On 21-22 September, the German Vice-Chancellor and SPD Economy Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, paid a two-day visit to Moscow to hold trade talks with President Putin and senior Russian business leaders. Russia is still subject to German-backed EU economic sanctions, so the move has been presented as part of an attempt at ‘détente’. This is happening in the context of what is supposed to be an agreed common Western position on the Kremlin. The broader political will supporting this common western stance is beginning to break down, and détente could easily morph into appeasement.
More specifically, Angela Merkel is holding together the current EU sanctions regime with duct tape and chicken wire, in the face of mounting domestic and foreign pressures. Her own ministers favour lifting the sanctions (Sigmar Gabriel) and criticise NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe as ‘sabre-rattling’ (Frank-Walther Steinmeier). A majority of the German public – not to mention the German business community –agree. As for France, in April this year its parliament’s lower house passed a (non-binding) resolution to lift economic sanctions on Russia altogether. While at NATO’s Warsaw summit in July, President Hollande suggested that ‘NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be’ and that ‘for France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat’.
Until relatively recently, the German chancellor has managed to contain this desire for rapprochement with Russia, expressed from certain political quarters in Europe. Mrs Merkel’s authority on this issue has flowed from the backing she receives from America and Britain. But over the summer a succession of events have diminished the perceived value of that Anglo-American support. This has left Mrs Merkel politically weakened in relation to the policy on Russia.
Firstly, Brexit has rattled European nerves when it comes to strategic vision. There is a mix of confusion, fear and resentment that now that clouds the logic and self-interest of EU27 countries’ perception of Britain, at least, in the short term. The net effect for the moment – particularly during this intermezzo before Article 50 is triggered – is a weakening of British political influence on the continent. Consequently, support for British-backed policies diminishes.
Secondly, in the wake of Brexit, anti-American sentiments have also resurfaced within the EU27. The proponents of ‘more Europe,’ with its own EU Army have rushed in. This has triggered a new round of rhetoric about the desirability of pan-European unity, geopolitical self-sufficiency and autonomy from American ‘influence’. Moreover, the US demand for an uncompromising EU position on Russia in Europe, now sits awkwardly next to America’s own dogged pursuit of the recent, failed, ceasefire deal with Russia in Syria. A presidential election where a Donald Trump, is not just a candidate in the general election but appears to be on the brink of victory also does not contribute to Washington’s moral and political authority.
Finally, Angela Merkel’s own political position at home has weakened. The effects of her controversial refugee policy are starting to show in the opinion polls and at the ballot box in regional elections. This, combined with the dip in Anglo-American political traction in Europe, has shifted the balance of political forces facing Mrs Merkel on the Russia question. A window of opportunity has opened for those in Europe seeking a significant change in relations with the Kremlin.
This new phase in the process of rapprochement is now happening under the banner of ‘detente’. As befits significant shifts in foreign policy – Hillary Clinton’s seminal 2011 ‘Asia pivot’ piece comes to mind – it was announced late in August in an article by Mr Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister. He explicitly called for détente with Russia, starting – correctly – with negotiations on arms control. Germany holds the presidency of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) this year, so Mr Steinmeier has taken the opportunity to placearms control talks on the OSCE agenda for the December meeting. There is real substance to this German-led revival of interest in détente with Russia, despite its inconsistency with Mrs Merkel’s own position on Russia.
There is nothing wrong with the idea of détente in itself. Indeed, it would be a welcome strategy at a difficult time for the West, provided it is executed properly and results in increased security for both sides. The aim of real detente is ‘managed coexistence’, not friendship. This requires building a stable relationship with the adversary. The foundation can only be a shared interest in reducing the risk of war, ending a military build-up and containing an escalation of tension. There has been a brief revival of interest in détente in Washington as well, in recent months. The Atlantic picked it up, under the headline ‘The time is ripe for detente, 2.0’. In the same spirit, Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed ‘Russia and America: Toward a new détente’ at length in an essay in the June edition of The National Interest.
The problem with what we are seeing in Europe today is that it lacks the essential ingredients of détente, and carries a risk of descending into appeasement. The key to détente, as Henry Kissinger, its most astute practitioner, explained, is to negotiate from a position of strength. The negotiating agenda needs to include a set of powerful incentives to keep both sides equally interested in the process. A proper détente framework is designed lock the participants into a self-reinforcing cycle of balanced progress through mutual benefits. It works not simply on the basis of good-will, but of self-interest.
It is hard to see how this applies here; on the contrary. The key leverage the west has over Russia is the present sanctions regime. It has already been hollowed out politically and now hangs by a thread, before any agenda or framework has even been set. Without a real incentive provided by leverage that comes from the potential to ease sanctions on Russia, the mutuality principle of détente cannot be achieved.
The other essential element to any serious détente negotiation with Russia is credible military pressure. This is also absent from Mr Steinmeier’s initiative, given that NATO’s main military powers, the US and UK, are not on board. The American response to Steinmeier’s unilateral arms control initiative at the OSCE has been highly sceptical. Therefore, without either economic or military leverage, this new overture to Russia appears to be appeasement dressed in détente’s clothing.
This matters a great deal to the UK. Not only would a botched ‘détente’ leave Russia stronger, further undermining Western resolve, but it would also aggravate the damage to transatlantic relations. The faux-détente currently gaining ground in Europe is at odds with the fundamental principle of European security, which rests on American military support.
The overarching theme here, as with the recurring issue of an ‘EU army’, is a rapid accumulation of political pressure on the US position in Europe. This pressure is straining the transatlantic defence partnership. A breach is unlikely but it would be a mistake to take it for granted that it is impossible.
Détente with Russia, as well as the plans for closer European defence cooperation, are the primary battlegrounds that will determine the future of the American strategic partnership with Europe. Both could offer reliable routes to deliver sustainable regional security in Europe, and should be pursued, but not like this. No major initiative can enhance the cohesion and effectiveness of an alliance or union, without the support of its key members. But at the same time the alliance must work for everyone.
A compromise approach is therefore needed. It should rest on two organising principles. The first is to ensure an active Anglo-American political-military leadership role on these central questions. Second, there should be a recognition, at a transatlantic level, that real détente with Russia (conducted from a position of strength) and European defence concerns are two legitimate problems that need a transatlantic – not just European – solution. This inevitably means more, not less, American involvement in Europe and in helping to address security concerns on its periphery. No country is better placed to argue this case than Britain.