Leonid Bershidsky

Why Putin Is Having a European Moment

Russian President Vladimir Putin rarely appeals directly to citizens of the West for acceptance of and friendly cooperation with Russia. Ever since his famous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, his tone has been more defiant than conciliatory. And yet on June 22, the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, Die Zeit, the center-left German newspaper, published an op-ed signed by Putin that, essentially, calls on Europeans to ditch the US as a strategic partner and go with Russia instead.

Putin has been around long enough to understand that this scenario is hardly realistic. And German media reactions to the piece have ranged from contemptuous to angry. But an analysis of Putin’s alleged dream scenario is still a useful mental exercise. There are at least three important questions to answer: Why exactly is it unrealistic, would it be workable without Putin and why Putin chose to air it now, in 2021, when he — and by association Russia -- is increasingly unpopular in the West.

Just four months ago, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, wrote after a disastrous visit to Moscow that “Europe and Russia are drifting apart. It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat.” But in Die Zeit, Putin suddenly recalls Charles de Gaulle’s idea of one Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals and its extension, beloved of Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, of a Europe “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” “It is within that logic — within the logic of constructing a Greater Europe united by common values and interests — that Russia strove to develop its relations with Europeans,” Putin wrote (this translation is from the original Russian).

Strove, that is, until the evil US interfered by driving the eastward extension of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against the advice of some European politicians. (Putin specifically cites Egon Bahr, the prominent Social Democrat responsible for Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Soviet-tolerant Ostpolitik — a reference that shouldn’t be lost on the readers of Die Zeit, traditionally close to the Social Democratic Party.) Then, according to Putin, the US organized a coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014, and Europe “gutlessly backed it,” “provoking Crimea’s secession.”

Instead of blindly following the US, Europe should cooperate with Russia on a broad spectrum of issues, from fighting Covid-19 to creating a common economic and security space, “because Russia is one of the biggest European nations, and we feel an unbreakable cultural and historical bond with Europe.”

German mainstream media reactions were predictable. “Putin admits mistakes — those of the West,” was the headline in the weekly Der Spiegel, which also pointed out that Putin’s outreach to Europe was hard to reconcile with his government’s actions: Just last month, Russia declared one of the oldest German-Russian cooperation groups, the DRA, founded in 1992, an “undesirable organization.” Germany’s most popular tabloid, Bild, was even less diplomatic: “Putin lies and agitates in Die Zeit,” it wrote. “In the text, pretty much nothing is true,” it continued, describing the op-ed’s publication as a “scandal.”
Putin’s piece “seeks to divide,” Thomas Franke said in a commentary for the influential Southwestern Radio — a curious response to a piece that ostensibly calls for cooperation.

What the German commentators couldn’t fail to notice about Putin’s column is that the offer of friendship comes from someone with a history of, to put it mildly, unfriendly action, his own and that of his predecessors. Putin, the apostle of Russia’s increasing Sovietization, doesn’t so much as acknowledge Eastern Europe’s painful experiences under Soviet puppet regimes, which inspired their scramble for NATO membership as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. In his telling, what happened to Crimea was “secession,” not annexation, and Russia never preyed on weaker neighboring states. It was only recently that Germany treated a leading Russian opposition figure, Alexey Navalny, after Putin’s agents nearly poisoned him to death — and less than six months since he returned to Russia just to be immediately imprisoned; that instance of Russian-German interaction wasn’t worthy of a mention, of course.

Why would anyone want to be friends with this guy or the country he represents?

Well, Putin’s implicit suggestion in his op-ed that Europe should forget about all this nasty stuff isn’t as preposterous as it might seem. That’s what makes it so insidious and divisive. Europe is good at forgetting and turning a blind eye; if it weren’t, Europe’s wars would never stop.

There are plenty of examples — from the continued prosperity of some former Nazis in Germany to the recent restoration of military honors to ex-general, war crimes defendant and until recently active politician, Branimir Glavas in Croatia — of how Europe and its constituent states haven’t exactly been relentless in the pursuit of figures from their hate-filled past. It’s not in the DNA of today’s Europe to be tough on people who did awful things in different times; many prominent figures from Eastern Europe’s Communist regimes, too, were allowed to remain in national politics.

Europe also tolerates the newer illiberal regimes in its midst, such as those of Hungary and Poland, and so much questionable Russian and post-Soviet capital that one could argue lower tolerance toward Putin’s Russia would be simply unfair. In other words, nothing Russia is doing now or did in the past is a valid reason to withhold cooperation from “one of the biggest European nations,” bound to Europe by all these pasts it would rather only remember on certain dates — and by a business-driven present that has more to do with certain cynical Italian, Austrian, German traditions than with the EU’s declared values. The not-quite-explicit message in Putin’s column is that Europe has more in common with Putin’s Russia than with the US, which, is, well, simply not European. "What does a stranger understand?” goes an Austrian saying often quoted by the Nobel prize-winning author and Yugoslav wars dissenter Peter Handke. Putin, his clique and the people they rule are no strangers to Europe — or at least they don’t see themselves as strangers in places that store their wealth and often embody their best memories and cultural urges; Putinists’ beef is really with the US.

I’ve met Europeans who feel that way too — they’re part of the 55% of Greeks, 36% of Italians, 27% of Germans, 26% of the French who, according to Pew Research, have confidence in Putin to do the right thing in international affairs. And if the distasteful Putin regime is somehow magically erased and a more palatable figure emerges in the Kremlin, these percentages would likely increase, potentially making closer ties with Russia a popular project in Europe. There have been times — especially in the 2000s — when Russians were approaching acceptance as Europeans, along with Balts and Poles and perhaps ahead of Ukrainians; it could happen again. Europe, as I’ve already mentioned, does selective memory quite well.

European values? They’re very important, of course, but they’re relatively new.

Putin the cynic knows quite well, though, that Europe will never ally with Russia to the detriment of its partnership with the US — for reasons that have nothing to do with values. Even four years of Donald Trump, hardly a Europhile, who imposed trade sanctions on the EU, smashed a European-brokered deal with Iran and even considered pulling the US out of NATO, didn’t drive Europeans toward Russia as a better ally. For one thing, the US economy is about 13 times the size of Russia’s in nominal terms, and the EU does about four times as much trade with it as with Russia. For another, the US security guarantee — at this point still the best in the world — has not brought much US interference in any of the NATO members, whichever direction their domestic politics have taken. The Soviet military guarantee, when it covered a significant part of Europe, meant invasions or at least a threat of armed intervention at pivotal moments; a Russian shield would come with similar risks under the best of circumstances.

Potentially, Russia plus the EU could be a powerful military, economic, technological and cultural combination that would rival, if not exceed, the might of the US and China. But, even leaving values aside, creating this combination is not in Europe’s cynical interests.

And yet Putin the mega-troll dangles the impossible dream before his European readers, mixing unsubtle dissembling with subtle mockery and a fake wistfulness. He’s speaking to the German sense of guilt, the innate anti-Americanism shared by the extreme left and right, the visions of sovereign European grandeur that live even in moderate politicians’ heads. He’s not trying for the pie-in-the-sky — Russia replacing the US as Europe’s security guarantor and economic partner. He’s trotting out the tattered “Lisbon to Vladivostok” dream to get much less — a haven for crooked capital here, a pipeline project like Nord Stream 2 there, a softening of sanctions, a small backroom deal, a more cautious condemnation.

Perhaps it’s the fate of most grand dreams to be instrumentalized in this way. I hope not.