Relations between the European Union and Russia are again free-falling, just as Brussels seemed to be willing to reconcile. During the visit to Moscow of the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, a visit marked by quite a few controversial moments, Russia announced the expulsion of three diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden. It was an act of public shaming that has infuriated many people. MEPs summoned Borrell to a plenary sitting to admonish him, so the EU’s top diplomat then called for new sanctions on Russia, after giving assurances just a few days before in Moscow that, for the time being, the EU will put off any such plans. Putin sat in the shadows on this one, but it was the Russian president who orchestrated everything, all part of his latest media stunt to show off his masculinity.
Borrell’s concessions to Russia
Borrell had come to Russia willing to find common ground over a number of major crises that for years have caused serious damage to bilateral relations. The list includes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the wake of mass protests against former president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to scrap the country’s Association Agreement with the European Union under Moscow’s mounting pressure, Russia’s disinformation campaigns seeking to destabilize certain European states, particularly ahead of elections or in sensitive matters, such as the refugee crisis, Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic, or assassinations and attempted murders committed on European soil by Russian secret operatives. Beyond all that, Russia continues to move further away from EU-backed democratic values and closer to consolidating an authoritarian state where opposition of any kind, civil society and the independent media are subject to relentless harassment. Anyone who becomes too much of a nuisance for the regime risks ending up in prison or killed. So far, Moscow seems reluctant to change its ways or step back, and many people claim present-day Russia cannot be reasoned with.
Still, the EU chief diplomat went to Moscow and held a joint press conference with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, talking about areas where the EU is prepared to cooperate with Russia, instead of bringing up unsettled issues. He even went as far as assuring Moscow that the EU has no intention of passing new sanctions in response to opposition leader, Alexey Navalny’s arrest. It was not a backdown per se, but rather a significant concession.
Instead of accepting the EU’s olive branch, Russia, or Putin, rather, preferred to humiliate Europe by staging a show that addressed both the people at home and the rest of the world.
Europe’s humiliation in Moscow
The show had three acts, all staged on February 5. First of all, although Europe was visibly offended (or bothered, at least) by the latest developments in Navalny’s case, the opposition leader having been sentenced to prison just a few days before Borrell’s arrival in Moscow, Navalny was again brought to court, this time on charges of defaming a war veteran. The latter had been featured, alongside a number of other people, in a video promoting last year’s constitutional reform in Russia. Navalny had criticized the said video, and the allegations against Navalny wouldn’t stick in any rules-based democracy. In Russia, however, it comes with a substantial fine and a potential two years’ imprisonment sentence.
The second part of the show was the press conference that followed Josep Borrell’s meeting with Sergey Lavrov. Russia used the conference to relaunch a string of fake news it has been spreading over the last years, claiming either that the EU’s sanctions are illegal, that the USA is actually calling the shots on the EU’s policy on Russia, or that Russian journalists are subject to discrimination in the European Union.
The third act consisted in the expulsion of the three diplomats for having attended unauthorized rallies staged on January 23 in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which is almost two weeks before the visit. If it had been truly that pressing a matter, Moscow would have had plenty of time to declare the diplomats persona non grata prior to Borrell’s arrival, but this would have probably prompted the EU to cancel the visit. Russia could well have shown its guest minimum respect and postponed the diplomats’ expulsion till after the visit, seeing it had delayed the decision that long.
One might speculate that, from Putin’s standpoint, a show of strength in front of Borrell was necessary. Facing mass protests generated by Navalny’s arrest, the Kremlin leader cannot risk showing any sign of weakness. Yet, the argument isn’t valid. Moscow could have allowed Borrell to shoot his mouth off about Navalny without caring too much or doing anything about it. At the press conference, Borrell actually made sure, when talking about Navalny, to highlight the fact that the EU observes Russia’s sovereignty. One simple remark from Borrell regarding Navalny couldn’t have changed the fact that the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs went to Moscow, thus treating Russia just like any other partner. Yet Vladimir Putin did not contend himself with just a win. He wanted more.
Putin, the tough guy who needs to advertise his masculinity
Putin seems to be suffering from a pathological drive to market his manliness, even when this means breaking diplomatic protocol and etiquette or antagonizing his interlocutors. The 2007 incident with Angela Merkel is by now infamous in this respect, as described in this New Yorker feature of the German Chancellor. Angela Merkel had been afraid of dogs ever since she had been bitten 12 years before, and her phobia was well-known to Putin, having been widely circulated in the media. During the meet, Putin summoned his pet Labrador in the room, and the dog approached Merkel. She froze, while Putin flashed his characteristic mischievous grin. The Russian leader assured Merkel the pet would behave, and the German chancellor responded with a joke “I’m sure she doesn’t eat journalists”. Years later, Putin pretended it was never his intention to taunt Angela Merkel and denied having any knowledge of her dog phobia, but to the Russian leader’s mind, the dog is clearly a symbol of masculinity. The former US President, George W. Bush once recalled a moment when Putin had told him about his black Lab, insisting that it was "bigger, stronger and faster than Barney”, the Bush family’s Scottish Terrier. Adding to the stories told by world leaders are well-known images of Vladimir Putin wrestling down opponents, playing hockey with his bodyguards, unearthing ancient Greek jugs (already silt-free) during a diving expedition, bare-chested on horseback in Siberia, riding his motorcycle alongside the Night Wolves in occupied Crimea amidst mass street protests in Moscow, etc.
After the dog incident, Angela Merkel told the German media that she understands why Putin felt the need to do what he did: “to prove he is a man…He is afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing. No successful politics or economy. All they have is this”.
Russia’s economy is years away from matching the diversity and advancement of Western models, and, to a great extent, is still reliant on raw material and arms exports. Besides, it is a very appealing market to both exporters and foreign investors. Russia has a few aces up its sleeve, but they pale in comparison with the collective force of Western economies. Russia has much more to lose should it choose to antagonize the West. After all, the much more powerful Soviet Union fell apart primarily due to its economy’s inability of measuring up to the competitiveness of the free world.
The problem is the few strengths Russia does have seem to lure some European states, who would very much prefer relations with Moscow returned to normal. Russia’s natural gas deposits cast particular appeal, and Germany (the UE’s largest economy), is unable to resist. Despite the opposition of EU Member States and the United States, Berlin wants to move on with its plans to build Nord Stream 2, the natural gas pipeline designed to bypass Ukraine. One of the many arguments in favor would be not to punish Russia as a whole just for its leader’s behavior, and it would actually be advisable to maintain energy cooperation, seeing that all other ties have been severed, as president Frank-Walter Steinmeier himself said. The truth of the matter is that money is the real stake here, and Nord Stream 2 actually rewards the aggressor (Russia) and punishes the aggressed (Ukraine).
The bluff of a creaky giant
In September, 2015, Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war, answering Damascus’s call. A few dozen fighter jets and gunships were enough to bear the brunt, managing to turn the odds of the war to Bashar al-Assad’s favor. And the task didn’t prove too difficult: the aircraft bombed the lightly-armed, defenseless rebels. Thousands of civilians were killed in the raids, as Russian bombs are less accurate than the Americans’, and Russian officers didn’t seem to care much about civilian casualties. On the contrary, some air strikes were directly aimed at civilian targets, such as numerous hospitals in rebel-controlled areas. Russia’s involvement in Syria is indicative of what this country can do with a relatively limited amount of resources whenever its actions are left unchecked. Even now, the United States is superior to Russia in the Middle East, in terms of both military strength and technology. But, although Washington wanted Assad gone, Russia was the real winner. When the Americans decided to draw a red line, protecting the areas controlled by the Kurds (with the exception of northeastern Syria, where Turkey launched a military offensive, but that is an unrelated topic), Russia couldn’t or didn’t dare do anything.
There is one other relevant example, also tied to the Syrian civil war. In 2016, Russia dispatched its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean. The Kuznetsov is an A-class capital ship with a wide array of ordnance capable of carrying heavy aircraft, which might seem awe-inspiring to a large number of countries with trivial naval forces, leaving the impression Russia is a global naval power capable of reaching any point on the map. In fact, the Kuznetsov is a joke compared to US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Ever since it entered service, the Admiral Kuznestov has been docked most of the times. When it did sail out at sea, its engines broke down and the flagship had to hauled in to dry dock. While on mission to Syria, it lost two aircraft in accidents caused by the carrier’s disrepair. And it doesn’t even have enough latrines for all of its crew.
In many ways, Russia is very much like the Admiral Kuznetsov. A giant that’s started to creak, and which sometimes needs to be hauled in order to keep moving forward. There are many whose minds are blown away by this giant. There are equally plenty others who would gladly open their ports to accommodate the flagship and cover its refitting bill and fuel costs. The former are an example of the weak deferring to the strong. The latter are just greedy. Russia is banking on both of them, and the commander of the Diesel-powered dreadnought can afford to act as if he owned at least one of those state-of-the-art nuclear-powered carriers.
Bluffing often pays handsomely, but it can also backfire on the player. Borrell’s humiliation has set off a wave of indignation in the European Parliament, and Putin’s stunt might result in new sanctions. And if Parliament votes in favor, Putin might regret passing the opportunity of forging a dialogue with the EU at the best possible time – just when a new administration has been installed in Washington, one who is less willing to let slide his transgressions.