appropriations bills. The NDAA does, however, put the imprint of the US Congress on defense and foreign policy by emphasizing defense budget priorities, something Congress has done since the NDAA process was begun in 1961.

The NDAA for 2020 contains a rider known as the “Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act,” imposing stringent sanctions on companies and individuals that provide assistance in the construction of two major Russian gas pipeline projects, Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream. While logically consistent with the overall policy objective of punishing Russia for its actions in Ukraine, the “Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act” in fact represents a significant policy overreach which, instead of serving to display US-European unity, does the opposite.

US Military Policy in Europe

The end of the Cold War brought with it a corresponding reduction in the scope and scale of US military forces deployed in Europe. The US presence in Europe dropped from over 300,000 troops in 1991 to approximately 35,000. The main reason for this reduction was the elimination of the threat of a ground war in Europe that came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the corresponding termination of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-dominated military alliance created as a response to Nato. Literally overnight, the prime threat that drove Nato’s reason for existing evaporated.

The events of Sep. 11, 2001 spurred a new US-led focus on confronting so-called “rogue regimes” and the forces of Islamist extremism, which in turn led to a wholesale refocusing by the US on how it was organized and equipped to wage war. Fighting a ground war in Europe, which for decades was the No. 1 priority of the US, disappeared from the agenda altogether. But the Russian war with Georgia in 2008 was a wake-up call, indicating that neither the US nor Nato was prepared to deal with Russian military aggression in Europe. However, it took the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 to drive the point home and trigger a major change in policy. Russia’s annexation of Crimea amounted to a redrawing of European national boundaries and a direct challenge to the post-World War II liberal order that underpinned notions of European security. The US and Europe faced the reality that Nato was incapable of either deterring Russian aggression or fending off any concerted Russian attack on one of its members, however unlikely such an attack might be.

Since then, one of Nato’s pressing priorities has been to rebuild the rapid reinforcement capabilities that had last existed in the early 1990s, prior to the US draw down in Europe. This required a significant reworking of Nato defense priorities away from supporting military operations outside Nato’s geographic boundaries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, to rebuilding the logistical and operational foundations required to wage a ground war in Europe. Since 2014, both Nato and the US have made significant strides, allocating forces for the defense of both the Baltic and Black Sea littoral regions. This effort will reach its maturity in 2020 with the advent of a major military exercise, Defender 2020, which will see the largest number of US military personnel deployed into Europe — some 30,000 — since the end of the Cold War. Funding for Defender 2020 and subsequent military training and operational preparations are in the 2020 NDAA.

Seen in this light, the 2020 NDAA represents the culmination of a years-long effort to realign US defense priorities driven by the combined influences of the winding down of the US global war on terrorism and the emerging view that the US is engaged in a major power confrontation with Russia requiring strategies designed to impose political, economic and military costs on Russia. This shift is a slow process and the fully funded military policy has taken years to build up. As a result, there has been a tendency for the initial response to unfolding events such as the Russian actions vis-à-vis Ukraine to come in the form of economic sanctions as opposed to the kind of fully developed policy that manifests itself in military exercises such as Defender 2020.

Economic Sanctions and Energy Security

Both the US and Europe imposed stringent economic sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of its annexation of Crimea. Many targeted Russia’s energy sector for no other reason than that Russia’s economy is largely energy centric. However, while the sanctions targeting Russia represented a policy placeholder until both European and US military budgets could be realigned, they did not fully take account of an economic environment characterized by European dependence on Russian natural gas.

Europe has long recognized the detrimental aspects of reliance upon a single source of energy, and it has for years undertaken to craft a unified policy built upon energy diversification. This policy formulation was well under way prior to the events of 2014 in the Ukraine. The need to be seen as both punishing Russia and ending Russian domination of the European energy market, however, forced an artificial acceleration of the energy debate in Europe. This debate pitted the US and the newer Eastern European Nato members such as Poland and the Baltic states, against traditional European powers, led by Germany, who were heavily invested in Russian gas. Complicating matters further, the fighting in Ukraine disrupted the flow of gas from Russia into Europe through pipelines that transited Ukrainian territory, increasing the viability and desirability of alternative planned pipelines such as Nord Stream 2, which connects Russia with Germany directly, and Turk Stream, designed to bring Russian gas into southern Europe. Complicating matters further still, the US is pressuring Europe to buy US LNG in place of Russian gas, a move many Europeans, especially Germany, view as more about boosting US economic interests than benefiting Europe’s energy security profile.

The 2020 NDAA, with its anti-Russian focus and “Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act” rider, should represent the culmination of US-European cooperation in the face of perceived Russian aggression. Instead, it is a manifestation of the policy disconnect between the US and its European allies, and Germany in particular. The US policy reflected in the 2020 NDAA has been nearly five years in the making. Europe, in the meantime, has grown weary of the war in Ukraine, wary of US intentions under Trump, and desirous of stable relations with Russia.

In short, while the policy objectives of the US and Europe vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine may have been aligned in 2014, they no longer are. Like a fully loaded supertanker, US policy, once placed in motion, takes time to slow and turn around. In the meantime, the distance between the US and Europe on critical issues such as Russian gas, Russian sanctions and Ukrainian security, will continue to diverge, threatening to further fray relations between the US and its Nato allies.


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