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Russia’s Rejection of German & French Entreaties Is Portentous

7 February 2015

    This week’s empty-handed return of Greek supplicants Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis bodes ill in terms of future European stability, but the empty-handed return of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande from their extraordinary Moscow expedition is a sign of much greater problems on the horizon. The fact that they went to Russia at all, let alone on an urgent and unplanned basis, is testament to the serious geopolitical fires that have been ignited by Vladimir Putin’s aggressive tests of Western will. The deep divisions he has opened within the EU and NATO, as well as between the EU and the United States, will be difficult to mend, let alone contain, without new thinking and forceful leadership. 

    Russia violated the most sacrosanct shared principle of the post-World War II world – inviolable borders – when it boldly annexed Crimea last March. The fact that it was able to do so without encountering any meaningful resistance exposed alarming disunity, irresoluteness, and impotence within and among Western alliances. Unfortunately, geopolitical weakness inevitably creates vacuums that are filled by the bold, and Putin is now openly engaged in a proxy war to obtain the de facto annexation of eastern Ukraine.

    The EU community is supposed to “speak and act as one in world affairs”, through its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The fact that Merkel and Hollande summarily ditched the EU machinery and went on their own foreign policy mission shows that at best the EU machinery is far too cumbersome, and at worst, that in any future global crisis it’s again going to be “every man for himself”. Their unprecedented foray also reveals that they consider Russia’s actions to have created an extreme emergency. 

    Any doubt there may have been about the latter conclusion was disturbingly dispelled by the startling “stand down” exhortations that Merkel and Holland emphatically shouted to their Western allies upon returning from their failed mission. While Merkel reportedly went to Russia with the intent of warning Putin that he “faces tougher actions unless he agrees to help end the escalating violence in Ukraine”, she and Hollande instead came back warning their own allies not to provide any weapons to Ukraine. Those highly undiplomatic public admonitions elicited immediate expressions of disagreement by NATO’s top military commander and the US Vice President, as well as outright objections by key members of the United States Senate. (4). A scripted outcome could not have served Putin any better, but then again, he actually did script the entire event. 

    Angela Merkel’s subsequent claim that the borders of Europe are “inviolable” was neither an accurate description of their present state, nor a credible promise to keep them so. As everyone in her Munich Security Conference audience undoubtedly understood, that pronouncement amounted to whistling past the graveyard. 

    Western leaders urgently need to let go of their wishful “Kumbaya” thinking and recognize that Vladimir Putin is a very shrewd geopolitical actor who enjoys uncommon political control over his country, and whose calculated strategic moves present existential threats to the “settled” world order. Supposedly-crippling financial sanctions have not dissuaded him in the least, and never will. He will continue to exploit every found weakness and advantage to Russia’s benefit until faced with credible shows of force by Western politicians who have begun to think and act like leaders of world powers themselves. 

© 2015 F. Emmett Fitzpatrick, III. All rights reserved.