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.