By Yuriy Gorodnichenko, Associate Professor of Economics; Gerard Roland, Professor of Economics; and Edward W. Walker, Associate Adjunct Professor of Political Science
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, tensions between Russia and the West have not abated. Nonetheless, it has been striking how much support Putin still enjoys in Europe, from intellectuals and politicians, from the extreme left and extreme right, from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen in France, and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and from the “Putinversteher” of Germany that includes not only former East German communists but many prominent German politicians and businessmen as well.
The Kremlin’s narrative that the Euromaidan was a fascist coup, and that the annexation of Crimea and support for the Donbas separatists were defensive moves to protect Russia’s strategic interests, has been repeated through a dense network of Putin supporters and Russian media outlets in Europe. While reminiscent of former Comintern propaganda, that narrative has been embraced by many Europeans at a time when European governments, and the European project, are already under great stress from Europe’s growth crisis.
One thing we should have learned from recent months is not to underestimate Putin’s strategic skills and ambitions. Regardless of whether Putin believes that the Euromaidan was the direct result of EU and U.S. influence, he understands the attraction that “Europe” and membership in the European Union represent for Ukrainians who aspire to democratic and transparent government.
The aspiration to join Europe’s community of democratic states was a key force behind the collapse of right-wing dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1970s. It was likewise a critical factor in the collapse of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It certainly contributed to the collapse of the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine. This attraction will continue to be a powerful driver of responsible and transparent governance in many post-communist countries in the region.
What would happen if the European Union ceased to exist? The attraction of “Europe” and of European democracy as a model of governance would be greatly weakened, not only in countries that aspire today to become member-states but also in current EU member-states where Euroskeptic and illiberal sentiments are already widespread, such as Hungary. Other countries would be more exposed to Russian pressure and tempted to turn to Moscow for patronage.
Does this mean that Putin is out to destroy the European Union? At the least, it is clear that Moscow has been reaching out to Euroskeptic parties and groups from across the political spectrum, both the far left and especially far right. There is also evidence, much of which is circumstantial but not all, that the Kremlin is providing financial assistance to Euroskeptic parties. Marine Le Pen, for example, acknowledged last week that her far right party, The National Front, received a nine million Euro loan from a Russian bank. There are also rumors of Russian financing of Jobbik in Hungary and UKIP in the UK.
Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs have been purchasing European newspapers, including The Independent, The Evening Standard, and France-Soir. The French newspaper Liberation recently highlighted the extent of pro-Putin connections in French academia, think tanks of both the left and the right, and media and business networks.
A battle of values is therefore looming. The European Union stands for democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and institutionalized international cooperation. While this is not true of all Putin admirers, certainly many oppose those values and instead embrace authoritarianism, intolerance, and the use of force and intimidation as instruments of foreign policy.
Unfortunately, the European establishment is not doing enough to counter Moscow’s anti-European, divide-and-rule offensive. That is particularly true for Berlin. The German government continues to promote economic austerity in the Eurozone, despite weak demand and very high unemployment. If Putin wants to destroy the European Union, there is no better way to help him. Europe needs growth, and it needs bold leadership from its most important member-state, Germany, and its most important leader, Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor needs to make clear to the German public what is at stake, and why a collapse of the European project would be a disaster for Germany and for the continent as a whole.