Online Commentary

January 28, 2021


Transatlantic Action Plan

In the foreseeable future, Russia continues to pose serious challenges to the European and international security order, democratic systems of Western countries, and cohesion of major Western organizations such as the EU and NATO. The U.S. and Europe need to tackle these challenges together and pursue a hard line vis-à-vis Russia in order to put limits to its malicious actions. Europe has to take more responsibility for defending and protecting itself and promoting stability in its neighborhood, but the U.S. contribution to European security, especially when it comes to countering and deterring Russia, remains indispensable. The U.S. and European allies need to continue to develop credible defense and deterrence against Russia in the framework of NATO.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea, April 12, 2016.
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This Transatlantic Action Plan originally appeared in Stronger Together: A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power, a collaborative report from the German Council on Foreign Relations and the Harvard Kennedy School. The online version of the text contains no footnotes. To view the footnotes, please download the PDF version here


Over the past 20 years—since President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power—Russia has become increasingly estranged from the West. There are three fundamental reasons for this, none of which is likely to disappear any time soon. For these reasons, all of which can be regarded as systemic sources of tension, the Western-Russian relationship is bound to remain difficult in foreseeable future:

The first is Russia’s deep discontent with the European security order, but also more broadly the international security order. A key goal of Putin’s policy has been to restore Russia’s great power status and rebuild its influence in the post-Soviet space and beyond. While this might be seen as a legitimate goal, Russia’s methods of influence and its understanding of what being a great power is about are not. Putin’s use of the Yalta conference as a model and the glorification of Stalin’s leadership illustrate the problems. Russia seeks the establishment of a security order in which great powers define the rules, determine the balance of power and agree on spheres of influence which smaller ones are bound to accept. In particular, Russia expects other powers to acknowledge its privileged role in the post-Soviet space. In this vision, the right of each state to decide on its security relations, as inscribed in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) principles, is subordinate to the security interests of great powers. Russia’s methods for gaining influence include disinformation, election interference, use of corruption and energy trade as tools of pressure, cyberattacks, military force and paramilitary activities. As inscribed in the constitutional amendments that entered into force on July 4, 2020, its actions are not bound by international law when the Russian constitution contradicts it.

Russia presents its aspirations for a new security order as a path to stability. Yet in reality, its efforts to impose its vision of order on smaller neighbors, if necessary by use of force, have produced a great deal of tension and conflict. Subordination of countries to a sphere of influence against their will is quite simply not a recipe for sustainable stability. Nowhere is this more visible than in the case of Ukraine, where Russia has gone to great lengths to maintain control over the country’s orientation, resulting in a dramatic worsening of relations and Ukraine’s strengthened determination to pursue its own path.

Putin’s Russia is not prepared to accept a solution to the Ukraine conflict that would respect the latter’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and right to self-determination. It sustains the war in Donbas as a way to put pressure on Kyiv and maintain its influence over the country. Russia pursues a zero-sum approach that is also visible, for instance, in its increased role in Europe’s Southern neighborhood, notably the conflicts in Syria and Libya. Russia is of more direct concern to European security, but it is also undermining the U.S. engagement and interests in various parts of the world, e.g. Afghanistan and Venezuela.

Second, Russia is an authoritarian power relying on KGB-style methods of coercion and control—as evidenced most recently by the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny with Novichok nerve agent. Strengthening authoritarian rule has been one of the key trends of Putin’s presidency.

Expressions of domestic protest, such as the so-called Bolotnaya demonstrations in 2011, have been suppressed. In the 2000s, Putin’s popularity was based on rapid economic development thanks to high oil prices. As economic growth slowed down, the annexation of Crimea gave a new boost to Putin’s support. Now that this factor has faded and public dissatisfaction is growing, it is unclear how the regime will manage the situation. Concern about regime stability might encourage further repressive measures. Public protests—be they in Ukraine, Belarus or Russia itself—are routinely portrayed by the Kremlin as a product of foreign interference, which denies the possibility of true and lasting bottom-up mobilization. The lack of mechanism to ensure a stable transfer of power is a major source of systemic fragility. When change finally comes, it is likely to be abrupt and destabilizing.

Third, Russia is determined to sow division among and within Western societies and undermine organizations such as the EU and NATO. This follows logically from the first two points, since the Kremlin views Western powers and institutions as the main obstacle to Russia’s great power ambitions abroad and the main threat to its authoritarian regime at home. A combination of domestic weaknesses in the West and increased fragility of the transatlantic partnership has created space for Russia to pursue its disinformation and influence operations in Europe and the U.S. through a variety of informational, technological and economic means. Examples include interference in the U.S. and French presidential elections, hacking the IT system of the German and Norwegian parliaments and supporting various populist parties of the left and right across Europe. 

Transatlantic Cooperation: Divergence and Convergence

Since 2014, the coordinated response by the U.S. and Europe to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine has been based on a shared understanding of the importance of defending the norms-based security order and imposing costs for its violations. The sanctions imposed on Russia have helped to constrain aggression. Likewise, it has been essential to strengthen the defense and deterrence posture of NATO. This remains of existential importance for the Baltic states and Poland as the most vulnerable part of NATO, and thus for the alliance as a whole. Russia’s imperial ambitions are best constrained by credible defense and deterrence. These shared priorities should remain at the core of transatlantic cooperation vis-à-vis Russia.

In recent years, however, there has been confusion and uncertainty about the U.S. approach to Russia, Ukraine and European security. Actual policies towards Russia have hardened, support to Ukraine has continued and NATO’s military presence in the Eastern flank has been strengthened, but this has been accompanied by contradictory positions on the part of the U.S. president. The feeling that Europe can no longer rely on its biggest ally has strengthened among the leaders as well as publics of many European countries. This trend can be reversed by a Biden administration.

Specific issues where the positions of the U.S. and Europe—or some major European countries—have diverged include arms control and energy. The collapse of the INF Treaty in 2019 and U.S. exit from the Open Skies Treaty in May 2020, both due to violations by Russia, and uncertainty over the continuation of the 2010 New START treaty, which will expire in 2021 (and which arguably Russia has complied with), have raised concerns over a new arms race in many European capitals. The challenge is not to allow existing norms to simply collapse and work instead on developing mechanisms of control and imposing costs on non-compliance. The U.S. has an indispensable role to play.

Regarding energy, Europe is internally divided over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Germany has pursued although the project has faced criticism for non-compliance with EU energy policy (unbundling rules) and for increasing the geopolitical vulnerability of Ukraine and the EU’s Eastern member states. The U.S. has responded with sanctions against Nord Stream 2, which have further deepened transatlantic tensions. The lack of a shared strategic vision undermines both the EU and the transatlantic alliance.

Need for a Concerted Response

Increasing cases of Russia’s malign activities, which violate international norms and undermine our democratic systems, highlight the need for a concerted response and should help to identify opportunities for transatlantic cooperation. The three systemic sources of tension described above are at the core of Russia’s strategic interests, as perceived by Putin’s regime. The U.S. and Europe are not able to change these self-defined interests. They need to build their policies based on the premise that Russia is serious about pursuing them. Efforts to enhance cooperation with Russia on specific issues where shared interests can be found (e.g. blocking nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea) are needed, but do not change these fundamentals. Whether a new Russian leadership (whenever it emerges) would be willing to modify Russia’s present definition of national interest remains to be seen. 

The rise of China and increased Sino-Russian cooperation may contribute to enhanced transatlantic responses vis-à-vis both major powers. The changing global balance of power in favor of China does not remove the systemic sources of tension between Russia and the West. Russia may be worried about its growing dependence on China, but economic integration with Europe is not a viable alternative as long as Russia’s strategic goals and the nature of the Russian system (lack of the rule of law, pervasive corruption, state-controlled oligarchic business model in strategic sectors, etc.) remain incompatible with those of the EU. New possibilities for Western-Russian economic cooperation could be opened up by the modernization of the Russian economy, but this has not been a priority of the current regime. The rise of China and relative decline of Russia might reduce the relative importance of the challenges Russia poses to the U.S. and Europe, but it does not essentially change them. 

Strategic goals for the U.S. and Europe 

In the foreseeable future, Russia continues to seriously challenge European and international security order, democratic systems of Western countries, and cohesion of major Western organizations such as the EU and NATO. Hence, the U.S. and Europe together have to pursue a hard line vis-à-vis Russia to tackle these challenges. At the same time, dialogue is necessary and we should remain open to cooperation with Russia on matters of international security where shared interests can be identified. 

Joint transatlantic efforts are essential to set limits on Russia’s malicious actions. The U.S. and Europe need to work on their own social cohesion and the sustainability of their democracies so as to reduce domestic vulnerabilities that external powers can exploit. They also need to strengthen their joint approach to defending the norms-based security order in Europe and beyond. As long as Russia keeps trying to impose its vision of order on its neighbors (most notably Ukraine), there is no foundation on which to negotiate a new security order. 

Europe has to take more responsibility for defending and protecting itself and promoting stability in its neighborhood, but the U.S. contribution to European security—especially when it comes to countering and deterring Russia—remains indispensable. A failure to maintain credible defense and deterrence against Russia would be fatal for the transatlantic alliance.


  1. Defend the democratic systems of the U.S. and Europe against Russia’s malign interference. Work together to develop capabilities to identify and prevent actions such as the spread of disinformation, hacking of public IT systems and cyber espionage by external actors.
  2. Continue to develop credible defense and deterrence against Russia in the framework of NATO.
  3. Defend the norms-based security order in Europe. Increase costs for violations and pressure on Russia to step back from its destabilizing activities in Ukraine. Provide consistent support to Ukraine in its efforts to push back Russian aggression and develop closer ties to the West.
  4. Work together to strengthen mechanisms of arms control and impose costs on non-compliance. Extend the 2010 New START Treaty, which will expire in 2021.
  5. Revive and strengthen cooperation on climate and energy issues, where it is a shared strategic goal to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, to be pursued hand in hand with the major global task to cut down reliance on fossil fuels.
  6. Strengthen measures to constrain Russia’s malign economic influence and kleptocracy, including anti-corruption policies and efforts to stop money laundering.
  7. Cooperate more closely on defending human rights, e.g. through the adoption of a European Magnitsky Act. 
  8. Engage Russia on international issues where shared interests can be identified, such as stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea.
  9. Work towards a joint engagement in Syria and Libya, to address Russia’s strengthened influence and promote sustainable solutions to the conflicts.
  10. Reach out to the Russian society, maintain and develop contacts between students, academics, cultural sectors etc. At the same time, beware of state-sponsored propaganda activities of Russian organizations and individuals.

Kristi Raik, Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Centre for Defence and Security; Adjunct Professor at the University of Turku

Bibliographic data

Action Plan from the report "Stronger Together. A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power" by the Transatlantic Strategy Group convened by the Harvard Kennedy School and DGAP.