(Bloomberg) – Russian President Vladimir Putin rarely appeals directly to Western citizens to accept and cooperate amicably with Russia. Since his famous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, his tone has been more defiant than conciliatory. And yet, on June 22, on the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, the center-left German newspaper Die Zeit published an opinion piece signed by Putin that essentially calls on Europeans to Leave the United States as a strategic partner and turn to Russia. Putin understands that this scenario is unrealistic. And German media reactions to the article have ranged from contempt to anger. But an analysis of Putin’s supposed dream scenario remains a useful mental exercise. There are at least three important questions to answer: why exactly is it unrealistic? Would it be viable without Putin? And why did Putin choose to expose it now, in 2021, when he, and by association Russia, is increasingly unpopular in the West?
Just four months ago, Josep Borrell, the head of the European Union’s foreign policy, wrote after a disastrous visit to Moscow that “Europe and Russia are separating. It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat ”. But in Die Zeit, Putin suddenly recalls Charles de Gaulle’s idea of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, and its extension, loved by Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin, of a Europe “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” . “It is within that logic, within the logic of building a Greater Europe united by common values and interests, that Russia endeavored to develop its relations with Europeans,” Putin wrote (this translation is from the original Russian).
That is, he struggled until the US, the evil country, interfered by pushing for the eastward extension of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against the advice of some European politicians. (Putin specifically cites Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Egon Bahr, the prominent Social Democrat responsible for the Soviet-tolerant “Ostpolitik,” a reference not to be missed for readers of Die Zeit, traditionally close to the Social Democratic Party). The US organized a coup in Ukraine in 2014, and Europe “backed it without courage”, “causing the secession of Crimea.”
Rather than blindly following the US, Europe should cooperate with Russia on a wide spectrum of issues, from fighting COVID-19 to creating a common economic and security space, “because Russia is one of the European nations and we feel an unbreakable cultural and historical bond with Europe ”.
The reactions of the main German media were predictable. “Putin admits mistakes, those of the West,” was the headline in the weekly Der Spiegel, which also noted that Putin’s link with Europe was difficult to reconcile with the actions of his government: last month, Russia declared that one of the The oldest cooperation group between Germany and Russia, the DRA, founded in 1992, was an “undesirable organization”. Germany’s most popular tabloid, Bild, was even less diplomatic: “Putin lies and creates upheaval in Die Zeit,” he wrote. “In the text, almost nothing is true,” he continued, describing the publication of the opinion piece as a “scandal.” Putin’s article “seeks to divide,” Thomas Franke said in a comment for the influential Southwestern Radio, a curious response to an article that apparently calls for cooperation.
What German commentators couldn’t help noticing about Putin’s column is that the offer of friendship comes from someone with a history of hostile actions, to put it mildly, his own and his predecessors. Putin, the apostle of the increasing Sovietization of Russia, does not even acknowledge the painful experiences of Eastern Europe under Soviet-led regimes, inspiring them to fight for NATO membership as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. In his account, what happened to Crimea was “secession”, not annexation, and Russia has never taken advantage of the weaker neighboring states. Germany recently welcomed a leading Russian opposition figure, Alexey Navalny, after Putin’s agents nearly poisoned him to death, and less than six months after he returned to Russia, he had already been jailed. Obviously, this instance of interaction between the countries was not worth mentioning.
Why would anyone want to be friends with this guy or the country he represents?
Well, Putin’s implicit suggestion in his op-ed that Europe should forget about all these nasty things is not as absurd as it might seem. That is what makes it so insidious and divisive. Europe is good for forgetting and turning a blind eye; if not, the European wars would never stop.
There are many examples – from the continued prosperity of some ex-Nazis in Germany to the recent restoration of military honors by the former general, accused of war crimes and until recently an active politician, Branimir Glavas in Croatia – of how Europe and its states Constituents have not exactly been relentless in seeking out figures from their hateful past. It is not in the DNA of Europe today to be hard on people who did horrible things at different times. Many prominent figures from the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were also allowed to remain in national politics.
Europe also tolerates the new illiberal regimes in its midst, like those in Hungary and Poland, and so much questionable Russian and post-Soviet capital that one could argue that less tolerance for Putin’s Russia would be simply unfair. In other words, nothing that Russia is doing now or did in the past is a valid reason to deny cooperation to “one of the largest European nations”, linked to Europe by all these past events that it would prefer to remember only in certain dates, and by a business-driven present that has more to do with certain cynical Italian, Austrian and German traditions than with the declared values of the EU. The message, not very explicit, in Putin’s column is that Europe has more in common with Putin’s Russia than with the US, which, well, is simply not European. “What does a stranger understand?” Says an Austrian saying often quoted by Nobel Prize-winning author and dissident from the Yugoslav wars Peter Handke. Putin, his clique and the people they rule are not strangers in Europe, or at least they are not considered strangers in countries where they store their wealth and which often embody their best memories and cultural impulses. The Putinists’ real problem is with the United States.
I have met Europeans who feel this way too: they are 55% of Greeks, 36% of Italians, 27% of Germans, 26% of French who, according to Pew Research, are confident that Putin he would do the right thing in international affairs. And if Putin’s ugly regime magically disappeared and a more palatable figure emerged in the Kremlin, these percentages would likely rise, potentially making closer ties with Russia a popular project in Europe. There have been times, especially in the 2000s, when Russians have come closer to acceptance as Europeans, along with the inhabitants of the Baltic countries and Poles, and perhaps more so than the Ukrainians; that could happen again. Europe, as I have already mentioned, has a rather selective memory.
European values? They are very important, of course, but they are relatively new.
However, Putin knows very well that Europe will never ally itself with Russia to the detriment of its association with the US, for reasons that have nothing to do with values. Not even the four-year presidency of Donald Trump – who did not particularly like Europe and who imposed trade sanctions on the EU, withdrew from a European-negotiated deal with Iran, and even considered removing the US from NATO – did that Europeans saw Russia as a better ally. For one thing, the US economy is roughly 13 times larger than Russia’s in nominal terms, and the EU trades with it about four times more than with Russia. On the other hand, the US security guarantee – still the best in the world at the moment – has not brought much US interference in any of the NATO members, whatever direction they take. have taken their internal policies. The Soviet military guarantee, when it covered a significant part of Europe, implied invasions or at least a threat of armed intervention at crucial moments; a Russian shield would carry similar risks under the best of circumstances.
Potentially, Russia plus the EU could be a powerful military, economic, technological and cultural combination that would rival, or exceed, the power of the US and China. But even putting values aside, creating this combination is not in Europe’s interest.
And yet Putin, the great provocateur, exhibits the impossible dream to his European readers, mixing unsubtle dissimulation with mild mockery and false nostalgia. It speaks to German guilt, to the innate anti-US sentiment shared by the far left and far right, to the visions of sovereign European greatness that live even in the heads of moderate politicians. He is not trying to sell the chimera of Russia replacing the US as the guarantor of Europe’s security and economic partner. He’s trotting out the tattered “Lisbon to Vladivostok” dream to get much less: a haven for corrupt capital around here, a pipeline project like Nord Stream 2, a loosening of sanctions, a little secret deal, or a conviction. more cautious, over there.
Perhaps it is the fate of most great dreams to be instrumentalized in this way. I hope not.
Original Note: Why Putin Is Having a European Moment: Leonid Bershidsky
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