On Monday, the House of Representatives passed, by an overwhelming margin, a bill to sanction Russia, in part for its interference in the 2016 election. On Thursday, the Senate approved a sanctions bill as well. It will now head to the White House, where it remains an open question whether President Trump will give it his final assent.
In the United States, this is all a relatively a straightforward affair, reflected by the 419–3 vote in the House and the 98–2 margin in the Senate. Sanctions are considered due recourse for Russia’s improper meddling, and all patriotic Americans should support them. Open and shut.
Across the Atlantic, the story becomes somewhat more complicated. Our European allies are no friends of Vladimir Putin, but that does not automatically mean they are supporters of the United States’ preferred sanctions regime. Rather, Congress’s consideration of a sanctions bill has prompted general consternation in Brussels, where the leaders of the European Union have warned that the sanctions in their current form could threaten Europe’s energy security and force the Europeans to retaliate.
Europe’s concerns are substantial. The Continent has long been dependent on Russian oil and gas, and potential stoppages in the westward flow of Russian oil have long caused headaches in European capitals — a 2009 dispute between Russia and Ukraine, for instance, caused serious crises in much of southeastern Europe, which relies heavily on Russian gas, and touched even central and western Europe.
Today, the Europeans are wary of clauses in the measures that would allow the United States to sanction, as Politico reports, “any company that contributes to the development or operation of energy export pipelines in the Russian Federation or to Europe, or engages in oil ventures with Russian companies.” Not surprisingly — given the history and geographic proximity of Russia and the European Union — many projects fitting this description are currently under way, not least of which is the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would traverse the Baltic Sea on the way from Russia to Germany. The project would be led by Gazprom, which is owned predominantly by the Russian government, thus placing it well within the remit of sanctions. (The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is also the subject of considerable controversy within the EU: It would increase Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, would shift the emphasis in gas transport away from Ukraine and toward Germany, and is widely seen as a test of German power within the EU and without. Ukraine opposes it, with the U.S. leaning toward opposition; Germany and Russia support it.) The sanctions’ potential scope goes further: Though they likely will not affect projects in the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, as was originally feared, the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline and planned projects in the Baltics and Turkey might be at risk.
Europe wants to ensure that the application of the sanctions does as little harm as possible to essential EU interests. It is prepared to employ whatever means, diplomatic or otherwise, available to it — possibly the same sort of trade-war retaliation that President Trump has publicly considered since the beginning of his administration, or the use of European law to prevent the enforcement of U.S. law extraterritorially. A general diplomatic rift between the EU and the U.S. might also develop, further fraying a once-solid relationship that seems to have steadily deteriorated throughout the year. The consequences could be serious: At a time of substantial geopolitical uncertainty — with a brewing crisis on the Korean Peninsula, uncertainty over the future of Syria, geopolitical tensions with Russia, and a murky path forward on the Iran deal — a break between the U.S. and its European allies is about the last thing the NATO coalition needs.
There are two possible ways to envision U.S. policy going forward, both of which have their contradictions. The first is to argue that the Europeans, for geopolitical reasons, are not our natural allies on the Russian matter: that their dependence on Russian gas for their energy security fatally compromises our ability to tailor our policy to their interests, and that we should heretofore make policy with European concerns only on the back burner. The contradiction here is that the figures supporting the Russian sanctions are precisely those who value the NATO relationship, and the solidity of the Western alliance more broadly, and that those who are at best lukewarm on the sanctions — namely, Trump and his advisers in the White House — are those who have expressed the most skepticism regarding our relationship with Europe. This would seem to make such an approach too tenuous to maintain.
The American relationship with the nations of Europe is too valuable to lose.
The second option is to recognize that, for better or for worse, the Europeans really are our allies when it comes to Russia, in the broadest sense: that their day-to-day interests might vary somewhat — as in the Russo-German cooperation on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — but that we should not lose sight of the overall geostrategic picture, in which the goal of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is to disrupt Western order and the stability of the EU. This recognition would suggest that we should take a firm line with the Europeans, reminding them that an increased reliance on Russian gas is by no means an ideal strategy, yet at the same time seeking to craft our policy around European interests as the Europeans perceive them. This will necessarily involve some give-and-take, as all alliances do. It would, perhaps, force those clamoring for a harsh line against Russia in the Republican and Democratic parties alike to moderate their stance, lest it alienate these valuable allies.
This, too, might prove a difficult position for many to take, especially in these hyperactive times. But in the long run, preserving the Western alliance is a more important goal than retaliating strongly against Russian infractions against American democracy. These objectives are not mutually exclusive, and we must not allow ourselves to believe that they are; we must ensure that our longer-term interests are not subsumed by the hectic matters of our day. The American relationship with the nations of Europe is too valuable to lose.