Europe Has to Reckon with an Aggressive Russia

Anyone in Europe who believed, or at least hoped, that the conflict with Russia would be toned down or even resolved in the near future, will have to accept an uncomfortable truth now, almost a year since the annexation of Crimea. In all probability, the conflict is here to stay. That means that in the coming months the European Union will have to face a number of problems, each of them quite considerable in its own right: its relations with Russia; the impact of the economic crisis; and the internal workings of the EU, which will be on the agenda after the UK elections. In terms of foreign relations, Europe will continue to face Russia’s aggressive behavior, symbolized by Ukraine and fostered by a sense of uncertainty and the siege mentality stemming from it. All this is further amplified by Russia’s economic problems which escalated towards the end of 2014 as a result of the plummeting exchange rate of the ruble, and have been exacerbated by the falling oil and gas revenues.

Europe has few options for changing the behavior of Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Most importantly, it must not accept Moscow’s narrative, which blames the current conflict on the West because it has integrated parts of the former eastern communist bloc and, to add insult to injury, has also held out the prospect of integration—albeit more on a theoretical level—of the former Soviet Union successor countries. Such an interpretation of the past quarter of a century is based solely on a power perspective, as Moscow claims the right to assert its own interests while denying the same to her neighbors. What this policy inevitably brings to mind regarding the former eastern bloc is the notion of limited sovereignty with which the Kremlin under Leonid Brezhnev used to justify the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Vladimir Putin’s policy of asserting his special rights in the “near abroad” is indicative of structural problems within the country which had for centuries been known as Russia, for seventy years as the Soviet Union, and has once again become Russia. It still is a world power with a number of unresolved or suppressed internal conflicts and frozen tensions. It is a country that, like Tito’s Yugoslavia, is not held together by the motto of Fraternity and Unity but rather by a stern regime that suppresses opposition and exercises strict control over the media.

France and Germany, two of the key players in Western Europe, were able to reflect on their past and to arrive at the basic consensus that they wish to avoid destructive conflict in the future. In Russia, on the other hand, past internal conflicts and current tense relations with the “near abroad” generate a sense of being under a threat. Russia continues to be a (post)colonial power, considering its conquered territories an integral part of itself, in the same way as many French used to regard Algeria as part of France. The current Russian leadership encourages this kind of thinking, as demonstrated by the ostentatious celebrations of “Crimea’s return home.” With its present-day foreign policy, Russia has vindicated Václav Havel’s warning that one of Russia’s key problems is not being aware of its own boundaries.

The imperialist behavior, which in Ukraine has taken the form of a “hybrid war,” relies on the effectiveness of a partially reformed army as well as on effective propaganda. However, present-day Russia suffers from a fundamental weakness. It is its lack of so-called soft power, an attractiveness created by a prosperous economy in a country that runs its affairs in a way that looks like a recipe for success that others might be tempted to follow.

Another reason for Russia’s lack of stability is its reliance on a rentier economy. Any growth in the country’s economy under Vladimir Putin was largely, if not entirely, due to the rising price of oil and gas. The only visible modernization— that of the army—was triggered by the tough experience of the adventure in Georgia. No comparable modernization has taken place in the economy, in the scholarly, research and development sectors, in transport infrastructure or in the extraction of oil and gas. The latter, being export articles, are strategically critical for Russia, as the events at the end of last year so dramatically demonstrated. The weaknesses listed above inevitably point back to Europe since Europe, or more precisely the West as a whole, could play a key role in the modernization which Russia so badly needs. However, the current conflict triggered by the annexation of Crimea and by Russia’s support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine, has severely reduced the chances for this kind of strategic cooperation.

A way out of this situation would be difficult even if it had not been for the current conflict. This has to do with the notion of “respect,” which Russian politicians in general and Vladimir Putin in particular have often invoked and demanded. This attitude is nicely summed up by an anecdote from a Moscow McDonald’s: when a foreign tourist suggested to a grim-faced assistant that it wouldn’t do any harm if she smiled at her customers from time to time, she replied: ‘’Why should I? We’re the ones who have the meat after all.”This episode illustrates more than just the communist mentality of permanent shortages; it also has wider implications. In recent years Russia has applied a policy based on similar assumptions to its oil and gas trade, since Moscow regards trade in energy resources as a source of revenue while at the same time using it as an instrument of exercising its power in foreign policy. Last year’s slump in oil prices, which resulted from the competition between Arab oil producers and the US, exposed a fundamental flaw in this policy, revealing that it is incapable of influencing the competition.

The results of this experience might be positive for the West, if only Moscow would draw the conclusion that it could benefit more from switching from confrontation to some form of cooperation. However, it is highly unlikely that having spent years at the apex of power, the current Kremlin leadership (and Vladimir Putin in particular) might be interested in this kind of shift.

The shaken confidence and weakening of present-day Russia is reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the last decade of its existence, when the then Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to resolve the critical situation by a deal. However, his policies are nowadays regarded as high treason in Russia, associated as they are with the Cold War defeat, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the weakening of Russia as a world power. This only increases the chance that Moscow will not budge from its current confrontational course. Europe and the West as a whole have no choice but to reject this expansionist policy while maintaining cooperation in areas of common interest, such as the fight against radical Islamist terrorism. After all, it is an undeniable fact that at 17 percent of the total, Russia’s Muslim population is higher than that of any country in Europe.

Adam Černý

Adam Černý is a journalist and chairman of the Czech Syndicate of Journalists, his commentaries appear in Hospodářské noviny and in Český rozhlas. He used to write commentaries for Týden weekly, worked in the foreign news section in Česká televize, and directed the foreign news section of Lidové noviny daily. His specialty is European and security politics. He was awarded the Ferdinand Peroutka Prize for outstanding journalists in 2006.

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Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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