NATO summit highlights U.S.-Europe divide on Russia

Opposition to Ukraine and Georgia's US-backed membership bids, led by Germany, is widely seen as an effort to preserve Europe's growing energy ties with Moscow.

By , Contributor

The defeat of Ukraine and Georgia's US-backed bid for NATO membership this week in Bucharest, Romania, highlights an energy-driven fault line between the US and Europe: how to deal with Russia.

Europe's strong opposition to admitting the ex-Soviet states, led by Berlin, was widely seen as an effort to preserve ties with Russia. Moscow firmly opposes further NATO expansion in its backyard and has growing energy ties with Europe, especially Germany.

"Undoubtedly there are those from the business community who have business interests [with Russia] who are weighing in on the side of delaying Ukraine and Georgia membership," says Clifford Gaddy, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They don't want to antagonize Russia."

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Washington often portrays Russia as a dangerous partner that is using energy as a manipulative foreign-policy tool. But only a smattering of European countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, share that view.

Many Western European diplomats and politicians argue that individual European nations are becoming more and more comfortable dealing with Russia. They see it as a strategic partner and are moving to strengthen ties with Moscow.

At the same time, tensions with the US over the Iraq war have strained US-European relations. Europeans argue that Russia needs Europe as much as Europe needs Russia.

"The Russians are weak without energy revenue. This is why they need Europe. And Europe is becoming more and more comfortable dealing with Russia," says Jörg Himmelreich, an expert on Russia at the German Marshall Fund. "The relationship between the United States [and Europe] has gone sour in recent years, and Russia has stepped up as a better partner."

Today, Europe gets roughly half its natural gas and 30 percent of its oil from Russia. Those ties are growing.

Indeed, deals such as the Nord Stream pipeline, which would run under the Baltic Sea, are as important to Russia as they are to Germany, says Mr. Himmelreich. He points out that the energy revenues which have fueled Russian economic growth after the ruble crashed in 1998. This revenue – which helped Vladimir Putin to rise in popularity over the course of his presidency – has come primarily from Europe.

This codependency is especially true in Germany's case. Russia has steadily supplied German gas for nearly four decades. Now, Russian energy monopoly Gazprom, along with its German partners E.On and BASF-Wintershall, are building the Nord Stream pipeline that would make Germany nearly entirely dependent on Russia for energy.

"A majority [of Germany's parliamentarians] would probably say that it makes sense to include Russia into the European economy," says Hans Ulrich Klose, a Social Democrat in the German Bundestag. "We rely, more or less, on their energy resources; they need Europe for their economic buildup."

Alexander Rahr, Russia program director at the German Council on Foreign Relations, agrees. "They [Russia] aren't bad partners. They have been reliable suppliers of gas for years and would not take the economic risk of cutting off Western European supplies," he says.

But Mr. Rahr, Mr. Klose, and Himmelreich all say that Germany's willingness to work with Russia should not be taken as ambivalence about Russians' loss of political liberties under Mr. Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Moscow for not following democratic norms in the March 2 election, though in the same statement she congratulated Gazprom chairman Dmitri Medvedev for becoming president-elect.

Merkel has "installed a value-driven foreign policy in Germany towards Russia," Rahr said. "Germany has no military might, but it has a moral right. She's critical of moves in Russia that abuse human rights or ... that have nothing to do with liberal values."

However, many German politicians and experts don't agree with recent US policies, including the proposal to put missile shield sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russia views as a military threat. Those interviewed see this discussion of strategic military action as cold-war rhetoric. They argue the US cannot force political freedoms on a Russian public that largely embraces Putin, even if he has cut back on political liberties.

"We did not expect Russia to become a perfect democracy within a period of 10 or 20 years," Bundestag member Klose says. "It will take at least two or three generations and at the end there will not be a system similar to the United States or Western Europe.... A policy of public finger-pointing is not helpful but counterproductive."

The Russian people believe that "[Russia] must have a voice in the world ... [Russia] need[s] to be strong," says Matthes Buhbe, head of the Central and Eastern Europe department at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin. "When there is a player on the outside that tells the Russians; 'You're not playing by the rules,' the Russians tend to say; 'Let me alone.'"

Former Soviet bloc countries like Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Poland take a view more in line with US thinking toward Russia. While they acknowledge Russia as a partner, they are concerned with Russia's increasingly antagonistic rhetoric.

A high-ranking Czech diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak, says Czech memories of Soviet Union rule are still fresh, as is gratitude towards the United States for winning the cold war. "Each of [NATO's] members has its own definition as far as the ties to the United States," the diplomat says. "In the new transformation countries, those who lived through years of tyranny, there is a different sentiment.... I would hate the division between 'old' and 'new' Europe, but at the same time no one can ignore the decades of a totalitarian regime had an influence on Central and Eastern Europe.

"Energy security is one of those few issues where you probably see different views of Central and Eastern Europe and the United States on one side, and Berlin and Paris on the other," the diplomat added. "Now we have a little bit more assertive providers of energy, who actually try to turn the energy into a part of foreign policy, an instrument of foreign policy, and that's [an issue where] we have to act collectively and not individually."

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