How Europe has to deal with Russian Vladimir Putin
What happened precisely when a British destroyer crossed Russian annexed Crimea on Wednesday remains controversial. There is no doubt, however, that Russian ships fired near the Royal Navy ship, in one of the most high-profile clashes between Russian forces and a NATO member in recent years. All of this happened just as France and Germany launched what turned out to be a failed effort to persuade the EU to sit down for talks with Moscow. Both episodes highlight the dilemma Western democracies face over how to handle Vladimir Putin’s Moscow.
At one level, the Black Sea incident strengthens the argument for dialogue to reduce tensions. Russia’s statements that bombs dropped on the way of the HMS Defender are repelled by UK Ministry of Defense and journalists on board. Artillery fire was heard, but was apparently out of range. Yet fighter jets and coastguard ships came dangerously close to the British destroyer. The ship was engaged in a freedom of navigation operation, but this was not the first of its kind, and it had the right to innocently pass via a designated seaway through waters that most countries recognize as Ukrainian .
The desire of Paris and Berlin to put the EU back to the diplomatic table is understandable, after the summit of US President Joe Biden with Putin. If the EU is to be seen as a geopolitical force alongside the United States, it must play its part in dealing with the continent’s greatest security threat.
Yet a newly arrived US president can hold an exploratory meeting with a Russian counterpart without necessarily signaling a change in policy. The EU, on the other hand, suspended biannual summits with Moscow after Russia captured Crimea and instigated war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Putin’s behavior has not changed since then. Restoring summits without very careful messages could be seen by Moscow as a sign of faltering resolve.
French President Emmanuel Macron has also attempted personal diplomacy with Putin over the past two years without success. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, maintains contact with Putin, but she has long lost patience with what she sees as the Russian leader’s usual lie.
The attempt to re-engage with Russia was apparently aimed at defining an EU policy towards Russia and affirming the unity of the bloc. But the Franco-German initiative had to be coordinated more transparently with Washington and between EU states. Berlin and Paris failed to prepare the ground, leaving a number of EU members rightly suspicious.
Direct EU-Russia contacts still have a potential place in efforts to curb the increasingly troublesome behavior of Moscow, not only in Ukraine, but in cyberwarfare, disinformation and assassination attempts by opponents such as ‘Alexei Navalny. But the EU’s commitment should be backed by a clear policy and strategy, which is currently lacking. He must also have realistic goals and rather low expectations. It would be foolish to assume that Putin’s Kremlin shares the desire for a more stable relationship. It is much more comfortable to be a disruptive opponent.
As Fiona Hill, a former US presidential adviser, told the Financial Times this week, it is unusual for Moscow to be ruled by former intelligence agents without national checks and balances, whose modus operandi is “illicit tools.” . The best the West can hope for is to coerce it until someone new is in the Kremlin. This means a firm commitment, setting clear red lines and being ready to defend them, including asserting the rights of navigation in the Black Sea. This week’s altercation off the Crimea will not be the last.