Europe must learn to deal with Moscow without US backing

After a harrowing delay, the first bodies from MH17 arrived back at their point of departure on Wednesday. The sendoff from Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, had been dignified, in contrast to most of their treatment over the previous six days. There were decent coffins, a short military ceremony and soberly dressed officials with heads bowed. A measure of order had been restored.

These arrangements, it appears, were the result of highly complicated negotiations between many parties. There were representatives of Malaysia (because the plane was theirs); of the Netherlands (because this is where the plane had set off from, and the majority of the passengers were Dutch nationals); of the Ukrainian government (because the plane came down within its borders); of the anti-Kiev rebels (because they control the actual territory where the plane crashed); and of Russia (because it had some lines open to the rebels, if not as much real leverage as many still believe).

Add in international organisations, such as the OSCE, and the various official groups charged with investigating air disasters, plus officials from countries such as Britain that also lost nationals and which can offer particular expertise, and the picture becomes still more complex. When you consider this extensive list, however, what is striking is not just who is there, but who is not. Where, most conspicuously, is the US?

In the early days, some overheated rhetoric wafted across the Atlantic about blame for MH17, especially from Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, who loses no opportunity to rehearse her trademark denunciations of Russia. But President Obama was always more cautious, and now US intelligence officials have expressly excluded “direct” Russian involvement in what happened, while blaming Russia for “helping to create the conditions”.

For the most part, though, the US has remained on the sidelines. Where it has acted, for instance in sending aviation safety officials, it has done so without fanfare. Rather than rush to Kiev or Moscow or the Netherlands, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, has remained in the Middle East, applying his efforts to the ever more destructive conflict over Gaza.

Whether US intervention would have been welcome or not after MH17 is neither here nor there. The downing of the Malaysian plane soon turned into as much of a major international diplomatic crisis (with Russia in the dock) as it was a human tragedy many times over. Somehow, as seen from Europe, you would have expected the US to have been there.

Maybe, though, we Europeans are going to have to get used to the idea that in diplomatic and military – if not economic – terms, Europe has ceased to be special in Washington. There were already hints, during Obama’s first election campaign, that “Yes, we can!” might one day be completed with “do without Europe”.

As a child born well after the second world war, brought up partly in Asia and the Pacific US, and with no romantic attachment to the old continent, Obama always heralded the prospect of a post-Atlanticist US foreign policy. The so-called policy pivot towards Asia would have confirmed that – except that the US then sent its diplomats around Europe trying to explain that the move was not what it seemed, but more of a “rebalancing”, in which Europe would still have an honourable place.

To his post-Atlanticist outlook, Obama has also added an apparent aversion to world leadership that has drawn flak in Washington, but deserved a better reception elsewhere than it mostly got at home. Russia and France both argued, in different ways, for a “multipolar” world. Well, that is pretty much what we have.

After Russia illegally annexed Crimea, in what has been condemned as the first enforced border change in Europe since 1945, the US showed the flag in fearful Poland and the Baltic states. It offered some missile defence here and some special forces there, but the commitment – in financial and personnel terms – was minimal.

The message then, as it had been for the best part of Obama’s presidency, was that if Europe wanted peace and security, it had to rely more on itself. When crisis hit, we could not expect the US knight to ride in on a white charger, still less an allied tank to rescue us from our own disagreements. The 2011 intervention in Libya may be the last time that the US helps us out of our own overreaching, just as Iraq and Afghanistan may be the last US military adventures that assorted Europeans will join.

And there is a conclusion that Europe has been very slow to draw from this: if we want to exercise any diplomatic clout, we will have to get our act together, identify some Europe-wide priorities, and decide how much we are prepared to pay for the privilege. So far, the EU has chalked up a mini-success with agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, and a third-party success with the opening of nuclear negotiations with Iran. But we have not cracked the closest, but somehow hardest, nut: Russia.

Ukraine – not just Moscow’s grab for Crimea, but the disastrously mishandled EU association agreement – exemplifies the discord, as does last week’s failure of the EU to agree on a new high representative to succeed Baroness Ashton. The Italian foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, was deemed too soft on Russia while the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, would be seen as too harsh. The divisions between “old” and “new” Europe have suddenly become as deep as they were a decade ago.

Curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions is important, of course it is, but relations with Russia are key to the future shape and peace of our continent. In many ways, the voluntary absence of the US should spur Europe to find an accommodation it can support by itself. This will not be easy, but without a unified approach to Russia, it will be hard for the EU to agree on anything else.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She is a former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington, and a special correspondent in China and many parts of Europe.

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