The U.S. is negotiating with Russia while excluding the Europeans. In this way, the European Union is being duped and Vladimir Putin courted, allowing him to once again feel like the agent of a superpower.
Little of substance emerged from the 50-minute conversation between the Russian and U.S. presidents, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden. Each party reaffirmed its familiar position in relation to the Ukraine conflict. But Putin appeared very satisfied after the exchange — and he has every reason to be. In the space of a few hours, this virtual meeting was organized, as he had requested. It is already the second one to take place in December. For the Kremlin, this symbolism is important: Putin dictated, and Biden reacted. Connected to this is the signal that is sent — that Russia is again being perceived as, and taken seriously as, a superpower, and that Moscow has a direct line to Washington.
As such, the Kremlin ruler has attained what he wanted: attention. The deployment of tens of thousands of troops at Russia’s border with Ukraine in recent weeks was deliberately meant to stir memories of the 2014 conflict in Crimea and Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and was accompanied by the corresponding aggressive rhetoric and threatening gestures.
A consequence of this military and verbal armament has been that in recent days Putin and the Kremlin have garnered several invitations to meetings scheduled for the beginning of January, including a “strategic stability dialogue” with the U.S., the NATO-Russia Council and a meeting with the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin must feel as though he is being positively wooed.
It is unquestionably good that there is an attempt at the highest level to prevent further escalation of the Ukraine conflict. That is also, and especially, in the interests of Europeans. In recent times, Russia’s aggressions toward its neighbors have represented the largest challenge to European security. But the fact that the U.S. does not believe it necessary to include the EU representative responsible for foreign policy amounts to an effective snub of its allies. After all, these issues relate to central political and military questions in the region.
Diplomatic Whimpering in Brussels
When European Union High Representative Josep Borrell complained that “We do not want to be, and must not be, passive onlookers who find ourselves in a situation where decisions are taken without our consultation,” it does not just sound like diplomatic whimpering, but is simultaneously an admission of failure. But that is exactly what is happening — or what should happen, as far as Putin is concerned. The U.S. president has already accommodated him to too great an extent by allowing a conversation to take place in the absence of the Europeans.
For Putin, it is a great success that in the space of a few days two direct conversations have taken place with Biden — upon the Kremlin’s request. This sends the disastrous message that the U.S. and Russia decide between themselves what happens in the rest of the world. The Europeans are, at best, consulted by Washington, even if an issue directly concerns them. That is reminiscent of the Cold War period and contradicts Biden’s declaration of his commitment to multilateralism.
Putin Does Not Take the EU Seriously; Biden Ignores It
Putin is not only concerned with Ukraine; he wants to put a stop to the expansion of NATO as a whole. That touches upon a central question of European security policy. High Representative Borrell is the figure who speaks for the European community of states. This is coupled with a telephone number, demanded by Henry Kissinger, that one can ring when one wants to call Europe. But Putin does not take the EU seriously; his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s duping of Borrell during his visit to Moscow has not been forgotten. And Biden is emulating him by plainly ignoring the Europeans’ right to a say.
This approach from Putin and Biden, which is typical for superpowers, illustrates that the EU still does not carry enough weight to be perceived as a geopolitical power. If the Europeans do not want to become a pawn used by rival superpowers, then they must promote their interests in a more robust manner.