Putin’s European Fifth Column

BERKELEY – If the world should have learned one thing from the recent months of tensions between Russia and the West, it is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic ambition and skill should never be underestimated. It is in this light that the West should view Putin’s recent overtures to some within the European Union.

Putin may or may not truly believe that last year’s anti-Russian uprising in Ukraine was the direct result of interference by the United States and the European Union. But there can be no doubting his awareness of the role that European ideals – and the possibility of EU membership – has played in motivating the struggle in Ukraine and constraining his actions.

The popular desire to join Europe’s community of democratic states was a key force behind the collapse of right-wing dictatorships in Greece, Spain, and Portugal in the 1970s. It also played a critical role in the collapse of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it certainly contributed to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – a key Putin ally – in 2014. Indeed, the existence of a European model continues to guide and encourage those pursuing transparent, democratic governance in many post-communist countries.

There is no question that Putin would benefit from the EU’s demise. Europe’s attractiveness as a model of democratic governance would be greatly weakened. Aspiring EU member states would turn elsewhere. Indeed, some current EU members, such as Hungary, where Euroskepticism and illiberal sentiment are already widespread, might be tempted to follow Putin down the path toward authoritarian rule. And countries in the region would be more exposed to Russian pressure and the temptations of Russian patronage.