AmericanOpinion

Tusk, Putin, and Lord Salisbury

Western Europe is showing serious signs of splintering over isolating Russia.

By Matthew Dal Santo

With some European capitals increasingly inclined to soften sanctions against Russia, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and former prime minister of Poland, has added his voice to those warning against any departure from the European Union’s present tough line. Since being installed as council president last December, Tusk’s public pronouncements capture the delusions that, in Europe as in America, helped beget the crisis in Ukraine.

Consider his words early last month:

“I know — it’s not my intuition, but my knowledge,” he said, “that Putin’s policy is much simpler than our sophisticated discussions. The only effective answer to Putin’s clear and simple policy is pressure. [His policy is] simply to have enemies, to be stronger than them, to destroy them, and to be in conflict.” 

If what Tusk meant was that Russia, like the United Kingdom, has no permanent friends, only permanent interests, he might have had a claim on the world’s attention. He might even have indicated a path for improving relations with Moscow.

But what he in fact described was a remarkably counterproductive foreign policy. Does Tusk really mean that Russia’s sole and abiding goal is to turn the whole of Europe — nay, the world — against it for the pleasure of universal isolation and unending global struggle and destruction? In recent history, perhaps only Mao went that far. Even Hitler had allies.

Tusk’s problem is that several European states — including Greece, Cyprus, Hungary, Slovakia, Italy, Austria, and the Czech Republic — want either to weaken sanctions or do away with them altogether. He also confided that one of the most worrying aspects of Athens’s economic travails is the opportunity it offers Moscow to woo it away from Brussels. Fair enough. But then the problem is not that Russia is bent on making "enemies" but that it is making friends.

Even if what Tusk meant was that Russia is playing a divide-and-rule game in Europe, he is only, at best, partly right: throughout the euro crisis, the EU has done a marvellous job dividing itself. Indeed, it is the collective European institutions of which Tusk is now head that have created the conditions in which Russia can plausibly present itself as Greece’s friend and benefactor. (Having submitted for years to the medicine doled out by its ally and European partner Germany, is it any wonder that Greece should be asking whether "with friends like these…"?)

Contrary to Tusk’s diagnosis of Russia’s "universal enemy strategy," then, Moscow has sought to improve relations with the EU’s desperate, pragmatic, or frankly admiring members. To be sure, this has been motivated more by self-interest than philanthropy. Yet the truth remains that, if today Russia isn’t welcome in Europe as an enemy, it isn’t welcome as a friend either.

Harmfully, Brussels remains impervious to that kernel of real-world experience that says that it is the nature of different states to have different interests and it is the basic responsibility of their leaders to pursue them. Like Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, Vladimir Putin’s crime — or one of them — is to have upset this idyll.

This error is compounded by a decades-old expectation in Brussels and Washington that Russia should play nice at all costs to its own interests.

When Russia has tried to be friendly with the West, it has got precious little in return. Russia’s opposition to NATO bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo was overridden in 1994 and again in 1999. In 2003, the Bush administration ignored Russia’s objections when America invaded Iraq. In Afghanistan, Moscow nonetheless consented to the overland and air transit of US military supplies and the use of bases in Central Asian republics that — we forget — had been sovereign USSR territory less than fifteen years before. In prosecuting its war against the Taliban, this "Northern Supply Route" saved the United States $133 million a year.

Washington replied by incorporating all of the former Warsaw Pact and three former Soviet republics into NATO — up to the outskirts of Saint Petersburg — and declaring its intention to install a missile defence system on Czech and Polish territory, something the Russians feared would ultimately strip Russia of its last equaliser with America: nuclear weapons. NATO simultaneously ignored Russian anxieties about the disenfranchisement of Russian-speakers in the Baltic and proclaimed that, whatever Moscow thought on the matter, Georgia and Ukraine would one day become members.

Small wonder, then, that even the most liberal and long-suffering of Russian leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev, feels short-changed. When asked in January about the origins of the crisis in Ukraine, Gorbachev replied: ‘The Americans began by surrounding Russia with so-called rings of defence — NATO's eastward expansion. NATO intervened militarily in the Yugoslavian civil war without the consent of the United Nations … All that triggered a backlash in Russia. No Kremlin leader can ignore something like that."

Indeed, if it’s necessary to appease Vladimir Putin now, it’s because the greater West has spent the better of the past quarter century either in denial about the existence of Russia’s interests or riding roughshod over them. (And have we forgotten that fewer than two years ago, Putin spared Obama a new Middle Eastern war by leaning on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to get chemical weapons out of Syria?)

On Russia, America shares Europe’s delusions. But Western policies towards Russia will continue to fall short of their goal — which presumably remains restoring peace to eastern Ukraine — until Tusk and other Western leaders take to heart former British prime minister Lord Salisbury’s warning against "sticking to the carcasses of dead policies." There can only be a diplomatic end to this crisis to the extent that Western governments accept not only that Russia has legitimate interests, but also that these do not always coincide with the European Union’s or NATO’s.

In his memoirs, the former British political aide Alistair Campbell recalls an exchange between Putin and Tony Blair as the latter implored him to recognise the peaceful intentions behind NATO’s expansion. "This is ridiculous," the Russian president is said to have gasped over dinner. "I am a Russian. I cannot agree with the Americans on everything."

As President Tusk continues to settle into his new job, this anecdote might help him find his feet.