Europe Should Woo Russia When Putin's Gone There's a Better Path for Both Sides Than Military Adventurism

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 30, 2018 | Go to article overview

Europe Should Woo Russia When Putin's Gone There's a Better Path for Both Sides Than Military Adventurism


Russian President Vladimir Putin has a new toy and he wants Russians to think of it as their Christmas present, too. On Wednesday, he called the successful test of a new supersonic weapon "a remarkable, excellent New Year's gift to the nation." Russians probably would have preferred a rollback of a recent retirement-age increase under their trees, but that doesn't much matter to Mr. Putin's view of his country's national interest.

The question to ask as a bad political year ends for Mr. Putin is to what degree his militaristic worldview should survive his leadership. That doesn't only depend on Russians; once Mr. Putin is gone, the West -but largely Europe -will have another chance to tempt Russia with different prospects.

Russia has a broad set of geopolitical options. It can try to be a global military superpower, a status it achieved in the 20th century despite a weak economy thanks to its armaments and creative strength harnessed by fearsomely repressive regimes. It can accept the status of a regional power, increasingly turning into China's junior ally and natural-resource base. Finally, it could establish itself as part of a greater Europe, following ideas first developed in the early 20th century by Halford Mackinder, one of the fathers of geopolitics.

Mr. Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, at first embraced the latter path, but his impoverished, chaotic Russia scared and repelled Europeans, who saw an alliance with the U.S. as far more profitable and useful from a security point of view. The U.S. never supported the greater-Europe notion because, ever since French President Charles de Gaulle advocated "a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals" in 1959, this was a project to counterbalance U.S. power. Meanwhile, not even Yeltsin could quite imagine Russia fully integrated into European institutions, which were still taking shape during his rule. His last years in power were spent in a clumsy balancing act between Russia's three options.

Mr. Putin inherited this fundamentally weak stance. A quick learner and adroit tactician, he soon had the skill (and the oil revenue windfall) to play Russia's cards better than Yeltsin had done. Yet his natural preference was for the superpower option, the iffiest and most adventurous of the three but also the most consistent with his training and experience as a Cold War spy. Besides, he didn't see a viable alternative. He'd come to see Europe as a collection of U.S. vassals incapable of independent policy. So, ever since his 2007 Munich speech criticizing the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the power dynamics of a "unipolar world," Mr. Putin has pursued the superpower revival plan through military adventures in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria and now, with the help of private mercenary armies, in Africa.

Strengthening economic ties with Europe and supplying resources for China's continuing boom -the other two parts of the initial balancing act -became harder with this refocusing. Europe's peace project rejects aggression. To China, a militarily powerful, assertive Russia is an annoyance rather than a potential ally, and any kind of resource dependence on it is a risk.

The superpower game can only be played if Russia has a formidable nuclear deterrent. Without it, the Kremlin doesn't have the freedom to fight smaller wars. That's why Mr. Putin focuses on developing weapons the U.S. and its allies don't have. The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, tested on Wednesday in Mr. Putin's presence, supposedly can break through missile-defense systems to deliver a nuclear payload at 20 times the speed of sound. …

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