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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hypocritical About Russia

If you are a European, there may be many things you can do or say about Russia, but one thing you cannot do is ignore it. In 100 years' time, it may be that the United States will take very little interest in what Russia does. That can never be true of those who share the European continent with it.

At present, the internal problems of the European Union have led to Europe essentially tagging along behind U.S. policy, though sometimes complaining and trying to act as a brake. If U.S. policy toward Russia continues along existing lines, the result may be a crisis that will wreck relations with the West for decades to come.

This applies especially to U.S. pressure for an early enlargement of NATO to include Ukraine, something that polls show is opposed by some two-thirds of Ukrainians. If the West does expand NATO, it will take on a permanent commitment to defend Ukraine not only against Russia, but against internal revolt. This commitment would remain, regardless of how the geopolitical balance or situation within Ukraine might change in the future.

Such a commitment might still be acceptable if the West were sure of its ability to confront Russia on the territory of the former Soviet Union; if, for example, it were certain that it could quickly back up Ukraine's NATO membership with EU membership and full social, economic and political integration into the West. But this hope is almost certainly an empty one. The results of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in March have revealed a population deeply divided over the country's future course. Meanwhile, European officials admit candidly in private that given the economic stagnation of Western Europe and the problems caused by the first round of EU enlargement, membership for Ukraine will be impossible in the foreseeable future.

One fundamental European problem in formulating policy toward Russia is a conceptual one. European attitudes are founded on the belief that Russia must accept the domestic and international codes of behavior generally followed by EU member-states. Since Russia is often far from following these rules, a tough European approach seems, on its face, to be justified.

This approach to Europe's neighbors is one that has had considerable success, such as with Turkey. However, Europe has shown infinitely more patience and courtesy with regard to Turkey's tortuous progress in recent decades than it has toward Russia in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But when it comes to Russia, the European approach suffers from two obvious flaws. The first is that, unlike Turkey, Russia is not being offered any prospect of EU membership in return for compliance with EU rules. Nor is Russia ever likely to be a member of NATO. So in the security field, Russia is being asked to make enormous concessions with no real Western help in return.

The other European problem is that the EU model is not the only one in the world today. There is another extremely influential teacher, the United States. Under an increasingly thin cover of promoting "democracy" and "freedom," U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has been pursuing a crudely realist approach toward maximizing U.S. power and weakening any real or perceived rivals.

This realist approach has been exemplified by the career of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. It was on show again when, immediately after his recent speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, attacking Russia for its lack of democracy, Cheney forged new ties with the oil-rich dictators of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to seek to draw them into an anti-Russian alliance. Confronted with this harshly realist U.S. approach on its borders, it is hardly surprising that Russia is following very similar policies in response.

In this regard, Western policymakers might like to try a small thought experiment: to imagine Cheney's response -- and that of the U.S. in general -- in the face of geopolitical demands similar to those now being faced by Russia. How would they react to the extension of a hostile international military alliance to Mexico, the overthrow of U.S. client states in Central America or the expulsion of the U.S. Navy from Pearl Harbor?

The United States would fight to the death to prevent this. Whether Russia will fight at some point in the future, I do not know. I also do not want to conduct that experiment.

Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. His next book, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, co-authored with John Hulsman, is to be published by Pantheon in October. This comment appeared in the Financial Times.