Putin has long tried to balance Europe. Now he’s working to reset it

Even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in
2014 sent relations plunging, and Moscow harried some European countries with
mass-scale disinformation and near-miss military fly-bys, it reached out to
others — if not exactly winning them over, then at least keeping diplomacy

But, with this winter’s crisis over Ukraine, Putin
is overtly embracing something he had long avoided: hostility with Europe as a

The more that Europe meets Moscow’s threats
with eastward military reinforcements and pledges of economic punishments,
papering over its otherwise deep internal disagreements, the more that Putin
escalates right back. And rather than emphasising diplomacy across European
capitals, he has largely gone over them to Washington.

The shift reflects Moscow’s perception of
European governments as American puppets to be shunted aside, as well as its
assertion of itself as a great power standing astride Europe rather than an
unusually powerful neighbour. It also shows Russia’s ambition to no longer
simply manage but outright remake the European security order.

But in seeking to domineer Europe, even if
only over the question of relations to Ukraine, “There’s a risk of pushing
Europe together, of amplifying more hawkish voices and capitals,” said Emma
Ashford, who studies European security issues at the Atlantic Council research

“And there’s the risk of pulling America back
in, even as it’s trying to push America out of Europe,” Ashford added of
Moscow’s approach.

Putin has not given up on Europe completely.
He did have a call with Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, on Friday. And he
may still pull back from the crisis in time to recover European relations, or
seek to do so once the dust settles.

But, if he persists, analysts warn that his
approach could leave Europe more militarized and more divided, although with a
Moscow-allied East far smaller and weaker than that in the Cold War.


The Kremlin has repeatedly signalled that,
while its concerns with Ukraine may have brought it to this point, it seeks
something broader: a return to days when Europe’s security order was not
negotiated across dozens of capitals but decided between two great powers.

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“As in the late 1960s, direct interaction
between Moscow and Washington could give a political framework to a future
detente,” Vladimir Frolov, a Russian political analyst, wrote of Moscow’s

This is not entirely a matter of hubris or
great power ambition. It also reflects a growing belief in Moscow that this
arrangement is, in effect, already so.

After Russia annexed Crimea and invaded
eastern Ukraine in 2014, which Western governments punished with economic
sanctions, the crisis was meant to be resolved with negotiations between Moscow
and Kyiv, Paris and Berlin.

Although Washington applied pressure, it urged
that the matter be settled among Europeans, hoping for a stable balance on the

But while the letter of the so-called Minsk
agreements nominally satisfied Russian demands, the Kremlin came away believing
that Ukraine had reneged. The conclusion in Moscow, by 2019 or so, was that
“European states are either unwilling or unable, probably unable, to compel
Kyiv to follow through,” Ashford said.

This also reinforced long-held views in Moscow
that Germany’s economic might or France’s diplomatic capital were in a world
shaped by hard military power.

“They’re insignificant, they’re irrelevant, so
there’s this framing in Moscow that we have to talk to the US because they’re
the only ones that really matter,” Ashford added.

Military power among the member states of the
European Union, which has tried to assert itself as Moscow’s interlocutor on
Ukraine, has substantially declined relative to the United States and Russia in
recent years. This was exacerbated by the departure of Britain.

At the same time, sharp divisions within
Europe over how to deal with Russia have left the Continent struggling for a
coherent approach. The departure of Angela Merkel, Germany’s longtime leader,
and Macron’s failed bids at unofficial European leadership have left Europe
often adrift between a US-led status quo.

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“Outside of Paris and Brussels, everyone is
pretty desperate for US leadership on this crisis,” Jeremy Shapiro, research
director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told a Brookings
Institution conference this week.

“All of this means that Russia is somewhat
verified in its view that Europe is a US puppet and doesn’t really need to be
engaged separately,” he added.


Although Putin’s exact plan for Ukraine
remains, by seeming design, a mystery, he has emphasised that his agenda
extends to Europe as a whole.

In past crises over Ukraine, Russia’s aim has
focused narrowly on that country, largely toward a goal of keeping it from
aligning with the West. It sought to avoid triggering too much European
opposition, and even tried to win European help in protecting its interests in

Now, perhaps as a result of its
Ukraine-focused coercion having failed to achieve its objectives, Moscow is
demanding an overhaul to the security architecture of Europe itself, by ending
or even rolling back NATO’s eastward expansion.

Such a change, however it came about, would
mean altering the rules that have governed Europe since the Cold War’s end. And
it would mean formalising a line between West and East, with Moscow granted
dominance in the latter.

Rather than seeking to manage the post-Cold
War order in Europe, in other words, Moscow wants to overturn it. And that has
meant attempting to coerce not just Ukraine, but Europe as a whole, making a
standoff with the Continent not only tolerable but also a means to an end.

“The most militarily powerful state on the
Continent does not see itself as a stakeholder in Europe’s security
architecture,” Michael Kofman, a Russia scholar at CNA, a research center,
wrote in an essay this week for the site War on the Rocks.

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Rather, as a result of Moscow rattling that
infrastructure or even seeking to pull it down, Kofman said, “European security
remains much more unsettled than it appears.”


Putin’s willingness to accept broad
hostilities with Europe could strengthen his hand in Ukraine by demonstrating
that he is willing to risk even the Continent’s collective wrath to pursue his
interests there.

But regardless of what happens in Ukraine,
entrenching a hostile relationship between Russia and Europe sets them down a
path that carries uncertainty and risk for them both.

Cycles of “sanctions, diplomatic expulsions
and various forms of retaliation,” Kofman wrote, can easily take on a logic of
their own, escalating in ways that hurt both sides. Russia and Europe are
economically vulnerable to one another and already face unstable domestic

Relations between Moscow and European capitals
have rarely been warm. But they have, for the most part, plodded along,
overseeing, among many other shared concerns, a Russia-to-Europe energy trade
on which virtually the entire Continent relies.

There is also a risk for the United States:
being pulled deeper into a part of the world it had hoped to de-emphasise so it
might focus instead on Asia.

Shorter-term, a divided Europe would seem to
risk exactly what Moscow has long sought to avoid: more US power in Europe’s
east, and greater European unity, however grudging, against Russia.

“The approach that the Kremlin is taking
toward Europe right now, on the surface, to me at least, seems quite
shortsighted,” Ashford said.

The most concerning possibility, some analysts
say, is not that Putin is bluffing or that he does not see these downsides —
although either could be true — but rather that this is a choice, of dividing
Europe against him for the sake of his interests in Ukraine, that he is making

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