Putin's successful strategy

The Ukrainian crisis divides East and West and reawakens pan-Slavism. Putin is successfully courting all nationalist forces within Europe.

Media attention has been concentrated during the past few months on the collapse of the Russian rouble. This has come as a result of the unprecedented plummeting of the price of oil (Russia‘s most important export commodity) compounded by the economic sanctions imposed by the West on the Russian economy as a protest against the annexation of Crimea and Russian conduct in Eastern Ukraine. The prospect of a deep recession and its impact not only on Russia itself but also on the business interests of West European countries has been a legitimate subject for speculation and comment.

Western observers and media , with a few exceptions, have by and large failed to grasp the significance of the political successes scored by Russian President Vladimir Putin during the same period. He has managed to undermine the fragile united front of the European Union countries   and even more the transatlantic solidarity between Washington and Brussels. The combination of the on-going media offensive launched by the Russian state TV broadcaster RT, the video news agency Ruptly and the foreign viewer Internet portal Sputnik alongside a broadly based political campaign focusing on selected key personalities has meant that the official Russian view has triggered an unexpected degree of sympathy abroad for the line taken by Mr. Putin towards the entire Ukraine issue.

One of the most intriguing developments has  been the emergence of sympathetic partners towards  Putin’s Ukrainian policies in countries  that 25 years ago belonged to the Soviet Bloc  and subsequently joined the EU and NATO. A  case in point is Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian government  in Hungary. The Hungarian prime minister  had earned his stripes shortly before the  collapse of the Communist regime in Budapest  with a fierce anti-Communist and, by implication,  anti-Soviet speech delivered at a large public  meeting in Budapest. Today he calls Russia,  along with Turkey and China, a “star performer”  and praised the success of these “illiberal  democracies”. Orbán called the EU sanctions  against Russia “a shot in the foot” and openly  criticised US foreign policy which could embroil Hungary in a “new  Cold War”. Hungary is  not only dependent on  Russian gas and crude oil  but the country thanks to  Orbán has also concluded  a mysterious €10  billion credit deal revolving  around the enlargement  of the Russian-built  nuclear power plant at  Paks on the Danube. Similarly,  Slovak Prime Minister  Robert Fico is also  very lukewarm in public  statements about the EU  sanctions that endanger  Slovak exports to Russia. 

Another political  front has been opened by the Russian leadership  concerning several far-right, nationalistic  and openly racist parties and movements in  countries belonging to the European Union. 

This would seem to be a way of forging closer  ties with Marina Le Pen's Front National in  France, which allegedly includes the opening of  a credit line worth €40 million with a Russian  bank in her favour, and both the right-wing  Freedom Party in Austria and the fiercely nationalistic  Ataka Party in Bulgaria. 

The Russian leadership also has no qualms  tabling the old pan-Slavic card. Thus, it was no  accident that at Putin‘s annual large-scale press  conference on 18 December he was asked  whether he thought it possible that the “Slavic  nations – Serbians, Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians,  Russians, etc. – could set up a friendly association”.  Putin replied that smaller countries can  be subjected to pressures and their sovereignty  is also in the balance. He was however aware  that “deep down, there is an aspiration among  Slavic nations to preserve cultural and spiritual,  if not political, unity”. 

This is certainly true for Serbia. The Russian  leader was recently received with great pomp  and splendour in Belgrade at a ceremony commemorating  the Red Army's liberation of the  city during World War II. Meanwhile, the country,  currently in the midst of an economic crisis,  is keenly interested in joining the EU. 

Poland, on the other hand, is far from falling  in the trap of pan-Slavic emotions manipulated  for political purposes and has consequently  been extremely critical of Russia's conduct in  Ukraine. Together with the three small Baltic  countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), it has  all along been a staunch defender of Ukraine's  prerogatives. 

As for the West European states, the Russian  leadership seems to have managed to cause divisions  in the seemingly united front in favour  of economic and financial sanctions backed primarily  by Germany, France and Italy. Plans for  further sanctions, now in the pipeline, are unlikely  to be carried out in the near future. Top  Social Democratic politicians – from French  President François Hollande to the Austrian  Chancellor Werner Faymann and the German  Vice Chancellor and party leader Sigmar  Gabriel – have publicly spoken out in favour of  loosening rather than tightening the sanctions  on condition that Moscow not intensify Russian  involvement in Eastern Ukraine. 

Thus, there exists a surprising degree of difference  between the darkening economic  prospects facing the nation and the tactical advantages  gained in the political arena by the  Russian leadership. Whether this discrepancy  will influence the future of the sanctions imposed  on Russia, we shall find out in the coming  months.

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