Poutine, l’Ukraine, les faces cachées
Having served as a diplomat under Gorbachev and then as spokesperson for Perestroika, the writer of Russian-Ukrainian origin Vladimir Fedorovski paints a complex portrait of President Putin. While Ukraine and the war being waged there by the Kremlin serve as a tragic backdrop to the publication of this essay, with its elements of a topical novel, the author has principally set out to decrypt the personality and mindset of Vladimir Putin in reference to the five individuals who comprise the warrior leader of our times: the wounded child, the sporting tactician, the deceitful spy, the injured politician and the would-be tsar.
“Historically speaking, Ukraine is Putin’s greatest failure. In absolute terms, Kiyv could be a link between Russia and the West. Putin has spent more than 18 billion euros on reinforcing his influence on Ukraine, he tried to buy the Ukrainian oligarchs, he channelled Russian gas through it to supply Europe… It was completely counter-productive. The oligarchs took the billions and invested in the United States and remain completely indifferent to Russian influence. Going even further: with the Maidan movement and the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014, Putin believes that the Americans got together with the Westerners and nationalists (the ‘neo-Nazis’, as he calls them) to arrange a coup d’état to overturn the legitimate president, Viktor Yanukovych, and replace him with his successes: Petro Poroshenko, then Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He then tried to disguise this failure with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, then military action against Kiyv in 2022”, reads the introduction by the author, who describes himself as ‘torn’ by this war (our translation throughout).
Fedorovski, who introduces himself as “one of the gravediggers of the Cold War”, and who feels that all his work has been destroyed, believes that the “situation is far more dangerous than at the height of the Cold War”. “Back then, there were agreements and limits and we were always able to distinguish between propaganda and actual politics. Now, we have such a mix of things that it is getting complicated to manage”, he writes, adding that “in geopolitical terms, we are moving towards a definitive split between Russia and the West. Two blocs are taking shape. Putin is reinforcing NATO and for the time being, NATO is reinforcing Putin, even though there is a decline in Russian public opinion. It is not official, but China provided Russia with support stations behind the front lines in Asia (…). Economically, I remain cautious about the effect of the sanctions. The purchasing power of Russian people will doubtless drop considerably, but their situation was far more dramatic under Yeltsin (…). The sanctions mainly target the oligarchs, a group of around 100 people who control 50% of the country’s wealth (…). Politically, Westerners think there will be a pro-West alternative movement in Russia. This is an illusion, at the very best a risky gamble. The downturn in economic organisation caused by the geopolitical crisis could, on the other hand, give Putin the means to bring the power of the oligarchs under control. In any case, with the fortunes they have built up, they can survive without the West and this could stir up nationalist feeling in some of them”.
The author argues that there are three keys to understanding how Putin works: (1) “he’s a street kid, the other children were afraid of him. He’s like the St Petersburg mob: he never forgives, he never backs down, he is utterly inflexible. This is where his hard-line attitude comes from”; (2) “he is an excellent judoka who pushes his adversary, uses his own strength against him. And like all Russians, he’s a chess player”; (3) “he is a spy who moves within power relationships. He has learnt how to speak the language, he is capable of convincing anybody he talks to that he is like them”.
Vladimir Fedorovski believes that “in the de-escalation that is greatly needed, it must be borne in mind that not only has [Putin] been injured by what he sees as the weakness of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, not only does he see himself as a new tsar, but we must also take account of the psychological factors that informed his youth, his sporting life, his career as a spy, his political rise to power have made him into a cunning tactician who never backs down”. He goes on to write that “a single sentence clarifies his vision: ‘anybody who does not miss the USSR has no heart. Anybody who does miss it has no intelligence…’ Putin’s mission, embedded in nostalgia, brutal power play and pugnacity, is attempting to continue a Great Russia, emanating from masterful figures from the tsars to Stalin himself. Vladimir Putin’s ambition is nothing less than to take his place among the great figures of this eternal Russia – Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Alexander II, then Stalin – and to achieve this, he has mastered the art of reinventing the country’s history and does not hesitate to manipulate it”.
“Will an alternative to the Putin system ever emerge? Is it even possible?”, the author asks, going on to answer his own question: “the political landscape seems totally under control and locked down. There’s good reason for this, as the slightest competition would enormously jeopardise the whole of the system put in place by Putin and the credibility of an authoritarian vision of the country. The Navalny affair was a cruel illustration of the fate reserved for any attempts to destabilise the power in place”. He adds that “influence of the West is seen as a danger to Russia and Alexei Navalny looks largely supported by the West. This itself makes it into the image of what the Russians fear the most: the West, which has renounced its Judeo-Christian values and is still trying to infiltrate the eternal Russia”.
Fedorovski also considers that there is a “form of general blindness on the part of the West over the economic and military alliance coming into shape between China and Russia, over the fact that Russia no longer wants the West, that it considers it a vassal state of the United States and Islamised”. In the background is the fact that the “Russians feel disdained by a West that considers itself superior”. He concludes that “Putin’s fate will be determined by his ability – or otherwise – to answer the fundamental needs of his population (…). For him to cling onto power, the war is inevitably becoming a way of maintaining the feelings of the nation, but the war is expensive, and petroleum prices will not be enough to maintain the standard of living for future generations”. (Olivier Jehin)
Vladimir Fedorovski. Poutine, l’Ukraine, les faces cachées – Un monde de tous les dangers (available in French only). Galland. ISBN: 978-2-9407-1921-1. 222 pages. €18,00
Staying on Course in Troubled Waters
This work, in the form of a compilation of texts (articles published on his blog, speeches, open letters published in the press) written or attributed to the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, retraces the significant foreign-policy events of the European Union in 2021, a “tough year”, characterised by growing inequality and an exacerbation of geopolitical challenges against the backdrop of the pandemic.
“The conflicts, tensions and struggles for influence from before the pandemic are still here, along with various global issues. The most important of these are the environmental crisis – which is not only about climate change – and the multidimensional impact of digitalisation”, Borrell sets out in his introduction, going on to add that “conflicts and civil wars are more numerous, they last longer, are often internationalised through proxy forces and are harder to resolve. Power politics are back on the agenda all over the world. New (and often authoritarian) empires are widening their influence and challenging European values and interests”.
Borrell welcomes the arrival to power of the Biden administration, allowing a change of tone and substance in the EU/US relations: “the EU and the United States are now on the same page: climate change, the Iran/CPOA negotiations, global corporate taxation, etc. The Biden administration has understood that the alliance with Europe is a way for the United States to remain among the leading countries in the world. Europe is not a burden for the United States, but an asset”.
The High Representative points out that Europe sees China as a major world player that is a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival. The Biden administration shares this point of view, although there are differences on either side of the Atlantic as to the extent of these different characteristics, he acknowledges.
Borrell reiterates that a reinforcement of the Atlantic Alliance requires the reinforcement of its European pillar. “We need to build a dialogue between the United States and the EU on all strategic issues. We advanced with this process during 2021 and now we must give it maximum substance. The multiplication of crises that we are experiencing is a good indicator of that need and urgency”, the High Representative goes on to argue.
As for the “Strategic Compass”, this is “neither a crystal ball predicting the future, nor a silver bullet that will magically enable Europe to develop a common defence policy overnight”, but a “guide for preparation, decision and action that proposes concrete steps”, stresses Borrell, who is “fully aware of the limits of purely military approaches”. He goes on to argue that “we must learn the sobering lessons of Afghanistan and other interventions. The EU will never be a classic military power; this is neither our ambition nor what the world needs. However, if you want to play a political role and shape global events, you need a toolkit that also enables presence on the ground. If you take that option off the table, others will fill the void – as we have seen in Libya and elsewhere”.
While independence was long seen as a cooperation factor, it is now being put to use for strategic purposes in a wide range of areas including technologies, rare metals and migration. Europe must therefore “reduce its vulnerability in all of the areas where some countries can manipulate our dependencies and restrict our options and choices”, argues Borrell, who muses that “we are often in a reactive mode” and that Europe must regain its sense of initiative and try to build coalitions. There is a manifest lack of initiative, it suffers from unwieldy bureaucracy and inefficiency stemming from overly slow procedures, a situation the High Representative calls for to change, albeit a mezza voce. (OJ)
Josep Borrell Fontelles. Staying on Course in Troubled Waters – EU Foreign Policy in 2021. Publications Office of the European Union. ISBN: 978-92-9463-089-6. 465 pages.
The extent of the European Parliament’s competence in Common Security and Defence Policy
In this study, Carolyn Moser (Max Planck Institute) and Steven Blockmans (CEPS) take a detailed look at the scope of the European Parliament’s competence in matters falling within the field of security and defence. Although they stress that this competence is extremely limited under the treaties, with the exception of matters related to industry and research, they also argue that from the point of view of democratic control, the Parliament can no longer be entirely sidelined from common foreign and security policy decisions and that it has considerable leeway to secure greater involvement, subject to cases brought before the Court of Justice and internal efficiency drives.
Moser and Blockmans posit that democratic control basically flounders on insufficient access to information on the processes, negotiations and decisions made by the Council in the framework of the (intergovernmental) common security and defence policy. However, in two judgments concerning an agreement with Mauritius (2014) and another with Tanzania (2016), the Court of Justice found that the Council had failed to recognise the right of the Parliament to be immediately and duly notified at all stages of the procedure, as set out in article 218(10) TFEU. Amongst other things, the Court found that “precisely because primary rules conferred to the EP a limited role in relation to the CFSP, the provision of information was essential for the institution to be in a position to exercise democratic scrutiny of the European Union’s external action and, more specifically, to verify that its powers are respected precisely in consequence of the choice of legal basis for decisions concluding an agreement”. The authors therefore consider that the Parliament should do all in its power to assert its right to information, if necessary by taking legal action. “The EP’s (near) absence in the design of the Strategic Compass, a public document which is sure to be implemented by way of one or more Council decisions, offers a suitable material basis for the Court’s involvement”, Moser and Blockmans argue. At the same time, the Parliament should attempt to obtain a revision of the inter-institutional agreement on sensitive information and give better guarantees concerning the use of information of this kind (secure consultation room, encrypted communications, security training for officials with access to it).
The two researchers also consider that the sub-committee on ‘Security and Defence’ could be made into a committee in its own right and that the Parliament could do much to improve the organisation of its work to build in greater efficiency. It should also continue to use its budgetary prerogatives to extend the parliamentary control over common security and defence policy. To this end, the Parliament could, for instance, reiterate arguments and calls for an end to off-budget mechanisms to fund EU bodies such as the European Defence Agency and the permanent structured corporation. These elements were included in the Gahler/Gonzalez Pons report of 2017, which recommended the creation of a specific section in the EU budget. Finally, although the Parliament makes full use of its prerogatives in the areas coming under the heading of industry and research, Moser and Blockmans note that matters of public procurement have become somewhat lost from sight. They therefore suggest that the EP “ask the Commission why the revision of the two procurement directives [of 2009 on defence public procurement and transfers of technology] is not on the agenda despite the lack of effect both Directives have had on the establishment of a European defence market”. (OJ)
Carolyn Moser, Steven Blockmans. The extent of the European Parliament’s competence in Common Security and Defence Policy. European Parliament. Directorate-General for External Policies. In-Depth Analysis. PE 702.559. June 2022. 44 pages. To view the study: https://aeur.eu/f/2oa