Europeans are wrong to double down on Russia

Foreign Affairs & Security
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Clement Julhia


With the election of Donald Trump in America, it seems the West is turning more and more towards a multilateral view of its relations with other powers.

Although this important difference between Trump and his Democrat opponent was not the most highlighted feature of the 2016 US Presidential campaign, it does go towards a sensible approach of Western-Russian relations which Britain and other European nations should start to follow.

It is ironic that the first head of state in the West in favour of such a rapprochement was elected in America, considering European nations have an even greater incentive than America to pursue it. Such an escalation of tensions between the two halves of Europe, as we have seen in the last few years, can only harm the European countries, if history is any indication.

It is especially troubling that the EU would be so keen to take part in this confrontational policy since peace in Europe is the initial and supreme goal of European integration in the first place and the most compelling argument for it.

When the European project was conceived after WWII, the intention of the founders was to allow European countries, initially France, Germany, Italy, then later Britain and Spain to form a “third block”, sovereign from both the US and the USSR. However, it is also the case that, for ideological and historical reasons, states in Central and Eastern Europe have chosen to reduce their own armed forces to a minimum, relying on American muscle for defence.

If there is indeed a serious conflict in that region, the unfolding and outcome will be determined by the American military, as it has been in previous conflicts. It is this propensity of EU foreign policy to advance American influence over European states’ sovereignty that explains, among other things, why EU citizens are gradually turning their back on the EU and why it should think again about pushing for confrontation with Russia, be it through goods embargos or its proposal to build an EU army specially to fight it. The same goes for individual member states if they want to avoid jeopardising European solidarity altogether.

One understandable reason for this ferocity towards Putin’s Russia is the fear of what Putin will do next. Most notably, it is often claimed that Baltic countries are at risk of receiving the same treatment as Crimea.

However, this is not as likely as it seems. Acquiring and holding control over Crimea is not difficult, considering the people there overwhelmingly adhere to Russia as their national identity. Keeping control of a country like Estonia, let alone Poland or Ukraine would be another matter entirely and Putin would be sure to get a repeat of the terrible events in Chechnya, only probably much worse. So it is a bit of a leap, to say the least, to think that the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 signals similar ambitions over the whole of Eastern Europe.   

Another legitimate concern is Putin’s support of president Assad of Syria considering the death he is causing in his own country. But isolating Russia is not likely to help arrange things in Syria. For one thing, the two main contenders for control of Syria are Assad’s regime and ISIL. However criminal Assad’s actions might be, they also serve to push ISIL out of existence. Of course, this does not excuse the Syrian regime’s own atrocities and it might be imperative for it to come down in the future; however it is not wrong to choose to fight one evil at a time and prioritise the most urgent danger, especially since the people of Syria are more hostile to the caliphate than to their president and it is their opinion after all that should have precedence when it comes to their country.

Not only that, but one must question why Putin is so keen to back Assad, and look at the wider context of modern politics in the Orient. It largely reflects a global conflict between the allies of the world’s current dominant power – the United States – and those which political theorists call revisionist states that want to balance American power with their own and challenge the status quo.

In the region, this is what ties together Syria and Russia. For years, and particularly since the rapprochement between Iran and the West, Syria is veritably Putin’s only ally in that region and one of a handful of countries that choose to ally with Russia rather than the West. If Western countries were no longer trying constantly to isolate Russia, it would not need to put in so much effort to keep a dictator like Assad into place. A future regime in Syria would not have to choose between loyalty to Russia or loyalty to the West and thus would not be likely to remove Russia’s naval base at Tartus or abandon the so-called Islamic Gas Pipeline (which Russia favours) to the benefit of one of its competitors.

Of course, some will raise a moral objection to do with the human suffering of the Russian people. Aside from showing a feral attitude in foreign relations, Vladimir Putin is also the head of an almost dictatorial regime in Russia that represses dissent like a crime, dismisses civil rights and has led the economy near recession. To understand why he is still backed by his people and why sanctions are unlikely to bring him down, one must consider the historical context.

For about one hundred years, since Western nations, including the US, sent troops to Russia in 1917 to kill its nascent government, the West (especially America) and Russia have been involved in a protracted fight for world domination, that only really saw two instances of respite. The first was for three years during World War Two, when they had both been attacked by Germany; the second was after the fall of the Berlin wall when Russia’s new leader, Boris Yeltsin, on top of selling off the country’s industry to a handful of men, also gave up defending Russia’s influence and aligned his policy on Mr. Clinton’s.

This is the background to Putin’s presidency: a country too broke with a leader too weak (and too drunk) to avoid its demotion into the periphery of world politics. In that context, it is not difficult to understand what gives Putin legitimacy in the eyes of his people. As long as global powers try and exert their domination on Russia, there will be a proportional passion among the public for those statesmen who seek to oppose it. At the moment his popularity is at around eighty percent. Though this is bafflingly high, it is not ninety-nine percent either as in many phony democracies, which means there is still genuine opposition and debate within Russian society. Lose this legitimacy as a defender of Russia against today’s hegemon, and Putin might be questioned by his people on other aspects of his tenure, like the systematic corruption and the drop in the rouble. This, and not a succession of sanctions, has a chance to end well for the Russian people.

EU leaders assembled in Berlin chose to reaffirm those sanctions. Instead, Britain and EU countries should embrace a more multipolar world and for that purpose make the most of the current wave of nationalism growing in the West.

Clement Julhia

Bow Group International Affairs Reseacrh Fellow