NEW YORK—Last week’s issue of the New Yorker has strong Russian accents. The cover features a dandy Vladimir Putin dressed as Eustace Tilley, the magazine’s classic mascot. Through his monocle, the Russian leader beholds a bizarre butterfly whose red tie, angry pout and shiny quiff unmistakably identify it as Donald Trump.
Saying that Russia has been a matter of concern in the US in recent months would be understatement. Suspicions of interference in the American presidential cycle, through state-level hacking, behind-the-curtain conversations and alleged large-scale cyber-attacks, hover over the Kremlin just like Trump does over Putin in the New Yorker cartoon.
If the exact nature of the connections between Moscow and the Trump campaign has yet to be uncovered, Russian economic, political and military influence is also a burning issue in Europe, particularly in France where a presidential election is scheduled in fewer than two months. Last Thursday, Columbia’s European Institute gathered three scholars to debate what an activist Russia means for Europe.
For Pierre Vimont, a former executive secretary-general of the European External Action Service, the influence of Russia on France is not to be dismissed. It has ideological roots, as Putin’s regime and the far-right National Front share a number of values (on Islam, immigration policies and LGBTQ rights), and diplomatic ties. France has a longstanding governmental tradition of dialogue with Moscow, dating back at least to the Cold War and General de Gaulle. Within today’s European Union, Vimont identified three groups: staunch opponents to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy who for the most part are former members of the Eastern bloc, “realists” aiming to improve relations with Russia and willing to loosen economic sanctions, and countries in-between, which call for a pragmatic approach that would combine intransigence and flexibility.
Despite the hustle and bustle around Russia, Marie Mendras, a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Sciences Po’s Centre de Recherche Internationale and an expert on Russian foreign policy, warned against what she called the “emotional bubble.”
“The figure of Putin has been instrumentalized by a number of French politicians, including François Fillon [the conservative center-right candidate] and Marine Le Pen [the National Front leader],” Mendras said, adding that the media might have overestimated Russia’s effective influence. While the head of the Kremlin has skillfully played a poor diplomatic hand, his military and economic strategy has been far from fruitful, as the Ukrainian quagmire and the ongoing sanctions seem to demonstrate. “The Russian intelligence works better in a gray zone than when there is an open political conflict,” Mendras said.
Steven Sokol, president of the American Council on Germany, shared his views on the recent Munich Security Conference, which he attended. He explained that the volatility of the Trump administration makes it hard to gauge what the future of the diplomatic interactions between Russia, Europe and the US will be. Putin’s enigmatic personality and unclear military goals have also blurred the lines. Sokol concurred with Mendras on the idea that “Russian actors prefer to be in the dark,” reminiscent of a 19th-century secret diplomacy mindset. What a 21st century relationship might be like remains to be determined, Sokol said.
One of the few certainties that all three panelists agreed upon was the obsolescence of the old distinction between internal and external policies. Issues such as the refugee crisis, radical Islam or the geopolitical situation in North African countries transcend the traditional divide.
“Domestic politics and foreign policy are more intertwined than ever,” said Vimont. It is within this new and complex environment that the European Union has to define its attitude toward Russia.
Confronted with these challenges, the EU must rethink its economic vision and ideals. As free trade agreements and European directives have been decried for the inequalities they and deregulation they cause, nationalist discourses have flourished in most member-states. “The free flow of goods and products has been replaced by the idea of protection,” said Vimont. Putin’s talent has been to anticipate and encourage this trend.
But this movement is not irreversible. “The situation is extremely dynamic,” said Mendras. If the “easy consensus” on the EU’s liberal policies has been broken, unleashing protectionist forces, the need for strong and steady partnerships is more relevant than ever. “Proximity is a huge factor to be taken into consideration”, said Mendras with regard to France and Germany. “It’s virtually impossible to disentangle the French and German economies.”
The political instability in the US might also offer a window of opportunity for the EU, especially for Germany and France. This is essentially the platform of Emmanuel Macron, the former French Minister of Economy, who now stands as the main competitor against Marine Le Pen in the April presidential battle. “We must defend and strengthen a union that allows us to speak with a louder voice,” Macron wrote in an op-ed published in the Financial Times in January. In Germany, the ex-president of the European Parliament and Europhile Martin Schulz has reached unexpected levels of popularity after he announced that he would run as the social-democratic candidate in the September federal election.
“It might be time for a shared responsibility on the European side,” said Sokol. “What is required is not necessarily a deeper union, but a stronger union.”
Photo: Wladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Petro Poroschenko at the Minsk Summit in February 2015 (Karl-Ludwig Poggemann / Flickr)