Putin’s article published in Die Zeit on June 22 marks the Kremlin’s return to a European policy pursued since the Gorbachev years, after the paroxysm of Europhobia that followed the annexation of Crimea. Under enticing slogans, Gorbachev’s ambition was already to dominate the European continent. The Russian president seems to rediscover “the aim of building a Greater Europe united by common values and interests”. Moscow’s behavior in recent weeks reveals a willingness to energetically revive the European project.
An article by Sergei Lavrov published on June 28 provides the keys to this reversal. “The G7, NATO, and US-EU summits [in June], according to their participants, marked the return of the United States to Europe and the restoration of the consolidation of the Old World under the wing of the new administration in Washington. The majority of NATO and EU members not only welcomed this shift with relief, but greeted it with enthusiastic comments”, Lavrov writes. He continues, “European capitals, having sensed the state of mind of their ‘big brother’, immediately joined the chorus of refrains sung in Washington. In short: We are ready to normalize relations with Moscow, but Russia must first change its behavior. The totalitarian West wants to impose its rules on “other civilizations, Russia, China, and other great powers”.
It should be noted that Lavrov, unlike Putin in his article in Die Zeit, does not link Russia to European civilization. The targets of their statements are not the same. Putin addresses the Germans, Lavrov the Turks and the Chinese. Faced with the “neo-colonial” policy of liberal democracies that attack the “genetic code of great civilizations”, Lavrov advocates “a reform of the UN Security Council, which must be strengthened to the benefit of the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, putting an end to the abnormal overrepresentation of the collective West in this governing body of the United Nations”. And he praises “the Russian initiative to form a Great Eurasian Partnership merging the efforts of all countries and organizations of the continent.”
As we can see, the Kremlin targets the consolidation of the “collective West” under Biden. This perception explains the actions taken by Moscow in recent weeks. The aim is to counter this revival of transatlantic solidarity so much feared by the Kremlin. Putin’s meeting with Biden was primarily following this goal: The Kremlin wants to encourage Europeans to doubt the American commitment to European security. At the same time, Moscow is reviving its European policy. The first signal is the encouragement of co-optation of European ruling elites, with the Kremlin royally rewarding those who have served it, such as François Fillon, who has been appointed to the board of directors of a Russian public oil group Zarubezhneft, as well as the former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who was appointed in June to the board of directors of the Russian oil giant Rosneft, where former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been a member for several years.
This “return to Europe” in Russian politics is also explained by several factors familiar to those who know the history of the USSR and post-communist Russia. They were formulated by Gorbachev at the famous Politburo meeting of March 26, 1987, when the construction of the “common European home” was declared the “top priority” of the USSR’s foreign policy. Gorbachev justified this turning point as follows: “It is essential to use the scientific and technical potential of Western Europe […] We want to push the United States out of Europe […]. Let’s take European integration: Which aspects are advantageous for us, and which are problematic? On the one hand, it increases our ability to put pressure on the United States; on the other hand, it increases the military concentration of the Europeans. Mitterrand has assured me that we should not fear this concentration. According to him, its only purpose is to permit the Europeans to get rid of American protection” [Gorbachev Foundation Archives].
The same considerations play out today. The men of the Kremlin have become aware of the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy, and especially on the sectors that are important to them: the extraction of raw materials and armaments. Quite naturally they are turning to Europe, especially Germany. Hence the reactivation of Putin’s grand design, “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” mentioned in Die Zeit, consisting of “creating a common space of cooperation and security from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, which would include various forms of integration, including the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.” Alexander Dugin, the main ideologue of eurasianism in Russia, revealed the ulterior motives of this” integration” as early as 2013: “when Europe enters our Eurasian Union, […] we will take their technologies in one fell swoop: no more need for gas and oil to get them piecemeal. This is the modernization and Europeanization of Russia [Newsland, 04/12/13. interview with A. Dugin on tv.russia.ru.]”
The second consideration mentioned by Gorbachev is also relevant today. Through European countries that are favorably inclined towards Moscow, especially France and Germany, Russia can put pressure on the United States and force it to renounce anti-Russian measures. A recent example of this was Washington’s abandonment of sanctions against Nordstream 2.
Putin’s article in Die Zeit focuses on Ukraine. The Russian president accuses the West of having fomented a coup d’état in Kiev. He pretends to be surprised that the Europeans have joined Washington’s schemes. The message to the Germans is clear: If you want business to resume, you must accept Moscow’s hegemony over the former Soviet space. Again, this is nothing new. As early as 1997, one can read this analysis in the Russian press: “The Russian MFA is right to consider that the economic penetration of most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe is possible only through a close alliance with Germany” [N. Kuchin, Novoe Vremia, #42, October 26, 1997].
In 2000, the Russian leadership openly considered using Western Europeans to force Central and Eastern European countries to comply with Moscow’s wishes: “Russia prefers to make all decisions in Brussels and Western European capitals, in the certainty that the older European partners will be able to act on Poland. It may be that the arrogant position of the Russian negotiators will pay off and the Poles will respond to the joint pressure of the Russians and the Europeans” [Strana.ru, 23/11/2000].
Only the relationship with an integrated Europe will change. Already in 2004, Sergei Markov, an expert close to the Kremlin, noted that it was desirable for Moscow to deal “not with the European bureaucracy, but with the locomotives of integration, especially Germany and France, as well as Spain, Italy and England” because “European bureaucrats consider Russia a problem and are not afraid to enter into conflict with it” [Sergei Markov, Interfax, 24/02/04].
Today, after the failure of Merkel and Macron to impose Putin’s presence at the June 24 EU summit, the Kremlin has been forced to realize that the democratic functioning of the EU, which it has repeatedly denounced as hypocrisy, does exist. Russia imagined that it was enough to convince the heavyweights of Europe, France and Germany, that they, in a very Putin-like way, could impose their will on the smaller EU countries. It realized its mistake (“the EU is such that France and Germany cannot decide for everyone,” notes political scientist Vadim Trukhatchev, with regret) and seeks to remedy it.
Here again, the problem was not new. In 1992, the Russian leaders considered how to neutralize the consequences of the CIS countries’ accession to the CSCE. Supported by France, they advocated the creation of a “European Security Council that would grant the right of veto only to a limited number of states and allow for the creation of new effective mechanisms for decision making” [P. Gladkov, Institute of the United States and Canada, Moscow News 5 April 1992]. This solution would ensure that the large European states had a monopoly on decisions concerning European security.
In June 1994, Kozyrev, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, made another bid, proposing to make the CSCE the main security structure in Europe by providing it with an Executive Committee. In the autumn of 1997, Russia created a Yeltsin-Kohl-Chirac troika in which Moscow saw the embryo of a Franco-German-Russian directoire with an anti-American mission (“the first almost unconditional victory [of Russia] in foreign policy” [N. Kuchin, Novoïe Vremia, no. 42, 26 October 1997] according to the press of the time). We can see how determined Moscow was to institutionalize a structure through which it would dominate Europe by relying on partners made complacent by venality, economic dependence, doctrinaire anti-Americanism, and intimidation. Today the troika does exist.
It is largely because of the objections of Germany and France that NATO cancelled the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia commissions, which had been scheduled for the alliance’s summit on 14 June 2021 in Brussels — to the great satisfaction of Moscow. On May 6, the North Atlantic Council at the ambassadorial rank decided not to invite the partner countries to participate in the summit. Kiev begged NATO in vain to reconsider its decision. This is an alarming repeat of the April 2008 configuration, when, at the Bucharest summit, Moscow used France and Germany to block the Membership Action Program (MAP), the preliminary step for NATO admission of Georgia and Ukraine, allowing Russia to launch an offensive against rebel Georgia four months later. Today, Russia hopes that the divisions among the leaders of the EU countries at the European summit on June 24-25 could prompt a reform of decision-making procedures in EU foreign policy.
As always, it is the French position that seems most promising. Commenting on the telephone conversation between Macron and Putin on July 4, Elena Panina, director of the think tank Russtrat, notes that this conversation between the two leaders took place a week after the EU summit. She writes that, “The French president made it clear that for him he did not need an EU summit to see Putin… He politely hinted to the Poles and Balts that they had to choose: Either the EU will talk to Moscow with one voice, or the major European countries will begin doing so independently and through their own channels, thus ignoring the feelings and emotions of the “dissidents”. The main point here is that the leaders of the European Union have decided to intensify the dialogue with Russia, regardless of the opposition of the ‘young Europeans’ [the countries of Central and Eastern Europe].”
More than ever, Russia’s grand European design stumbles due to the resistance of the continent’s small nations that are attached to their freedom. And it is against this group of “Russophobics” in the EU that the Kremlin will concentrate its attacks, all the while pursuing its enterprise of infiltrating the large European states.