Europe’s Russia Question

BRUSSELS – Friend or foe, or something uneasily in-between? That’s the question Europe is asking about Russia, and Russia about a newly aggressive Europe. President Vladimir Putin’s choice of Dmitri Medvedev, Chairman of Gazprom, the gas company with an emerging stranglehold on European energy supplies, only throws this question into an even starker light.

Relations between Europe and Russia have been deteriorating for several years, but once manageable economic issues, including energy, are now being aggravated by much more volatile political differences. The risk is a climate of undisguised hostility, with potentially greater costs than during the nadir of the Cold War.

The most obvious and imminent flashpoint is Kosovo. The likelihood is that early next year most of the European Union’s member nations will recognize the Albanian-majority enclave on Serbia’s southern edge as an independent state. This is certain to enflame not just Serbia, but also the Kremlin.

Then there are rising tensions over plans by the United States to based a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as the growing likelihood that further NATO enlargement will include Georgia, the increasingly prosperous neighbor with which Russia has fractious relations. Russia continues to fan secessionist flames there by encouraging the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.