Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Despite Europe's agreement to impose new sanctions on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, the United States and the European Union are pursuing different policies in relations with Vladimir Putin, who aspires to expand Moscow's influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine declared its independence and adopted a new constitution. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States also broke with Moscow and applied for membership in the European Union and NATO. Ukraine chose to retain good trade relations with Russia and did not at first seek EU membership.

In the 1990s, Europe was reluctant to extend NATO's defense guarantees into Eastern Europe, and finally relented under pressure from Washington. The eastern countries, except Ukraine and Belarus, were eventually granted NATO membership, with the proviso that NATO would not set up bases there or build up their military forces.

Putin and Ukraine

Russian policy toward Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia hardened in the 2000s when their politicians expressed interest in joining the European Union. In Moscow's view, both countries are key elements of Russia's defense perimeter and must be prevented from aligning with outside powers. Russia views Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia as integral parts of its economic and defense zone, similar to the way the United States views Canada. Putin reinforced this vital interest by sending troops into Georgia in 2008, and to Crimea in 2013.

European leaders seem determined to avoid a confrontation with Russia that could result in war. They think Vladimir Putin overreached in Ukraine by supporting an insurgency and that, given time, economic sanctions will persuade him to withdraw his assistance. Destruction of the Malaysian airliner by insurgents last month, with the loss of nearly 300 lives, leads many in Europe to conclude that Putin will pull back.

This may be wishful thinking. The Russian leader declared early this year that the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of empire was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. He asserts a duty to reassert Russia's historical influence in its "near abroad." The take-over in Crimea is an attempt to assert hegemony in the Black Sea region, which Russia has sought since Catherine the Great. There is no reason to doubt that Putin's goal is to ensure that Ukraine aligns its policies with Russia, not the West.

Putin and Europe

For Vladimir Putin, like his predecessors since 1945, control of Germany's foreign policy has been a primary objective. Throughout the Cold War, Moscow tried mightily to detach West Germany from close ties with the United States and Europe. It sought to persuade West Germany's leaders that a neutral Germany with no foreign forces on its soil would avoid being the battleground in a new European war. Reunification with East Germany was offered. as inducement.

Soviet leaders also tried to persuade France to abandon close ties with Washington and instead join Moscow in a plan to ensure that Germany would never again become a threat to them. President Charles de Gaulle was receptive to this overture.

In 2014, a prosperous Europe no longer fears a Russian attack and is more willing than Washington to work with Moscow to calm its fear that Ukraine will join the EU, at the expense of trade ties with Russia. The reluctance of London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin to impose much tougher sanctions on Russia, because of their large commercial ties, leads to a desire to accommodate Putin on Ukraine. They also part company with Washington over relations with Israel, resulting from its intensive bombardment of Gaza and the deaths of nearly 1900 civilians.

U.S. policy in Europe

It's increasingly clear that Germany and other EU countries have divergent national interests from those of the United States on dealing with Russia, and also on the Middle East. European leaders were unwilling to join Barack Obama last year in his threat to intervene in Syria because of its use of chemical weapons. Europe has no interest in helping Washington bolster the faltering Iraqi army. But it does support tough sanctions on Iran in order to prevent its building nuclear weapons.

Bold assertions by foreign policy hawks, that if Obama takes the lead Europe will follow, is an out-of-date notion. Europe now sees itself as an independent voice on foreign policy and doesn't take kindly to pressure from Washington.

Obama is correct, in my view, to let Europe take the lead in dealing with Putin's military pressure on Ukraine. Germany, particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a key player in this drama because of Germany's economic power. Merkel's understanding of Russia's weak economic situation and Putin's intentions makes her more likely than Barack Obama to have influence with her EU partners.

File last modified on Friday, 11-AUG-2014 2:08 PM EST

Feedback to Author