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Putin’s Reality Check for Europe

BERLIN – For far too long, the West has harbored illusions about Vladimir Putin’s Russia – illusions that have now been shattered on the Crimean peninsula. The West could (and should) have known better: Ever since his first term in office as Russian president, Putin’s strategic objective has been to rebuild Russia’s status as a global power.

To this end, Putin used Russia’s energy exports to recover gradually the territories lost when the Soviet Union collapsed a generation ago. Ukraine has been at the heart of this strategy, because, without it, the aim of a revived Russia is unachievable. So Crimea was just the first target; the next will be eastern Ukraine and persistent destabilization of the country as a whole.

Before our eyes, the post-Soviet international system in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia is being overthrown. Nineteenth-century concepts of international order, based on zero-sum balance-of-power considerations and spheres of interest, are threatening to supersede modern norms of national self-determination, the inviolability of borders, the rule of law, and the fundamental principles of democracy.

As a result, this upheaval will have a massive impact on Europe and its relations with Russia, for it will determine whether Europeans live by twenty-first-century rules. Those who believe that the West can adapt to Russian behavior, as Putin’s Western apologists suggest, risk contributing to further strategic escalation, because a soft approach will merely embolden the Kremlin.

Indeed, whether or not its leaders acknowledge it, the European Union is now in direct conflict with Russia over its enlargement policy since the end of the Cold War. That is because Russia’s re-emergence as a global power requires not just the reintegration of lost Soviet territories, but also direct access to Europe and a dominant role there, especially in Eastern Europe. So a fundamental strategic struggle is now a given.

From a Western perspective, willful confrontation makes little sense, because the EU and Russia are and will continue to be neighbors. Looking ahead, Russia will need the EU even more than vice versa, because in its Far East and in Central Asia, China is emerging as a rival of entirely different dimensions. Moreover, Russia’s rapid demographic decline and enormous modernization deficit imply the need for a joint future with Europe. But seizing this opportunity is possible only on the basis of the rule of law, not of force, and must be guided by the principles of democracy and national self-determination, not great-power politics.

Instead, Putin has now triggered a lasting crisis. The West’s response will be a new containment policy, mainly taking the form of economic and diplomatic measures. Europe will reduce its energy dependence on Russia, review its strategic alignment and priorities, and scale back investment and bilateral cooperation.

In the short term, Putin seems to have greater leverage, but the weakness of his position will soon become apparent. Russia is completely dependent, economically and politically, on its commodity and energy exports, which go primarily to Europe. Lower European demand and an oil price that no longer suffices to sustain Russia’s budget stand to hobble the Kremlin very quickly.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that Putin may have overplayed his hand. The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990’s was caused not by the West, but by a wave of secession, as nationalities and minorities, seeing the party-state weakened, seized the opportunity to break free. Today’s Russia has neither the economic nor the political strength to regain and integrate the lost Soviet territories, and any attempt by Putin to press on with his plan would impoverish its people and lead to further disintegration – a bleak prospect.

Europeans have reason to be worried, and they now have to face the fact that the EU is not just a common market – a mere economic community – but a global player, a cohesive political unit with shared values and common security interests. Europe’s strategic and normative interests have thus re-emerged with a vengeance; in fact, Putin has managed, almost singlehandedly, to invigorate NATO with a new sense of purpose.

The EU will have to understand that it is not acting in a vacuum in its eastern and southern neighborhood, and that, for the sake of its own security interests, the conflicting interests of other powers there cannot simply be ignored or, worse, accepted. The EU’s enlargement policy is not merely some expensive, expendable annoyance; it is a vital component of the EU’s security and outward projection of power. Safety comes with a price tag.

Perhaps now there will be a reassessment in the United Kingdom of the costs of an EU exit. And maybe there will be a realization on the Continent that European unification must move forward more quickly, because the world – and Europe’s neighborhood in particular – has turned out to be not as peaceful as many, above all the Germans, perceived it to be.

The EU peace project – the original impetus for European integration – may have worked too well; after more than six decades of success, it had come to be considered hopelessly outdated. Putin has provided a reality check. The question of peace in Europe has returned, and it must be answered by a strong and united EU.