How Europe should respond to increased Russian aggression

Putin’s malign influence must be countered

February 14, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Tass/PA Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Tass/PA Images

It has been a tough decade for Europe. The euro crisis, migrant crisis, terrorist attacks and a resurgence of the nationalist right have pushed its politics to breaking point. Now a new crisis looms as Russian aggression finally splits the unity of the Gorbachev era, and, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, a new darkness descends.

It was thirty years ago that President Gorbachev laid out a vision of a “common European house,” a vast home to the rule of law that was Europe’s great gift to the world. This is not a vision that Vladimir Putin shares.

When he returned to the presidency in 2012, Putin quickly set out the theory to match the fury he offered the world in earlier years. He attacked the “Post-Christian” west of “genderless and infertile liberalism,” accused Europeans of embracing an “equality of good and evil,” and lampooned the west as trapped in moral relativism. Europeans, claimed Putin, had begun “renouncing their roots, including Christian values, which underlie western civilisation.”

Putin’s philosophy at home has been partnered with dangerous policies abroad. “Russia is clearly expansionist” said one Baltic ambassador to me in London recently, “But do we dare provoke the bear?” “Russia does not play by the rules,” a former Baltic prime minister told me, “it's like bringing a machine gun to a cricket match.”

In Russia’s “near-abroad,” the Ukraine crisis shows no sign of abating. More than 10,000 people have been killed and 1.6m displaced. In the Crimea, the pro-Ukrainian population is being forced to leave while inward Russian migration accelerates. Further afield, Europeans and Americans alike face a new playbook of “active measures”—methods of political warfare which aim to polarise and divide. Russian hacking of the US election is the most egregious example of this, yet the problem is not just sophisticated cyber-interference but a new army of “robotrolls” on Twitter, built by the Kremlin to influence world politics.

Offline, too, the links with the far right are growing. In fact, of the 45 or so new parties created in Europe in recent years, the majority including Germany's Alternative for Deutschland, Austria's Freedom Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s Front National, Italy’s Northern League, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and indeed the UK Independence Party have all taken pro-Russian positions on matters of huge international importance.

In Russia’s deeply undemocratic presidential election next month, Putin is all but guaranteed to retain the top spot. So it’s decision time in Europe and there is now a clear case for a new strategy to confront, contain, and consolidate.

First, Europe’s leaders need to properly investigate Russian interference in democratic elections.

Robert Mueller is doing an admirable job discerning Russia’s involvement in the American election. But we need similar initiatives across Europe—and far more work at the European level, publicising and confronting Russia’s misbehaviour.

Second, it is clear that a new strategy of containment is now needed.

The renewed French-German military alliance will be important. But across Europe, defence, intelligence and soft power strategies must join together to confront the reality of Russia’s new power. Russia is currently suspended from the Council of Europe, created by Winston Churchill and Europe’s leaders in 1949 to protect human rights, for its flagrant disregard of European norms. When ministers meet in Elsinore Castle later this year to map the future they must keep the Russian suspension in place.

Third, Europe’s leaders have to consolidate the gains made in the early years after the Berlin Wall fell.

The wall has now been down for more years than it was up. But across Eastern Europe, there are profound challenges to European values: threats to the independence of the judiciary and tendencies to limit the legislative power of parliament. Just as insidious, says one Council of Europe report, the cancer of corruption “remains a wide-spread phenomenon in Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania.”

Russia’s growing threat presents Europe with one of its greatest challenges. Putin’s influence must be countered. Otherwise, it will prove impossible for Europe to play a strong role in the world.