Historically, the countries of the EU have been allies of the US. That’s not to say they didn’t get a little passive-aggressive at times. France, Spain, Germany and Greece could have even, at one point or another in the past fifteen years, been classified as a frenemy.
Vladimir Putin, however, would like to make the whole EU our enemy. And he’s doing everything he can to soften the psychological terrain for the EU — whether country-by-country or as a whole — to accept Russia as its single indispensable benefactor and ally. There are disturbing signs that Putin’s efforts are paying off.
The EU has problems. Many member states teeter on the brink of bankruptcy; Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus and Greece have already fallen in. The Syrian refugee crisis has sent European borders into chaos, heightened the tensions between new and old Europe and triggered mass discontent in both the native European and refugee populations. All while Europe wrestles with escalating terrorism concerns. Naturally, all this drama has led to a backlash in the form of right-wing, anti-EU populist movements.
This past summer, Putin has exploited the issues to his full advantage, both overtly and otherwise. He dangled a €10 billion loan in front of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as part of a potential bailout deal. Less benevolently, he flew nuclear-capable bombers in Irish airspace for five hours and sent submarines to circle both Finland and Sweden, violating their territorial waters.
Through his ambassadors and ministers, Putin made it clear that if Finland and Sweden attempted to join NATO, he would respond with military action. In case the subtlety was lost in translation, Russian advisor Sergei Markov said that Finland or Sweden could cause World War III if they pursued NATO membership. Speaking of NATO countries, Russian operatives snuck into Estonia and abducted a high-ranking Estonian intelligence official. He was brought back to Moscow, where he was tried and sentenced to 15 years in jail for — get this — “illegal border crossing.”
As thuggish as Putin is, he has been equally, if not more, effective in softening up the psychological landscape in Europe.
Few former politicians have greater access to the European elites, decisionmakers and media outlets than former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, former German Prime Ministers Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Schmidt. In front of cameras, Berlusconi (in)famously endorsed Putin’s incursions in Ukraine and Syria over a 240-year-old bottle of wine. Schmidt compared Putin’s expansion in Crimea favorably to that of the US and China and blamed the EU for not minding its own business and meddling in Putin’s backyard. And Schroeder celebrated his birthday with Putin; take a guess how he feels about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. (Schroeder is also the chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG, a position so incestuously close to Putin, he is essentially a paid agent of Russia, for all intents and purposes.)
If Putin has gained favor with Europe’s elite political class, he has also shown savvy with its bottom-dwelling criminal element. In Spain, the chairman of Russian state-backed oil company Gazprom and high-ranking members of Putin’s own United Russia party stand accused of helping the Tambov crime syndicate (part of the Russian mafia) operate in Spain for nearly a decade.
But the most lasting effects of Putin’s influence may be in the EU’s aforementioned populist movements. From England’s UKIP to Greece’s Golden Dawn, Germany’s PEDIGA and France’s National Front, the EU’s populist movements have gained momentum based largely on, quite frankly, rational concerns about mass immigration, terrorism and EU incompetence. (Rational concerns or not, right-wing parties have a well-earned stigma in Europe. It is more than troubling that Golden Dawn — an overtly neo-Nazi party — has grown so mainstream.) However, most of these movements have embraced Putin either for his tactics, his leadership or his actual actions. (PEDIGA has taken no stance on Putin, but pro-Putin signage and chants are common at PEDIGA rallies.)
Putin is squeezing the EU, exerting his influence on both the elite and the grassroots of the European political sphere. It is working. Not only have the EU’s already sluggish and indecisive decisionmakers been unable to find consensus on taking action in the Ukraine or Crimea, their increasingly central concern — in the wake of the populist movements — is with self-preservation. In that light, it is unsurprising that the EU parliament has voted to extend asylum to Edward Snowden, a move that is sure to please Snowden’s Russian sponsors as much as it will Snowden’s pop-cultured fans and, conceivably, even anti-EU populists.
There is no greater influencer on the globe than the Pope. Naturally, Putin has used the Russian Orthodox Church to court favor with Pope Francis. It’s not a hard task, to be sure. Pope Francis has shown himself to be more overtly and vocally involved in the politics of Western countries than past popes. So, while Putin’s charm offensive is alarming, the signs of its success are not surprising.
Are these problems that strong US leadership could have averted? Of course. So much can be laid at the feet of Obama’s manifestly disinterested and feckless foreign policy; this is no exception. Like a man awakening from a coma to find his hospital room on fire, the President is now, finally, scrambling to present a military deterrent to Russia. There is good reason to believe that the President’s moves may be too little, too late. By the time January 2017 rolls around, Vladimir Putin may have annexed the hearts and minds of Europeans from Paris to Prague.