By Robbin Laird
Russia under Putin has been working hard his strategic agenda with regard to the West. At the heart of this strategy has been to reduce the direct threat to Russia posed by NATO and to stop NATO expansion in its tracks.
He has been more successful with the second than the first.
But with the European integration effort in question, with Brexit challenging the foundations of the way ahead for Europe both in terms of its domestic and foreign policy development, Putin has not been sitting idly by and waiting for a outcome favorable to his interests.
He clearly has been playing off President Trump’s approach to public diplomacy in Europe, which has been to challenge the European integration agenda and with his Article V NATO attacks suggesting the President has his own list of allies worthy of being defended which will we only really learn what his internal list is in a crisis.
This kind of ambiguity is exactly what Putin savors as it allows him maneuvering room to suggest that there are alternatives to collective defense, namely the kind of bilateralism President Trump himself favors.
And bilateralism is clearly a key tool for Putin in trying to expand influence and to shape a more favorable environment for the Russian authoritarian state.
We have seen examples of this quite literally in the European dance which he conducted with Austria earlier this month.
In an article published recently in the EU Observer by Stephanie Liechtenstein, the literal dance was described:
Last weekend’s pictures were hard to put into context, even for long-time observers of Austrian politics.
Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl got married at a vineyard in the picturesque Styrian hills of southern Austria on Saturday (18 August), but what was originally supposed to be a private affair turned into a highly political event with implications for Austria and Europe at the same time.
Kneissl not only invited Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).
There was also a foreign guest who attracted all the attention: Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Putin sat next to the couple as they exchanged vows. Afterwards the Russian president delivered a speech in perfect German, wishing the bridal couple “much, much luck and health for their future together”.
There was also a Russian Cossack choir dressed in bright red traditional clothes, Putin’s personal wedding gift to the bride and groom.
The Russian leader even briefly danced with the bride, at the end of which the Austrian foreign minister went down on her knees in front of the Russian president in an apparent attempt to thank him for his presence.
Putin certainly understands his European history and certainly remembers that modern Austria was born in part with the actions of the Soviet Union working with the West.
Russian troops left Austria in 1955 on the condition that it would become a neutral country and not join any military alliance.
And with regard to Germany, the reunification process also involved assurances from the United States and the new German state about how Germany would fit into the EU and NATO going forward.
From the Soviet side there were clear ideas about how East Germany joining with West Germany would not move the threat directly to Russia further East, as the Soviets understood the nature of the threat posed by NATO.
Of course, the Clinton Administration did precisely that from the Russian point of view.
I followed this process in great detail in both the United States and Europe and wrote number of key pieces on this process as well as running insider working groups in Washington DC at the time.
(Robbin Laird, The Soviets, Germany and the New Europe, Westview Press, 1991.)
This is history which most inside the Beltway politicians simply would not have forgotten; they would not simply know.
But for a Russian like Putin this is not just history.
After the dance in Australia, President Putin went to Germany and worked the German relationship.
In the wake of President Trump’s recent visit to Germany where he highlighted that any German deal with Russia was not a good idea, Putin was given the green light to proceed with what then could elevate and economic deal into a strategic event.
During his visit to Europe in July 2018, President Trump elevated the significance of any gas pipeline deal between Germany and Russia.
U.S. President Donald Trump launched a sharp public attack on Germany on Wednesday for supporting a Baltic Sea gas pipeline deal with Russia, saying Berlin had become “a captive to Russia” and he criticized it for failing to raise defense spending more.
Trump, meeting reporters with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, before a NATO summit in Brussels, said it was “very inappropriate” that the United States was paying for European defense against Russia while Germany, the biggest European economy, was supporting gas deals with Moscow.
There is a long history to the gas pipeline deal, with many Europeans and Americans concerned about the potential implications, but President Trump now directly correlated the deal with a much higher level strategic issue, namely NATO defense.
It did not take long for German speaking and long time European observer and Soviet policy maker on Germany to jump in and take advantage of this Trump declaration.
In an article published by the EUObserver, entitled “Putin Strikes Blow Against Russia’s Isolation in Europe,” the author focused on the German-Russian meeting to discuss the pipeline deal.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has joined forces with Germany against the US over a new gas pipeline.
His weekend trip, which included a visit to Austria, also struck a symbolic blow against EU diplomatic sanctions over his invasion of Ukraine.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin defended the Nord Stream 2 gas project at their meeting in Meseberg Castle, outside Berlin, on Saturday (18 August) in Putin’s first bilateral visit to Germany since the invasion in 2014.
“In connection with Ukraine, we will also talk about gas transit. In my view, even if Nord Stream 2 exists, Ukraine has a role to play in gas transit to Europe,” Merkel said ahead of their three-and-a-half hour discussions.
The project will “perfect the European gas transport system and minimise transit risks. It will ensure supply for growing consumption in Europe”, Putin said.
“Nord Stream 2 is an exclusively economic project. It does not close any possibilities for transit of Russian gas through Ukraine,” he added.
“Germany is one of the largest buyers of Russian energy resources … consumption of Russian gas is growing from year to year. Last year, it increased by 13 percent,” he also said.
The pipeline, which is already being built, will concentrate 80 percent of Russian gas sales to Europe on the German route from 2020.
Putin has no intention being on the sidelines while Europe sorts through its new stage of development.
And let me be clear; the trajectory of the past two decades of European development is over; the question is what will the next phase become.
And Putin intends to become a key stakeholder in what comes next, which is amazing because not so long ago, the Soviet empire disintegrated.
He will clearly play off of Western developments both at the intra-European and trans-atlantic levels.