We hear too much about Vladimir Putin these days and not nearly enough about the actual forces reshaping the world. Yes, the Russian president has proved a brilliant tactician. And, President Trump’s fantasies aside, he is a ruthless enemy of American power and European coherence. Yet Russia remains a byword for backwardness and corruption. Its gross domestic product is less than 10% that of the U.S. or the European Union. With a declining population and a fundamentally adverse geopolitical situation, the Russian Federation remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor.
Add up the consequences of Mr. Putin’s troops, nukes, disinformation campaigns, financial aid to populist parties—and throw in the power of his authoritarian example. Russia still does not have the ability to roll back the post-1990 democratic revolution, overpower the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or dissolve the EU.
The West is in crisis because of European weakness, not Russian strength. Some of the Continent’s difficulties are well known. France foolishly imagined the euro would contain the rise of a newly united Germany after the Cold War. In fact it has propelled Germany’s unprecedented economic rise while driving a wedge between Europe’s indebted South and creditor North. The Continent’s so-called migration policy is a humanitarian and a political disaster. Berlin’s feckless approach to security has left Europe’s most important power a geopolitical midget, lecturing sanctimoniously while others shape the world. Meanwhile the EU’s Byzantine government machinery grinds at an ever slower pace, creating openings for Mr. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Europe’s weakness invites authoritarian assertion in the borderlands.
Another failure of equal consequence still is not widely understood: the failure to integrate the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into Western prosperity and institutional life. The world’s 10 fastest-shrinking countries are all in Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. All expect to see their populations shrink at least 15% by 2050.
For the enterprising and mobile, there is good news; between three million and five million Romanians live and work in other EU countries, enjoying opportunities they could not find at home. But for those who cannot or do not wish to move on, life can be hard. Almost 30 full years after the fall of communism, more than one-fourth of Romanians live on less than $5.50 a day. Across Romania, less than half of households have an internet connection, and only 52% have a computer.
Romania and Bulgaria—where living standards are lower than in Turkey—are exceptionally poor. Conditions are better elsewhere, but the gap between prosperous European countries like Germany and postcommunist states like Poland remains immense. Poles on average earn only a third as much as Germans. The rural, eastern parts of Poland are poorer still. Conditions in ex-Soviet countries like Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine are even worse. Corruption is rampant, with weak institutions unable to stop it.
The hubris that led so many in the West to believe that Europe had entered a posthistorical paradise is fading. A clearer if darker picture has emerged. Swaths of Central and Eastern Europe will not smoothly and painlessly assimilate into the West. If voters in these countries lose faith that Western ideas and institutions can improve their lives, the political gap between East and West will widen. When the EU is more preoccupied with internal divisions, it is less able to respond effectively to Russian moves.
Europe’s weakness has provided Mr. Putin with opportunities to promote Russian power by supporting populist parties across the EU and deepening his relationship with leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Yet even in the age of Trump, Moscow is too weak, too poor, too regressive and too remote to shape European politics. The days when Russian rulers like Catherine the Great and Alexander I could direct events across the Continent are gone for good. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany mean the most important relationship in the trans-Atlantic world is between Washington and Berlin.
President Trump is right that much of the trans-Atlantic relationship needs to be rethought. He is right that Germany asks too much and offers too little for the current relationship to be sustainable. He is right that the European Union has worked itself into a political crisis, and that the Continent’s errors and illusions strengthen Mr. Putin’s hand.
But if the president thinks Mr. Putin’s Russia can serve as the linchpin of a new American security strategy, he is overestimating Russia’s capacity, misreading Mr. Putin’s goals, and underestimating the importance of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Moscow is a sideshow. To protect American prosperity and security, Mr. Trump most needs to strike a deal with Berlin.