Europe wonders if it can square its need for Russia with a distaste for Putin

Europe wonders if it can square its need for Russia with a distaste for Putin

The European dilemma is clear - how do they square their increasing energy dependence on Russia with their increasing political discomfort with Putin?...

As NATO foreign ministers gather Tuesday for an emergency meeting on the Georgian crisis, Europe is divided over how to balance its ties to Russia with concerns over the country’s new aggressiveness.

The European dilemma is clear, said Clifford Kupchan, a director of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm in Washington. “How do they square their increasing energy dependence on Russia with their increasing political discomfort with Putin?” he said, referring to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin. “It’s a very hard circle to square.”

As the United States looks for more than symbolic gestures on how to support Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, there is a split between “old and new Europe” — roughly Western and Eastern Europe, Mr. Kupchan said. New Europe, backed by Britain and Scandinavia, is taking a harder line toward Russia, while old Europe “will only be reinforced in its view that Georgia and Ukraine are not ready for NATO.”

After Russian behavior during the Georgia crisis, said Jacques Rupnik, an Eastern Europe expert at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, known as Sciences-Po, “There is little disagreement now in Europe about the nature of the new Russia.” Those Europeans “who didn’t get it before are getting it now,” Mr. Rupnik said. Still, Europe is taking comfort, as usual, “in the idea of mediating between Washington and Moscow.”

The cease-fire agreement now signed by Russia and Georgia was negotiated by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, in his role as president of the European Union. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, traveled to Tbilisi to offer her support to Georgia but continued to straddle the American position that Georgia be offered NATO membership soon and the European view that it should happen at some future time.

This is not Europe’s fight, said Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor and columnist for the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “I don’t see Europe prepared to go to war with itself over Georgia,” he said. “The European foreign ministers sense this is too big for them and they will in the end align themselves with the United States, while trying to affect policy.”

The Americans are looking for concrete gestures to punish and warn Russia — perhaps suspending or even canceling the NATO-Russian Council, or as Ronald D. Asmus, director of the Brussels Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund, suggests, “fast-tracking NATO membership for Ukraine.”

NATO could also begin formal defense planning, including putting in military infrastructure, to defend new NATO members like the Baltics and Poland against even a hypothetical war with Russia.

As a gesture to the Russia of Boris Yeltsin, who grudgingly accepted NATO expansion, “NATO never developed military plans to defend central and eastern Europeans, because we said, ‘Russia’s not an enemy and not a threat,’ and we never backed up the new members with exercises and infrastructure,” said Mr. Asmus, who was a senior State Department official in the Clinton administration.

The Germans opposed such moves at the time; Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, and Jacques Chirac, the former French president, were considered a kind of pro-Russian axis in NATO. Both are gone, replaced by more pro-American and more viscerally anti-Communist leaders in Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy.

But France, Germany and Italy remain deeply dependent on Russian energy. Mr. Sarkozy is eager to mediate between Washington and Moscow, and Ms. Merkel is in a grand coalition with the left. Her foreign minister, the Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a close Schröder aide, is considered very friendly toward Moscow.

In an interview published Sunday, he urged the West against a “knee-jerk reaction” like suspending talks between the European Union and Russia on strategic cooperation or banning Russia from the World Trade Organization.

The Russians say they are pulling out of Georgia — but it will be their own definition of Georgia, which does not, apparently, include South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where they have distributed Russian passports. Few believe they will leave those ethnic enclaves, even if they redefine their own occupation troops as “peacekeepers,” let alone allow the regions to be controlled by the Georgian government.

Even if the formal borders of Georgia remain unchanged for now, in the long run Russia will have been seen to expand.

“Russia has never been a nation state, but always an empire, with Muskovy gradually expanding its borders since the 15th century,” Mr. Rupnik said. “Russia built a state as it built its empire; the two were inseparable.”

The Russian Federation was never a state in its current borders, and more than 25 million Russians live outside it, mostly in the former Soviet Union. “These new borders are new and somewhat artificial,” Mr. Rupnik said. “And we in the West never fully measured the effect of this loss of empire on the Russians, or how integral Ukraine is to the Russian sense of self.”

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which Russia failed to stop, “was the real wake-up call for Putin,” Mr. Rupnik said. “The Russian conclusion then, and it’s widely shared there, is that the limit has been reached — no more concessions, a push for rollback, and definitely no Georgia and no Ukraine in NATO.”

Ukraine has its own built-in ethnic Russian enclaves in the east and in Crimea — the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and handed to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Ukrainian-born Soviet leader. Like Ossetia, split by Stalin so that North Ossetia is in Russia and South Ossetia is in Georgia, Crimea is a kind of poison pill to keep Ukraine in line, one supported by nearly total energy dependency on Russia.

That is why, for those like Mr. Asmus, NATO’s response to Russia’s actions in Georgia should involve Ukraine. But that is also why many Europeans do not want to commit to defending another Russian neighbor when they have neither the will nor the means to enforce that commitment.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there have been numerous border changes in Europe — mostly recently in Kosovo, the example Mr. Putin uses to defend Russia’s move in Georgia. “We are still in the process of building and making states,” Mr. Rupnik said. “The map is not finished.”

By Steven Erlanger, The New York Times

If you see a spelling error on our site, select it and press Ctrl+Enter