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Putin’s long game has been revealed and the omens are bad for Europe
Friday 18 March 2016 19.35 GMTLast modified on Saturday 19 March 201609.36 GMT By Natalie Nougayrède
Through his writings, Russia’s foreign minister tells us what the president really wants – a historic realignment in his favour.
‘Western officials say Sergei Lavrov was privately incensed in 2014 by Putin’s sudden decision to annex Crimea – but he stuck to the official script..’ Illustration: Noma Bar
While European leaders believe they are edging towards a solution to the refugee crisis after securing a deal with Turkey, another power watches closely from afar: Russia.
Russia has been accused of “weaponising” the refugee crisis as a way of destabilising Europe – a claim recently reinforced by Nato’s top commander in Europe. That assertion may well be disputed. What is beyond doubt is the continuing need to know what Russia is thinking, and what goals it might pursue as it watches the EU confront multiple crises.
To get a glimpse into Vladimir Putin’s mind, it’s worth reading the recent writings of his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. In a long article published this month by the Moscow-based magazine Russia in Global Affairs– translated here into English – Lavrov spells it out with clarity. What Russia wants is nothing short of fundamental change: a formal, treaty-based say on Europe’s political and security architecture. Until Russia gets that, goes the message, there will be no stability on the continent. The key sentence in the article is this: “During the last two centuries, any attempt to unite Europe without Russia and against it has inevitably led to grim tragedies.”
‘Lavrov seems to draw a comparison between Putin and Peter the Great, who relied on ‘tough domestic measures and resolute, successful foreign policy’ to make Russia a key European player.’ Photograph: Alexander Shcherbak/TASS
Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see how Lavrov references European history to bolster his claim that without Russia’s cooperation the continent can only be exposed to chaos. He points to Catherine the Great (whose chancellor once proudly said: “Not a single cannon in Europe can be fired without our consent”), the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean conflict of 1853-56. He presents a sweeping, paranoid version of history, in which “western” Europeans have, throughout the ages, conspired to victimise and humiliate Russia.
The centrepiece of Lavrov’s argument is that, after 1991, “we should have created a new foundation for European security”, and now is the time to do so – if the “systemic problems” that have arisen between Russia and the west are to be overcome. This is not a new Russian message, but Moscow is keen to insert it into current European debates. Last month, Dmitry Medvedev made that clear while attending the Munich security conference. Russia’s prime minister may have made headlines with his talk of a new “cold war” or the dangers of a “third global tragedy” – but just as significantly, he bluntly called for a revision of the “architecture of Euro-Atlantic security”.
This year is one that arguably offers Russia an unprecedented window of opportunity to push that demand. The refugee crisis threatens key EU institutions, a referendum looms on the UK’s relationship to Europe, the Franco-German couple is in dire straits, Angela Merkel is politically weakened, Ukraine is unstable, populist movements are spreading throughout the continent, the Balkans are experiencing new tensions, and the US is busy with an election campaign imbued with isolationism.