Europe and Russia

Back to the Future: Debating a Response to the Crisis with Russia

November 24, 2014  • Nicholas Burns

After a generation of peace in Europe since the Cold War’s end, Americans suddenly find themselves in a “back to the future” crisis with Russia. The extraordinary events of 2014 — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation of Crimea, his subsequent campaign to destabilize eastern Ukraine, and unprecedented sanctions by the West in response — have produced the most serious crisis in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly a quarter of a century ago. This was the central issue discussed at the 30th annual meeting of the nonpartisan Aspen Strategy Group in Aspen, Colorado, in August 2014.

What does Putin want? What is his strategic ambition in Europe?

Led by our co-chairs and founders, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, a group of 60 current and former government officials, academics, journalists, and business leaders assembled for four days of intensive and often intense discussions among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We were joined by experts from Russia, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. One of the products of the meeting is a book cataloging the collective wisdom of this unique group of experts. Successive chapters focus on the most important questions produced by this crisis: What does Putin want? What is his strategic ambition in Europe? How should the U.S. and Europe respond? What are the long-term implications for global energy and economics, for peace in Europe, and for Russia’s relations with NATO, the European Union, and China?

As a long-time observer of the U.S.-Russia relationship, I certainly believe this is the most consequential and worrisome U.S.-Russia crisis since the end of the Soviet Empire. I was privileged to serve on the National Security Council staff at the White House from 1990 to 1995 as an advisor on Soviet affairs for President George H.W. Bush and then as a special assistant to President Clinton and senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia affairs. I remember distinctly the collective feeling of relief and even elation in Washington when the Cold War ended peacefully, without a shot fired, after the Warsaw Pact fell and communism was defeated throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Those were more optimistic days; we believed a new era of peaceful and even cooperative relations might be possible with the Russian people and government. Twenty-three years later, President Obama faces a very different challenge. Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and of Crimea and eastern Ukraine this year has suddenly produced new dividing lines in Europe. By intimidating and threatening Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia from even considering trade agreements with the European Union, Putin seeks to build a band of buffer states to the south and west of the Russian Federation to insulate his country from NATO and the European Union.

In response, Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other Western leaders have now imposed on Russia tough sanctions designed to cut off investment in its energy and financial sectors. Putin’s actions are also causing Europeans to look for ways to reduce their long-term dependence on Russian oil and gas imports. NATO has stiffened its defenses on the territory of its easternmost members and reaffirmed its Article V security guarantee for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and other frontline states. While it would be an exaggeration to assert that we have returned to a new Cold War with Russia, there is no doubt that Cold War-like passions have been aroused.

 Members of the Aspen Strategy Group discuss their new book on the showdown with Russia November 21st, 2014.

The Aspen Strategy Group book, The Crisis with Russia, provides insights, analysis, and recommendations from some of our country’s leading thinkers on how the crisis unfolded, what it means for Americans, and how we should respond. It is fair to say that the vast majority of the participants this summer supported a strong and principled North American and European response opposing Russia’s predatory actions. None believed the West should go to war with Russia over this crisis. But nearly all believed some form of sanctions and political isolation are essential.

There was a recognition that we cannot afford to cut off all contacts with Putin and the Russian government.

At the same time, there was a recognition that we cannot afford to cut off all contacts with Putin and the Russian government. I certainly believe that while we must impose tough sanctions and strengthen NATO, we also have to maintain open discussions with the Russian government on the major issues where its cooperation is essential — stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power, containing North Korea’s irresponsible regime, and working with Moscow on nuclear non-proliferation, terrorism, and the bloody conflicts in the Middle East.

More than a half-century ago, President Kennedy famously said that Americans would have to commit to a “long, twilight struggle” against the Soviet monolith. While this is a very different crisis, what to do about Russia will remain an abiding concern of the American people and our leaders for many years to come. It is our hope that this book — and its discussions among Americans across the political spectrum — may help decipher the crisis, place it in its larger European and global context, and suggest ways by which we can defend Western interests and preserve peace in Europe for the years ahead.

The U.S., Canada, and Europe need to respond to this strategic challenge with strength, conviction, and imagination.  We want to keep the peace with Russia.  But we must also contain its territorial ambitions in Europe in order to preserve Europe’s free and democratic future.