BRUSSELS – Monday’s European Council was again one of these moments that makes one wonder why we still try to pretend to have a European foreign policy. The more we talk about geopolitics, autonomy, and grand strategy, the more Europe seems to move in the opposite direction. Russia is one these issues that makes it painfully clear. The Council did not agree on anything, except doing nothing. Despite the situation of Alexey Navalny, despite the show of force on the border with Ukraine, and so forth.
In some capitals, this will be explained as pragmatic diplomacy. In its trademark Alice-in-Wonderland-mode, Berlin politely suggested Moscow to “switch from provocation to cooperation.” It has been suggesting that for about twenty years. This is what makes the so-called pragmatism deeply disturbing. While the wheels of diplomacy usually grind slowly, Europe has had twenty years to develop its defence to Russia’s renewed assertiveness, yet only continues to take the punches.
It takes the punches because its scared to death about Russian retaliation. Despite NATO building up its presence in the East, Europe is by no means ready to deal with Russian aggression. It takes diplomatic punches because its flawed energy policy renders it at Russia’s mercy. Close to forty percent of our gas is still supplied by Russia. New pipelines are being built; liquid gas terminals expanded, including in my own country.
Europe also takes diplomatic punches, because it is reaching out for Russian money with the other. Just as the European ministers prepared their meeting, Shell signed a new five-year agreement with Gazprom, Siemens got an order to supply trains, and Generali started to explore a US$ 2 billion acquisition in Russia.
Europe is kicking the can down the road, but the road might well lead to an abyss. Europe’s leniency towards Russia does not increase the chance of cooperation, as the Germans and other suggest. No, Europe’s weakness is an open invitation for more provocation, for Russia to continue to test how far it can go. In the history of world politics, weakness has been as important a catalyst of war as strength, with that difference that it yields the initiative to others.
For now, Russia seems to be somewhat saturated, after the annexation of the Crimea, limiting itself to intimidation. But forward-leaning intimidation, in the Baltic, on the border with Ukraine, in the Black Sea, around the Mediterranean, or in the domain of cyber and information war, increases the likelihood of missteps and escalation.
European idealists will retort that Russia is fragile, that it is just in the periphery of a vast European market and that it needs the European Union more than the other way around. European realists could argue that in fact a new kind of multipolar Europe is emerging, with four major powers – France, Germany, Britain, and Russia – seeking to advance their interests above the heads of the many smaller states; the European Union becoming a thin guise under which this new contest lurks.
Yet, from the eyes of the Russian elite, most of Europe is just a bunch of spoiled, decadent pipeline addicts that takes its illusions for reality, and can be easily played with. Let’s try to do a bit of geopolitics from a Russian perspective. In its immediate neighbourhood, Russia has built up a formidable capacity to destabilize: in the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, the Black Sea, and beyond. A second layer consist of little trouble makers, including countries like Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. They are a nuisance and their military ties with the United States is disturbing, but not really undermining Russian deterrence.
Next comes a layer of Central European states. They combine a traditional caution not to provoke Russia and with a more recent appetite for business. Think of Germany, Austria, Slovakia. This is another pressure point. The Westernmost layer consists of countries that vaguely discern a geopolitical challenge, but lack the resolve to respond, and can also be easily cajoled with energy and business opportunities. Think of Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Spain.
And while Europe is nowhere close to manipulating some of the internal resentment in Russia to destabilize Vladimir Putin or to work towards strategic autonomy towards Russia, Moscow will continue to use Europe’s internal divisions to continue to weaken it, to exploit its energy dependence, and enhance its own strategic autonomy. Indeed, Russia is a European fringe power, but a fringe power with plenty of advantages.
Published in EU Observer.