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Russia Throws Down the Gauntlet

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From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue "Europe Under Fire"

By: Andrey Babitskiy

MOSCOW—Russia is challenging Europe’s very existence, says George Soros. The billionaire of Hungarian descent, and a long-time donor to open society initiatives both in Russia and Ukraine, knows a thing or two about authoritarian leaders run amok—and the grave consequences of their imperial ambitions. He was nine years old when the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was signed, and moved to America in 1956 just ahead of Soviet tanks crushing the uprising in his homeland. He was lucky to see the demise of the USSR, and, later, unfortunate enough to witness the deterioration of freedoms in Russia. He is probably right in his remark, “Vladimir Putin’s Russia has proved to be in some ways superior to the European Union—more flexible and constantly springing surprises.” According to observers across the globe, the EU appears too indecisive and powerless when faced with the imminent arrival of the Ukrainian war for independence.

Europe, as a political entity, according to widely shared sentiment, has two fatal deficiencies. First, it lacks strong political leadership. Germany and France may dominate the economics of the continent, but foreign policy of member states mostly disregards this fact. When both Paris and Berlin voiced strong support for the Ukrainian cause, those very EU members that border the country, Hungary and Slovakia, chose to side largely with Putin. After the Czech Republic joined their dissent, a ghost of an iron curtain then began to divide Europe. The latest victims of Soviet westward aggression applauded the annexation of Crimea and devastation of Donbass. Whatever one’s political leanings, it’s hard to take seriously a Union that cannot agree to condemn the most shameless act of unsolicited aggression bestowed by the largest European country upon the second largest.

This indecisiveness may have a cause—and that brings us to the second obvious weakness of the EU. Namely, its notorious lack of any armed force. Indeed, virtually every outsider believes this is the real reason for European reluctance to act. And by “outsiders,” I mean not only Ukrainians or Russians, but Chinese, Americans, and Brits too.

Here’s a piece of advice from an Englishman who happens to be a great believer in European unity, Sir Anthony Giddens: “In the sphere of international relations, the EU should drop its flight from power, including military power, understandable though the origins of that attitude are”–origins dating to the two great wars that ravaged the continent in the past century. Giddens then echoes what everybody in Eastern Europe believes to be true. The European ideal of promoting peace through negotiations and the rule of law involves in practice “a good deal of hypocrisy,” as it wholly relies on American muscle to survive.

So, the popular line goes, Europe is not only losing its outsized economic importance and vitality, but is also suffering from two inherent ailments: indecisiveness and military impotence. At some point the sleepy continent will neither have weapons nor coffers to survive on its own. Divided and conquered, it will fall victim to ambitions of the world’s newest powers. Hence the call from George Soros aptly titled, “Wake up, Europe!”

NO WARMONGERING HERE

I do not conform to the warmongering majority of my compatriots, and I’m not even sure the small dovish minority would subscribe to my thoughts. Optimism is rare in Moscow, and I’m an optimist when it comes to both Russia and Europe. In my view, Russia will be fortunate enough not to dominate Europe (a nightmare for its future prospects), and Europe will happily be able to avoid subjection to any outside power—not by mid-century anyway.

In fact, perceived weaknesses of Europe are exactly the reason it will survive, and perceived strengths of Putin’s Russia are exactly the reason not to expect it to become a dominant player on the continent.

In the spring, an opinion poll showing that a vast majority of Russian people supported the annexation of Crimea might have come as a surprise to Western observers. In Moscow, however, the result was entirely expected. In Kiev, too. Following the sham peninsular referendum, Ukrainians expressed anger and bitterness, but also a particular kind of fatalism. They understood nothing could change this, half of Crimea and 90 percent of Russia would never want to give the land back.

Of course, the least surprised of all was Vladimir Putin. He could tell well in advance what the political consequences of the annexation would be. The surge in public approval, diminishing for some time before the events, was absolutely guaranteed, a sure thing. His reasons for the annexation of Crimea were not motivated by a desire to expand. The annexation was driven purely by internal politics. That doesn’t mean Putin has no imperial ambitions. It means only that those were secondary to retaining power at home.

Most importantly, Putin treats politics as an economic concept. In his eyes, power is equal to control over sources of income. During his reign, Russia’s budget came to look more and more like his own uncontested property, or the property of his close allies. It’s not so much greed, as the idea that financial control is only a means of political control. He stays in power as long as he’s the only one able to direct the flow of money.

This economic drive explains Putin’s willingness to start the worst war of the post-Soviet era, but quickly reconsider after the first, feeble sanctions arrived. As oil prices fell, so did the ruble, and Russia was less eager to persist. Russian international influence, measured in large part by its ability to intimidate neighbors, is directly proportional to available cash flows. It is an economic phenomenon, and for a reason.

Russian indifference to politics comes with a price. Wages in the country have outpaced productivity all the time Putin has remained in power. Today people enjoy living standards incomparable to those of the early 21th century. Imperial aspirations helped Putin’s approval rating when citizens didn’t have to pay for new territories, as happened in Crimea. His attempt to seize eastern Ukraine was less successful and much more costly, since mid-autumn oil prices and exchange rates all but replaced Ukraine on front pages, even in state-controlled media. Like the old Soviet Union, Russia has no financial strength for expansion. Unlike in the U.S.S.R., its people, especially its deeply consumerist elites, understand this reality. Russia has strong leadership and a loyal population, but the glue that holds them together, newly found wealth, won’t survive confrontation with the West.

Europe shows the opposite qualities—lack of military resources, contested leadership, and divided, indecisive populations of the member states. It’s almost a caricature of a union, and Eurosceptics from left and right alike never miss a chance to repeat this. However, they do miss a critical point. The EU was never conceived to be an efficient vehicle for coordinated action; it was designed to be a safety net, preventing the bloodiest continent on the planet from sliding into a new war. As democracy was originally devised to defend people from tyranny, and not to achieve developmental goals, the two-layered, viscous, supranational democracy of the EU is a defensive, not offensive, mechanism. Its inefficiency is its main virtue.

The European Union was not an exercise in free trade. It was foremost a political, not economic, entity. With the creation of the euro and fiscal unity, citizens of the member states started forgetting this, but then they got an unpleasant reminder. It happened after the crisis, when Greece defaulted and other southern European countries—especially Italy and Spain—verged on defaults. Many economists then said the euro area is unsupportable since indebted countries could leave the fiscal union and devalue their currencies to pay off their debts. There was no economic reason to preserve fiscal unity—only pure politics. Politics in Europe won over economics, while in Russia it was the other way round.

European inefficiency is not cheap, until you consider the value bought for this price. And this value can be seen in the events transpiring in eastern Ukraine over the last six months. Member states are not secure from economic calamities, the rise of nationalism, and even occasional acts of terror. But they are protected from the worst thing that can ever happen to a populated region—to become a stage for the aggression of a neighboring country thinly masked as a separatist rebellion. No price can be too high to avoid this nationalistic nightmare, as the past year has shown.

That is why Europe may just survive the challenges it faces. With over a $15 trillion GDP, the support of the United States, the mightiest ally available in this world, and having hedged itself against the only disastrous scenario, European countries are safe. So safe, in fact, that separatism is no longer considered a threat. Any Scotland or Catalonia going astray from their own country will be caught up on the other end in the protective net of the sleepy, inefficient union.

*****

*****

Andrey Babitskiy is a Russian journalist and war reporter who has worked for Radio Liberty.

[Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum]

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