Center for Strategic Decision Research


Russia’s Relations with the United States and Europe

Mr. Markus Meckel, MdB
Member of the Bundestag, former Foreign Minister of the GDR

Fmr GDR Foreign Minister Markus Meckel
"The key that neither [Russia nor the West] trusts the other enough to agree to strategic interdependence."

Ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been our understanding that relations with Russia are key to security in Europe—there can be no security in Europe without or against Russia. That was the basis for the CSCE’s Charter of Paris in November 1990 as well as for the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1996. 

President Putin has made some progress in stabilizing the situation in Russia. For example, the country has seen significant economic growth of some 7% during the last four years. It has also serviced its external debt and improved its credit rating. Workers and pensioners are paid regularly, instead of waiting for months as they did under Mr. Yeltsin. While much of this success is due to favorable oil prices and increased exports, it boosted President Putin’s public standing and brought him a landslide victory in the March 2004 elections. 


September 11 was a turning point for Russia’s relationship with the West, and with NATO and the United States in particular. Although still a major power militarily, Russia now lacks political and economic weight. Putin’s aim is to restore Russia to its former greatness and importance in world politics, but this will require modernization of its political and economic structures. President Putin has realized that such work can only be achieved by expanding cooperation with the United States and the EU. He saw September 11 as an opportunity to redefine Russia’s relationship with the United States and NATO and to bring about a radical change in the direction of Russian foreign and security policy. NATO reacted to this situation positively by creating the NATO-Russia Council in May 2002 and by continuing to intensify consultations in this format ever since. 

Today, however, we are facing common threats: 

1. For quite some time Russia has seen the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and separatist movements in the south, endangering the territorial integrity of the Federation. September 11 made clear that international terrorism is a common threat and that effective international cooperation is needed to counter it. 

2. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is a potential danger to all of us. We need to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime and provide for effective inspections and sanctions for noncompliance. Russia, with its vast stockpiles of nuclear material and a network of technological cooperation, will be a key player in these efforts. To this end, the G8 launched an initiative in 2002 to finance the safeguarding of Russian nuclear stockpiles with U.S.$20 billion over ten years. 

3. We also have a common interest in dealing with regional conflicts and instability, such as in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. I regret that Russia withdrew its contributions to SFOR and KFOR in 2003, the only serious joint action between NATO and Russia. But Russia continues to support operations in Afghanistan with intelligence and transit. 

Strategic cooperation on these issues is necessary. But unfortunately the common threats do not always translate into common approaches for dealing with them. We are confronting several major problems in our relationship. 


While Russian criticism of NATO enlargement subsided in recent years, prior to that time it was harshly attacked as an expansionist project endangering Russian security. In the run-up to the accession of seven new members, concerns were voiced again, in particular against establishing permanent U.S. bases on the territory of new members and against the Baltic countries. The U.S. was also criticized for not respecting the modified CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty, which sets limits on troop deployments. But the Baltic states can only join after the treaty has been entered into force. The main reason that states have not ratified the treaty is that Russia has failed to fulfill its commitments to re-deploy troops. At the OSCE’s Istanbul Summit in 1999, Russia pledged to withdraw troops from the Transdniestr Region of Moldova and from Georgia unless the local government agreed to an extension by the end of 2002. But since then little progress has been made on either count.

Russia’s criticism may have something to do with the contradictions in Russian strategic thinking. Whereas Putin’s national security strategy of 2000 emphasized domestic instability and threats to security, the current military doctrine is still designed to fight the battles of the Cold War. Furthermore, some serious domestic challenges are yet to be accepted. The negative demographic trend is endangering future development, especially in the Far East, and the low birth rate (under 1%) and the rapid spread of AIDS (over a million people are infected) paint a horrifying scenario. All of this may negatively affect Russia’s future international role. 

However, most of the problems in our relationship with Russia are actually related to domestic developments in that country. Criticism of massive human rights violations in Chechnya was toned down as part of the joint fight against terrorism but became more vocal again both in the EU and in the United States towards the end of 2003. The EU called upon Russia to stop the disappearances and the widespread abuse at the hands of security forces, to improve access for humanitarian aid, and to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. Because of the problems Russia was downgraded to a “potential” strategic partner in the final version of the EU Security Strategy in December 2003.  


President Putin seems to have made some progress toward instating the rule of law (he called it the “dictatorship of laws”) by reasserting the authority of the central government over the regions and business oligarchs. But in an attempt to create a strong state he may have damaged the fragile roots of democracy in Russia, undermining the hope for common bonds with the West: 

  • He gained full control of the electronic media when the last independent station, NTW, was taken over by Gazprom and the editorial board was changed.
  • The chief executive of Yukos was arrested in autumn 2003 after pledging financial support to opposition parties and starting negotiations to sell a significant stake in his company to Exxon Mobil or another foreign company without consulting the Kremlin. It may be true that Mr. Khodorkowsky benefited from the wild and nontransparent privatization process in the early 1990s, and that he and other oligarchs should be held responsible for any illegal activity. But the proceedings against him raise serious concerns about the respect for legal due process and the independence of the judiciary.
  • Last but not least, President Putin perfected his design of “directed democracy” with the stunning success of his parties, United Russia and Homeland, in the December 2003 Duma elections. The only two democratic opposition parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right-Wing Forces, failed to unite and were marginalized. In his desire for control, President Putin may have gone even further than he actually wanted to, trying to co-opt several key leaders of opposition parties and civil society for his presidential advisory bodies. But his monopolization of power puts him at odds with the basic values of his partners in the West. There is now growing doubt that President Putin will be able to establish a functioning market economy without any checks and balances in the political sphere, because any such system will be open to corruption and nepotism. Considering the strength of some of the oligarchs in the business world and in organized crime, this is a real danger. And it may negatively affect partners in Europe and the U.S. as Russia continues to integrate into the global market. 


There are, however, some encouraging signs in relations with Russia. After several months of bitter accusations, Russia and the EU agreed to extend the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement of 1997 to the 10 new member-states. The EU also granted Russia better market access for some steel and agricultural and nuclear-energy products in order to prevent the disruption of traditional trade relations with Central and Eastern European countries. In addition, the transit of goods between the Russian mainland and Kaliningrad was guaranteed, and visa-free-travel was offered as a long-term prospect.

But the regulation of transit to and from Kaliningrad is insufficient to deal with the problems of that area. The enclave is in danger of becoming a hotbed of poverty, infectious diseases, and organized crime. Unless Russia and the EU both seriously commit themselves to promoting economic development in Kaliningrad, the region will fall further behind, not only in comparison to neighboring Poland and Lithuania but also with the rest of Russia. If the current trend were reversed, Kaliningrad could become an important example of strategic cooperation between Russia and the EU. 


It is important that we continue to identify areas of common interest and engage in practical cooperation with partners in Russia. The fight against terrorism will not suffice as the basis for long-term fruitful cooperation. Energy policy has been suggested by many as one potential common strategic interest. Russia is the largest producer of oil and gas in the world as well as one of the biggest exporters outside OPEC. Since both the U.S. and the EU want to reduce dependence on fossil fuels from the Middle East, Russia is seen as a key partner.

The country, however, needs significant investments and technological innovation in order to improve oil exploration, drilling, and transport through pipelines. Foreign investors and partners will need to play a key role in the modernization process. But so far no strategic agreement has been reached. One of the reasons may be that the interests of the EU and the U.S. conflict, since they are competing for access to scarce resources. The EU, apart from securing safe oil supplies, would like to improve energy efficiency and address the problem of climate change by luring Russia into signing the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S seems to be primarily interested in securing large oil supplies to counter the upward pressure on prices. Private businesses may have their own interests and not desire political intervention.

But the key factor probably is that neither side trusts the other enough to agree to strategic interdependence. We do not know whether we want to rely on a Russia whose direction we are not certain of— whether it will stabilize or collapse. And the Russians probably fear that they will be taken advantage of in any kind of long-term deal. In addition to all of that, both the European Union and the transatlantic relationship are undergoing a period of fundamental change. 

Especially for Europeans, pragmatic cooperation with our Russian neighbor is imperative. We need to promote democracy and the rule of law in Russia and speak out if our views differ from those of the Russian government. Only in that way can we find out whether there is a meeting of hearts and minds and whether our relationship can develop into one of true strategic partnership.


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