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CWA # 51, 14 August 2018

Europe-Russia
Post Trump-Putin Summit: How significant is the Russia threat to Europe?

  Sourina Bej

Post Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin, how is Europe seeing Russia? What does the Helsinki meet project about the geopolitical shifts in the region? In this changing strategic landscape how pertinent a perceptive threat is Russia to Europe?    

Sourina Bej is a Research Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru

In July 2018 President Trump’s meeting with Putin at Helsinki begot mixed reactions. Beyond Trump’s soft approach to Putin on the issue of Russian interference in US elections, two gestures were striking at Helsinki. Firstly, for the first time Putin was seen standing with an American president who not only shared his distilled world view but was equally criticised in public for his transactional (and not value based) foreign policy approach. Secondly, the visit to Russia succeeded Trump’s NATO meeting. While the anticipation was evident among the West bloc about US’s bonhomie with Russia what became more significant is how Western Europe has dealt with Russia since the end of the cold war.

Post Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin, how is Europe seeing Russia? What does the Helsinki meet project about the geopolitical shifts in the region? In this changing strategic landscape how pertinent a perceptive threat is Russia to Europe?    

How is Europe seeing Russia?

US meeting with Russia came at a time when Washington is adopting a regressive foreign policy starting from trade wars with China, imposition of sanctions on Iran to trade tariffs on Europe over aluminium and steel imports. Trump has systematically altered an institutional approach of US with his personal instinctive understanding of foreign policy. This has affected Europe considerably. US’s attack on Europe with regard to defence expenditure and its deals with Russia has brought to the fore a divided view on NATO and also its fear that US may not be standing with Europe anymore against Russia.  

On 7 May 2018, Putin entered his fourth and probably the final presidency in Duma. This was preceded by an increase in mistrust between Russia and Western Europe due to the Skripal case and another chemical attack in Syria. Since the last EU-Russia summit on 28 January 2014, the relation between the two has declined over Ukraine and Crimea annexation. However where on one hand, a political rhetoric of rigid stance has been maintained against Russia, on the other, countries like Germany has also inked energy deals with Russia.

In a recently published comparative study “Behaviour of Putin`s Russia through lens of allied strategic and policy documents” by European Values Think-Tank, it was projected that three out of the six countries pushing for a European response to Russia are the Baltic states. They are joined by Poland and surprisingly by Denmark, Sweden and Finland. It is interesting to note that these Scandinavian countries are not NATO members and since 2014, they have not only desired to work with NATO to counter Russia but has also revived military conscription in their respective countries. This indicates a growing fear among the Eastern and Northern European states of Russia’s Baltic and Artic expansion. The Western Bloc in turn fears a spill over of the direct tension in its Eastern European periphery.  

The countries who have advocated a pro-Russian stance for domestic purposes are Slovakia and Hungary. Even countries like Greece, Italy, and Cyprus have projected better relations with Russia. Thus among the EU members, the core Western Bloc of France, UK and Germany have seen Russia as a threat. With Britain deciding to exit the EU, how much of a strong united voice against Russia remains is yet to be seen but cannot be ruled out in future.

Beneath the strategic fears there is an underlying fear among the Eastern European countries of being energy dependent on Russia. Gas and oil make up over 70 per cent of Russia’s total exports. The Nord Stream 2 — an offshore pipeline that would deliver gas to Germany directly from Russia via the Baltic Sea — has become the recent cause of contention among the West and East bloc of Europe. While several analysts believe that this would leave the country "totally controlled" by and "captive to" Russia, the real fear lies among the smaller countries like Latvia and Estonia. This pipeline will give Russia full access to the Baltic and a growing reliance on Russian energy compromises Europe’s stand against Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. Poland and Lithuania are Nord Stream 2's most vociferous critics as they have built LNG terminals that would profit from an American takeover of the market.

Though Germany has maintained a long-strategic consideration above its economic relationship with Russia, it should also be noted that it is Russia who more dependent on European market for its energy exports that Europe on Russian imports.  

What are the geo-political shifts in Europe?

The strategic and geopolitical environment in Europe is in flux. As fast inward-looking US, an expanding Russia, rising China and exploding conflicts at its periphery with frequent movement of people has left the European countries looking to redefine security concerns as a region and as individual countries. Hence what have emerged are incompatible views on European security in the multipolar world order.

A supporting United States has been crucial for the success of European integration and revival of the region. A rivalry with Washington might drive EU toward greater autonomy, but it could also lead to a further weakening of its cohesion. In addition, Beijing’s spread into Europe has been seen with anticipation. But it has also borne well with the Eastern European countries that have seen the investments as an alternate to Russia.

Control of the Baltics means the control of the connections between Europe and the Middle East.  Russia has long invested in smaller states and currently China has begun to invest into these countries including Ethiopia and Kenya. Baltics have been looked by the Western Bloc as a periphery and have invested. But now the Baltic states have adopted a ‘turn east’ as a new balance of world power is forged. President Ivanov of Macedonia warned that the closed-off view of the bloc in connecting the east and the west was allowing Russia and China to stake their claim on Europe.

How much is Russia a threat to Europe?

The EU-members threat perception of Russia is three-fold. First, is direct military aggression by Russia, a case in point being Ukraine and Crimea. In the post-Cold War period this annexation is the maximum impact on security institutions witnessed by Europe. Secondly, Russia is seen threatening EU member states using military power and the use of disinformation in interfering with the domestic politics of the countries. Lastly, Russian efforts to disrupt European consensus on initiatives such as sanctions and disinformation of its operations overseas has led to severe trust deficit.

With no direct military threat from Russia, no country is ready to take a lead against perceived aggression from Russia. The only counterweight currently could be France, who was seen taking a tough stand throughout the Ukrainian crisis including cancelling of an arms deal with Moscow.

Hence a divided view can be understood. In most Eastern European and Scandinavian countries, perceptions of threats from Russia are shared among the national security establishments and the majority of the political class. But in Western and southern European countries, there is a difference in opinion among the national security personnel, the political class and the business conglomerate who sometimes adopt a pure appeasement policy as against the any national stand against Kremlin.

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