Europe and Russia

15. 3. 2017

Three key words should define our policy towards Russia, if we want to act responsibly: firmness, clarity and lucidity.

The weaker is the ruble—following the spectacular fall of the price of oil—the more the behavior of Russia towards Ukraine seems aggressive. Has Putin come to the conclusion that overplaying the nationalist card is the only way for him to survive the growing mood of discontent that would otherwise prevail, at least in the cities if not in the countryside? Or has Putin more concrete ambitions such as carving a mini state within the Ukrainian territory?

Unlike the former prime minister of France under the reign of Louis-Philippe in the 1840’s, François Guizot, Putin is no longer saying “be rich and let me take care of the rest,” but “be proud of Russia, and forget your own economic situation: sacrifices are going to be for a short duration; national greatness will be restored for ever. The humiliation you suffered yesterday is not about to return. And,” adds Putin, “the Russian Civilization is much stronger, much purer. Consider the West, it is in full decay and morally corrupt (think of the marriage between homosexuals).”

Has Russia’s latest Tsar become irrational or is he is shrewdly playing in a seemingly reckless manner to deter Europe in particular and the West in general, from opposing his revisionist ambitions? Putin seems to be sending a rather efficient message, which seems to have convinced many western luminaries and that can be summarized as follows: “Beware I am dangerous, and the men who would replace me, if I were to fall, are even more nationalistic and reckless than I am!”

Or is Putin’s exploiting the fact that Europeans are deeply divided on the subject of Russia and do not give the same priority to Russian “expansionist policies”? In fact Europeans may share a common destiny, but they do not seem to have the same nightmares. In the South, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, incarnated by ISIS or Al-Qaeda, takes precedence over the fear of Russian revisionism. In the East, Center and North of Europe, the reverse is probably true. Can Europe in this context find a common language to confront Putin’s ambitions? Those who defend Russia, and they are very numerous, seem to combine the defense of very mercantile interests with the expression of deep anti-American feelings that are still lingering.

The Union’s divisions and weaknesses have been as encouraging for the Master of the Kremlin as Washington’s hesitation over Syria. To make things worse, some countries of the South, like Italy in particular, simply consider the Russian threat as a secondary and distant one compared to the rising number of migrants from the South that are risking their lives to take refuge on their shores. But they deem the very close economic links that exist between Rome and Moscow vital for their future. Rome cannot at the same time try to implement fundamental structural reforms inside and make agonizing reappraisal of her foreign policy tradition. That is at least the message Matteo Renzi seems to be projecting. The only good news coming from Europe has been the relative firmness of Germany and the rising role within the European Union of a successful Poland.

And yet, given the direction of Moscow’s policy towards its “near abroad,” unity is vital if Europe pretends to exert some kind of influence in the world, starting with fixing limits to Putin’s ambitions.

Three key words should define our policy towards Russia, if we want to act responsibly: firmness, clarity and lucidity.

Without firmness nothing is possible. We certainly have made mistakes in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. America in particular may have given in to a certain hubris and arrogance in neglecting Russia’s feelings. Let’s admit we have unnecessarily humiliated Moscow. Nevertheless, the demise of the Soviet Union was the result of a long string of failures, which began in pre-Soviet Russia’s inability to come to terms with modernity. And since the collapse of their Empire, present-day Russian leaders have failed to confront head-on the reasons that led to this impasse. The gap between China and Russia today has never been greater, either in terms of behavior or results. The last G20 summit in Brisbane has demonstrated this contrast in the most striking manner. China has played her hand masterfully, acting as a good will actor, particularly on the issue of climate change. Russia instead appeared self-isolated in a not-so-splendid manner, given the results of her economy. Her stock exchange is collapsing. Her currency has lost 30% of its value, while the price of oil and gas has fallen by more than 50%. Contrary to China, Russia does not create wealth but simply exploits her energy resources and finds herself therefore very vulnerable regarding the downward evolution of the market. By choosing to adopt a revisionist aggressive stance, Putin has made a dual historical and strategic mistake. From the start, his ambition should have been to anchor the future of Russia to that of Europe. Putin’s model should have remained Peter the Great. He instead turned to Nicholas I, the most reactionary of recent Russia’s Tsars. The modernization of Russia’s economy, society, institutions and more globally her political culture presupposed a “rapprochement” with Europe. Being China’s junior partner is for Russia neither glorious nor realistic option in the long term, even if in the short term it has contributed to a renewal of Putin’s popularity at home. Putin’s only true strength lies in our European weakness and irresolution. Our goal must therefore be to set clear limits to Putin’s ambitions, even if they are perhaps not that clear in his own mind. What does he want most: to weaken Ukraine or to enlarge Russia’s territory? In any case, there is only one answer, firmness. In the present context and given Moscow’s ambiguous behavior if not the deliberate policy of deceit, it seems obvious that France should not deliver the warship Mistral she had accepted to sell to Russia in a very imprudent manner when Nicolas Sarkozy was president. It is much better for Paris to appear as a problematic purveyor of arms than to be perceived as an irresponsible strategic actor, only caring for its own mercantile interests.

More than firmness is needed clarity, and this implies realizing that Putin in 2015 is no longer the equivalent of what he was in 2000 when he came to power, nor even Putin of 2008, when he grabbed pieces of Georgia by force. Under his increasingly centralized and authoritarian guidance, Russia has become a kind of “Red Orthodoxy,” combining ultra-religious nationalism with the tactics and the practices of the former Soviet Union. This mixture is both highly explosive and dangerous since it rests on principles and methods that have already led Russia and the Soviet Union to previous failure and collapse. Putin, who seems to have cornered himself, is practicing an increasingly dangerous “fast backward” race.

But if firmness and clarity are indispensable, they do not suffice by themselves to constitute a European policy. The goal cannot simply be to contain Russia. But how can Europe suggest an honorable compromise, when Russia seems so intent on maintaining unacceptable solutions, accompanied by barely disguised threats along the lines of “don’t forget we are a great nuclear power,” or unfounded reassuring remarks such as “everything is going to be all right by the end”?

With a partner who is in bad faith, how can you reconcile the two key principles of international law, which are the right of a people to its self-determination and the intangibility of borders? Any compromise raises of course the issue of the future of Crimea, now solidly under Russian domination. In fact the object of a real negotiation could be formulated as follows: how can we lead Putin to accept that by gaining Crimea, he has lost Ukraine? Of course Ukraine must commit herself not to enter NATO and has to protect the rights of her Russian speaking minorities. But Moscow in exchange has to accept the principle of Ukraine’s right one day to enter the European Union. The progressive removal of sanctions would of course accompany the conclusion of such an agreement, which would allow all the actors to concentrate their energies on other priorities, be they economic or strategic. Putin’s Russia does not have the means for the policy she leads. But the Western world, nevertheless, needs the cooperation and good will of Moscow to confront with some chances of success key middle-eastern problems such as the Iranian nuclear deal, not to mention the fight against ISIS in Syria in particular. A compromise with Moscow would be welcome, but not on conditions that would translate the political weakness of the stronger of the two protagonists, i.e. Russia. If the best cards of Europe are poorly played, then it is no wonder that the worst Russian ones win the day. At the present stage, with an escalation of violence taking place in Ukraine, sanctions have to be maintained and most likely increased. And even more important, Ukraine has to be helped financially as quickly as possible, before it is too late.

Our ability to agree on a common policy towards Russia, which will not be a “compromise of weaknesses,” will play a central role in defining Europe’s identity in the world. If Europe wants to remain to be perceived as a model, she has to be seen as an actor, and in particular in the security field. Can it be done or is it a dream? One thing is for sure, thanks to Putin (and ISIS), the need for Europe is more obvious than ever. One day maybe there will be busts to Putin on the squares of many European cities. “A thankful Europe, to one of its key founding fathers.”

Dominique Moisi

A professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), Dominique Moisi is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.He is the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World.

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