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What does Putin’s farcical ‘re-election’ mean for the EU?

Appeasement is off the table. Europe needs to unite and get serious about the truly existential threat that Putin’s brutal regime poses, Michael Emerson writes.

Vladimir Putin now adds another six years to his reign in the Kremlin after “winning” a fraudulent election on 17 March with 88 % of the vote. 

Now he may feel inclined to become even more aggressive towards Ukraine and the rest of Europe. 

The risks for the EU and its civilization are now truly existential. If we rule out appeasement, a counter-offensive must now be developed.

Putin began his reign as president in 2000 with the ruthless suppression of Chechen separatists and the total destruction of the Chechen capital Grozny, causing around 60,000 casualties — methods he later employed on a much larger scale in Syria. 

His support to Syria has now overlapped with both his first aggressive acts against Ukraine in 2014, and his full-scale invasion of the country that continues to rage on.

Putin’s regime has also famously engaged in political assassinations: Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006, Boris Nemtsov in 2015, and now Alexei Navalny, who died in a gulag on 16 February. 

And don’t forget Yevgeny Prigozhin, former commander of the Wagner militia, who met a sticky end in an unexplained plane crash after his attempted coup in June 2023.

Creating chaos, wreaking havoc, and believing in nothing

Putin’s overriding obsession is to restore Russia as a great power, based on his historic mission to lead a Russian world that includes Ukraine and Belarus as one people. 

Externally he sees Russia as a crusader (alongside China) to overthrow the West’s global hegemony.

This year, Putin could seek some new version of the post-2014 Minsk agreements that had implicitly endorsed the then-territorial status quo, which left the door open for the 2022 invasion. 

Putin aims to take Odesa next and the whole of the Ukrainian coast down to Moldova, allowing him to re-establish Transnistria as an effective Russian military base and overthrow Chișinău’s current pro-European leadership, thus ending Moldova’s EU membership bid.

With Putin in place for at least another six years, the EU has a choice between appeasement or developing a tangible counter-strategy.

In Europe, Putin will continue trying to undermine the EU, with disinformation and the cultivation of allies such as Victor Orbán and various far-right parties. 

If Trump is re-elected as US president, Putin will absolutely relish the prospect of him taking a wrecking ball to NATO (although Trump seems to be already back-peddling on this). 

In the wider world, he will keep working to build anti-Western alliances (with China) and will seek to deepen cooperation with India and the other BRIC states. At the lowest level, his semi-private militias will support any local African autocrat keen on booting out the West.

So with Putin in place for at least another six years, the EU has a choice between appeasement or developing a tangible counter-strategy. Rejecting appeasement outright, a counter-strategy should have three pillars.

It’s time to play hardball

First, no more Minsk agreements. France and Germany have seen their illusions shattered. 

The EU has for Ukraine impressively moved on with agreeing to open accession negotiations and its civilian €50 billion aid package. 

It has innovated in procuring weapons and ammunition for Ukraine but will have to do much more if the US Congress does not agree to President Biden’s $60bn package. In short, the EU must do what it takes to help Ukraine triumph.

Russia’s pretensions of being a leader of the Global South have to be undermined by exposing its hypocrisy and lack of any normative legitimacy

Second, Russia’s pretensions of being a leader of the Global South have to be undermined by exposing its hypocrisy and lack of any normative legitimacy. 

In an under-reported session of the UN Security Council on 12 March, the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell gave a good account of what the EU was doing on the world stage.

Especially interesting was the contrasting speeches that followed from the Russian and Chinese ambassadors. The Russian rep indulged in a long and violent diatribe against the EU, accusing it of acting in an aggressive and expansionist manner in the worst of colonial traditions. 

The Chinese ambassador, for his part, welcomed the EU for its multilateralism and efforts in favour of peace. 

The Russian speech was ridiculous and exemplifies how Putin’s global standing can — and should — be degraded. Consequently, the EU should intensify its cooperation with the major democracies of the Global South — Brazil, India and Indonesia.

We no longer have a choice

Third, at home the EU has to consolidate its own civilizational appeal among its citizens in a straightforward democratic manner — the upcoming European elections will be a major test for this. 

The ideas of the Russia-leaning extremist parties must be out-competed by those representing core European values. 

Finally, the EU’s enlargement policies need to be improved, made credible and translated into real advances for all parties involved.

Many heads will have to come together to realise such a three-pronged strategy. But with Putin’s election “victory”, there’s now no other choice. 

Appeasement is off the table — Europe needs to unite and get serious about the truly existential threat that Putin’s brutal regime poses. 

Michael Emerson is Associate Senior Research Fellow at CEPS, a Brussels-based independent think tank. He also served as the European Union’s first Ambassador to the USSR and then Russia, from 1991 to 1995.

Source: Dw

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