To understand Europe’s confused, conflicted reaction to Vladimir Putin’s brazen grab of real estate in its own back yard, look no further than the DCNS shipyards in the city of Saint Nazaire on France’s Atlantic coast. There riding at anchor is the pride of the French navy. A new model warship designed for the sort of nimble, surgical attack that modern warfare requires, it measures over 200 yards long. With a displacement of some 22,000 tons, it can carry 500 or more troops, 16 attack helicopters and a squadron of battle tanks or amphibious assault vehicles, and includes a full onboard field hospital and sophisticated command and control center. That makes it a powerful tool second only to an aircraft carrier to project lethal force around the globe. Its fitting-out virtually completed, it began sea trials in the Atlantic just two weeks ago.
But the French navy won’t be adding this Mistral-class ship, the most potent man-of-war in their fleet after the carrier Charles de Gaulle, to the three others in service. French admirals can eat their hearts out, but the name on its hull is not even remotely French: Vladivostok, written in Cyrillic characters. No, the new owner is the Voyenno-morskoy Flot Rossiyskoy Federatsii, whose top brasswere mighty pleased when they witnessed the launch in Saint Nazaire last October 15. They see the Vladivostok as an important addition to their ongoing rearmament program calculated to make the aging Russian fleet, severely neglected due to lack of funding since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, once again a threat to Western naval power. And this won’t be a one-off. After entering service later this year, the Vladivostok will be joined by a sister ship from France, aptly named, in the current crisis, Sebastopol. Russia has an option on two more.
Vladimir Putin concocted this deal during his June 2010 visit to Paris as part of France’s promotional Year of Russia. He already had Western Europe hooked on East-West trade by virtue of its dependence on Russian oil and gas. France, lagging behind Germany as Russia’s trading partner, desperately wanted to expand business. Despite the Kremlin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy laid it on thick. “We want to erase the Cold War,” he declared. “Russia is not an adversary but a partner.” He grandly envisioned a vast region of joint prosperity and security, reviving Charles de Gaulle’s dream of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.
To those who questioned the wisdom of transferring sensitive military technology eastward, he claimed that would be no problem. But Putin, never one to mince words, was blunt about what he was after. “We already know how to build this type of ship,” he said. “We want the technology, not an empty hull.” He got it, and the Russian military was already smacking its lips. As a happy Russian admiral bragged, “With a ship like this in our Black Sea Fleet, we could have invaded Georgia in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.”
The $1.4 billion sale was the first time in the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that a member state had sold advanced military hardware to Russia. At last week’s European Union summit in Brussels on the Ukrainian crisis, President François Hollande was asked at a press conference whether the sale would go through despite the flagrant Russian aggression so roundly condemned at the meeting. “We respect our signed contracts,” he replied with all the smooth guile of a socialist turned businessman. “We are not yet at that stage [of sanctions] and we hope to avoid getting there.”
Ukrainian interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk might want to ponder just how much support he can count on from his fellow Europeans as he visits the White House this week to discuss the crisis in Crimea with Barack Obama. It’s fine to vow that Ukraine will never give up a centimeter of its territory to Russia. But the House-voted $1 billion loan-guarantee aid bill and U.S. travel bans and financial sanctions on Russian officials won’t impress Putin if Western Europe sticks its collective head in the sand while counting its rubles.
The March 6 EU summit in Brussels produced much of the familiar posturing and gesticulating habitual in muddling through European crises. There were thunderous condemnations galore, threats of “targeted sanctions,” demands that Russia start negotiations with Ukraine and “produce results within a limited time frame.” The EU might even go so far, heaven forbid, as to cancel a scheduled summit with Putin in June. It all reminded me of the empty threats by a distraught King Lear: “I will do such things — what they are yet I know not — but they shall be the terrors of the earth!” You could almost hear Putin giggling over such impotence as he looked forward to the day when most of Western Europe would be his de facto vassals.
Germany’s Angela Merkel said “We can’t do business as usual”? Britain’s David Cameron suggested punitive measures in energy and finance, along with an arms embargo? Brave talk, but as the Economist reported, diplomats warned behind the scenes that it was all more than the market could bear. And it is indeed clear that London is not about to pull the plug on its colony of Russian oligarchs or compromise the flow of hot Russian money into the safety of The City’s banks. Nor is France ready to halt its determined effort to increase trade with Moscow, including the huge investments there by automaker Renault and, of course, its arms sales — Paris breathed an almost audible sigh of relief when the EU decided after all not to take up the question of an arms embargo in response to Putin’s aggression.
With trade between Germany and Russia growing at something like 4 percent a year, 6,000 German companies partnering with Russian firms, and nearly 300,000 German jobs dependent on all that, it obviously will be business as usual for Berlin, whatever Merkel says. Especially now that she is abandoning nuclear power, making the country more reliant than ever on natural gas from the east — already the source of some 30 percent of its energy. Good luck to her or any other European politician trying to explain to voters that their homes will be cold next winter in order to defend a spit of land called Crimea in the Black Sea that few can find on a map.
In these times that try men’s souls, you hear the inevitable calls for NATO to do something. The Poles, who apparently still believe in the Article 5 promise that all 28 members will come to the aid of any who are threatened, requested a snap meeting at the Alliance’s Brussels headquarters on March 4. Doubtless inspired by John Kerry’s weak, schoolmarmish lecturing from Kiev that “It is not appropriate to invade a country and dictate at gunpoint what you are trying to achieve,” they got rhetoric that “allies stand together in the spirit of strong solidarity” and not much else. That, plus suspending scheduled meetings with the Russians, “sends a very clear message to Russia,” according to the delusional NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Oh, and he used the occasion to remind member states to please spend more on defense — only seven out of the 28 are meeting their defense budget goals.
For months, the European Union’s approach to Ukraine has been either stupid or downright mischievous. Maybe both. The Eurocrats in Brussels have no feel or talent for power politics, obsessed as they are with the idea of constant enlargement of the EU. They must have known that Putin feels threatened by the increasing pressure on his western flank from the EU’s continuing eastward expansion. So they were playing with fire when they proposed an association agreement with Ukraine to President Victor Yanukovych last November. When Putin countered with promises of easy money, cheap energy, and political support, Yanukovych shunned the EU proposal, sending pro-Western protesters into Maidan Square.
Some prudent European diplomats wanted to wait at least for new, legitimizing elections and a permanent government in Ukraine before proceeding with the deal. But the EU, now hoist with its own foolish petard, is plunging ahead. Yes, Putin is a paranoid autocrat who believes that the collapse of the USSR was a tragedy and who would like to restore the Soviet empire. But the beginning of wisdom is not to wave provocative red flags under his nose when he holds all the geopolitical cards.
Having set Ukraine afire, the EU’s sorcerer’s apprentices now plan to implement its “Eastern Partnership” agenda by formalizing association agreements with Russian neighbors Georgia and Moldova. What will Putin’s reaction be to what he sees as further hostile encirclement by the West? We will know soon enough, because they have declared their intention to sign the agreements by August 2014. You have to admire the Eurocrats’ sense of history: that will mark the very centenary of Europe’s stumbling into the unnecessary, unintentional Great War.