Putin and the contradictions of Europe | International

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At the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, more than 10 years ago, Angela Merkel spoke on the phone with Vladimir Putin. The EU was in full autistic disorder, after the austerity prescribed by Merkel to the South to pay for her economic sins. Neither Brussels nor the allies moved a single finger when Putin had already annexed Crimea, beyond expressing his disappointment. At the end of the conversation, the German chancellor said she had the feeling that the Russian president lived “on another planet”.

From that planet, Putin has shown great talent for revealing the contradictions of Europe, which are more or less the contradictions of Germany: Berlin has been announcing for weeks that it will send weapons to Ukraine, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz has managed to delaying those deliveries again and again—although Wednesday’s announcement from the Ramstein base that it will send 50 Gepard main battle tanks sounds a lot like a 180-degree turn; Germany has been promising for months that it will unhook from Russian energy, but we must remember that the last gas crisis ended with a trip by Merkel to the East in which she agreed with Putin, behind the backs of European partners, the construction of the gas pipeline North Stream.

These contradictions come from afar, but they are accentuated by the war. And they are not just German. Europe knows that very harsh sanctions must be applied after the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine, but at the same time it is very dependent on Russian gas and oil: it runs the risk of a very powerful boomerang effect. German industry has been announcing the apocalypse if that happens for some time, despite the fact that think tanks Germans and the Bundesbank itself limit the German recession associated with this measure to a loss of 2% of GDP; German recipes cut the Greek economy by 25% 15 years ago, if I may be allowed a point of demagoguery.

Supply cuts are big words for European citizens, but they hide several interesting battles. One of them is fundamental: both Europe and the US have until today looked the other way when it comes to ruble payments for Russian energy. In theory, that violates the sanctions that the allies themselves have imposed; in practice, neither Washington nor Brussels have said this mouth is mine.

The refusal of Poland and Bulgaria to pay for Russian gas in rubles —and the consequent punishment by the Kremlin of stopping the supply— will mean, on the one hand, a dispute with Moscow. But on the other hand, Warsaw is putting the rest of Europe in the mirror: Germany and company knowingly flout sanctions, and are financing Putin’s war with one hand while giving Zelensky arms to fight Russia with the other. Poland has large gas reserves and can afford that ordago: for other countries that would mean a very, very cold winter. A full embargo on Russian oil and gas would be Europe’s nuclear button for the Russian economy, but European leaders fear a recession causing a winter of discontent on a continent badly hit by three major crises in 20 years: Great Recession, Great Lockdown and a neighborhood war.

Putin’s strategy has always been the same: his weapons are obstructionism, unpredictability and the ability to show the world that the vaunted European unity is often a Potemkin façade like the ones put on Catherine of Russia —precisely in Crimea— at the end of the 18th century so that he would believe that the empire was not crumbling. The danger of this latest move is an escalation of sanctions by both sides. But the biggest risk is that the traditional divisions in Europe (North-South, large-small, creditor-debtor and other courtesies of the past crisis) are now joined by a fracture between the countries that comply with the sanctions and those that do not. The Anglo-Saxons have a formidable word for the latter: free riders. In Roman paladino, freeloaders. Putin has just laid the snake’s egg in European unity, the EU’s best asset. Berlin now has the floor. Let us hope that Scholz does not go off on a Merkelian tangent with the excuse that Putin lives “on another planet”.

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