Will Europe accommodate Russia’s rise?

Sunday 11/12/2016

Britain’s impending withdrawal from the European Union and the election of Donald Trump to the presi­dency of the United States foretell a shift in the unity against Russia that has been a hallmark of international Western policy since the end of the second world war.

How dramatic such a shift might be is anybody’s guess. How far might Russia’s sphere of influence extend? What will the consequences be on countries that escaped from the former Soviet domination less than a generation ago? How will this affect the European Union’s already weakened capacity for foreign policy-making?

Over the past decade, Europe has seen states on its eastern, but even more so its southern, borders collapse. When EU leaders offered membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia — public opinion in Western Europe agreed. The continent’s economy was growing strongly and many French and Italian voters viewed this as the reunification of the Christian Europe of yesteryear.

At the same time, many of them were hostile to the European Union’s offer to Turkey to join. Incorporating Eastern European countries to maintain a stable post-war European order was a policy promoted by the political establishment in Brussels, London and Paris.

Voters in France and Italy were far more reticent when, after 2003, the European Union strongly backed by the United States and Poland, sought to promote economic cooperation with and reform of Ukraine; future membership in NATO was also on the table. The mood of rebellion against further Euro­pean integration, viewed as an establishment project, explains the French vote against the Treaty of Maastricht in 2005. French rulers behaved as if nothing had happened.

As the financial crisis of 2008 took its toll of misery across the European Union, interest in further engagement in Ukraine dropped sharply. In 2015, a Pew poll determined that slight majorities in France, Germany and Italy said their countries should not uphold their treaty obligation to defend an eastern NATO ally — already an EU member — should it be attacked by Russia.

Voters, particularly conserva­tive and nationalist ones, had by then come to see terrorism and large flows of immigration from southern rim Mediterranean countries as a far greater threat than Russia’s increasingly aggressive policy. The bloody mayhem that has engulfed the Middle East since 2011 has allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to morph from a harsh dictator to a visionary euro-sceptic leader who likes to see Orthodox Russia as a bulwark against radical Islam and terror­ism.

More and more conservative voters are inclined to agree. Politi­cians take notice. It bears remem­bering that Nicolas Sarkozy, that archetype opportunist, ran as a pragmatic pro-American candi­date for president in 2007 but as a pro-Russian populist in his failed bid this autumn. François Fillon, who will lead the French right into battle next spring has, for more than a decade, offered to reach out to Russia and he knows French electors are more con­cerned about immigration and terrorism than about what Russia gets up to in Ukraine.

He is not alone among senior European politicians in saying that Russia’s interests must be taken into account. The recently elected presidents of Moldova and Bulgaria share his view as does the Czech head of state, who recently expressed his gratitude to the Russians for having recued his country from Nazism and criti­cised EU sanctions as “nonsense”.

Hungarian President Viktor Orban, who resents EU interfer­ence in his own affairs, is pushing ahead with plans for a Russian-built nuclear power plant despite opposition from Brussels. He constantly rails against Islam and immigrants. Eastern Europe increasingly mirrors Russia’s social conservatism and its people are returning to their older identity as Christians and as Slavs. The Kremlin has done a good job of exploiting this wave of pan-Slavic revival.

A cloud appears to hang over the future of NATO as inaugura­tion day approaches in Washing­ton but until Trump’s policy towards the European Union, NATO and Russia becomes clearer, it is impossible to speak of a dramatic shift in European policy towards Russia.

The problem faced by many in Eastern Europe is nonetheless acute: Should they continue to meet Russian aggression and intimidation with sanctions and eastward military deployments? Should they flip alliances? More realistically, should they accom­modate Russia’s rise?

Abandoning sanctions would spell the end of the West’s policy of trying to put an end to the war in Ukraine. If European states scrambled individually to cut a deal with the Kremlin, that would spell concessions in Syria and grant Russia greater influence in Eastern Europe. Where Putin’s ambitions will stop is anyone’s guess.