Putin and Biden in Geneva

Biden's Moscow Outreach Exposes Europe's Disarray

July 07, 2021
Philip Stephens

U.S. President Joe Biden's summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin might have been an opportunity for the European Union to reframe its relationship with its belligerent neighbor. Instead, the thaw between Washington and Moscow has surfaced deep divisions among EU states about how to handle Putin's revanchism. It has also shown just how far European governments have still to travel before they turn the European Union's status as an economic superpower into geopolitical throw weight.

For Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron, Biden's encounter with Putin in Geneva gave a green light for the European Union to resume the dialogue with Moscow, suspended after Putin's annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Macron has been conducting his own outreach for the past two years, but to little effect. Merkel, while backing EU sanctions, has kept open her own lines to the Kremlin.

The two leaders judged that the U.S. initiative gave them permission to propose a broader re-engagement by the European Union. As Merkel said in the Bundestag, if Washington was seeking to stabilize relations with the Kremlin, it seemed self-evident that Europe should do likewise. But what followed at the EU leaders' summit in Brussels was a train crash.

The Biden encounter was deftly staged by the White House. The president navigated the fine line between identifying areas of potential cooperation—climate change, strategic arms control, Iran's nuclear program, among them—and a robust defense of Western interests and values. The one concession he offered was rhetorical. Putin craves respect. He was enraged when Barack Obama dismissed Russia as a "regional" power. Biden indulged Putin's vanity, nodding publicly to its "great power" status.

It was never going to be easy for the 27 leaders of the European Union to find a similar balance. National histories and different economic interests throw up too many collisions. The Baltic states, Poland and other former satellites of the Soviet Union are not easily persuaded of the need for a thaw while Putin's forces remain in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has remained active in its efforts to destabilize its European neighbors. Last month it put the Czech Republic on a list of "unfriendly" states. Prague had expelled 18 Russian diplomats after discovering that Putin's military intelligence agents were responsible for the explosions that destroyed a Czech ammunition depot in 2014.

Merkel and Macron did not strengthen their case by springing the idea on the other 25 leaders on the very eve of the summit. The chancellor, who steps down after 16 years when Germany goes to the polls in September, was too obviously in a hurry. Macron, whose personal relationship with fellow EU leaders in formerly communist states has never been easy, seemed to be showing a familiar Gallic disregard for "lesser" EU partners.

The result was that fierce opposition to the initiative of the Baltic States and Poland was accompanied by unease among several other governments. Sweden voiced doubts about anything that looked like a normalization of relations while Moscow refused to implement the Minsk 2 agreement to withdraw from Eastern Ukraine. The Netherlands' Mark Rutte indicated that more time was needed to map a strategy and he was ready to endorse a resumption only of limited EU contacts.

Merkel and Macron were forced into an inelegant retreat. Rather than endorse a new diplomatic initiative, the summit's published conclusions set terms for any resumption of high-level EU engagement. The Union, the communique noted, would deploy "conditionalities and leverages" in seeking to change Russian behavior.

The tone reflected more than maladroit diplomacy on the part of Berlin and Paris in not preparing the ground for a shift. Several partners were understandably doubtful about Merkel's motives. The chancellor is more robust than most in her rhetorical defense of a liberal, rules-based international order. The record, though, shows her idealism often takes second place to hard-head commercial realism—witness the leading role she played last year in the negotiation of a new EU investment agreement with Beijing even as China clamped down on freedoms in Hong Kong.

Merkel's unshakeable support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has become an emblem of her concern to safeguard Germany's business interests in Russia. The pipeline, which from next year will carry Russian gas to Germany, runs counter to the European Union's plans for an integrated energy policy, and significantly increases the Kremlin's leverage over Ukraine. Merkel, however, has rebuffed both the objections of other EU states and U.S. efforts to derail the pipeline's construction with sanctions.

Macron's broader push for the European Union to assert "strategic sovereignty" with an independent foreign policy arouses a second set of suspicions. East and Central European governments mostly look to the United States for their security. The Gaullist flavor of Macron's eagerness for an independent EU stance speaks to the traditional French ambition to see the continent decouple from Washington.

The result has been to leave EU policy in disarray. Any revision of Germany's position awaits the September election, while Macron has made clear that he will maintain his own contacts with Moscow. The two leaders have a case. Putin cannot be wished away. Geographical proximity, trade and investment ties and shared challenges argue that the EU should open channels of communication. That said, engagement must not slide into capitulation.

German and French officials say neither government will let the matter drop. But a significant shift in policy probably awaits not just a new German government but evidence on the ground as to whether the Biden-Putin summit has yielded substantive results. While the thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow is welcome, what will matter is whether it is translated into changes in Russian behavior—whether defusing tensions in Ukraine's Donbas, halting disinformation campaigns and interference in European elections, or scaling back cyberattacks. The Biden administration is likely to be at once dismayed by the European Union's public display of disunity and privately relieved that its own efforts to set the terms of different relationship with Putin will not be complicated by a parallel Franco-German initiative. For its part, the European Union could usefully use the time to decide where it wants to draw the line as between the realpolitik of Berlin and Paris and defense of fundamental values.


Philip Stephens

Philip Stephens is associate editor at the Financial Times.

Photo shared by kremlin.ru under a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.