For much of his 22-year tenure, Vladimir Putin has carefully balanced Russia’s position in Europe. He fawned over some capitals, intimidating others, and strove for economic integration, criticizing European values.
Even after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to a sharp deterioration in relations, and Moscow vexed some European countries with massive disinformation and almost missed military overflights, it has reached out to others – if not to win them, then at least to maintain diplomacy. open.
But with this winter’s crisis over Ukraine, Mr. Putin is openly accepting what he has long avoided: hostility towards Europe as a whole.
The more Europe responds to Moscow’s threats with military reinforcements to the east and promises of economic punishment while hiding its otherwise deep internal divisions, the more escalating Mr Putin’s counter-escalation is. And instead of focusing on diplomacy in European capitals, he has largely turned it over to Washington.
This shift reflects Moscow’s perception of European governments as American stooges to be pushed aside, as well as its assertion of itself as a great power on top of Europe rather than an extraordinarily powerful neighbor. It also testifies to Russia’s desire not just to govern, but to completely reshape the European security order.
But in seeking to dominate Europe, even if only on the issue of relations with Ukraine, “there is a risk of pushing Europe together, amplifying hawkish voices and capital,” said Emma Ashford, a European security researcher at The Atlantic Council think tank. group.
“And there is a risk of pulling America back even as it tries to push America out of Europe,” Ms Ashford added of Moscow’s approach.
Mr. Putin has not completely given up on Europe. On Friday, he did have a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron. And he can still get out of the crisis in time to repair relations with Europe, or try to do so when the dust settles.
But if he persists, analysts warn that his approach could make Europe even more militarized and divided, even though the East allied with Moscow will be much smaller and weaker than during the Cold War.
Understand Russia’s relationship with the West
Tensions between the regions are rising, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and defend his demands.
The Kremlin has repeatedly signaled that while its concerns about Ukraine may have led it to this moment, it is aiming for something broader: a return to the days when the European security order was not discussed in dozens of capitals but decided by two great powers.
“As in the late 1960s, direct interaction between Moscow and Washington could create a political basis for future détente,” wrote Russian political scientist Vladimir Frolov of Moscow’s ambitions.
It’s not really a matter of arrogance or great power ambition. It also reflects Moscow’s growing conviction that this arrangement, in fact, already exists.
After Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, for which Western governments were punished with economic sanctions, the crisis had to be resolved through negotiations between Moscow and Kiev, Paris and Berlin.
Although Washington exerted pressure, it insisted on a settlement between the Europeans, hoping for a stable balance on the continent.
But while the letter of the so-called Minsk agreements nominally satisfied Russia’s demands, the Kremlin walked away, believing that Ukraine had abandoned its obligations.
By 2019 or so, according to Ms. Ashford, Moscow had come to the conclusion that “European states are either unwilling or unable, and perhaps unable, to force Kiev to complete the deal.”
It also reinforced Moscow’s longstanding view that Germany’s economic power or France’s diplomatic capital was in a world shaped by hard military power.
“They are insignificant, they are irrelevant, so there is a perception in Moscow that we should talk to the US because they are the only ones who really matter,” Ms Ashford added.
The military power of the EU member states, which tried to assert themselves as Moscow’s interlocutor in Ukraine, has significantly decreased in recent years compared to both the United States and Russia. This was exacerbated by the departure of Britain.
At the same time, sharp divisions within Europe over how to deal with Russia have forced the continent to fight for a coherent approach. The departure of Angela Merkel, Germany’s longtime leader, and Mr Macron’s failed attempts to become the unofficial European leader have Europe frequently drifting between the American-led status quo.
“Outside of Paris and Brussels, everyone is desperate for US leadership in this crisis,” Jeremy Shapiro, director of research for the European Council on Foreign Relations, told a Brookings Institution conference this week.
“All this means that Russia has, to some extent, confirmed its view that Europe is a puppet of the United States and does not really need to be dealt with separately,” he added.
While Mr. Putin’s exact plan for Ukraine remains a mystery, he stressed that his agenda extends to Europe as a whole.
Understanding Escalating Tensions Around Ukraine
In past crises around Ukraine, Russia’s goal has been exclusively focused on that country, mainly on the goal of preventing it from uniting with the West. He sought to avoid excessive opposition from Europeans and even tried to enlist the support of Europeans in protecting his interests in Ukraine.
Now, perhaps because coercion directed at Ukraine has not met its intended objectives, Moscow is demanding a major overhaul of Europe’s own security architecture, stopping or even curtailing NATO’s eastward expansion.
Such a change, whatever it may be, would mean changing the rules that have governed the continent since the end of the Cold War. And that would mean formalizing the line between West and East, with Moscow dominating the latter.
In other words, instead of trying to manage order in post-Cold War Europe, Moscow wants to overthrow it. And this meant an attempt to coerce not only Ukraine, but Europe as a whole, making the confrontation with the continent not only tolerable, but also a means to an end.
“The most militarily powerful state on the continent does not see itself as a stakeholder in Europe’s security architecture,” Michael Kofman, a Russia specialist at the CNA think tank, wrote in an essay for War on the Rocks this week.
Mr. Kofman added that rather because Moscow has disrupted this infrastructure, or is even trying to destroy it, “European security remains much more precarious than it seems.”
A shared future
Mr. Putin’s willingness to engage in wide-ranging hostilities with Europe could strengthen his position in Ukraine, demonstrating that he is willing to risk even the collective wrath of an entire continent to pursue his interests there.
But no matter what happens in Ukraine itself, the growing hostility between Russia and Europe puts them on a path that brings uncertainty and risk for both of them.
Cycles of “sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and various forms of retaliation,” wrote Mr. Kofman, can easily take on a logic of their own, escalating in ways that hurt both sides. Both Russia and Europe are economically vulnerable to each other and are already facing unstable domestic politics.
Relations between Moscow and European capitals are rarely warm. But they have, for the most part, plodded on, overseeing, among many other common concerns, the energy trade between Russia and Europe, on which virtually the entire continent depends.
There is also a risk for the United States that it will be drawn deeper and deeper into the part of the world it had hoped to shrink in order to focus on Asia instead.
In the short term, a divided Europe seems to risk exactly what Moscow has long sought to avoid: an increase in American power in Europe’s east and greater European unity, albeit reluctantly, against Russia.
“The approach that the Kremlin is now taking towards Europe, at first glance, at least to me, seems very short-sighted,” Ms Ashford said.
Some analysts say the most troubling possibility is not that Mr. Putin is bluffing or that he doesn’t see these shortcomings (although both could be true), but that it is a choice that is dividing Europe against him. for his own benefit. interests in Ukraine, which he does willingly.