Nicolas TENZER: Putin’s Russia. The litmus test for Europe

Putin’s Russia. The litmus test for Europe

Photo of Nicolas TENZER

Nicolas TENZER

French civil servant, academic, writer, and editor. He is currently the editor of the journal Le Banquet and is the founding president of the Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’action politique (CERAP), a position he has held since 1986. He was a director of the Aspen Institute from 2010 to 2015 and has acted as its treasurer and president.

Ryc. Fabien Clairefond

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We must repeat: what happens in Europe, but outside the borders of the European Union, is decisive for the future of the latter – writes Nicolas TENZER.

.Let’s be clear: the danger posed by Putin’s regime to security in Europe and the world is not recent. Many of us have been describing the nature of this regime for a long time: the de facto annexation of 20% of Georgia, the invasion of Donbass and the annexation of Crimea, the support of the Assad regime and massive Russian war crimes in Syria, the intervention of Russian mercenaries in Africa, in particular in the Central African Republic and Libya, the destabilization of democracies, the assassination of hundreds of opponents in Russia, but also on European soil. It is good that Europeans are beginning to understand what this regime is all about thanks to the attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny, his unjust arrest and conviction and the brutal repression of the ever-increasing number of protesters in Russia. However, it is only a confirmation of what we have known for a long time. We also knew about the original link between Putin’s entourage, especially the soliviki, agents or former agents of the security services, and organized crime and its kleptocratic system. Catherine Bolton’s exceptional book, Putin’s People, sheds a raw light on this reality.

This regime is what we have called a systemic threat. It is the strongest and most immediate threat, whatever the medium-term dangers posed by the Chinese attacks on our democratic principles. Let us not oppose the two: Moscow and Beijing, with different methods, are objectively allied in their offensive.

The Russian regime intends to destroy all regulation by international organizations, from the UN to the OSCE, and in particular the rules of law that underpin it. It wants to impose a revision of the borders by force. It considers that it can act freely within zones of influence that it intends to reinstate and extend. It targets the aspirations of peoples for freedom and democracy as threats. Finally, it wants to establish a counter-model to the liberal democracies and their values by imposing another oppressive, anti-liberal and anti-democratic model, in what must be called a Kulturkampf.

Many believed that with the fall of the Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism, we were done with the ideological struggle. What the Kremlin is doing today shows that this is not true; a more subterranean and discreet and, in a way, more dangerous ideology has been gradually built up under the aegis of Putin’s ideologists. His historical revisionism, from the rewriting of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact to the rehabilitation of Stalin, goes hand in hand with his territorial revisionism supported by Eurasianism, whose ambition is summed up in Alexander Dugin’s formula ‘Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok’.

This is the reason why it is appropriate to speak of the ‘Russian regime’ and not of Russia, as if it were a kind of timeless essence. There is, in fact, a temptation among some European leaders to focus on geography and history, as if these were to explain the actions of the regime today. This attempt at ‘understanding’ actually results in legitimization. It leads to the obliteration of its crimes, some of which are not subject to any statute of limitations and can be justified by a referral to the International Criminal Court, in the name of alleged interests. More than fifty years ago, the French philosopher and international affairs analyst Raymond Aron already warned of this bias in the analysis of the Soviet regime.

Just because in Russian history some intellectuals have cultivated the arts and freedom does not mean that the regime belongs to this tradition. It is not because Russia’s territory is partly European that Putin and his entourage claim to be European. Finally, it is not because Russia claims to defend its interests and its propaganda seeks to impose its supposed perception of ‘humiliation’ that it should be given any credit. The interests claimed by the Kremlin are not those of the Russian people who are the first to suffer from the yoke of the regime.

Western countries and NATO, a defensive organization, have never threatened Russia as long as it does not violate the rules of international law. Both the European Union and NATO have always extended a hand to Russia, during Boris Yeltsin’s term of office and at the beginning of Putin’s, and it would have been in the interest of the Russian people to engage in a cooperative attitude. Let us not rewrite history.

Today, it is the fate of Europe that is at stake. We must put a definitive end to complacency towards this regime and avoid being satisfied with an in-between, as if it were a normal regime or even a banal authoritarian regime capable of compromise, and not a radically offensive power on all sides. Any accommodation has been translated for more than ten years into new advances and aggressions of power. It has given it carte blanche to advance its ideological agenda, of which the annexation of territories is merely an instrumental expression. The French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, noted a few months ago that all attempts at re-engagement—which corresponds to the American expression of reset—had produced no results. Let us add to this observation just one codicil: they have produced beneficial results for the regime. It would be a sign of great stubbornness and ignorance of the facts to continue along this path. Clearly, classic diplomatic words such as ‘condemnation’ or ‘very serious concern’ are useless. Worse, they reflect our weakness, our pusillanimity and, ultimately, our discredit. The catastrophic visit to Moscow in early February of the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy was a humiliation not only for him, but for the whole of Europe and its credibility.

What is at stake by this soothing attitude is not only the immediate security of the European Union, but also its project. This project intrinsically combines our values and our ambition. Two key notions have thus appeared: that of Europe-power—which the author of these lines has been defending for more than twenty years—and that, more debated, of strategic autonomy. To invoke Europe-power when we would not be able to face the worst strategic threats since the end of the Cold War would be a derisory joke. To speak of strategic autonomy while we cultivate our impotence in the face of present dangers and while we abandon, before having fought, our energy, technological and, in part, commercial independence, would be tantamount to making it a stillborn idea. However, this is what we would be doing if we accepted the Nordstream 2 pipeline project, which not only places us under the dependence of Russian gas, but would also strengthen the Kremlin’s capacity for aggression and manipulation of information because of the financial resources it would bring to Gazprom. The proposed trade agreement with China would go in the same direction.

We must also repeat: what happens in Europe, but outside the borders of the European Union, is decisive for the future of the latter.

This is true for Ukraine, which we have not had the will to defend, even though the Maidan revolution was carried out in the name of European values. We are content with a double regime of sanctions (annexation of Crimea, non-application of the Minsk agreements), which is certainly necessary but insufficient, but we do not go any further. Worse, we see certain government officials putting the aggressor and the aggressed on the same level and feigning neutrality between the two. Some have even tried to push President Zelensky to compromise, as if we were in a hurry to get rid of what some call a ‘dossier’, and, worse, as if we were accepting as a fait accompli the Kremlin’s will to redraw Ukraine’s borders and were ready to let the spheres of influence it intends to impose on Europe and the world take hold. The same applies to Belarus, where we condemned the barbaric repression of the Lukashenko regime’s demonstrators, but in reality let it happen. Only a minority of member states have recognized Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the president-elect of Belarus. The European aid, which has the merit of existing, to NGOs, civil society and free media in Belarus is too limited to have an impact of the necessary magnitude. Some countries are reluctant to welcome Belarusians forced into exile. The measures taken after the act of piracy against the Ryan Air flight certainly appear to be more serious, even if the details of the individual sanctions are not yet known. The fact remains that, even today, some governments are still willing to consider Russia as a partner in moving forward on a solution, even though all the country’s television media are controlled by the Kremlin, which has also sent its security forces there, and the Kremlin’s knowledge of at least this terrorist act seems difficult to dispute. It is difficult to take Europe seriously on Belarus if it does not firmly show its resolve to prevent Moscow’s takeover of Minsk. This is not really the mark of a Europe-power.

Finally, most European powers have always been reluctant to pursue the process of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s accession to NATO, the principle of which was decided at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. Without minimizing the fact that these two countries are, in fact, in conflict with Russia and that this calls for specific provisions with regard to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, one perceives a reluctance on the part of certain countries to rush the Kremlin, as if it were to be the final arbiter. This sends a damaging signal of weakness. The report of the NATO group of experts, NATO 2030, had the merit of clearly designating Putin’s Russia as a lasting threat, even the main one, to security in Europe. One hopes that the organization’s Council will take up its formulas.

Let us look to the future: one day Russia will be free, because that is the will of the Russian people, especially its youth. But all dissidents are asking us to do so; let us strengthen our action against the regime, in particular by stopping Nordstream 2 and applying a regime of extensive sanctions against Putin’s inner circle and all those guilty of or complicit in serious human rights violations.

.This includes freezing their assets, even seizing ill-gotten gains, and banning them from the European Union, the United Kingdom and North America. Perhaps they will understand that their support for the regime is against their interests and will draw the consequences. Let us do so in the name of the law and the fight against corruption, but also because a democratic and non-mafia Russia will be a major achievement for the security of Europe, but also of Africa and the Middle East, where the conflicts maintained by the Russian regime and its allies have direct consequences for us. This is certainly the major point of action that Europe and the United States must take together, whatever their other differences. In the face of the worst threats, we need a fully united front. This is only realism.

Nicolas Tenzer

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Maxim ZMEYEV / Reuters / Forum