Is Russia winning its war against Europe? It surely looks like it. Since 2008, Putin’s Russia has been over active in dividing and conquering the members of the European Union and the Euro-Atlantic community (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, has been successful by implementing a strategy on two fronts: regional/international and domestic. Despite his track record of not bidding himself to any agreement, Putin has transformed Russia into the ‘indispensable nation’ in Europe.
Geopolitics – Maintaining Regional/International Chaos
Putin understands one thing: safeguarding Russia’s neighborhood and empowering its sphere of influence at any cost. In order to fulfill both goals, Putin has been using military force in order to limit the horizontal expansion of NATO and the EU. On the European continent, Russia is the only state willing to use military force to advance its interest. It has done so in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine since 2013 (this does not include the lengthy war in Chechnya). In 2008, Putin saw the need to attack Georgia as the Bush administration was foreseeing the incorporation of Georgia within NATO. By attacking Georgia, Putin forced Euro-Atlantic leaders to rethink about the consequence and strategic soundness of including a small state like Georgia within the Alliance. The Article 5 was a powerful deterrent during the Cold War, but could be in the current multipolar order a threat to the security of the Euro-Atlantic community.
In 2013, Ukraine was on its way to sign a trade agreement with the EU. Putin saw it as a threat and pushed its influence over the corrupted and pro-Russian leadership, Viktor Yanukovych. Ukrainian President abruptly ended the talks causing pro-Western manifestations in Kiev. In a matter of months, Yanukovych had fled Ukraine, Russia had annexed Crimea and continues supporting pro-Russian militiamen in Eastern Ukraine. Though the annexation of Crimea was not enough to unite the 28 EU Member States against Russia, the evidences gathered by NATO demonstrating the clear military involvement of Russia in
Eastern Ukraine permitted the 28 EU leaders to implement sanctions against Russian individuals and corporations.
Putin was again the heart of the February negotiations with Angela Merkel of Germany and François Hollande of France in order to agree on the baseline for a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine. The Minsk provisions have not lived to the promises hoped by Europeans.
Aside from the use of military power, Putin has been working on the creation of a Eurasian Union. This Union initiated by Vladimir Putin is a way to balance out the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Eurasian Union has allowed Putin to attract regional countries from the EU to his Union. As per Nico Popescu of the EU-ISS, it exists two Eurasian Union: one real, an economic union; and, one imagined with geopolitical aspirations. The first one, the Eurasian Economic Union, is led by the Eurasian Economic Commission, which has a staff of 1,000 employees, which was established by the Eurasian Union treaty in May 2014. While the second union, with geopolitical role, is the center point of Putin’s third term seeking to become an organization, like the EU, NAFTA among other, and reintegrating former states of the Soviet Union under one entity.
The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is currently under construction. The Treaty came into force on January 1st, 2015 with three core members, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, and Armenia (entering on January 2nd) and Kyrgyzstan joining in May 2015. As presented by Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group the EEU in perspective is quite considerable: “The size of the EEU is not the primary cause for concern; rather, it’s what it reveals about Vladimir Putin and his commitment to maintaining regional dominance. It’s why he will go to such extremes to keep Ukraine from joining Western institutions like the EU or NATO. He’s not willing to cede this sphere of influence, and Ukraine is the crown jewel; there is no viable, robust Eurasian Union without Ukraine.”
Vladimir Putin has masterfully locked in the control of geopolitics in Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Additionally, Putin has increased his influence in the conflicts in the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, owes his power to Putin as he reached at the last minute to his American counterpart, President Obama, in order to agree on an international deal to destroy Syrian chemical weapons.
Playing with European Domestic Malaise
Within the European Union, Russia has been highly successful in creating disunity among the 28 Member States. Putin has used two aspects to Russia’s advantages: Europe’s energy dependence and the sluggish European economic context.
On the question of energy, the EU-28 are highly dependent on Russian hydrocarbons (gas and oil). Germany, France, Italy, Greece and Eastern EU Member States need a constant influx of Russian energy in order to maintain their economic and industrial engines going. Europeans have dealt, poorly, with the security of supply of energy as illustrated below.
Chart: European Dependence on Russian hydrocarbons (2002-2012)
The graph above demonstrates the high degree of dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. The trend has certainly be declining, but the overall average remains too high in order to guarantee a security of supply. In recent years, the Europeans have been working on lowering their dependency on Russia through renewable energy and, for a long time, on nuclear energy.
Figure: Production of Primary Energy in Europe
Renewable energy – composed of biomass, hydropower, wind, solar and geothermal energies – are increasing and offering an alternative to Europeans. However, renewables cannot be the only source of energy as they need to be backed up by either hydrocarbons or nuclear power. If Europeans are working on moving towards greener economies, they still require hydrocarbons. Germany has been the prime example with the Nord Stream pipeline bringing Russian hydrocarbons directly at home without depending on transit countries. With the crash of oil prices, hydrocarbons remain an important share of European consumptions.
The second door for Russian intrusion and/or attraction is money. Despite a dire domestic economic and financial situation, Vladimir Putin has been able to attract the most desperate EU Member States such as Italy and Greece as well as building strong ties with some national political parties. Since its financial collapse, Greece has proven to be the weakest EU and Eurozone member. Greece’s default was avoided by a series of multilateral bailouts by the troika – ECB, European Commission and IMF -, keeping the country within the Eurozone. However, these bailouts have come at great costs requiring large spending cuts in social and welfare programs. Unemployment levels are through the roof, young Greeks are fleeing to Germany to get a higher education, and dying in Greece
is once again a reality (read here a previous analysis).
In addition of this dire domestic context and the succession of powerless former government, Syriza, the extreme-left party led by Alexis Tsipras, was elected in January 2015 (read here a previous analysis on Syriza). Tsipras’ platform was based on renegotiations of the terms of the bailouts and rebuilding Greek national psych. From electoral promises to governing realities, Tspiras was unable to do so and is now seeking for outside funding in order to “come up with money to pay off maturing debts, revive its devastated economy and renegotiate its loan agreements with other countries in the eurozone.” Prime Minister Tsipras was in Moscow last week. Both countries are claiming that Tsipras did not ask for money. Considering Putin’s behavior and Tsipras’ desperation, it is difficult to believe that Tsipras and Putin only talked of the new gas pipeline through Greece and discounts on gas prices. Additionally, Tsipras has been advocating for a removal of the European sanctions against Russia. Such comment is a departure from European unity in order to maintain economic sanctions on Russia.
From state to party-sponsoring, Putin has found a way to change the perceptions within Europe about Russia. In France, recent allegations and press coverage have demonstrated that a Russian bank has been financing the extreme right wing political party, the Front National. Reports show that the Russian bank, First Czech Russian Bank (FCRB), had lent EURO9 million to the party. The party claims that no French banks were willing to lend them money, forcing them to find foreign funding. However, the Front National has been very vocal in defending Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policies and portrayed him as a great leader. The French government is reflecting on launching an investigation to look into the campaign financing of the FN.
The relationship between Putin and the European far-rights has grown thanks to the dire socio-economic context and the rise of euroskepticism all around Europe. “The far right is attracted by Putin’s Russia,” argued Pierre Lellouche, a member of a mainstream conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement, “because it embodies the traditional social values they feel Europe has abandoned.”
Divide and Conquer
Putin is the key to regional stability and instability. Since his arrival to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin has worked on rebuilding the grandeur of Russia and perceives the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. Vladimir Putin is using all aspects of Russian power to increase Russia’s regional and international influence. He has been very successful at it. Bashar al-Assad of Syria is still in power of a destroyed country, Crimea is now part of Russia, Eastern Ukraine seems englobed in a long and nasty war and could end up as the next piece of Russia, and Russia is regularly interfering with national sovereignty of EU and NATO members.
In response, the members of the Euro-Atlantic community have only condemned Russia’s actions, agreed on mild sanctions and are hoping to stop conflicts and tensions through diplomatic agreements. Are Putin’ strategies sustainable? and, what are the endgame? Putin certainly emerges as being very successful in creating discord, affecting the unity of EU Member States, and underscoring the power-aversion of the EU and to some degree the US. Putin has made Russia the indispensable European state.