French President Emmanuel Macron called for improving relations with Russia at the annual Munich Security Conference, but said it was not time to drop sanctions and warned that Russia will continue to try and undermine western democracies.
The West is fighting a rear-guard action after it has lost the initiative in geopolitics to rising emerging market powers, including Russia and China, according to the "Westlessness" report produced ahead of the annual summit, but trans-Atlantic rivalries and the EU's internal tensions are preventing an effective response.
The West continues to worry about the Kremlin's attempts to undermine western democracies. Russia has been accused of interfering in a string of elections, most notably the 2016 vote that put US President Donald Trump in the White House and Britain's Brexit referendum, although no concrete evidence has been produced.
The Kremlin was also cleared of collusion with Trump by special prosecutor Robert Mueller last year after which some of the hysteria surrounding Russia has died away. Macron, together with his German counterpart Chancellor Angela Merkel, have since led a drive to at least normalise relations with Russia.
The Kremlin has also warmed to the idea of improving relations as it sets off on implementing a RUB25.7 trillion ($390bn) investment drive as part of the 12 national projects that are supposed to “transform” the Russian economy. Following a government reshuffle in January, Russia is looking to boost investment and growth as Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly feels he has put Russia in a strong position in its face-off with the West.
The upshot is an uncomfortable relationship with Europe, while relations with the US remain fraught. Europe needs Russia’s help in conflict theatres like Syria and Libya, and is actively seeking an end to the undeclared war in Ukraine. However, Macron predicted Moscow would remain "extremely aggressive in the months and years to come,” during remarks made at the Munich Security Conference.
The Munich meeting has emerged as the leading forum to try and deal with the growing problem of a resurgent Russia and China, both of which are now economically stable and starting to flex their considerable military muscle — something that has exclusively been the preserve of Nato for most of the last three decades.
Munich is always closely watched as Putin used the forum to lay out Russia’s position on relations with the rest of the world in a now famous speech in 2007. Then Putin complained that all the promises made to Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union concerning limiting Nato’s expansion were broken and he warned Russia would respond if nothing changed. Nothing did. In 2012 Putin launched a massive modernisation of Russia’s military and in 2014 he annexed the Crimea peninsula to ensure control over Russia’s main naval port in Sevastopol among other things. Russia also sent troops to the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine to support separatist rebels and destabilise the country to stymie its move closer to Europe.
Despite these problems both Merkel and Macron have started to offer the Kremlin sops in their public remarks. Both have mentioned the creation of a common market that stretches “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” which is a central goal of Putin’s long-term foreign policy.
Macron, who faces re-election in 2022, also softened his accusations of Russian election interference by pointing out that Russia is not alone in interfering with elections. He said "conservative actors from America's ultra-right" had sought to interfere in European elections and the French president urged European intelligence agencies to cooperate more closely to prevent this. The US was famously caught tapping Merkel’s private mobile phone for years in 2015 for which it never apologised. Moreover, when a commission was set up in Germany to investigate, the US was caught again placing spies on the committee.
Europe’s move towards Russia is also part of a broader attempt to move out from under the US security umbrella that has been a feature of geopolitics since the start of the Cold War, as bne IntelliNews reported in an op-ed, “The end of the post WWII world order”, in August 2018.
Ahead of the conference's opening, its organisers released a report titled "Westlessness" — which they called "a uneasiness and restlessness in the face of increasing uncertainty about the enduring purpose of the West".
“For those defending the long dominant liberal definition of the West, in contrast, it is precisely the rise of illiberalism and the return of nationalism that put the West at risk,” the report says before going on to cite illiberal quotes from Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Putin, who famously told the Financial Times that “liberalism is obsolete“ in an interview in June 2019.
The report paints a very gloomy picture of the world and argues that the West has more or less lost control of the situation, while the emerging market powers have simply ignored the rest of the international community and are increasingly acting on their own initiative.
“The events of recent months have only underlined the fact that Western countries, by now, seem to have largely ceded the initiative to deal with today’s most violent conflicts to others. And while Western politicians keep repeating the mantra that there are no military solutions to political conflicts, other actors are implementing them, with no concern for legal or ethical considerations,” the Westlessness report says.
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This trend had already begun before Trump’s election, but the unpredictability and aggressive foreign policies of the Trump administration are catalysing the change. Germany’s new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has openly called the US an “unreliable partner”, and ironically Merkel meets with Putin more often to try and solve the world’s problems than she does with Trump. Indeed, after meeting him face-to-face for the first time in 2018 the visibly shocked chancellor said in a speech immediately afterwards: “It's time for Europe to stand on its own two feet.”
The EU has found itself in an awkward alliance with Russia in its opposition to the US decision to unilaterally re-impose sanctions on Iran, despite Tehran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal signed with the Obama administration. The EU and Russia have created a barter-based special purpose vehicle (SPV) to allow European businesses to continue to work with Iran but at the same time avoid US sanctions being imposed as a punishment by Washington.
Macron has openly called for an EU standing army to represent European interests in global security incidents, which would compete with Nato forces that currently exclusively play this role. The clause in the UN charter that would allow for a UN standing force has never been acted on. France has also annoyed Nato by refusing to make its nuclear weapons available to Nato. After Brexit France is now the EU's only country armed with nuclear weapons. Everyone else relies entirely on the US nuclear deterrent. Referring to France’s nuclear weapons, Macron said: "We cannot always go through the United States, no, we have to think in a European way as well."
German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told conference delegates that the West and its ideals were being challenged and that Europe, and Germany, "have a duty to become more able and more willing to act," she said. "We're still not doing enough."
For Putin these disagreements are a boon as not only is the trans-Atlantic alliance weakening, the EU itself has become increasingly factitious. Many EU countries, especially in Southeast Europe where new Russian gas pipelines are being built, are openly supportive of Russia, although none have yet broken ranks to veto sanctions on Russia, which must be universally renewed every six months.
The US is not happy with the attempt to downgrade the role of Nato, which is dominated by the US, and has been attempting to bully Europe into following its foreign policy line by also threatening to sanction European firms and banks that go against US sanction policies.
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led the US delegation in Munich and gave a speech that contained the word “winning” half a dozen times, echoing Trump’s famous quote about “so much winning”. Pompeo rejected German criticism of the US retreat from the global stage and promised $1bn of investments for European energy as a sweetener.
“I’m happy to report that the death of the Transatlantic alliance is grossly exaggerated. The West is winning, we are collectively winning and we’re doing it together,” Pompeo said at the Munich Security Conference, making a veiled swipe at Macron’s famous “brain death” of Nato remarks.
Moreover, Pompeo defended the US' leading role in the world after Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg touted US-EU relations in his address at the conference.
"Any attempt to distance Europe from North America not only weakens the trans-Atlantic bond, but it also risks dividing Europe," Pompeo said. "I don't believe in Europe alone. I believe in Europe and America together."
Following Pompeo's remarks Macron countered with a much more pessimistic view that contradicted the US position. Europe is “becoming a continent that doesn’t believe in its future,” he said. “There is indeed a weakening of the West. 15 years ago, we thought our values were universal values, they will always rule the world, and we are dominant in terms of military technology and so on,” highlighting the rise of China and Russia in the last decade, neither of which subscribe to the western liberal values agenda.
Macron called for an end to conflict with China and Russia, as a “second choice” to the current showdown, “because today we talk less and less, conflicts multiply and we aren't able to resolve them.”
In what was a diplomatic slap in the face for the US, the French president said that Europe should cease being “the United States' junior partner”. Europeans are slated to remain part of Nato, but nothing should stop them from being “sovereign, united and democratic and [acting] as such” in the coming decade.
What Europeans worry about is an escalation of tensions between the US and its rivals for geopolitical power China and Russia, a fear that Germany's current president and former foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, voiced explicitly, suggesting that Russia and China, along with the US, were stoking global instability and warned of the danger that the three were slipping into a new "great power" competition and nuclear arms race.
"And our closest ally, the United States of America, under the present administration itself, rejects the idea of an international community," Steinmeier said. "'Great again' — even at the expense of neighbours and partners," Steinmeier added, taking a swipe at Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.
And those fears are shared by the people of Europe who do not support the US and will not participate in a war lead by the US against either Russia or China. The overwhelming sentiment is that Europe should remain neutral if it comes to blows between Washington, Beijing and Moscow.
"With whom should Europe side if there was an armed conflict between the US and Russia?"
"With whom should Europe side if there was an armed conflict between the US and China?"