“I am a fool with a heart but no brains, and you are a fool with brains but no heart; and we’re both unhappy and we both suffer”.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
Alphen, Netherlands. 20 June. It seemed, I suppose, fitting. In a speech to President Putin at the St Petersburg Economic Forum Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi reminded the Russian President that Dostoyevsky had written The Idiot in Florence. Who is playing the idiot now? Certainly not President Putin. As Renzi announced deals in St Petersburg with Russia worth some €1.3bn it was as though Russia had done little to concern anyone of late; the illegal annexation of Crimea, the forced detachment of much of eastern and south-eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17 by an anti-aircraft missile from a missile battery belonging to the Kursk-based 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, the treaty-busting stationing of treaty-illegal nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, and the almost daily illegal incursions by the Russian Air Force into the air space of Baltic and Nordic EU and NATO members.
In a breathtaking act of political insincerity Renzi danced on the head of a legalistic pin to justify the deals. The deals were not technically in breach of EU sanctions, he said, because they cover infrastructure and energy. And yet everyone in St Petersburg with half a brain knew exactly what Renzi was doing. The only ‘strategic’ matter of import to him is that on his watch in 2015 the Italian budget deficit ballooned to a record (even by Italian standards) 132.7% of GDP. Italy is broke, the Italian debt crisis will soon break, and Renzi will do whatever deal he can, with whoever he can, to delay what is now the inevitable.
President Putin understands all of the above, precisely because President Putin understands power…and weakness. He certainly understands the strategic implications of his Italian Job which is why he is pushing it. Moreover, the deal could not have been announced at a worse time for NATO, something which is not lost on Moscow. With the July NATO Warsaw Summit beckoning the Italians have at the stroke of a misplaced pen revealed there is little or no strategic unity of purpose in the Alliance. To Rome the Russians can intimidate Eastern European allies all they like just so long as Italy can get down and do a dirty deal with Moscow.
Consequences? Putin has brought a political cleaver down right through the middle of NATO and prized open an existing cleavage. There will be much empty rhetoric at the Warsaw Summit about NATO’s so-called 360 degree adaptation; that through political solidarity and the efficient use of Allied forces credible deterrence will be afforded the Eastern Allies against Russia, and a credible defence mounted in the south against ISIS. Many words, little meaning, even fewer forces.
Rather, Renzi has demonstrated there are two NATOs. One NATO defends Eastern Europe against Russian aggression, about which Italy cares little. The other NATO helps defend against ISIS and threats from the south to Italy, of which after the Renzi deal Eastern Europeans will also care little.
Renzi has also revealed the essential and dangerous contradiction, dare I say lie that is European defence. Europeans are all too happy to defend their own bit of Europe, but not each other. After all, is not defending Europe what the American taxpayer is for?
If the St Petersburg kow-tow to Putin was Renzi alone then maybe the damage to Alliance and EU strategic unity of effort and purpose could have been contained. However, just when one thought it was safe to go out up pops ‘President’ Juncker to imply that EU sanctions on Russia might soon be lifted. You can always count on good-old Jean-Claude, the former prime minister of superpower Luxembourg, to put his political foot in his strategic mouth. Worse, German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier even suggested that by undertaking Exercise Anaconda in Eastern Europe NATO was “warmongering”. This is the stuff of Monty Python, the political equivalent of being forced to apologise to a bully for striking one in the face. "Run away!"
By the way, you might like to know Herr Steinmeier that since 2014 Russia has conducted twelve major snap exercises all of which have been designed to intimidate Eastern European allies and partners from Tallinn to Warsaw. Moreover, your government agreed to Allied exercises at the 2014 NATO Warsaw Summit as a necessary demonstration of Alliance solidarity and strategic reassurance. There are also some 120,000 Russia troops if not threatening the Baltic States, at least implying a threat. They are all peacekeepers of course.
Statecraft 101: it is enough to make this seasoned strategist weep. Juncker, Renzi and Steinmeyer all share a desperate desire to promote dialogue with Putin by sacrificing strategy to short-term politics, and security for trade, in the hope that trade can provide security.
Dialogue with President Putin is needed but must only take place as part of considered statecraft and from a position of strength. Such dialogue begins first with confidence-building measures being undertaken by both sides. Kind words are then matched with good deeds, and then built-up over time to a moment when both sides deem a formal codification of bona fides to be appropriate.
Instead, Prime Minister Renzi has sold Italy, the EU and NATO down the Tiber, Juncker seems to have forgotten not just the threat to EU citizens Russia continues to pose, but how many died due to Russian military incompetence, whereas Steinmeier clearly does not understand statecraft. We British remember a word for that from our own history; appeasement.
President Putin says Russia demands respect. Why would he want respect from European leaders who repeatedly and consistently demonstrate that they fail to understand power, statecraft, and the considered application of both?
Who indeed is the real idiot now?