The G-7 summit in Germany on June 7 and 8 produced no positive change in President Barack Obama’s hard-line stance against Russia. The White House insists that economic sanctions on Russia due to the Ukraine crisis continue, pending “full implementation of the Minsk agreements and respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed the U.S. position at the meeting, saying, “Britain hasn’t let our pre-eminence in financial services get in the way of taking a robust response to Russia-backed aggression, and I don’t think other countries should either.”
European Council President Donald Tusk also echoed the hard line to the other G-7 member states — France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Japan. “If anyone wants to start a discussion about changing the sanctions regime, it could only be about strengthening it,” he said.
But is the G-7 as united in its stance as these comments suggest? In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted the day before the G-7 gathering that European unanimity about the sanctions is weakening, even as events in Ukraine suggest deterioration in the Minsk 2 timetable — the schedule agreed upon by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France during their February summit in Belarus’ capital.
In his skillful chat with the two Italian reporters in Moscow, Putin questioned U.S. motives and claimed that the Ukraine crisis is the result of a U.S.-“engineered” coup d’état that got out of control.
“Last year, on Feb. 21,” Putin said, pointing to the events in the Maidan revolt in Kiev, “President [Viktor] Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition signed an agreement on how to proceed, how to organize political life in the country and on the need to hold early elections. They should have worked to implement this agreement, especially since three European foreign ministers signed this agreement as guarantors of its implementation.”
The three witnesses were German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and French Foreign Ministry representative Eric Fournier.
“If those colleagues,” Putin said about the witnesses, “were used for the sake of appearances and they were not in control of the situation on the ground, which was in fact in the hands of the U.S. ambassador or a [CIA] resident, they should have said, ‘You know, we did not agree to a coup d’état, so we will not support you. You should go and hold elections instead.’”
In effect, Putin bluntly accused the CIA and the U.S. State Department as the culprits in wrecking the Feb. 21 agreement and using Germany, France and Poland as props.
On his read, the U.S. is using Ukraine’s tragedy to frighten Europe. Why? Because the U.S. believes it can maintain supremacy over Europe if Russia is cast as the villain.
“Let’s suppose that the United States would like to maintain its leadership in the Atlantic community,” Putin proposed. “It needs an external threat, an external enemy to ensure this leadership. Iran is clearly not enough. This threat is not very scary or big enough. Who can be frightening? And then suddenly this crisis unfolds in Ukraine. Russia is forced to respond.”
‘All of us, including me, have been talking for a long time about the need to establish a common economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.’
President of Russia
Whatever one makes of Putin’s accusations, his strategic read of the situation is sound. The U.S. is using NATO and the Ukraine crisis to extend its influence into Eastern Europe at the expense of Russia. The question is how Putin will respond.
Putin’s grand strategy
Putin’s interview included several references to the Kremlin’s grand strategy of preaching the Common Eurasian Home theme, the idea being that Europe and Asia form a supercontinent that, when aligned, can dominate the world. His pitch to Europe is to turn its eyes away from Washington and toward Moscow and Beijing.
For example, Putin used a wry quotation from the 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck — “It isn’t discussions that count, but potential” — in order to remind 21st century German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the German-speaking Russian president is a fan of Teutonic geopolitics. Putin’s remark reiterates the Russian opinion that closer ties could bring greater prosperity to Europe as a well as Russia.
He was keen to romance two particular European states that are troubled by the confounding eurozone crisis: Italy and Greece. He emphasized that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently visited Russia and that he in turn has an upcoming visit to Milan “for the celebration of the Russia Day at the Universal Exhibition Expo 2015.”
Putin added, “All this, of course, lays the foundation for a special relationship between our countries. And the incumbent prime minister’s visit to Russia sent a very important message showing that Italy is willing to develop these relations.”
With Greece, Putin was equally suggestive of fresh ties. “We are building our relations with Greece irrespective of whether it is an EU, eurozone or NATO member.”
His remarks are well timed to appeal to the struggling Greek government. Greece’s international creditors attended the G-7 in search of payments by the end of June. Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras has declared these demands “absurd.”
“It is not up to us here in Russia to decide what is more beneficial and preferable for Greece,” Putin cagily said, leaving the Kremlin door open and the light on for Athens. “Once again, it is up to the Greek people to make a sovereign decision in dialogue with their main European partners.”
With all this turmoil, Putin rightly sees the potential to swing the weakest parts of the EU eastward, away from the U.S. orbit.
The European Union is scheduled to decide later this summer if it will maintain economic sanctions against Russia. Certainly, the financial frailty in the EU, the immigration crisis, the “Grexit” threat, and even the cloud of Britain’s possibly leaving the EU (or “Brexit”) make a case that no one needs more pain by turning away Russian business.
However, it appears from Putin’s Corriere Della Sera comments that Russia has already launched on a course well beyond the Ukraine crisis and the mechanics of Minsk 2. He sounds genuinely aspirational, like a futurist, when he makes a startling Gaullist case for the Eurasian supercontinent:
You see, all of us, including me, have been talking for a long time about the need to establish a common economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. In fact, French President Charles de Gaulle said something similar a lot earlier than me. Today nobody objects to it. Everybody says, ‘Yes, we should aspire to this.’