The European conundrum

Different concerns

Print edition : May 12, 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is Angela Merkel's strategy that continues to dominate Europe's approach to Russia. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Jeremy Corbyn , Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader, who has broken ranks with the nation’s historically tough stance on Russia. Photo: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY

Europe’s relationship with Russia is complex, defined by suspicion, tough talk and, to a lesser extent, trade dependency. At present Europe is unlikely to be railroaded into any conflict with the latter.

IN February this year, Lithuanian authorities and the German army opened investigations into accusations of rape made against German soldiers stationed in the country. While the investigation was on, the media in Germany were quick to call it fake news and point the finger of suspicion at Russia as its originator. The political magazine Der Spiegel put the accusations—which German army sources told the paper amounted to “deliberate disinformation”—in the context of the recent strengthening of German and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops in Lithuania as part of NATO’s efforts to enhance its “forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance”, namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The magazine also pointed to the now-infamous “Lisa” case from 2016, involving allegations that a Russian girl had been raped in Berlin by immigrants, which Russian authorities insisted Germany was doing nothing about, but which turned out to be false.

These cases have tapped into German concerns over “fake news”—and the attempts to tarnish Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stance on immigration, particularly since national elections are due to take place in September. German authorities are so concerned about “fake news” that earlier this month they embarked on legislation that will enable fines to be imposed on social networks that do not provide options to report fake news or illegal content.

The tensions between Germany and Russia over these recent cases highlight the complexity of Europe’s current relationship with Russia, with foreign policy differences on issues ranging from Ukraine to Syria to Turkey, spilling onto the domestic political and electoral arena, making the situation ever more personal than before. These are concerns voiced not just by Germany.

Earlier this month, a number of European countries (Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, France and Germany) and the United States signed a memorandum to establish a centre devoted to tackling the so-called “hybrid threats”. “Hybrid means have been used as a tool both in power politics and in military conflict in Europe. Coercive and subversive activity to confuse, implicate and hinder decision-making processes has increased. Elections have been interfered with in manners that are not appropriate. During the ongoing migrant crisis, we have seen elements of hybrid influencing by both state actors and non-state actors,” said Timo Soni, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the signing of the memorandum in Helsinki earlier this month.

Angela Merkel’s approach

On the international stage, Europe’s relationship with Russia has been complex, and ever-changing, marked by both tough action and dialogue to ensure that existing agreements are kept—as exemplified by Angela Merkel’s approach. While she took a lead role in the introduction of sanctions against Russia following the annexation of Crimea, she has been eager to maintain Russian commitment to measures designed to calm tensions in Ukraine, agreed to at a summit in Minsk in 2016, and has kept up a regular dialogue with the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin in particular. She is due to visit Moscow in early May; while the two leaders have met on several occasions in their own countries since the Ukraine crisis, it will be the first formal bilateral visit since then, Reuters reported.

Angela Merkel’s approach contrasts with that of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who faced criticism at home and abroad for cancelling a visit to Moscow earlier this month. It was a move that some saw as a sign of Britain’s eagerness to please the U.S. government (U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was due to visit shortly after) and by others as an indicator that Johnson was viewed by many as a liability who could not be trusted with handling sensitive negotiations. (Johnson, a former journalist, has publicly changed his tune on Syria and Russia on a number of occasions—it was just over a year ago that, writing in The Spectator, he lauded Bashar al-Assad and Russia—over their tackling of ISIS in Palmyra.)

It is Angela Merkel’s strategy that continues to dominate Europe’s approach. Johnson’s subsequent attempts to persuade the G7 countries to back sanctions against Russia failed, as other leaders, both individually and in a joint statement, indicated their preference to keep open the channels with Russia. With Britain preparing to negotiate its exit from the European Union (E.U.), it is unlikely to gain further influence with its neighbours on this count.

Still, uncertainty remains, with upcoming national elections in Germany, Britain and France.

In Britain, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has broken ranks with the nation’s historically tough stance on Russia, raising questions about the impact that NATO troops on the border had on keeping tension levels high. “I don’t want to see more troops deployed on the borders between NATO and Russia, I want to see a de-escalation, ultimately a demilitarisation and better relationships between both sides of it,” he said in an interview with the BBC earlier this year, prompting accusations from the Conservatives that he was a Russian “collaborator”.

Crucial role

Angela Merkel has played a crucial role in shaping the E.U.’s stance as a group and balancing the differing concerns of the member states. While Poland has taken a tough line despite some of its sectors facing economic hardship as a result of the reciprocal sanctions imposed by Russia, others such as Greece, and Italy (also dependent on bilateral trade with Russia) have been wary of the tough approach, with Italy voicing strong opposition to the extension of sanctions over the past couple of years. “We are asking Russia to wield all of their influence on [Syrian president Bashar al-Assad] so that he enacts this transition as soon as possible, so there can be regular elections,” Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano told Financial Times in a recent interview.

While Angela Merkel’s main electoral opponent—former president of the E.U. Parliament, Martin Schulz, who now heads the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)—has adopted a stance similar to Angela Merkel’s when it comes to Russia, it remains to be seen whether he can, if elected, unite the disparate voices across Europe in the way the Chancellor has done.

The French elections will also heighten uncertainty: Francis Fillon, once praised by Putin himself, has seen his prospects of victory dwindle dramatically over a scandal involving payments made out of the public purse to his family.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, a Far Right party, has been particularly critical of sanctions against Russia, recently telling CNN that the sanctions were “completely stupid” and would only harm Europe in the long run. Like U.S. President Donald Trump, she has also faced accusations over her links to Russia, and being the recipient of funds from a Russian lender in particular. Emmanuel Macron, expected at the time of writing this to go through to the second round of the elections in May, alongside Marine Le Pen, adopts a stance similar to Angela Merkel’s and Hollande’s. He has insisted that there should be no lifting of sanctions against Russia, and has openly accused Russia of interfering in the French electoral process. Further clouding matters are the recent gains made by the Left’s candidate, Jean Luc Melenchon, who is opposed to NATO and is critical of the current policy on Russia in a vein similar to Corbyn’s.

Going forward, influencing relations will be Europe’s evolving relationship with the U.S.: Angela Merkel was close to former President Barack Obama, who let her take the lead on the West’s approach to Ukraine, and who, when exiting the White House, described her as his “closest international partner these last years”. While her relationship with Trump got off to a rocky start (in his early days as President, Trump and his associates were critical of German policies, particularly towards Europe, and Trump refused to shake hands with her at a meeting last month), both seem prepared to work together on a need-to basis, with Angela Merkel welcoming Trump’s support for the Ukrainian peace process and NATO. However, it remains unlikely that Europe will be prepared to be railroaded into any conflict with Russia, particularly with Brexit negotiations coming up and given its failure to wean itself off Russian energy supplies. According to Gazprom, the Russian energy producer, the company’s share of European gas consumption rose to a record 34 per cent in 2016. It is notable that even some of Europe’s Far Right politicians, including former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen, have been critical of the recent U.S. missile strike on Syria in retaliation for the suspected chemical weapons attack.

In this context, it is hard to see a major acceleration of tensions between Europe and Russia. It is far more likely that they will continue to simmer, eroding trust, with further allegations of political intervention likely to gather pace as the French elections get under way.