French and German ambivalence towards Russia: a rising trend- and it is hurting Europe

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Nicolae Andronic is a second year IR student at King’s from Romania. His interests in the IR field range from broader ones, like the changes in the structure of the international system, to more specific ones, like the dynamics of various regions.

On the 21st of October, French president Emmanuel Macron gave an interview for The Economist that shocked many observers.(1) His expressed wish for deepened European integration on political, economic and military aspects came as no surprise. However, as soon as the questions about the EU-US relationship were asked, Mr Macron answered in a way that reminds of Charles de Gaulle’s anti-American tendencies: Europe must consolidate its own military power not only as a contribution to NATO, but in preparation for the consequences of a ‘brain-dead’ NATO. That is, a dysfunctional NATO where Article 5 may lose its relevance. And that was not all. In the same interview, the French president talked about his vision of a self-aware European Union, acting upon its distinct interests, one of these being reopening dialogue with Russia.

While this statement in itself is not incorrect, when associated with Mr Macron’s harsh verdict on NATO, which is not even factually-based(2), it becomes at least unsettling. The occupant of the Élysée seems to be both disillusioned with Washington and a bit hypnotized by the Kremlin, just like many other French politicians.(3) When Mr Macron stated that pushing Russia away from Europe was a mistake (ignoring the fact that the Russia largely pushed itself away), Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov could not hide his joy at what he deemed as suggestions ‘aimed at shaping the architecture of European security together with Russia, not without it — and not as a counterweight to it’.(4) Yet the French leader simultaneously insists on the importance of the US as an ally. At the moment, only Trump is on the same level in terms of contradictions and ambiguity (though at least he has been consistent in behaving this way from the very start of his term).

German chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to criticize Emmanuel Macron’s ‘drastic words’, pointing out that NATO is ‘the cornerstone of security’ for Germany and that his view ‘does not correspond’ to hers.(5) This was a very needed intervention; unfortunately, Germany finds itself entangled in its own ambiguity towards Russia. While Mrs Merkel was the leading proponent of imposing economic sanctions for the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Nord Stream 2 project is going ahead as if the energy sector would have absolutely no effect on the political aspect of Europe’s relations with Russia. In fact, the Nord Stream 2 project is part of a bigger Russian plot to bypass Ukraine and deliver cheap gas directly to Western and Central European customers, without depending on Eastern European transit corridors.(6) This makes Kiev lose some of its already reduced leverage in its conflict with Moscow and also increases Europe’s energetic dependence on Russia.(7) The reasons behind the continuation of this project are still not clear. Some believe that business and political groups in Germany see Nord Stream 2 as purely economic in nature; others think that potentially darker networks of influence are at work, including important people such as former chancellor Gerhard Schröder.(8)

One explanation for this behaviour would be that France and Germany are starting to see a potential partner in Russia as the world seems to be sliding into multipolarity. The problem is that Europe would be in favour of an organized multipolar world (based on international law), whereas Vladimir Putin wants a multipolar “self-regulating anarchy” (from which Russia can emerge as a security and stability provider).(9) French and German ambivalence towards Russia tilts the balance in favour of the second scenario by destabilizing Europe, to Mr Putin’s advantage. Mr Macron’s comments about NATO and Mrs Merkel’s deals with Gazprom undermine the confidence of some Eastern EU members in their Western counterparts.(10) Asking Eastern European leaders to be less worried about Russia is unrealistic: they all have legitimate reasons to feel uneasy with the Kremlin, apart from Viktor Orbán- he is very comfortable with Mr Putin’s actions and ideology.(11)

Russia does not forgive ambivalence. A good example of this is Moldova, where a recent anticorruption struggle, supported by the pro-EU party ACUM, has been hijacked by the Russians, who have managed to insert their supporters, the Socialists, into a temporary coalition with the Europhile forces.(12) Brussels, Berlin or Paris did not say a word. Then, the Socialists proceeded to bring down the pro-EU government led by Maia Sandu and are now forming their own government.(13) How could the EU trust Kremlin proxies in an anticorruption coalition is beyond comprehension. The paradox of the situation is surreal to anyone who knows the recent history of Moldova: the poverty and corruption that the EU-backed reformists were seeking to purge was largely brought upon the country by Russia and its backers.(14) Moldova has been strangled by Moscow for almost three decades, using an all-too familiar tactic: frozen wars waged by Kremlin-supported separatists.(15)

This is precisely what Russia did in Transnistria, where it still holds ‘peacekeepers’, who were recently praised by Igor Dodon, Moldova’s pro-Russian president.(16) Vladimir Putin is hoping for a solution of ‘special status’ (synonymous to federalization), where the breakaway region gives him influence over the entire country. Mr Lavrov himself indirectly admitted this synonymity in an interview, during which, asked whether federalization is the solution for Donetsk and Luhansk, he suggestively answered that ‘it can be called differently’.(17) The Russian strategy became even more obvious recently in Ukraine, where the Steinmeier formula (which was already too advantageous for Moscow) is now deemed ‘far from enough’ by the Kremlin, who is seeking to expand the powers of ‘special status’.(18)

And the examples of Moldova and Ukraine paint the wider pattern: Western European leaders fail (or worse, do not want) to see how everything that is linked to Russia has political strings attached to it and how these strings only tighten as time goes by and Russia consolidates its position.  This is a game where European leaders have the watches and Mr Putin has the time.(19) Once Russia gets involved in something, its influence follows. And once influence is acquired, diplomatic and economic concessions from Europe come next. This is the fundamental reason why ambivalence is dangerous: Russian influence does not need staunch defenders to creep in, all that it needs is someone to open the door. Mr Putin is well-known for exploiting any opportunity given to him by his external adversaries.(20)

The conclusions are not hard to draw. Forming anticorruption coalitions with Kremlin proxies is pure irony. Complaining about rising illiberalism in Europe and then seeking rapprochement with the very regime inspiring it is a self-defeating endeavour. Imposing economic sanctions and then alleviating some of their effects by doubling the amount of imported Russian gas will not make the Kremlin back down. Where do French and German decision makers think their ambivalence is going to lead the European project, especially in a time when euro-skepticism is on the rise? If ‘more Europe’ means ‘more Russia’, Eastern countries will say ‘no, thank you’. Regarding Russia, doors must be open for dialogue, not for influence.

Sources:

[1] https://www.economist.com/europe/2019/11/07/emmanuel-macron-in-his-own-words-english

[2] https://rusi.org/commentary/france-and-nato-president-macron-gets-clinical

[3] https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/l-edito-politique/l-edito-politique-15-octobre-2019

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/00ac54f4-d30f-11e9-8367-807ebd53ab77

[5] https://www.dw.com/en/angela-merkel-condemns-macrons-drastic-words-on-nato/a-51154583

[6] https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/what-nord-stream-2-means-for-europe/

[7] https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/is-europe-giving-up-on-ukraine/

[8] https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/71365?lang=en

[9] http://bulgariaanalytica.org/en/2019/10/08/the-self-regulating-anarchy-an-upgrade-to-the-multi-polar-world-russia-craves-president-putins-address-to-the-valdai-forum/?fbclid=IwAR0goAp8qFyZ74PJoVsvvoxdod39LSIoj9Ztxc0ajDpaHA22HOTiO64a1R4

[10] https://www.ft.com/content/a0a71b16-03a1-11ea-a984-fbbacad9e7dd

[11] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/central-europe/2014-08-06/moscows-trojan-horse

[12] http://fumn.eu/en/interviu-dan-dungaciu-intentiile-rusiei-sunt-clare-un-chisinau-care-sa-isi-puna-singur-latul-la-gat/

[13] https://www.dw.com/ro/guvernul-condus-de-maia-sandu-a-fost-demis-dodon-se-apuc%C4%83-s%C4%83-%C8%99i-fac%C4%83-propriul-cabinet/a-51212876?mc_cid=9117293f5d&mc_eid=1d07aca3b5

[14] https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/online-articles/frozen-conflicts-and-federalization-russian-policy-transnistria-and-donbass

[15] https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2018/03/05/the-frozen-conflict-in-transnistria-why-the-west-should-pay-attention-to-moldova/

[16] https://www.caleaeuropeana.ro/presedintele-republicii-moldova-igor-dodon-lauda-rolul-trupelor-ruse-din-transnistria-pentru-mentinerea-pacii/

[17] https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4103946?utm_source=newspaper&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter

[18] https://jamestown.org/program/the-kremlin-to-ukraine-steinnmeier-formula-is-far-from-enough/

[19] Original quote: ‘You have the watches, but we have the time’. Found at: https://www.macleans.ca/news/fighting-in-afghanistan-you-have-the-watches-we-have-the-time/

[20] https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/05/its-judo-not-chess-thats-putins-game/

Image: https://gdb.rferl.org/FD981608-FFDC-4BCE-BDED-ECEB1BEC8E5F_cx0_cy7_cw0_w1023_r1_s.jpg

 

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