The tension between Europe and Russia

The rules of the game

4 AUGUST 2016,
Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin
Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin

There is no mention in the media of the dangerous increase in tension between Europe and Russia. But Nato has just made operational a missile system in Rumania, the ABM, which the US has declared will protect Europe from “rogue” states, like Iran.

However, Russia, especially after the agreement reached with Iran on the control of its atomic industry, is convinced that the system is aimed at its own military power. The US has announced it will build a second site in Poland in 2018.The intention is to move from “reassurance” of eastern Nato allies to “deterrence” of the Kremlin. This means more troops and equipment, longer deployments, bigger exercises, and a “persistent” presence of Nato and American troops in countries like Poland and the Baltic states.

In June, as many as 12.000 American troops will join service members from a number of European allies in Poland for an exercise called Anakonda, which will be the largest military exercise in Europe for years. Altogether, 25.000 troops from 24 Nato and partner countries will be involved. The Deputy Secretary of Defence of the US, Robert Work, has announced that 4.000 Nato troops, involving two US battalions, will be moved right up to the Russian border, permanently: “The Russians have been doing a lot of snap exercises right against the border, with a lot of troops, in an extraordinarily provocative behaviour”. Germany is to provide one battalion.

For some time now, the official line of the US military circle has been to see Russia as a regime intent on aggression, after the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Ukraine. When general Ray Odierno retired as Chief of Staff, he declared: “Russia is the greatest threat to US.” His predecessor, general Joseph Dunford, was more specific. He thought Russia was a bigger threat than ISIS. Odierno did mention that he saw threats to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine.

It would be useful to remember that Putin did start his tenure by continuing Boris Yeltsin’s line of total cooperation with the US. As George W. Bush famously said: “I have seen inside Vladimir Putin eyes, and finally we have a strong ally of US interests”. But then Bush carried out a number of actions without any consultation, which convinced the Russian leader that he was considered a marginal player.

While it is obvious that Putin suffers from paranoia and uses confrontation to get popular support, it would be wise to look at things from the Russian viewpoint, too. To start with, it has been established beyond doubt that Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to not intervene militarily in the European countries that were under URSS dominance, provided NATO would keep the existing borders.

The fact that this commitment was not honoured has always been present in Russians’ minds. When Reagan met Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986, Putin was in his mid-30s. The URSS was a superpower, present in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, with important allies in Asia.

When Putin reached 40, his country had splintered into 15 nations. And when he came to power in 1999, the URSS had lost one third of its territory and half of its population. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Baltic states, the Ukraine, Belorussia (Belarus), Moldova and Armenia were gone. And Nato was continuing its endless process of encirclement of Russia. Putin saw the Ukraine pro-Russian government overthrown by a US backed coup. And the encirclement continues: even militarily insignificant countries like Montenegro (3.000 soldiers) are being encouraged to join Nato. “Russia has not accepted the hand of partnership” says Nato Commander, general Philip Bredlove, “but has chosen a path of belligerence”.

Well, it is significant that an impressive 80% of the Russian population shares Putin paranoia, and fails to see that “hand of partnership”. When Putin annexed the Crimea and supported the separatists in Ukraine his popularity at home increased dramatically. The more so because the Crimea had always been part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev donated it to the Ukraine in a symbolic gesture in 1954. 90% percent of the Crimean population were Russian speakers, like those living in the Eastern part of the Ukraine. In fact the Ukraine was created by uniting western Ukraine, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with eastern Ukraine, which was part of the Russian empire. Putin very adroitly stated that his task was to protect “Russian citizens, wherever they live”, a remark that struck a chord with Russian people.

Let me be clear: there are no excuses in legal terms for Putin’s actions. But in real life it is always useful to look at events by taking both sides of the story into account. The fact is that Putin reached the conclusion that Russia was considered, in Barack Obama's words, “just a regional power?, and that to be admitted to the G7 and other venues of the West offered Russia and himself no chance of being considered as an important international players. He thus decided to set out on a confrontational path in order to be taken seriously. He stuck a knife in a side of the West by splitting the Ukraine into two halves again, obliging the West to sink hundreds of billions of dollars in supporting a deeply corrupt government in Kiev, and he has the ability to twist the knife in the wound when he wants.

This move led to the imposition of sanctions by the West in 2014, with the declared goal of forcing him to capitulate and abandon his intervention in the Ukraine. But Russia again intervened outside its borders, in Syria, where Russia has had a naval base since 1971. Russia’s intervention has completely changed the situation in Syria, and now everybody agrees that there can be no military solution without Russia’s consent. Of course, one key principle behind US foreign policy is that nobody should challenge its power. Yet it is a principle which is becoming increasingly unrealistic, as the emergence of China is showing. But in the American psyche the URSS has gone and any attempt to resuscitate it, under whatever guise, is seen as a provocation. And while China has not yet had a direct clash with the US, the Crimea and the Ukraine were more than a slap on the wrist.

Seen from outside the western world, as many analysts from Latin America and Asia have pointed out, this situation does not make much sense. Take the sanctions: they have cost over 100 billion dollars of lost exports to Russia. But this figure tends to make us overlook other figures: US exports to Russia dropped by 3.5%, those from Europe by 13%, many of which were from the fragile European agricultural sector (which fell by 43%). Imports from Russia to Europe fell by 13.5%. According to the European Commission, the European Union’s gross domestic product (GDP) is going to drop by 0.3% in 2014 and 0.4% in 2015 due to these sanctions. That is a quite a considerable reduction considering that Europe’s growth is expected to average just 1.5% with countries like Italy barely over 1%.

Meanwhile a new trend is developing, once again overlooked by the media. Since 2104, Russia has been strengthening its partnership with China, with which it traditionally had difficult relations. The Chinese economic slowdown, due to changing its economic model from one based on export to one based on internal market expansion, means that this is not the best moment for economic cooperation. Yet Russia and China have just signed a 25 billion dollar deal to boost Chinese lending to Russian firms, and a host of other agreements. Russia has signed a 400 billion dollar deal to supply China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas annually, from 2018 for 30 years.

Russia’s Sberbank has received a 966 million dollar credit line from the China Development Bank. China is launching a 2 billion dollar investment fund, targeting agricultural projects. And 19.7 billion dollars will go to open a rail link between Moscow and the Russian city of Kazan. At the same time, Russia has agreed to increase its weapon sales to China, and a deal has been made for the sale of an S-400 air defence system to China) for 3 billion dollars (much to the annoyance of the US and Japan), plus a further 2 billion for the sale of 24 Su-35 fighter planes. The two countries have declared that they will increase their bilateral trade to 200 billion dollars by 2020.

But what is totally new and most important is that the two countries have also decided to strengthen their military cooperation. This year they will take part in a Joint Sea-2016 naval exercise hosted by China. Deputy minister of Defence Anatoly Antonov has declared: “Military cooperation between the two countries is highly diverse and has improved significantly over the last three years. A more tight (closer) interaction between military departments is in our national interests, and we expect this interaction to increase”.

This should give us pause and make Europeans reflect. It is in the interest of Europe to keep pushing Russia into the hands of China? Shouldn’t Europe for once take the initiative, overriding US priorities? Hasn’t the time come to seek a settlement with Russia that would include the Ukraine, Syria, and an engagement to exchange “deterrence” for an agreed status quo, which would reopen trade and cooperation, and soothe the frustrated ego of Russian citizens? It should be recognized that even allies like the EU and the US can sometimes have different priorities, without being traitors? Maybe the American elections will change all the rules of this game...