Vladimir Putin is a statesman from the previous century, but who operates in our time. The head of the Kremlin looks at the map of the world with a different eye than our Western leaders do. When British or German politicians take a look at their neighbors, or more distant countries, they think about how best to cooperate in order to achieve common goals. Putin sees the world only in Darwinian terms: there are the strong, and there are the weak.
So what does the Russian President see when he looks at Europe?
He sees a continent in deep crisis that never seems capable to stand up as one man. The union is more divided than ever, and appears to be rather lonely.
The United Kingdom, one of the union’s most important members, is negotiating its exit following a dramatic referendum. European far-right parties, which are predominantly Russian-friendly, have gained considerable popularity across the continent and are putting tremendous pressure on the current governments. Most European leaders have managed to break the populist tide without much damage in 2017, but which will not necessarily have the right to a second chance if they do not succeed. The migrant crisis – which Putin wanted to worsen just to help the right-wing radical parties – is far from over, and will have at least largely contributed to the weakening of the « only man in Europe »: Angela Merkel, who even though seems to be pulling through, will not emerge strengthened from her quest for a ruling coalition.
Moreover, the migrant crisis has wreaked havoc in Eastern Europe, where the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary have categorically refused the quotas imposed by a decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union. This decision has actually only exacerbated the hostility already present in these countries vis-à-vis Brussels. These nations rejoiced, and even said they were proud to become members of the Union when they gained access. However, they now complain frequently about the choices of the European Commission. And even if a slight murmur of European renewal seems to circulate following the victory of Emmanuel Macron in France, which might force some of these countries to fall into rank, a single president will never be able to unite the continent to the point of dissuading the Russian President to toy with Western democracies as he wishes to – especially in view of the discord that reigns through the EU.
For those who know the Slav mentality, appearance is paramount, sometimes even more than substance. The Soviet Union has used and abused of the projection of a unique and strong economic model, all supported by a nuclear arsenal capable of annihilating the planet several times over – a strategy that caused the implosion of their system . This means that it is not to a former member of the KGB, master of bluff, that we will learn to arrange a smokescreen. NATO’s latest military program – the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) – is easily recognizable for what it is: an insignificant military parade. The purpose of the EFP program, which is designed to inflate the military presence of the organization in Eastern Europe in the face of the recurrent agitation of Russian troops, is only designed to reassure the local populations of the Baltic countries and Poland, because reality is quite different – a reality which the generals and politicians of these countries are well aware of. The world is not fooled, and Vladimir Putin either: NATO would be nothing without the financial and military support of the United States, which now will decrease as Donald Trump wants to drastically reduce the economic contribution of his country to the organization – not to mention that the last American tank present on the European continent was sent back from the US base of Ramstein in April 2013. To speak frankly, NATO in its current state does not have the capacity to retaliate against a possible Russian military aggression of the Baltic countries, or Poland – let alone Ukraine, which is not even a member of the organization, and therefore remains at the complete mercy of Vladimir Putin.
To conclude, one should not forget Turkey, which found itself isolated after the break-up of negotiations for a possible accession to the EU. This particularly annoyed Tayyip Erdogan, and what we are witnessing since then is a continuous rapprochement of Russia and Turkey. Erdogan does not deny himself the chance of having a strong man like Vladimir Putin to support him in his fight against the sermonizing West, and the leader of the Kremlin welcomes the opportunity of an ally south of Europe, who will offer him unconditional access to the Mediterranean Sea. The European Union seems lonely, divided, and even surrounded, which means in the eyes of Vladimir Putin: Europe is weak.