His desire to park the Russia problem and prioritise China will backfire and embolden Putin
Monday June 07 2021
Placate Germany. Park Russia. Prioritise China. That is the Biden administration’s flinty foreign policy agenda. This month, the US president will visit Britain for the G7 summit in Cornwall, schmooze with Nato in Brussels, and head to Switzerland for a face-to-face with Vladimir Putin. There will be warm words for friends and cold ones for the Russian leader. But American deeds will tell another story. Putin has little to fear, for Europe is a backwater: the greatest contribution that allies here can make is not to distract American power and attention from the existential question of constraining the power of the Chinese party-state.
Only four months ago it looked different. Democrats had spent four years as fire-breathing critics of Kremlin meddling and mischief. President Biden came into office hoping to reboot the Atlantic alliance as part of a global coalition to deal with the threat from China. Now disappointment reigns. Europe’s response was feeble. The EU, American policymakers have been strangely surprised to learn, is led by useless wafflers, hamstrung by vetoes from footdraggers and overshadowed by its biggest members’ posturing. The handful of continental European allies that cherish their ties with the US, chiefly the Nordics and Baltics, are on the sidelines along with Britain. Asian allies such as Japan, India and Australia matter more.
The most telling sign of this is the US decision to lift sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a nearly completed, $11 billion (£7.77 billion) project through the Baltic Sea that will pump natural gas direct from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. The Trump administration’s sanctions hampered its construction. But they infuriated Germans who saw US pressure as arrogant or, worse, self-interested, as American exports of liquefied natural gas would benefit from the project’s failure. Germany’s economic heft makes it an important ally in counterbalancing China. That counts for more than east European worries about Russia.
The calculation is cold, clear and mistaken. “Corporate Germany is once again and unfortunately defining European and transatlantic security policy” says Franziska Brantner, a Green politician. Her party, unlike its British counterpart, is sensibly hawkish on Russia and China and wants to cancel Nord Stream 2. Greens are likely to be part of the next government in Berlin, something the White House seems to have overlooked. Lifting sanctions not only undercuts America’s allies. It brings no benefit for the US from Germany — or from Russia.
Indeed, the Kremlin is already gloating at its new influence over eastern Europe. Putin last week told the Russian Economic Forum, the country’s showcase international shindig in St Petersburg, that once Nord Stream 2 is completed, Ukraine must kowtow to Russia if it wants to keep its gas transit pipelines in use. He also refused to rule out forcing down — Belarus-style — an aircraft
crossing Russian territory if it had a Kremlin critic on board. American pressure does not necessarily keep rogue states in line. But its absence certainly emboldens them.
“My confidence that there is a cunning plan is eroding,” says Keir Giles, a British defence expert and editor of a new book on misconceptions in the West’s Russia policy. One such myth is that because we want stability, the Kremlin must want it too. In fact conflicts abroad can play a useful role in domestic Russian politics. The Biden administration may well wish to park Russia. But suppose Russia does not want to be parked? We do not have the luxury of deciding who our enemies will be or how they will attack us.
Signalling that America’s attention is now elsewhere makes it all too tempting for the Kremlin to test the water by further repression at home and aggression abroad. The nightmarish descent of Belarus over recent weeks into full-blown dictatorship and lawlessness highlights the weakness of the European security order and the potential for further disaster.
Only co-ordinated western pressure on the Kremlin offers the slightest chance of salvaging Belarusian independence and a democratic future for its people. Neighbouring countries are also looking nervously at the Russian-Belarusian Zapad military exercises in September. Defence experts expect China, for the first time, to take part, too.
The Biden team seems to be repeating the errors of the Obama administration, which snubbed loyal allies, launched a gimmicky, counterproductive “reset” with Russia, and performed a fruitless “pivot to Asia”. Donald Trump’s reputation for foreign policy incoherence, by contrast, looks increasingly undeserved. He was right on China (exemplified by the Biden administration’s continuation of his policy). He correctly castigated Germany for its stingy, incompetent and complacent approach to defence. He also boosted the US military presence in Europe from its perilously skinny level.
The uncomfortable truth for this and every administration is that Europeans are unsatisfactory allies. They always have been. Moreover, they think the same about the bossy, uncouth, protectionist United States. But a difficult partner on the other side of the Atlantic is better than none.
Showy naval deployments aside, Britain has little to offer on the only issue that matters in Washington, of Indo-Pacific security. We lack the clout or the connections to fill the gap the US is leaving in Europe. We should enjoy our moment in the spotlight as we host the G7 summit. But let us be under no illusions about our guests’ priorities.