Crisis diplomacy: Russia exploits Europe’s weak spots
Russia’s formal diplomatic contacts with European powers may be in the deep freeze, but an opportunistic Kremlin has found ways to turn up the heat by exploiting a series of regional crises.
“Russia’s policy is certainly founded on the opportunities that present themselves,” a senior European diplomat and Russia specialist told AFP.
“But in so far as it concerns its near neighbourhood, particularly the former Soviet republics, there’s a real will to take the situation in hand and progressively regain control.”
When Russia’s client Alexander Lukashenko channelled Middle Eastern migrants towards the Polish border, Putin refused to intervene and forced Brussels to resume contacts with Belarus’ pariah regime.
When France falls out with its former African colonies in Africa, the Kremlin-linked mercenary firm Wagner was there to offer Paris’ prickly partners an alternative Russian source of military support.
And when Russia wants to exert pressure against NATO in what it sees as its own back yard, it flexes its military muscles on the borders of pro-Western Ukraine, still fighting a Kremlin-backed revolt.
Even in outer space, traditionally a domain where Russia has been proud to cooperate with international partners, this week’s Russian anti-satellite missile test provoked howls of protest.
Kremlin watchers don’t see a grand conspiracy behind the provocations, but believe the Russian leader is using what levers he has at his disposal to probe the weak links and contradictions in Europe’s strategy.
Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told AFP that Russia’s isolation had left Putin with little choice but to follow the logic of confrontation.
“The Kremlin is seen as a toxic partner,” he explained. “So it is left with no other choice than to scare the West to force it to negotiate.
“For that it creates negotiating topics — the Ukrainian crisis, the refugee crisis on the EU border, gas prices.”
In 2014, Russia was outraged when Ukrainian opposition protests ousted the pro-Kremlin president, seeing a western plot to expand EU and NATO influence into the former Soviet sphere.
So last year when Brussels denounced a crackdown on opposition protests in Belarus and refused to recognise Lukashenko’s disputed re-election, Putin stood by his autocratic ally.
When Lukashenko retaliated against Brussels by funnelling Middle Eastern refugees to the frontier, provoking a stand-off with EU member Poland, Putin backed him.
– Beleaguered strongman –
Now, Germany’s outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel has had to call Lukashenko to calm the situation and the European Commission has entered “technical talks” with a regime it does not recognise on repatriating the migrants.
On Monday, at a meeting of European foreign ministers, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “I do not believe that Lukashenko could be doing what he is doing without the strong support from Russia.”
The ministers were working on a document, soon to be unveiled, that will guide a more united EU foreign policy through the years to come.
The first draft, seen by AFP, foresees ongoing Russian interference in EU interests and against the stability of the Balkans, eastern Europe, Libya, Syrian and the eastern Mediterranean.
The deteriorated relationship with Russia “is particularly severe in many of these theatres,” a text discussed by the ministers says.
“It interferes actively through hybrid tactics, compromising the stability of countries and their democratic processes. This also has direct implications for our own security.”
– ‘Behind all problems’ –
The renewed contact with Merkel and the European Commission were a minor diplomatic victory for Minsk, but will not head off more economic sanctions.
And from Russia’s point of view, the crisis confronts Brussels with the contradictions in its policy.
Europe continues to deal with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pays Ankara to help house refugees and prevent them reaching Europe’s shores, while refusing to deal with the Belarus strongman.
“Why would Russia stop Lukashenko?” demanded an exasperated Fyodor Lukianov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “Lukashenko found his way to escape the crisis of his relations with Europe.
“From Russia’s point of view, its ally is fighting for survival.”
That irritation shone through on Thursday, when Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov demanded Europe stop “considering Russia the culprit behind all problems”.
But whether or not Russia is to blame for all of the challenges facing the European Union’s attempt to build a more powerful geopolitical strategy, it does have a knack for finding its weaknesses.