Vladimir Putin is already at war with Europe

Le HuffingtonPost, February 23, 2015, Strade, February 24, 2015, InformNapalm (en), February 27, 2015, InformNapalm (fr), February 27, 2015, EuropeanSotnia, March 10, 2015, InformNapalm (de), March 26, 2015

At the Munich Security Conference at the beginning of February, Sergey Lavrov caused general amusement among the ministers and diplomats present when he declared that the reunification of Germany had happened without a referendum. Unquestionably, the cream of European diplomacy was laughing as much at itself – and could just as easily have cried. A year after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, more than fifteen months since the beginning of the Euromaidan in Kyiv, and more than fifteen years since Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in Russia, these politicians and diplomats are at a loss to describe what is shaking up the European continent.

In addition to the annexation of Crimea and the direct and indirect aggression in the Donbass, the last few months have seen Russian authorities, not least Vladimir Putin himself, go out of their way to multiply threats of nuclear retaliation – either in more or less veiled declarations 1 or by sending strategic bombers armed with a nuclear bomb and the transponder cut to fly over the coasts of the European Union, or by installing strategic missiles in annexed Crimea… All of this is not only extremely unpleasant, but also extremely worrying. All the more so because we have every reason to fear that the official impetus for Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Hollande’s participation in the Minsk II negotiations – a letter sent by President Putin – misses what is at the heart of the matter, namely a host of new threats. How else can we interpret President Hollande’s declaration on the eve of the Minsk Summit: Either we have a lasting accord (in Minsk) or it is war ? 2 How else can we understand Mrs. Merkel’s refusal to participate in negotiations in the Kazakh capital a few weeks earlier? What conditions could have been missing from a possible summit in Astana that were later satisfied in Minsk? Looking at the outcomes of Minsk II, the answer is: none.

If the lines of semantic clarification have finally begun to move since Minsk II, we are still wide of the mark. Yes, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs 3 did acknowledge that there is a veritable war between Russia and Ukraine. And both the EU and Washington have in one way or another recognized the Russian army’s direct involvement in Ukraine. Yet the reality is much more serious than that. Russia is not at war only with Ukraine. In one or more of the modus operandi of its strategy of hybrid war, Russia is already at war with NATO, the United States, and the whole of Europe. This harsh reality, which should be at the heart of the West’s political rebuttal, is unfortunately still not a part of the Obama-Merkel-Hollande strategy.

Preamble for a new strategy: an economic « nuclear bomb »

If there is never an easy answer to blackmail, much less nuclear blackmail, two things are nevertheless certain: giving in to these threats is not an option, and the absence of an appropriate reaction is an invitation to Russia to escalate its aggression. So let Mr. Putin send his strategic bombers to fly over the European coastline, and multiply his allusive declarations. And let United States and Europe decide that any further nuclear threat, whether explicit or implicit, will entail the immediate exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT system. If the West took such a position and made its reasons clear, it would have the added advantage of immediately providing a subject for thought for the bigwigs of the Russian regime whose private transactions depend on the system.

Minsk II: an agreement that is already half-dead

Laurent Fabius 4 may say what he will, and for him « the cease-fire in the Donbass is generally being respected », but there can be no illusions about the Minsk II agreement 5. On two crucial points – the status of the Donbass region and the freeing of Captain Savchenko – the Russians have already broken the spirit and the letter of the agreement. It is therefore necessary to take stock of the limitations of the Obama-Merkel-Hollande strategy. Europe, the United States, and with them, Japan, Canada, Australia and South Korea, must work to reconsider the bulk of their policies in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and develop a strategy that is not simply a reaction to Moscow’s initiatives, but one that pre-empts, and if possible, prevents them.

Policies aimed at Russia: starting from scratch

The annexation of Crimea « is illegal, and as such, it threatens the European infrastructure of security. One day, we will have to give Crimea back to Ukraine. » 6 It should be obvious that it was not Nicolas Sarkozy 7 who said this, nor was it Daniel Cohn-Bendit who, on the day after the Russian attack, said, « Come on, let’s not kid ourselves: Crimea is part of Russia. That’s how it is » 8. No, it was a Russian figure of the highest order, Mikhail Kasyanov, the Russian Prime Minister from 2000 to 2004.

A large portion of the political and diplomatic establishment no longer has any illusion about the current Russian regime thanks to the multitude of freedom-quashing counter-reforms that have been put in place in that country since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, since the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. That said, what remains is to draw the correct conclusions and adopt positions that are, at the very least, beyond the positions currently defended by the freest and most clear-sighted Russians. Not to do so would weaken those who will have to bring Russia back onto the path toward democracy and the Rule of Law. To do so means helping them very shortly to get rid of the grim inheritance of the old power structure.

Therefore, from among existing sanctions, we must draw up a list of those that will end only when Crimea is returned to Ukraine. But the future stability of Europe – including Russia – requires us to go further. We must immediately impose new sanctions for each of the situations where Russia has violated the sovereignty of her neighbors. In addition to the annexation de jure of Crimea, these sanctions should also be explicitly tied to the de facto occupation of a part of the Donbass, to the de facto occupation of Transnistria and to the de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 9

If we take the economist Paul de Grauwe’s proposal as a foundation, the European Union could introduce five European taxes on Russian gas and oil – one each for Crimea, the Donbass, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. These taxes would be discontinued one by one as each situation is resolved, and they would be used by the EU to compensate European gas providers for the loss they would incur due to the momentary increase in costs that the introduction of the taxes would entail, at least until market fluctuation is able to absorb them. At the same time, it must be a top priority in establishing a common EU energy policy to form a purchasing confederation with exclusive authority to negotiate with Russian gas and oil producers.

Provide arms to Ukraine, or not ?

In order to pre-empt the probable events of the coming months, we must immediately see the relevance of the declarations made by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the head of the pro-Russian “separatists” – backed by the declarations of the spokesperson for the Kremlin – which indicate that the military objective was not limited only to the region of Debaltseve, but rather encompassed the whole of the Donbass 10. The question to ask therefore is not whether the Russian offensive will resume, but when it will resume. Knowing that the existing sanctions will only produce significant effects in the medium term, and knowing the extent of Russia’s violations of the Minsk Protocol (massive provisioning of modern weapons, sending thousands of Russian soldiers and mercenaries, bombing Ukrainian positions from within Russian territory, …), the moment has come to recognize that without modern defensive weapons (anti-tank missiles, radars, etc.), the Ukrainian army will not be able hold the demarcation line as defined by Minsk II, despite its impressive modernization and the determination of its soldiers. Not acting now means subjecting ourselves to a Minsk III, signalling a new defeat for Europe.

A new CoCom

The vagueness surrounding the question of selling arms to Russia is harmful. The time has come for the Member States of the EU, for the United States as well as Japan, Canada, South Korea, Australia and Norway to decree a total embargo on arms deliveries to Russia – including those covered by contracts that pre-date the invasion of Crimea, like the Mistral contract – and to create, as Daniel W. Drezner suggests 11, an institution comparable to the CoCom of the Cold War that is charged with verifying that countries respect the ban on delivering weapons and sensitive or dual technologies 12 to Russia.


Russian television stations constitute one of the most powerful weapons in the Kremlin’s arsenal. With the exception of a few regional stations 13, they pass along the Kremlin’s shameless propaganda day in and day out. The directors of these stations, as well as the journalists most deeply engaged in the disinformation campaign, should be blacklisted by the EU, the United State and their allies. In addition, this blacklist should also include everyone involved in the abduction and transfer of Captain Nadiya Savchenko to Russia. 14

Three questions for Europe

It will therefore have taken Europe nearly one year to recognize that Russia was indeed the mastermind in the Donbass war. We cannot afford to wait out another year of « reflection » to size up the threat that the Russian regime represents. Mrs. Merkel’s various incantations, such as « We’d like Russia to become our partner » 15, are, at best, nothing more than platitudes; at worst, they are the sign of a staggering political void. What is at stake is neither Russia nor the interests of partnering with Russia: the question, the only question, concerns the nature of the regime in place in Moscow. No partnership is conceivable with the regime of Vladimir Putin and his vertical of power. What matters to the West and to Russia is to be rid of him as quickly as possible. Obviously it is up to the Russians to act, but the task of Western countries is not to complicate their endeavor.

Neo-Kantian credos and getting bogged down in dreams of former national glory are pure illusions and necessarily constitute a serious threat to the security of the continent. Europe can no longer skimp on a common policy of defense and security. It is simply appalling that more than a year after the annexation of Crimea, no European leader has considered it his or her duty to suggest that this question be put on the agenda of the European Council. All the more so because the choice is not between a new politically quaint initiative like the creation of an bi- or multi-national battalion and the great leap into a single European army, but rather between « nothing » and the creation, by those Member States of the EU who are interested, of a common (and communitarian) European army that would neither threaten the existence of national armies, nor membership in NATO.

The signs of the EU’s cleavage are multiplying: Vladimir Putin’s grand flourish in Budapest, the invitation of the Greek Defense Minister, Panos Kammenos, to Moscow, rumors that the Italian Prime Minister will shortly visit the Russian capital, the marginalization of EU institutions by two States… If there is not a radical change in course, the very existence of the EU will be in jeopardy. Measures to safeguard and reinforce the cohesion of the EU are paramount. To begin with, Member States should break with the paralyzing logic that decisions must be made unanimously. On the basis of Article 48 § 7 of the Treaty, Member States could decide that all decisions concerning relations with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia and Georgia be made by a qualified majority. It would be equally opportune for Member States to suspend all ministerial visits to Russia and all visits to them by Russian ministers. Lastly, and most importantly, the President of the European Council must be given exclusive authority to deal with the Russian President and government, as well as final say on the implementation of European policy with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia and Georgia.

(Translation: Anis Memon)

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  1. Now, according to Russia’s chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, even a decision about the use of nuclear arms ‘will be taken personally by Mr Putin, who has the undoubted support of the Russian people’”. “What Russia Wants: From cold war to hot war”, The Economist, 14 February 2015.
  2. « The Chancellor and I believe that there is a risk of war at the gates of Europe. I think this is our last chance. If we do not succeed in finding, not a compromise, but a lasting peace agreement, well, we know exactly what will happen. It has a name, and that name is war ». Declaration by President François Hollande, 11 February 2015.
  3. Declaration by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Foreign Affairs Minister, on 12 February 2015: “The most important thing is that Moscow and Kyiv have agreed to a ceasefire which will go into effect Saturday evening.”
  4. Laurent Fabius on his Twitter account, 17 February 2015.
  5. Today [February 20], we have to face the reality that almost one week later there have been more than 300 violations of the ceasefire”. Statement by the President of the European Council, 20 February 2015.
  6. Ukraine: ‘What Vladimir Putin Wants’, by his former Prime Minister”, interview with Mikhail Kasyanov by Vincent Jauvert, L’Obs, 11 February 2015.
  7. Nicolas Sarkozy has in fact stated that « Crimea chose Russia, and there is no fault in that », L’Obs, 9 February 2015.
  8. « Ukraine: Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Lesson on Pragmatism », France 24, 4 March 2014.
  9. « Another Step toward Empire: Moscow ‘Abolishes’ Borders with Abkhazia and South Osetia », Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia, 19 February 2015.
  10. Currently, Russian forces and their proxies occupy about one third of the the Donbass.
  11. Daniel W. Drezner, “How the West should respond to Putin”, The Washington Post, 13 February 2015.
  12. According to a Polish newspaper for example, France is preparing to deliver drone submarines to … Khazakstan: http://www.defence24.pl/News_powstana-kazachsko-francuskie-drony-podwodne-rosja-uzyska-dostep-do-technologii, Defence 24, 20 February 2015.
  13. The Kremlin has just announced that regional television stations that do not match with the power structure will be made to toe the line.
  14. http://en.odfoundation.eu/a/5883,savchenko-list-persons-involeved-in-persecution-of-n-savchenko
  15. « We’d like Russia to become our partner, we’d like to do this together with Russia, not against Russia », Unian, 18 February 2015

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