[Leonid Bershidsky] Even Trump can’t drive Europe into Russia’s arms

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Feb 20, 2019 - 17:05
  • Updated : Feb 20, 2019 - 17:07

As the US demands more from Europe and castigates it ever more stridently, it’s increasingly clear that Russia is missing a historic opportunity. If President Vladimir Putin hadn’t made Russia an unreliable partner for its neighbors, he’d be poised to realize his fondest dream: of displacing the US as Europe’s security guarantor.

Despite European officials’ determination to preserve what’s left of the US-led liberal world order, the cracks in the transatlantic alliance are obvious. They were one of the themes of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 16, and they showed in the prolonged silence Vice President Mike Pence faced when he conveyed greetings from Trump, expecting applause in response.

And polls in key European countries show that once relatively pro-American voters no longer trust the US. This month’s DeutschlandTrend survey shows that only 24 percent of Germans consider the US a trustworthy partner; over 50 percent did before Trump’s election.

Europe is a long way from both economic and military independence from the US, though.

Stronger ties with one of the other two major powers, China or Russia, would be another option. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev’s years as leader of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought a “new security architecture” in Europe that would reduce the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and instead empower the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a large but amorphous grouping that includes Russia. That idea is still alive in Moscow.

China is less of a natural partner for the EU than Russia because of the cultural distance between them.

An alliance between the EU and Russia would have obvious economic and geopolitical advantages. They share a border. Russia has the resources and the military might Europe needs to police its neighborhood; that could be used to ensure stability in places such as Syria and Libya. If Russia were on the same side as Europe and involved in joint security planning, much of the tension would be gone from the western Balkans. If NATO lost its importance as the main security umbrella for Europe and that role passed to some structure in which Russia has a say, Russia wouldn’t need its frozen conflicts and buffer zones in the former Soviet Union, either.

The security alliance would be reinforced by a powerful mutual attraction between Russia and Europe; nine of the 20 biggest foreign companies in Russia are from the EU, and 10 of the top 20 most popular tourist destinations for Russians in 2018 were in the EU. Collectively, the EU is Russia’s biggest trading partner.

But only marginal political forces in Europe talk about an alliance with Russia, even now that the US is unpopular and increasingly perceived as unfriendly.

It’s easy to see why. The EU and the statehood of the countries within it are based on values and rules as much as interests. Even if it’s unclear what values Trump’s US stands for and what rules it respects, at least it’s a functioning democracy that doesn’t depend on the whims of a dictator or an oppressive state ideology. European leaders have to fight fair elections, build coalitions, deal with independent-minded judges and a domestic opposition that can’t be steamrolled. It’s difficult for them to accept a corner-cutter as a trustworthy partner.

Putin, for whom resistance to US hegemony has long been a foreign policy priority, shot himself in the foot twice, first by dismantling Russia’s institutions in Europe’s plain sight and then by attacking Ukraine after it moved toward closer ties with the EU. Of the two strategic miscalculations, the second may seem more critical: Starting a war not far from the EU’s borders is not the way to build alliances. But the swing toward authoritarianism was the source of all future errors.

Putin has presented his screw-tightening as necessary to save Russia from falling apart. But there’s nothing about free elections, independent courts and a free media that causes nations to disintegrate or prevents them from building military strength. Putin took the easy path, consolidating personal power and treating democratic institutions with contempt, because he was cynical about Western calls for more democracy.

In reality, the Kremlin misheard the Europeans. They were willing to put up with an authoritarian Russia but they’d never trust it to be a counterweight to the US. To harbor that ambition, Russia needed to work on trustworthiness, and that would have meant treating institutional democracy seriously.

A democratic Russia wouldn’t have invaded Crimea or helped seal off eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country. And, in a way, regular leadership changes guarantee policy continuity better than authoritarian rule does; it’s easier for the Europeans to hope the US will return to normal after Trump than to entertain the Russian alternative.

Even if Russia turns towards democracy after Putin, the opportunity for displacing the US as Europe’s partner probably won’t be there anymore. By then, Europe will find other ways to ease out of US dependence -- or to sink deeper into it if it surrenders to Trumpian demands.

Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. -- Ed.