Joe Biden’s fatalistic statement this week that suggested a ‘minor incursion’ by Russia into Ukraine might be tolerated by the United States was only the latest indictment of the West’s failings when it comes to holding off Vladimir Putin.
Less remarked on was Emmanuel Macron’s futile call in the European Parliament the same day for Europeans to ‘collectively make our own demands and put ourselves in a position to enforce them.’ The French President’s vision for the EU as a ‘power of the future’ hinges on member states holding a common position when it comes to international threats. But reports this week about the EU’s conflicted attitudes towards Russia are now demonstrating the impossibility of the bloc ever becoming a foreign policy force to be reckoned with.
This debate is at its fiercest, and most toxic, in the three eastern European member states who joined Nato in 1999. In Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, relations with Russia are both fraught with historical baggage and lingering dependency on Moscow.
Even as Macron called for EU security autonomy in Strasbourg, including direct dialogue with the Kremlin over Ukraine, the Czech Republic’s internal position on Russia was crumbing. The Czech Senate’s defence committee chose this week to call for the restoration of ‘mutually advantageous’ relations with Moscow. The recommendation came as something of a surprise to the government – the Czech defence minister was already in discussions with the armed forces’ chief of staff about the possibility of sending military aid to Ukraine.
It was inevitable though that the Czech Republic’s position on Russia would soften – even after it elected a pro-western government in 2021. Ever since the country was designated as a ‘hostile state’ by the Kremlin last spring – following a diplomatic spat after it was revealed that Russia was involved in a Czech arms depot blast in 2014 – the country has been in a precarious position. It’s far from ideal to be considered a hostile state by a country which supplies two thirds of your natural gas.
The Czech Republic is not alone in this. Energy dependency on Moscow is an EU-wide problem now and arguably Europe’s most egregious security oversight – resulting from its hasty switch from coal to gas as a ‘greener’ alternative. It’s a problem which is only likely to worsen. Once the Nord Stream 2 pipeline starts pumping gas from Russia to the EU under the Baltic Sea, Putin will have even more control over Europe’s energy supply. He will also have fewer incentives to stay out of Ukraine, currently a vital gas transit route.
This appalling bind is the Achilles’ heel in Macron’s vision of a sovereign Europe. And as the Czech Republic looks to rebuild bridges with Moscow, it’s becoming clear that other eastern European countries are making similar calls to avoid outright conflict with Russia.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán and Putin have already pencilled in a meeting for February 1. Fidesz ministers recently celebrated 2021 as a record year for Hungarian-Russian cooperation. The two countries’ economic ties now include Russian involvement in Hungary’s nuclear programme and close collaboration in the use and production of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid vaccine.
Orbán’s desire for closer relations with Russia has even driven a wedge between Hungary and its closest allies. Hungary and Poland are thick as thieves when it comes to EU rule-of-law disputes, resistance to Brussels’ cultural overreach, and opposition to mass migration. But while Warsaw views Russia as a mortal threat, Hungary has taken a rose-tinted view of Putin’s geopolitical manoeuvring.
When Poland claimed last year that Moscow was masterminding the recent migrant crisis at its border with Belarus, its protestations fell on deaf ears in Budapest, with Orbán claiming that the EU has a tendency to blame Putin whenever its own policies don’t work.
Western countries are finding it much easier to adopt a ‘Cold War’ mentality in response to Russian aggression. But head further east and layers of economic, cultural and historical complexity emerge. Conflicting interests in the region have driven allies apart, allowed fears of Russian-led regional corruption to be routinely swept under the carpet, and seen politicians who made their name fighting Communist oppression now celebrating economic partnership with an ever more belligerent Putin.
Macron dreams of an EU which is agile when protecting its own security – the sort of dynamic partner which the US craves in the face of aggression over Ukraine. But the bloc’s toxic and torn relationship with Moscow in former eastern-bloc member states makes consensus on the Russian threat an impossible dream.