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The Europe Program aims to enhance understanding of the challenges facing the European Union and the potential
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On the cover: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) looks on as Russian President Vladimir Putin (2-L) speaks toward
Prime Minister David Cameron (2-R) and U.S. President Barack Obama (R) as they attend a working meeting of G8 leaders
during the G8 summit at Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, Britain, June 18, 2013. STEFAN ROUSSEAU/POOL/epa/Corbis

Whats Ahead for Russia and the West?

Four Scenarios
Europe Policy Paper
June 2015
by Joerg Forbrig1

The Issue and Policy Priorities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Key Dimension: Regime Cohesion in Russia vs. European and Transatlantic Unity . 3
Russia and the West: Four Basic Scenarios . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Rethinking Western Policy: Caveats and Recommendations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10

Joerg Forbrig is transatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern Europe, and director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy, at
The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.

The Issue and Policy Priorities

The Issue

Policy Priorities

ver a year into the ever-worsening Ukraine

crisis, there is little doubt that an optimistic
era in Russian-Western relations has ended.
The post-1989 vision of a Europe that was whole,
free, and at peace had long suffered setbacks and
disappointments, but when Russia annexed Crimea
and the Kremlin waged war in Eastern Ukraine,
the post-Cold War order was buried. While this
is now acknowledged by most, few in Europe or
the United States have taken a closer look at the
potential new contours of the European order, and
especially of the changing relationship between the
West and Russia that lies at its heart. For the latter,
several scenarios are conceivable even if these have
no claim to precision. They can, however, indicate
longer-term trajectories that can endow Western
debate and policymaking on Russia with much
needed strategic foresight.

These scenarios underline the key importance

of Western unity. In order to withstand Russias
assault, a clearer-than-ever commitment is needed
to the norms underlying the European order as it
has developed over the last decades. Ongoing and
future violations of these principles by Russia must
be punished much more resolutely and quickly than
has occurred so far, while a constant effort must
be made to rein in countries that are, for various
reasons, at risk of breaking out of Western unity.
Secondly, European resilience to Russian meddling
must be boosted. Systematic measures are needed
to decrease the vulnerability of Western countries,
and that of Russias neighbors, to the economic and
energy pressures, political meddling, propaganda,
and military threats launched by the Kremlin. In
so doing, thirdly, EU-NATO complementarity and
vision is critical. The EU and NATO must build
much stronger complementarity and coordination
than has been the case to date, acknowledging the
necessity of jointly countering the combined hard
and soft security threats that constitute hybrid
warfare. Ideally, the EU and NATO would not
limit themselves to their current membership but
provide necessary assistance, as well as membership
perspectives, to their Eastern neighbors. Fourthly,
the United States must re-engage in Europe.
Understanding that it is the end recipient of the
Russian challenge, which is designed to curtail U.S.
leadership in global affairs, Washington should
reprioritize Russia, re-engage with its European
allies, and strengthen its presence as a key
guarantor of security in Europe. Finally, in Europe,
German leadership is indispensable. Central to
cohesion among EU members, Berlin will have
to take the concerns of those EU members and
neighbors that are particularly exposed to Russian
pressures more seriously, formulate its position
accordingly and unambiguously, and increase its
political, financial, and military commitments to
securing the EU and NATOs eastern flank.

Conceivable scenarios are all based on different

degrees of regime cohesion in Russia, and of
unity among European and transatlantic partners.
Ensuring stability of the political, economic, and
social system created and led by Vladimir Putin
in Russia is arguably the key driver behind the
confrontation imposed by the Kremlin on the West,
whose ability to respond is clearly a function of the
unity it can muster between the United States and
EU. High or low cohesiveness between the two sides
in this contest suggests four broad scenarios, or
trajectories for Russian-Western relations: standoff,
Western decline, Russian decline, or chaos. Each
of these constellations appears possible in the
mid-term. More importantly, however, they allow
for a closer look at the factors shaping individual
trajectories, and not least the policy options that
present themselves to the West in the short run and
that principally shape relationships with Russia in
the long run.

Whats Ahead for Russia and the West?

Few in Europe or
the United States
have taken a closer
look at the potential
new contours of the
European order.


Western policy and
public debate is yet
to fully appreciate
the extent and likely
longevity of the Russian

ore than a year after the Ukraine crisis

erupted and evolved through Russias
annexation of Crimea, its ever-less veiled
war in Eastern Ukraine, and its ever-more open and
broad confrontation with the West, strategic debate
in the United States and, even more so, in Europe
remains surprisingly short term. Western policy
and public debate is yet to fully appreciate the
extent and likely longevity of the Russian challenge
that has been so rapidly unfolding before Europe
and the West broadly.
It was natural that initial discussions were reactive.
They were marked by surprise and even shock at
the shattering of long-held hopes and views on
Russia, tried to come to terms with an emerging
new reality, focused on Ukraine as the immediate
problem at hand, and devoted themselves primarily
to specific policy tools, from negotiations to
sanctions to military support. In so doing, policy
debate and decision-making in the West have
largely been driven by events, ceding agency mostly
to the Kremlin, instead of charting and pursuing
their own course and strategy.
A shift is needed in order to move the debate in
a direction that is more strategic and forwardleaning. This requires a more systematic analysis of
the domestic determinants of external action, for
both Russia and the West. A good look is necessary
at the impact, potential, and manifestation, of
Russian influences on the internal cohesion
and room to maneuver of the West, and vice
versa. Policy options for additional and refined
instruments to effectively influence Russian
decisions and actions are needed, as are further
measures to curtail the Kremlins reach into
Western countries. There are several key questions.
What constitutes success or failure of Western

action vis--vis Russia? What desirable and

undesirable outcomes may result from individual
policy options? And which formats are conceivable
for a future relationship with Russia?
Scenario exercises are a useful instrument for
forward-looking policy consideration. They
allow for the examination of different courses of
developments, the impact of particular factors,
outcomes of individual policy choices and actions,
and conceivable resulting constellations. What
is important to stress, however, is that modelling
scenarios does not attempt to predict specific
courses of events or to advocate certain course
of action. It is merely a tool to help sharpen the
analysis of both drivers and costs and benefits of
conceivable developments.
The scenarios examined here are derived
from one central dimension. Internal political
cohesiveness the cohesion of the Russian
regime on one hand and the unity of European
and transatlantic partners on the other will
be critical to shaping the future relationship
between Russia and the West, in that it determines
the ability to act by either side. This suggests
four broad constellations for Russian-Western
relations that are subsequently detailed. Against
this background, several caveats are discussed that
have a bearing on Western policy choices, before a
number of broad recommendations are offered for
rethinking Western strategies and policies vis-vis a revisionist and aggressive Russia. As central
elements, a revised Western approach to Russia
will have to include a conscious strengthening of
European and transatlantic unity and systematic
efforts at bolstering European resilience to Russian

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

The Key Dimension:

Regime Cohesion in Russia vs.
European and Transatlantic Unity

he ability of any political actor, whether an

individual government or an alliance thereof,
to act effectively is determined by the extent
of legitimacy, elite consensus, and broader social
support that it can generate from within as well as
the material resources it has at its disposal. Neither
Russia nor the Western community is exempt
from this rule, although the quality, extent, and
foundations of their respective internal cohesion
differ considerably. What is more, the cohesiveness
both of the Russian regime and of the Western
community has undergone a significant evolution
that started well before, and has been amplified by,
the Ukraine crisis.
In Russia, a principal shift in the mechanics of
power has taken place over the last years. The first
two terms of Vladimir Putins rule (2000-08) were
primarily devoted to political, economic, and social
stabilization at home. The president did so in an
authoritarian manner that was decried by many
in Russia and beyond, but he managed to bring a
degree of stability to Russia that was welcomed by
many. In so doing, he benefited from a quadrupling
of the oil price that provided Russia with
unprecedented revenues, enabling the government
in Moscow to hand out a steady stream of benefits
to both elites and citizens-at-large. The only price
to be paid by Russians was political acquiescence
with the ever-more autocratic rule in their country.
With Putins return to the presidency in 2012,
foreign policy was placed center-stage, positing
that Russia must finally reassert itself as a global
power, claim its own sphere of influence, and shed
the constraints imposed by Western-dominated
institutions. In this spirit, the Russian regime has
effectively reintroduced a state ideology, consisting
of a revisionist approach to the post-Cold War
order in Europe, a denial of the independence
and inviolability of its former satellites, a sense of
civilizational superiority of the Russian Orthodox
and Eurasian space over an allegedly decaying

West, and the unique role for Russia to confront

the United States and its European allies. In
taking to ideology, Putin has effectively moved his
power base from the material to the immaterial: if
earlier on, his social contract with both elites and
Russians-at-large was based growing prosperity,
it now rests on a putative historical mission that
everyone is to subscribe to, or else be considered a
traitor. This new deal, however, requires Russia to
permanently seek and win confrontation, whether
by proxy or directly, politically or militarily, with
the West.
The West, meanwhile, has gone through successive
crises that have undermined European and Western
unity and solidarity. The European Union has long
struggled to overcome governance deficits and
to devise policies that are conducive to growth.
Some countries, like Greece, continue to fight the
consequences of sovereign debt and banking crises
while others, like Hungary, witness democratic
backsliding and authoritarian tendencies. With the
United Kingdom, a key member even threatens to
leave the bloc. Momentum for further enlargement,
once a driver for pacification, development, and
democratization on the continent, has effectively
come to a standstill. Euroskeptic and xenophobic
parties appear to be on a steady rise in almost all
EU member states and put a damper on a possible
deepening of EU integration, which was once a key
driver advancing the European project.
Ties with the United States have been badly
damaged over a decade of contentious
interventions, from Afghanistan to Libya, scandals
over secret CIA prisons and NSA surveillance, and
a heated debate over the Transatlantic Trade and
Investment Partnership that only fueled anti-U.S.
sentiments among many Europeans. Adding to this
growing rift was the withdrawal, real or perceived,
of U.S. engagement from Europe and Washingtons
shift of attention to other world regions. As a
result of strained transatlantic ties and seemingly

Whats Ahead for Russia and the West?

This new deal requires

Russia to permanently
seek and win
confrontation, whether
by proxy or directly,
politically or militarily,
with the West.

endless challenges to the European project, the

West has indeed appeared to be in decline and its
institutions, first and foremost the EU and NATO,
to be end-of-line models.

The West has appeared

to be in decline and its
institutions, first and
foremost the EU and
NATO, to be end-of-line

On the surface, it may have seemed that historical

scales had tipped away from the West and toward
(re-)emerging global players such as Russia. And
this appearance may well have made Putin believe
his assault on the European order would go
unchallenged. To him, Ukraine provided the perfect
occasion to exploit the weakness of the West and to
boost the standing and stability of his own regime.
Put differently, the issue of cohesion was present at
the outset of the crisis.
What is more, however, cohesion has been central
ever since. On one hand, it is at the core of Western
sanctions imposed in response to Russian actions
in Ukraine. These are, in effect, an attempt to test
and strain the cohesiveness of the Russian regime.
By punishing individuals through visa bans and
asset freezes, by excluding Russia from prestigious
clubs such as the G7, and by imposing economic
sanctions against Russian businesses, the West
hopes to drive up the political and material costs
of Kremlin adventurism and to sow doubt and
discontent over the Kremlins actions among elites
and society. The short and long-term effects of
Western sanctions remain hotly disputed, but they
clearly are intended to weaken cohesion on the
Russian side.
More obviously, and unexpectedly, sanctions have
had a positive effect on Western unity. Especially
among Europeans, reluctance and outright
opposition to imposing sanctions against Russia

was strong from the outset. It is only owing to

permanent coalition-building within the EU and to
considerable patience in the United States, which
has more than once delayed unilateral measures
to make sure of being in lockstep with Europe,
that successive punitive measures were rolled out
against Moscow. Although achieving the necessary
unanimity within the EU, and consensus across
the Atlantic, remains an uphill struggle, sanctions
against Russia have become an important marker of
Western unity.
On the other hand, undermining Western unity
has become an important target for Russia. Over
the last year, it has come as a shocking revelation
to many that several EU countries are vulnerable
to Russian influence and manipulation. European
reliance on energy imports from Russia has been
highlighted again, as have Moscows efforts to use
lucrative business deals, from arms to pipelines,
to buy the acquiescence of individual EU capitals.
Extremist parties on the right and left have been
shown to have links with, and at times funding
from, Moscow, while a massive Russian propaganda
campaign swept across Europe to sow doubt in
both European media and governments and the
partnership with the United States. Direct military
threats were addressed to the EU and NATOs
Eastern-most members, while the Russian army
has been posturing along NATOs borders with
an intensity unseen since the Cold War. In short,
Russia no less than the West has understood that
chipping away at the other sides cohesion, and
bolstering ones own, will be critical in this contest.

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Russia and the West:

Four Basic Scenarios

he confrontation that Russia is seeking

with the West will be critically shaped by
the degrees to which both sides are able to
maintain their cohesion and unity. It may indeed
be a race for time, with either side hoping that its
own efforts to undermine the cohesion of the other
come to fruition before its own ranks break apart.
And while the outcome of this contest remains
completely open, this basic fault line can serve
to model a number of scenarios for the further
evolution of relations between the West and Russia.
On this basis, four constellations can be conceived
of depending on whether cohesion of the Russian
regime on one hand and unity among transatlantic
and European partners on the other are high or low.
These generic scenarios are visualized in Figure 1.
1. Standoff: Cohesion Prevails in Russia as
Does Unity in the West
This first scenario effectively reflects the status
quo. With its actions over the last year, from
invading Ukraine to nosing NATO
borders to undermining the Iran
Figure 1
agreements, Russia has made its
challenge to the West unmistakably
clear. Its elegant takeover of
Crimea has boosted the standing
of Putin among Russians, tensions
within the apparatus or criticism
from the beleaguered opposition
have remained manageable, the
political and especially economic
costs incurred have so far been
absorbed, and state propaganda
permanently feeds a nationalist
frenzy of a Russian return to its
erstwhile position in the world.

relationship but eventually regained its composure.

Its responses to the evolving Ukraine crisis a
mix of punitive measures and offers to negotiate
solutions may not have been what many in
Ukraine and in the West wished for but they were
still unexpectedly unified and strong. At the same
time, European countries have become acutely
aware of the many vulnerabilities they have vis-vis Russia. Whether through business ties or energy
supplies, media presence or political parties, the
West has realized that the Kremlin employs a vast
set of tools to manipulate European politics and
societies from within. In a gradual response, EU
countries are now developing strategies to limit
these disruptive Russian influences.
With cohesion prevailing on either side, a
protracted war of attrition is indicated. In this
standoff, Russia can be expected to be proactive
and to regularly seek the offensive, as its internal
cohesion fully rests on engaging the external
enemy, which is how the Kremlin portrays the

The West, in turn, was initially

surprised at Russias breaking out
of what seemed to be a difficult
but still broadly cooperative

Whats Ahead for Russia and the West?

The shocking discovery

of the last year was the
extent, cunning, and
strategic intent with
which Russia has been
exploiting these strains.

West. Russian pressure will continue, using all

means from economic to military, on those of
its neighbors who remain outside of Western
institutions. Moscow will seek to puncture Western
institutions, whether by directly threatening
countries that are most exposed militarily, such
as the Baltic states and Scandinavian countries, or
by enticing those economically weakest, such as
Cyprus or Greece. Elsewhere in the world, Russia
will continue its efforts to build new alliances from
Asia to Latin America. This multipronged approach
is geared toward permanently testing the resolve,
ability, and standing of Western institutions, first
and foremost the EU and NATO.
The West, in turn, will likely be more reactive
and defensive. Compared to Russias single
actor advantage, determination, and escalation
dominance, Western agency is constrained in
a number of respects. Its decision-making is
consensual, requiring lengthy negotiations among
states and viewpoints. Its political measures, such as
sanctions, require solid evidence to be considered
legal. Electoral cycles in individual countries
limit Western decision-making no less than crises
elsewhere in the world that may take priority. As
a result, and rather than deciding on an offensive
strategy that would bring to bear its vast economic
and military superiority, the West will continuously
be tempted to settle for a minimum.
Its focus will be on increasing its own resilience,
limited largely to the space encompassed by
the EU and NATO, and to reduce the multiple
vulnerabilities among many European countries to
Russian influences. Beyond that space, especially
regarding Ukraine and the other countries of
the Eastern neighborhood, the West will remain
half-hearted and without the commitment and
assistance needed to fully integrate further
neighbors of Russia into its own institutions. It
will likely only respond to particularly egregious
actions by the Kremlin, such as further aggression

in Ukraine or elsewhere, with additional sanctions

but be mindful to avoid any situation that risks
direct confrontation with Russia. The hope on both
sides is that cohesion of the other will wither first
and change the situation to one of the following two
2. Western Decline: European and
Transatlantic Unity Breaks Apart
Degrees of diversity and occasional disagreements
have long been a natural, although mostly
manageable, part of the European and transatlantic
communities. The last years have seen a
considerable aggravation of fissures and tension, as
disputes from the Iraq war to the surveillance affair
have fueled anti-Americanism, while the eurozone
crisis, migration, and other policy challenges have
given rise to a host of ever more vocal Euroskeptic
parties. Perhaps more than ever before, the
European project and partnership with the United
States are questioned by many.
The shocking discovery of the last year, however,
was the extent, cunning, and strategic intent
with which Russia has been exploiting these
strains. It has built inroads into nearly all EU
countries, whether through investments in politics,
propaganda to manipulate publics, lobbying
firms to influence legislation, armies of lawyers to
challenge EU policies, business ties, and, above all,
its substantial energy supplies to Europe. These
inroads have long served to turn public debate
and political decision-making in Russias favor.
Increasingly, they now seem to be employed to
paralyze the EU, to sow doubt and frustration
among societies, to establish protg political
actors, and to drive wedges among European
countries, governments, and peoples.
Russia may well succeed in doing so. A litmus
test will be whether or not the EU musters the
consensus needed to extend political and economic

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

sanctions imposed against Russia. If, now or

later, Europeans fail to agree on this question,
this will establish a dangerous precedent with
a number of effects. It will make any resolute EU
response to future Russian aggression against
any of its neighbors nearly impossible to achieve.
It will render a common EU foreign policy an
ultimate illusion, failing as it does in the face of
Europes gravest external challenge and in its
nearest neighborhood, and throw the bloc back
into introversion. It will forsake transatlantic unity,
given that the United States is unlikely to relax
pressures on Russia. And in so doing, whether on
this particular occasion or a future one, European
disunity will issue a carte blanche to Russia to
pursue its revisionist policies and aggression against
other states.

The end result, which Russia is likely aiming for, is

to paralyze and fragment both the EU and NATO.
In its immediate neighborhood, this will give
Moscow a free hand to reestablish its hegemony
over former satellites, and to build the regional
sphere of influence that it believes it needs to
qualify as a global power. A less integrated and
principled Europe will provide fertile ground for
advancing Russian political and economic interests
in a traditional divide-and-conquer manner. And
vis--vis the United States, Russia will feel that it
levels the playing field, stripping the United States
of its European allies and questioning its global

Even worse, such a Russian triumph over the EU

will only embolden the Kremlin to also test the
other key Western institution: NATO. Moscow has
already intensified its posturing over the last year
massively, using all of its military capabilities and
some of its hybrid warfare innovations. Despite
NATOs recent assurance initiatives, the Baltic states
remain particularly exposed geographically,
socially, and politically to Russian attempts to
expose NATO weakness. These arguably consist
of a poor preparedness to ensure the territorial
defense of its Eastern periphery, a lack of clarity
towards situations of hybrid warfare, poor material
ability after two decades of defense cuts, and, most
importantly, weak political will and public support
in a fragmented Europe to abide by Article 5
obligations.1 To puncture those treaty commitments
and to effectively neuter NATO is certainly the
ultimate prize for the Kremlin.

Alternatively, European and transatlantic unity

may continue to hold while Putins government
comes under pressure. Russia has long faced
formidable structural problems, dysfunctionalities,
and centrifugal tendencies, ranging from the
challenge of controlling and integrating a vast
territory to abysmal demographic trends, from
its excessive dependency on oil and gas exports
to the kleptocracy of its public administration,
and from an outsized military and security
apparatus to the rising cost of Russias ambitions
for Eurasian integration. As long as revenues from
energy exports were plentiful, as in the 2000s,
these problems could be masked with money.
But declining revenues, especially after a sharp
and lasting drop in oil prices, have exposed the

As a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found only 38
percent of Germans, 40 percent of Italians, 47 percent of French,
48 percent of Poles and Spaniards, and 49 percent of British
supported the use of military force by their country to defend a
NATO ally that finds itself attacked by Russia; see Pew Research
Center, NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but
Reluctant to Provide Military Aid, June 2015.

3. Russian Decline: The Cohesion of Putins

Regime Weakens

To make matters worse, the introduction of

Western sanctions, designed to put a check on the
Russian governments aggression against Ukraine,
is taking a serious toll on the Kremlins resource
base. Currency reserves have already declined
sharply, as the government has had to compensate
an economy that has found itself partially cut off

Whats Ahead for Russia and the West?

The end result, which

Russia is likely aiming
for, is to paralyze and
fragment both the EU
and NATO.

The West will have to

live with a Russian
regime that is unwilling
and unable to reform
from within but willing
and able to stem its
breakdown by all

from global financial markets. Foreign investment

came to a standstill after the annexation of Crimea.
Production of oil and gas has peaked and started to
decline given a lack of technology and investment,
and key European markets are diversifying away
from Russian energy. Although in the short
term, the Russian government has succeeded in
stabilizing the economic situation, especially the
ruble and inflation rates, Russia is in for a long
economic agony.
First and foremost, the Kremlin will naturally try
to avert any rapid economic deterioration without,
however, addressing the underlying structural
problems or making political concessions to the
West. It touts import replacement and a pivot to
Asia for alternative partners and sources of funding
and revenues through its propaganda. There may
be some relief in the form of Chinese loans and
contracts, however, their scope and scale remains
far behind the revenues, consumer products,
and technologies, for which Russia has long
been dependent on the West. As a result, Russias
economic modernization is effectively halted, while
growing interaction with China squanders Russias
At home, the resulting competition for resources
will increase tensions within the government
apparatus and ruling elite. Judging by decisions so
far, and much in line with its aggressive politics and
rhetoric, the Putin administration clearly prioritizes
boosting the capacities of Russias military and
security apparatus over investments in the social
welfare system or economic modernization. This
may well prompt a response among some of the
losers from this reallocation, especially technocrats
in the apparatus, and in the urban middle class
that feels the pinch of the changed political and
economic environment. The next-possible occasion
to voice their discontent politically and publicly
is the Duma election in late 2016 and, if it indeed
generates momentum, such a political project

of modernizers may well take aim at the 2018

presidential elections. Indications are that System
Putin will be able to handle this impulse, whether
by marginalization, suppression, or absorption.
However, structural challenges and crises will only
become more frequent and aggravated over time.
Prolonged economic stagnation will fuel infighting
among key parts of the state apparatus, put into
question elite loyalties, and lead Russias peripheries
to question their relationship to the political
center. And in order to postpone, if not prevent, its
eventual implosion, the Kremlin will need to use
ever-harsher internal crackdowns to suppress, and
ever-more desperate external conflicts to release,
growing internal tensions.
Thus, for a significant period of time, the West will
have to live with a Russian regime that is unwilling
and unable to reform from within but willing and
able to stem its breakdown by all means. Ironically,
the West will equally seek to delay, rather than
hasten, the inevitable. Intimidated by the prospect
of chaos in Russia, and absent a strategy and vision
for a democratic Russia in Europe, the West will
be tempted to moderate its pressures, and perhaps
even lend direct support whenever a Russian
implosion may seem imminent. Once that moment
arrives, however, the West will face many of the
same questions that arose with the fall of the Iron
Curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc.
No less now than back then, its successful handling
of the situation will depend on Western strength
and strategy but above all, on its unity.
4. Chaos: Cohesion Folds in Russia
and in the West
Arguably the worst of the cases presented here, a
final scenario would see internal cohesion wither
both in Russia and among Western countries.
Likely as a result of a longer standoff, both sides
will feel increasingly worn down politically

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

and economically, and questions emerge as to

the rationale behind their respective behavior.
Given their democratic nature and described
vulnerabilities to Russian meddling, unity may well
break down first in the West, followed over time
by a weakening Russian regime, whose foreign
policy adventures increasingly fail to compensate
for its domestic weakness. Such a collapse on both
sides, however, will have dramatic consequences
for the entire Euroatlantic and Eurasian space, and
It will effectively end seven decades of expanding
and deepening Western integration that resulted
in what is the single-most advanced model of
international cooperation seen to date. To be sure,
the central institutions reflecting that integration,
the EU and NATO, will likely remain but become
less significant. The EU loses any meaning and
ambition in the foreign policy arena, sees a
loosening of its internal depth of integration,
and abstains from any further enlargement in
the Balkans and in the Eastern neighborhood.
NATO will have proven ineffective in guaranteeing
the territorial inviolability of its members, thus

depriving Western integration of the key security

dimension. In so doing, the West will cease to be
a credible and effective actor that can project a
vision of a cooperative world order, whether in its
immediate vicinity or further afield.
Nowhere will this lack of an able West be felt
more strongly than in Eurasia. Absent the positive
effects emanating from the West for Russian
modernization and stabilization, whether they
are acknowledged by the Kremlin or not, Russia
will not be able to stem its decline and sink
into economic and political upheaval. Its direct
neighbors, all dependent on the erstwhile hegemon
politically, economically, and socially, will become
massively destabilized, with civil strife and poverty
unleashing migrant flows to Europe. The first
Western countries to experience the ripple effects
of an Eastern Europe sinking into chaos will be
the EU and NATOs eastern-most members, many
of them already fragile polities, economies, and
societies. Unable to absorb these pressures by
themselves, they will turn to an EU whose capacity
to assist, as well as political will and sense of
solidarity, are greatly weakened.

Whats Ahead for Russia and the West?

Seven decades
of expanding and
deepening Western
integration ... resulted
in what is the singlemost advanced
model of international
cooperation seen to

Rethinking Western Policy:

Caveats and Recommendations

The fact that the
strength and survival of
Putins regime in Russia
is now fully dependent
on confronting the West
effectively precludes
any positive scenario
for their mutual

one of these scenarios is bright. They all

defy the many hopes and efforts invested by
the West in the transformation of Europe,
and Russia, over the last quarter-century. Yet each
of these trajectories seems possible. This only
highlights the extent to which the West and Russia
find themselves at a principal junction, and it
speaks to the critical long-term consequences of
any political decisions made, by the West and by
Russia, in the short term. In considering its policy
options, the West would be well-advised to bear in
mind a number of caveats.
First of all, the fact that the strength and survival
of Putins regime in Russia is now fully dependent
on confronting the West effectively precludes any
positive scenario for their mutual relationship.
As hard as it may seem to accept for consensus
and compromise-oriented Western politics and
publics, there is no middle ground when one side
is openly challenging the entire European order, its
rule-based and cooperative nature, key principles,
and institutions. If either side in this contest was to
make serious concessions, it would undermine its
own foundations.
Nowhere is this more obvious than on the question
of accommodation. Repeatedly over the last year,
seasoned Western policy experts have called
for a new grand bargain with Russia. Whatever
its exact form and content, however, such an
accommodation is fraught with existential risks
for both sides. For the Russian leadership, the
concessions necessary for such an accord would
run counter to its ideologized claim to superiority
and challenge to the West; they might be read
as a weakness the Kremlin can ill-afford. For
the West, concessions would almost certainly
have to compromise key Western principles and
values, such as the inviolability and sovereignty
of European states, to meet Russian geopolitical
demands. Thus diametrically opposed, neither side


can really afford accommodation without the risk

of ushering in its own decline before the other side.
In this situation, and as counterintuitive as it may
sound, the current standoff is the least bad option.
It is preferable to any alternative, as it is the only
trajectory that keeps the West intact as a key global
player and advocate of a rule-based and cooperative
international order, without confronting Europe
with the repercussions of Russian collapse. When
the current regime in Russia eventually lapses, the
consequences and uncertainties will be comparable
to those of the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
This potential fallout, in order to be managed, will
require a united and capable Western community
and institutions. Ideally, therefore, the West would
use the standoff to prepare itself for the eventual
collapse of the Russian regime; at a minimum, it
must make sure to get through this likely protracted
stalemate undivided and able.
Sustaining the unity this status quo requires will
not come easy to the West. Even worse, by its very
nature, it is at a comparable disadvantage to Russia.
After all, what is at stake for Putin and his inner
and wider circle is their personal and political
survival, and that of their fortunes. By contrast, the
stakes for Western leaders are much lower and their
temptation to break Western ranks much higher.
They find themselves subject to pressures from
political opponents who, typically from the fringes,
present anti-U.S., Euroskeptic, and often outright
pro-Russian views. Economic interests and energy
dependencies undermine principled positions no
less than fear of conflict, Russian propaganda, or
wooing, all instruments the Kremlin has shown to
use so effectively.
Finally, there is the risk that Western unity, which
is as important in this new reality as it is hard
to maintain, will be reduced to lowest-common
denominator positions. Over the course of the last
year, more resolute responses to Russian actions in

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Ukraine have been repeatedly delayed or watered

down. Many on the Eastern flank of EU and NATO
yearn for stronger-than-symbolic measures to
boost their security against Russian pressures.
Eastern neighbors, especially Georgia, Moldova,
and Ukraine, wish to see stronger EU commitment
and assistance. Yet in all these cases, readiness in
many Western capitals to be proactive, determined,
and visionary has been all too limited. Whatever
its origin, this is an inhibition the West can hardly
afford in the face of the very determined adversary
that Russia has shown to be.
With these caveats in mind, a number of
recommendations can be derived for Western
1. Reinforcing Western unity is paramount. In
order to withstand Russias assault on the West,
it will be critical for the United States and its
European allies to fortify their cohesiveness.
This requires a clear commitment to the norms
underlying the European order that has developed
over the last decades. Ongoing and future violations
of these principles by Russia must be punished
much more resolutely and quickly than has been
the case so far, both to limit the damage done
and to weaken the culprit. This will also require
continuously reining in wobblers and renegades
among Western countries, tempted as they are
to prioritize electoral cycles, economic interests,
or Russian advances over principled positions.
In so continuously reaffirming its key principles,
however, the West will have to carefully weigh the
strength of its possible responses against the risk
of jeopardizing Western unity. When there is a
conflict between force and cohesion, the latter has
to take priority.
2. European resilience to Russian meddling
must be boosted. The West needs to boost its own
resilience, and that of Russias neighbors, to the
economic and energy pressures, political meddling,

propaganda, and military threats launched by the

Kremlin. Ongoing efforts, by individual countries
as well as by the EU and NATO, have already
borne some fruit in this critical field, such as the
emerging EU energy union and systematic work on
energy diversification or measures to boost military
security through air policing and the enhanced
rapid reaction force in NATO. These efforts need
to be stepped up and expanded. The full regulatory
arsenal at the disposal of the EU and its members,
from the European Commissions anti-trust
measures to anti-bribery laws, media regulations,
corporate governance, and anti-terrorism measures
in individual countries, must be employed to limit
Russian interference. European business needs to
be supported in its reorientation away from the
Russian market. Outreach to the sizeable Russianspeaking communities across the EU is needed as
much as far more generous political, economic,
and, if need be, military assistance to Eastern
3. EU-NATO complementarity and vision is
critical. In enhancing its own security, the EU and
NATO must build much stronger complementarity
than they have to date. Faced with hybrid warfare,
the combination of hard and soft security
challenges affecting many aspects of European
societies, a more conscious division of labor is
imperative. Where NATO has capabilities to avert
traditional hard security threats and increasingly
cyber warfare, the EU has resources to counter
soft security threats from energy to finance of the
media. In employing these mechanisms jointly and
strategically, the EU and NATO must not succumb
to introversion. Instead of limiting themselves
to their current membership, the West must act
ambitiously and proactively with a view to the
long-term integration of all of Europe, offering aid
and perspectives of EU and NATO membership to
Eastern neighbors.

Whats Ahead for Russia and the West?


In order to withstand
Russias assault on
the West, it will be
critical for the United
States and its European
allies to fortify their

4. The United States must re-engage in Europe.

A particular responsibility for ensuring Western
unity and for facing up to Russia rests with the
United States and Germany. The former has to
acknowledge that it is the ultimate addressee of
Kremlin policy, whose end goal it is to curtail
U.S. leadership in global affairs. Consequently,
Washington should reprioritize Russia, reengage
with its European allies, and strengthen its
presence as a key guarantor of security in Europe.
Its approach to Russia will be closely watched by
emerging powers elsewhere in the world. Failure to
act resolutely in, and with, Europe will only invite
future challengers around the globe.


5. German leadership in Europe is indispensable.

Germany, in turn, is central to cohesion among EU
members. In so doing, Berlin will have to take more
seriously the concerns of those EU members and
neighbors that are particularly exposed to Russian
pressures, and formulate its position accordingly
and unambiguously. Enhanced shuttle diplomacy
and focus on Russia as the EUs key foreign policy
challenge will have to be ingredients of German
leadership, as will stronger political, financial, and
military commitments to securing the EU and
NATOs Eastern flank.

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