Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Europe After Ukraine

PARIS – When unexpected crises erupt, people tend to assume that nothing will ever be the same – exactly the conclusion that many Europeans have drawn in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Are they right?

Though European leaders have almost unanimously condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, assessments of the security threat that Russia poses vary widely. Poland and the Baltic countries are among those most worried by Russia’s behavior, while the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria remain circumspect about adopting a confrontational approach – a stance shared by countries like Spain and Portugal, which do not rely on Russian energy supplies.

These divergent attitudes can be explained by the vast differences between European countries’ histories and strategic perspectives. Poland and Russia have invaded and occupied one another’s territory for centuries. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were all Soviet republics, for which opposition to Russia was an essential feature of the rebuilding process. With large Russophone minorities in Estonia and Latvia, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea – the need to defend supposedly threatened ethnic kin – plays directly to these countries’ deepest-seated anxieties.

Of course, the Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians – all former Soviet satellites – also have bitter memories of Russia. But their response to their difficult histories has been to adopt a low profile and avoid taking a stand on major international issues. Branded by their proximity (if not vulnerability) to more powerful neighbors, they have internalized their political and strategic marginalization.

And, to some degree, these countries’ stance reflects an accurate perception of European politics. After all, Europe’s position toward Russia will ultimately be decided by four major powers: Germany, Russia’s major industrial and energy partner; the United Kingdom, Russia’s banker; France, Russia’s military collaborator; and Poland, Ukraine’s sponsor.

Of the four, Germany is by far the most influential. By cutting ties with Germany, Russia would effectively sever all links with the West, thereby accelerating its own decline. Worse, national decline would likely strengthen, rather than weaken, the Putin regime’s predatory, chauvinistic tendencies.

The fact is that Russia is not an emerging power. It is a rentier power living off its limited natural-resource assets – with a shrinking population, no less. Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev seemed to understand this; in an effort to modernize and diversify Russia’s economy, he sought to strengthen the bilateral relationship with Germany. Since Putin returned to the presidency, however, that initiative has been shelved.

This is not to say that Putin is entirely oblivious to Germany’s value. He recognizes that threatening an energy-export freeze to strong-arm Germany – which is highly dependent on Russian gas – would cause permanent damage to Russia’s commercial credibility, weakening the industry that forms the backbone of its economy.

Moreover, such a move could boost Iran’s appeal in the European energy market, creating unwanted competition for Russia. Even without adding energy exports to its diplomatic arsenal, Russia may take steps to mitigate that risk, by encouraging Iran to delay reaching a final nuclear agreement with the international community.

The UK’s position on Russia is more ambiguous. While Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has staunchly opposed Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the City of London is determined to retain the Russian oligarchs as clients. If tensions in Ukraine continue to escalate, Cameron, whose tenure so far has been characterized by weakness and hesitancy, will be forced to assert himself.

For its part, France has experienced a distinct reversal in its relationship with Russia. Historically, France viewed Russia as a useful counter-balance to the United States. But, in recent years, France and Russia have repeatedly been on opposite sides of major international issues – such as Libya, Syria, and Iran – while French interests have become increasingly aligned with America’s. Though France will avoid any unnecessary confrontation with Russia, the Ukraine crisis has underscored the demise of the Franco-Russian alliance.

Poland’s role in the current crisis is slightly different. It is responsible for defending Ukraine’s interests, while helping to moderate the fervor of nationalist hardliners.

Led by these four powers, Europe will face two strategic tests. The first concerns energy. Efforts to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian supplies have so far failed to yield impressive results, though Europe is in a slightly better position than it was a few years ago. The only way to ensure further progress is to adopt alternative resources and build a unified energy market. Though the Russian threat alone will not be enough to harmonize national energy interests entirely, European leaders should take advantage of the opportunity to move closer to that goal.

The second test concerns security. Europe needs a coherent doctrine that goes beyond the current European Security Strategy. Drafted in 2003, after the outbreak of the Iraq War, it includes only weak operational content and does not consider the Russian energy risk seriously. Here, too, crisis breeds opportunity.

But the most likely strategic outcome of the Ukrainian crisis is not an end to Europe’s inertia; rather, it is the revitalization of transatlantic ties, with America, having underestimated Europe’s importance, recommitting to NATO. While Europe would be better served by bolstering its own defense capacity, a reinforced transatlantic relationship could offer other benefits. For example, it could help to accelerate negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

It may well turn out that the international order will never be the same in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The question now is whether Europe’s leaders can ensure that whatever outcome emerges enhances European security. For that, a unified approach must be the first step.

Read more from "Putin's Risky Games"

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  1. CommentedJean-Louis Piel

    It is untrue regarding Czech Republic's decision against Russia. I disagree about this simplistic assumption : "Germany, Russia’s major industrial and energy partner; the United Kingdom, Russia’s banker; France, Russia’s military collaborator; and Poland, Ukraine’s sponsor."
    Germany doesn't depend of Russia - Russia is less important fro Germany as Poland.
    The Russian investments in London as less as 5% of City's actives.
    France has only one main contract - ships - with Russia. France could easily buy for herself or sale to other countries these ships. The question of penalties will be decided in courts - but after the annexation of Crimea , Russian position is not necessarily very good.

    Ethnic Russians are 110 millions , Ukrainian citizens are 46 millions. In the hypothesis that Ukraine frees herself from Russian colonization - a process which has started few centuries ago and more specifically since 20 years - Ukraine could become a very attractive country for German and other European companies because of the level of education, of the shared values ( a democratic society , poems to the World, with no enemy except Russia) , of the potential degree of technological sophistication and of potential progress of productivity. In fine much more attractive than this Russia.

    I agree with this sentence: "The fact is that Russia is not an emerging power. It is a rentier power living off its limited natural-resource assets – with a shrinking population, no less. " And I will add - an imperialistic country.

    Of course : "Moreover, such a move could boost Iran’s appeal in the European energy market, creating unwanted competition for Russia. " But it is also true fro Kazakstan, Turkmekistan, Azerbazian.

    Yes " the City of London is determined to retain the Russian oligarchs as clients. " but it is good for the West, for the Europeans. More Russian money goes outside Russia better it is to weak this Russia. The main question is the investment in Russia. That the City needs to block. Also where these Russian oligarchs could go: Singapore ? Too small. Hong Kong? To depend of Chinese government, I doubt. New York? They are there already. But it is risky to be friend of Putin and to be in New York in the same time. In Europe? No way even in Swiss.

  2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    The last sentence says:
    "...For that a unified approach must be the first step..."
    I agree.
    And it seems more and more people agree that in this globally interconnected and interdependent human system there is no way of solving any problems but with a unified approach.
    But the question is still what we are aiming for?
    Are we uniting, making alliances to get the greatest benefit for ourselves as before, always making calculations of our own terms, subjectively, trying to gain the maximum, succeeding at the expense of others?
    Do we find that the best unity is when we unite against a common enemy?
    In this case we are still missing the point of a global, integral system, or the state of "sitting on the same sinking boat".
    After all the Ukrainian standoff is just on of the many crisis situations we are facing globally today.
    In a global, integral system, where everybody fully depends on everybody else and at the same time everybody is fully responsible for everybody else we need to unite, and mutually work together because the principles, unbreakable natural laws of integral systems demand this way.
    First we have to do it because we understand otherwise we will simply not survive, we managed to maneuver ourselves into a corner where we can initiate a global meltdown from multiple angles, starting points, on any level of human activity.
    Later on we will understand that unity, mutually complementing cooperation is actually the key to a much higher quality, effortless existence we never even dreamed about.
    But first we have to act that way to start feeling this obvious and remarkable benefit on our own flesh.

  3. Commentedhari naidu

    You sound more like a bean counter than a strategic thinker….

    Putin has not only exacerbated the so-called Western notion of (WTO) globalization and its subsequent (new) international order; he has actually reinforced a neo-Russian-centric order of geopolitics – which even China finds discomforting and threatening. The fundamental issue is not Western mind-set or reaction; but the capacity of Putin to reorient the global order (to his satisfaction, of course). Timing and choice of geopolitical change – without fear of military retaliation (!) – makes the strategic equation more or less a zero-sum game.

    1. NATO will get energized but there won’t be any direct military retaliation, as we witnessed after Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

    2. If you’ve been reading Der Spiegel commentary, Germany is more or less divided in favor of Russia – due to its inherent historical and cultural connection. Catherine The Great was after all a Prussian Princess who first annexed Crimea and the entire Caucasus region.

    3. EU is a *paper tiger* – in the best sense of its soft power. It won’t be able to annex or integrate Ukraine into EU or NATO. That’s not feasible given the Russian bear next door.

    4. Conclusion: Finlandization of Ukraine.

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