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Europe Appeals to Putin’s Ego As it Seeks Peace in Ukraine

7 minute read

Given the amount of blood still being spilled on a daily basis in the war in eastern Ukraine, it may seem premature, if not also in bad taste, to offer one of the more stubborn belligerents in the conflict a long-term path toward integration with the West. But on Thursday, that is what Russia got from some of the European leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And it was Germany leading the charge.

During her afternoon appearance at the annual confab of investors and policymakers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel began by rattling off some of her typically harsh condemnations of Russia. With the annexation of Crimea last spring and the subsequent support for a violent rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern regions, Moscow had violated the “elementary principles of the European peaceful order,” she said. “It is a clear and flagrant violation of what has made us live and coexist peacefully together in Europe” since the end of World War II, Merkel added.

But when the moderator asked how she saw the conflict playing out in the more distant future, the Chancellor brought up the geopolitical vision (some would call it a fantasy) that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been promulgating. “Later on, in the bigger picture,” Merkel said, “we can try to explore possibilities of cooperation, and an economic area that President Putin himself called ‘from Vladivostok to Lisbon.’”

This was a reference to the proposed free trade zone that Putin envisions stretching some 14,000 kilometers one day from the western edge of Europe to the eastern edge of Russia – and conspicuously leaving the U.S. out. For years, Putin has been seeking to lay the ground for such a project, most recently with the creation of the Eurasian Union, a political and economic bloc modeled on the European Union but with Moscow at its center of gravity. Comprised so far of only four post-Soviet countries – Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia, with the impoverished nation of Kyrgyzstan next in line to join – the Eurasian Union legally came into being as of Jan. 1.

But three weeks into its existence, it seems to have found a strategic negotiating partner in the far wealthier and more powerful union to the west. Or at least that’s what some of the E.U.’s key leaders now want Putin to believe.

Apart from Merkel, the elder statesman Jose Manuel Barroso, whose ten-year term as the E.U.’s most senior official ended in October, also brought up the idea of the Eurasian and European Unions forming a brotherly bond. “Why can’t we do it with the Eurasian Union? We want to do it,” he said in Davos on Thursday, referring to Putin’s grand plan. “Can we one day have this dream? I spoke several times with President Putin about that, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Can it happen? I believe it can happen.”

And if Putin still believes the same, these remarks would be music to his ears. Rare is the speech these days when Putin does not slip in a pointed reference to his idea of a “united space” between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In his reasoning, not only would it give Russia’s natural resources unhindered access to a practically limitless market, but it would put Moscow in a grand constellation of European capitals – finally an equal among powerful Western friends. That, along with the prospect of squeezing the U.S. off the continent, would be Putin’s greatest geopolitical triumph.

But the reason E.U. leaders seem to have suddenly warmed to this idea is not because they believe it to be in the cards nor, for that matter, because they think it particularly attractive. (It was hard enough for the E.U. economy to absorb Eastern European members like Romania and Bulgaria in recent years. Now imagine the flows of jobs and migrants if the borders between France and, say, Kyrgyzstan were to drop.) Much more likely, the West simply needed a carrot to dangle in front of Russia, and a way to coax a change in Putin’s thinking on Ukraine.

That much seemed clear from the remarks of Merkel’s deputy and coalition partner, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. During a panel discussion in Davos on Thursday, he also brought up the idea of integration with the Eurasian Union, but in a slightly different vein. “What can we offer to Russia?” he asked. “What can be an idea for a partnership after we solve the current problems?”

One answer is the fulfillment – or the chance for fulfillment – of Putin’s geopolitical pipedream. “It was Putin’s idea to have a free trade zone between Lisbon and Vladivostok. In a different world than we are in today, it would be a good idea,” Gabriel said.

The suggestion, in Gabriel’s remarks and the others’, was that Putin must first help create that different world – one in which Ukraine is restored to its previous borders and left to live in peace. Up to now, the West has used little more than sanctions to make Putin work toward that reality, but they have not been able to change the situation on the ground. On the contrary, as the slump in global oil prices multiplied the pain of those sanctions on the Russian petrostate, Moscow only increased its support to the separatist rebellion, providing a steady supply of arms, volunteers and ample political cover for the rebel militias in eastern Ukraine.

The peace deal Russia signed in September during a round of negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, has somewhat slowed the fighting but certainly not stopped it. Roughly 2,000 people have been killed in the war since then, bringing the overall death toll to some 5,000 people since April, and a new assault from the Russian-backed rebels this month gave them control of a strategic airport in the city of Donetsk. So eastern Ukraine has continued on its way, with Russia’s help, toward becoming a massive frozen conflict on the E.U.’s doorstep.

Given that context, the idea floated in Davos seems like an attempt to break the stalemate. But it relies to a large extent on Putin being naïve. For one thing, he knows that without the membership of Ukraine – the biggest and most important neighbor Russia has – his Eurasian Union is hardly an equal partner to the E.U. in any trade negotiation. It is at best a shabby incarnation of the Soviet Goliath, still with Russia at its heart but missing most of its essential limbs, not to mention its former prowess in education and technology. Even years from now, if Putin does attract (or coerce) the membership of a few other post-Soviet countries, the Eurasian Union would have a hard time competing with the E.U. even from behind a high wall of protectionist trade barriers, and it would almost certainly wither if those barriers came down between Lisbon and Vladivostok.

Underneath its idealism, then, the proposal that Merkel and her allies offered Putin in Davos on Thursday may not do much more than stoke his ego. But for the sake of peace in Ukraine, they can be forgiven for hoping he goes for it.

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