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U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 9, 2015
Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a joint press conference to declare solidarity in their approach to the conflict in Ukraine. “Russian aggression has only reinforced the unity between the United States, Germany and other European allies,” intoned Obama.

Would it were so. Russian aggression in Ukraine and the ongoing debate on how to respond have put serious strain on the transatlantic alliance, a problem that’s becoming harder to hide.

At the recent Munich Security Conference, the two sides tried to downplay their divisions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that America and Europe differ over “tactics,” not strategy. But that’s not saying much. The two sides agree that Russia is the principal aggressor in a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more. They agree that Russia should give back Crimea and stop sending soldiers and weapons into the Donbass war zone. They agree that Russia must respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and its right to join European clubs.

But Russia has no intention of accepting any of those things, which makes “tactics” the whole ballgame. How to back Vladimir Putin down? That’s the fundamental impasse between the U.S. and Europe.

The question of the moment is whether to provide weapons to Ukraine. The Obama Administration, Britain and Canada are considering it. Some in Washington, like Arizona Senator John McCain, are pushing hard for it. Germany, now the strongest voice in European foreign policy, flatly opposes the idea.

This disagreement exposes a deeper conflict. The focal point of the U.S. approach is not to defend Ukraine, but to punish Russia. Washington can shrug off the economic impact of cratering relations with Moscow: in 2013, Russia was America’s 23rd largest trading partner, accounting for just 1% of America’s total trade. But Russia accounted for nearly 10% of the E.U.’s total trade that year, making it the E.U.’s third largest trading partner. With many European countries economically dependent on Russian energy and its support for certain sectors — banking, finance, agriculture and others — to punish Russia is to punish Europe too.

Obama appears reluctant to send weapons into Ukraine, but he does want to increase pressure on Putin. He fears that negotiations alone give the Russian leader time to further destabilize and bankrupt Ukraine’s government, and that sanctions should be intensified. Europe has so far maintained existing sanctions, but there are too many European governments deeply reluctant to impose new ones. Why accept damage to their own economies when they don’t believe Putin will change course?

In reality, neither negotiations nor sanctions will back Putin down, at least not soon enough to save Kiev enormous cost and pain. But as the assault on Ukraine intensifies and demand to do something boils over, America and Europe will likely begin to pursue separate plans. That’s bad news for both.

As U.S.-E.U. solidarity on Russia tactics splinters, who is the big winner? It’s not Putin. His prize for unwavering aggression is a broken Ukraine, a broken relationship with the West and a broken economy. Instead, it’s China that stands to gain. China disagrees with the broadest Western assumption — the need for a strong international response to Russian aggression in the first place. As Russia turns East, China will drive a harder bargain in their commercial relations while taking care to ensure that relations with America and Europe continue to expand. The tactics of playing both sides will work very well for China.

And given the growing transatlantic divide, better relations with China might be more important than ever.

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