Alphen, Netherlands. 22 April. Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev and the failure of last week’s Geneva Accord should finally force Europeans to face reality; Russia is a competitor not partner.
A few years ago in Garmisch-Partenkirschen I sat opposite the Russian Deputy Defence Minister at a NATO-sponsored dinner. It was one of those classic moments when two Great Powers met face to face – Russia and Yorkshire. As she was a woman who clearly did not mince her words neither did I. “Is Russia part of European security or a problem for it?” The Minister smiled as she understood my meaning. “Russia will always have its own interests”, she replied frostily.
The greatest shock of the Ukraine crisis to Europe’s High Priests of Soft Power is not per se the unexpected instability in Europe’s east but Russian inability to 'get' Europe. The fact that after all these years Russia has not accepted the primacy of the EU’s liberal-eurocracy as the defining feature of ‘power’ in contemporary Europe.
American mathematician John Nash pioneered the so-called Nash Equilibrium whereby competitive actors achieve stability only when no actor can gain by changing a system of relationships. Moscow has today perceived the opportunity for gain through aggression because Europeans have failed to invest in key elements of Europe’s security and thus lack both the intent and capability to preserve the system in stasis.
For too long Brussels and other European capitals (not to mention Obama’s Washington) refused to understand that Moscow sees the relationship with the West as essentially and inherently competitive. Indeed, for Russia all crises reflect nodal points of decisive competition at two levels – low politics (between peoples) and high politics (between states) – both of which are to be exploited in the Russian interest.
In the ‘low’ politics of Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria and now Ukraine the desperate struggles of desperate people in desperate societies are to Moscow domains for high political competition not merely humanitarian tragedies. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War when Russia was reeling at the sudden loss of empire and prestige the West decided that geopolitical competition was at an end. Henceforth the future strategic creed would simply concern the steady spread of Western liberal values via globalisation and humanitarianism. Revisionists were simply those states that either could not nor would not see this ‘reality’ and in time would be forced to recant by their own peoples.
However, high politics was not and never will be at an end. President Putin repeatedly told the West that he was a student of history and saw Russia’s future not in terms of the values espoused by European liberal-eurocrats but by a concept of the Russian national interest that was deliberately differentiated. At the Munich Security Conference he laid out his vision of Russian Great Power. He was politely listened to in that appallingly condescending way the Eurocracy deals with all dissent. The result is Europe’s new disequilibrium.
Historians will see the European complacency and self-indulgence of the nineties and ‘naughties’ as one of those great self-delusions that Europeans are all too wont to suffer. President Putin calmly went about exploiting the seemingly bottomless well of empty rhetoric that steadily hollowed-out Europe’s security and defence. Moscow’s method was to keep Europe off-balance by telling European leaders by and large what they wanted to hear, by exploiting the European appetite for ‘cheap’ energy and then quietly doing the very thing European did not want to see.
Russia’s true intentions are now clear; Greater Russia. Greater Russia does not necessarily mean a new Cold War but it does mean that Russia will never buy into ‘Europe’. Putin today sees the world today very much in the light of Mackinder with cores of power and their peripheries. His power map of the world is and always has been Russia not Europe-centric with Russia the core and Europe Russia’s periphery. Energy and military power are simply his dynamic agents of change.
President Putin finds nauseating in the extreme the whole concept of European soft power and the idea that stability is a power end in and of itself and therefore that power is in fact weakness. He utterly rejects the idea that power and influence lies in a world more like the EU than Russia. Ultimately, for President Putin power and prestige are founded on the military men and machinery that every May again march through Red Square and the energy that lies beneath his feet.
For the Russian president weakness legitimises Russian intervention for it creates the very lines of advance for pursuit of the Russian interest and with it the creation of a new ‘equilibrium’ built on European dependence on Russia.
Europeans have forgotten the first rule of grand political Realism; don’t get fooled by illusions you have yourself created. Nineteenth century Russian Prime Minister Gorschakov once described Europe as a peninsula stuck on the end of Russia. That is President Putin’s twenty-first century aim.
The Americans seem to understand this but Washington’s ‘understanding’ is not without tragic irony. Moscow understands that the EU is less than the sum of its parts. In the midst of the crisis the Obama Administration is driving Europe’s powers to abandon their individual foreign policies to create a new EU ‘power’. The American obsession with a ‘united’ Europe not only complicates the crisis it undermines NATO and turns Europeans into a non-power; easy for Washington to control but incapable of exerting credible influence.
The cruncher is this; for the High Priests of European Soft Power to see credibility restored unto their creed they must invest in the military tools of hard power that President Putin has helped restore as a reserve currency of power. They must also wean Europe off Russian energy.
As John Nash said; in competitive relationships there is always a loser.