Europe’s New Donald Rumsfeld

The EU is now divided between those that view Russia as a potential partner which can be drawn into the EU’s orbit through a process of “creeping integration,” and those that view Russia as a threat whose expansionism and contempt for democracy must be rolled back through a policy of “soft containment.” But neither approach will work.

Russia’s Duma elections this December are almost certain to cement the power of forces loyal to Vladimir Putin. That outcome is likely to confirm Russia’s emergence as the most divisive issue in the European Union since Donald Rumsfeld split the continent into “old” and “new” Europe. In the 1990’s, EU members found it easy to agree on a common approach to Russia. They coalesced around a strategy of democratizing and westernizing a weak and indebted Russia.

That policy is now in tatters. Soaring oil and gas prices have made Russia more powerful, less co-operative, and less interested in joining the West. Today, Europeans cannot even agree on the nature of the Russian regime, let alone what policy to adopt towards it.

Part of the confusion lies in Putin’s skillful political positioning. On the one hand, he needs to maximize his control of the economy and society in order to raise wages and pensions and to keep opponents down, while nourishing the long-tail of patronage that keeps him in power. On the other hand, Moscow’s elite – who fear that their assets may be expropriated by a future government – wants to avoid international pariah status so that they can see out their sun-set years in the safety of the West if the need arises.

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