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.