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Europe Must Shed Its Illusions About Russia

Only if Britain, France, and Germany abandon their post-Cold War fantasies will the West stand a chance of stopping Putin.

By , a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the founder and CEO of Article7.
Russian President-Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as outgoing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stands nearby during a ceremony inaugurating Vladimir Putin as the new Russian President at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 7, 2018.
Russian President-Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as outgoing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stands nearby during a ceremony inaugurating Vladimir Putin as the new Russian President at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 7, 2018.
Russian President-Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as outgoing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stands nearby during a ceremony inaugurating Vladimir Putin as the new Russian President at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 7, 2018. ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troop buildup along Ukraine’s borders initially caught Western powers off guard. Russia’s first invasion in 2014 didn’t get the West to abandon its post-Cold War daydreams. But there are signs that Putin’s threat of another invasion is now forcing the West to shed its illusions.

The United States, France, Britain, and Germany each have their own fantasies: Washington wants to think Europe is done and the United States can now focus on confronting a proper superpower rival, China, forgetting that Putin’s rearmed post-Soviet Russia is still strong enough to menace America’s allies. France wants strategic autonomy for Europe—being able to act independently of the United States on the world stage­—while thinking it can control European foreign policy with only 13 percent of democratic Europe’s population.

Britain would like to forget its own continent from which, in former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s words, “all our troubles came” and recreate a maritime relationship with trading hubs in Asia, forgetting the great game that lies between. Germany still clings to the belief that just because it has abandoned force as an instrument of policy, its eastern neighbors, even authoritarian Russia, must have done so as well, and that Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which bypasses Eastern Europe to supply Germany with gas directly, is just a “private sector project.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troop buildup along Ukraine’s borders initially caught Western powers off guard. Russia’s first invasion in 2014 didn’t get the West to abandon its post-Cold War daydreams. But there are signs that Putin’s threat of another invasion is now forcing the West to shed its illusions.

The United States, France, Britain, and Germany each have their own fantasies: Washington wants to think Europe is done and the United States can now focus on confronting a proper superpower rival, China, forgetting that Putin’s rearmed post-Soviet Russia is still strong enough to menace America’s allies. France wants strategic autonomy for Europe—being able to act independently of the United States on the world stage­—while thinking it can control European foreign policy with only 13 percent of democratic Europe’s population.

Britain would like to forget its own continent from which, in former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s words, “all our troubles came” and recreate a maritime relationship with trading hubs in Asia, forgetting the great game that lies between. Germany still clings to the belief that just because it has abandoned force as an instrument of policy, its eastern neighbors, even authoritarian Russia, must have done so as well, and that Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which bypasses Eastern Europe to supply Germany with gas directly, is just a “private sector project.”

Each figment avoids uncomfortable facts: As much as China might be the only “peer competitor” (to use the language of the U.S. Defense Department’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review), Russia is currently powerful enough to project power in Syria and Libya as well as destabilize Europe by sponsoring a coup in Montenegro, cutting off gas to Moldova, stirring up irredentism in Bosnia, and, of course, seizing Crimea and invading the Donbass.

Germany still clings to the belief that just because it has abandoned force as an instrument of policy, its eastern neighbors, even authoritarian Russia, must have done so as well.

Notwithstanding China’s speedy economic development, U.S. trade volumes with Europe are almost double those with China ($1.1 trillion compared to $643 billion in goods and services, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative). The discrepancy in investment figures is starker. The United States and European Union invest around $2 trillion each way. Investment flows to and from China are less than 5 percent of those that cross the Atlantic Ocean. Even if cultural ties and shared democratic values are discounted, a stable and prosperous Europe is in the United States’ interest.

France, like Britain, is a globally minded power that no longer has the global resources to back its ambitions. But unlike Britain, it has, through the EU, an instrument for global power it wants to use. French differences with the United States have often been exaggerated for domestic political consumption. France was reportedly ready to launch airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the Americans even after the British pulled out, and I have even heard from French sources who wish to remain anonymous that Paris scoped out unilaterally liberating Crimea in 2014.

However, such muscularity is not the same as turning the EU into a geopolitical actor capable of acting on its own. Poland, the Baltic states, and Nordic countries still suspect that Paris, which was on the verge of selling Russia an advanced amphibious landing craft until those “little green men” appeared in Crimea, can’t be counted on if things turn ugly. Poles, especially, haven’t forgotten how France lived up to its guarantee of defending Poland from the Nazis by hiding behind the Maginot Line.

Britain, which these days self-defines as global, is finding that stability in Europe is not so much an impediment as a precondition for its global ambitions. Notwithstanding cultural and political ties to the United States and other prosperous former colonies as well as the security benefits from initiatives like the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network—also involving the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—the United Kingdom is physically located in Europe, and it is only from European Russia that state-level threats to British security can emerge.

The U.K. has very publicly supported Ukraine; British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace took Putin to task and supplied it with advanced anti-tank weapons. It has been less than assiduous, however, in clamping down on what the world might call Bank Stream 2: money flows of questionable provenance into London, including from Russian oligarchs enriched by Putin’s regime. Upholding global democratic values while laundering the world’s kleptocrats’ money might, with British understatement, be described as not entirely consistent.

Germany’s problem is, in many ways, the most acute. It goes beyond embarrassments like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder working for Russian government gas pipeline operator Rosneft, the country’s inability to muster more than 5,000 helmets for Ukraine (Can the Bundeswehr’s logistics problems really be that bad?).

Berlin must accept that good relations with former Soviet satellites, like Poland and the Baltic states, and with a Russia determined to reestablish the Soviet empire they escaped from are not simultaneously possible.

It is not even due to Germany’s understandable pacifism. It is rather that Berlin must face up to a deeper contradiction in its Ostpolitik: that good relations with former Soviet satellites, like Poland and the Baltic states, and with a Russia determined to reestablish the Soviet empire they escaped from are not simultaneously possible.

Even if it is getting harder these days to justify taking, say, Poland’s side on democratic grounds, the global economic balance is now in favor of the satellites. German trade with Russia amounts to $51 billion a year, whereas that with the other former Soviet satellites now in the European Union is worth $384 billion.

Putin’s aggression is forcing all these powers to confront their post-Cold War naivety. The United States is now ready to base troops in Eastern Europe, where NATO’s presence has been limited to rotational deployments in an evidently unsuccessful attempt to appease Russia.

France has announced it would send around 1,000 ground troops as well as air assets to Romania. Tanks in Poland or the Baltic states would be better still. Britain will also step up arms shipments and training. Joining the EU’s military mobility Permanent Structured Cooperation project (which the United States has also joined) would mark a shift to a form of Brexit where Britain coexisted constructively with Brussels. There are even reports of movement in Berlin: If weapons exports to Ukraine are still out of the question, Germany’s new no-nonsense foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has put blocking Nord Stream 2 and financial sanctions back on the table.

There is still some way to go before European powers fully face reality. Deploying NATO forces, including a significant French presence, permanently to Eastern Europe is one step. Reinforcing infrastructure to ensure they can arrive on time from as far away as Britain is another.

Systematic financial sanctions on Russian economic and financial activity would show resolve, as would large-scale economic support and weapons supplies so Ukraine can defend itself. Finally, the EU and Britain need to rapidly reduce their energy dependence on Russia and carry out a comprehensive crackdown on money laundering and influence operations. This is what fully abandoning those post-Cold War illusions would involve: realizing that the best way to avert war with Putin’s Russia is to confront the Kremlin by all other means.

These changes may come too late to deter Putin from invading Ukraine, but they make an invasion considerably more costly and limit his room for maneuver. More than 30 years after the end of the first Cold War, European powers and the United States may finally be recognizing that a second one cannot be avoided.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the founder and CEO of Article7.

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