There is a cottage industry of people looking for signs that the Russian army is going to spring across its borders and attack Ukraine – evidence that the ground under foot is less muddy, groups of medics armed with blood supplies making their way to field hospitals on the border and the traipsing of Russian boats through the Black Sea. The latest warnings from Washington underline these developments.
The real signal however, was that a few days ago Vladimir Putin’s superyacht ‘The Graceful’ left the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, which in its early days saw the construction of the battleship Bismark. That the ‘Graceful’ set sail for home suggests that the Russian President does not want one of his toys to fall under the scope of sanctions.
Last week, the image of the French and Russian presidents at opposite ends of a long, white table dominated the front pages. Putin has a habit of managing the ergonomics and choreography of meetings, usually arriving very late.
In 2014 Merkel had to wait 4 hours to see him, in 2012 Viktor Yankovich also waited for 4 hours, Shinzo Abe waited 3 hours in 2016 – interestingly, and this might tell us about Putin’s psyche – the two visitors who have only suffered a very short wait were royals, King Juan Carlos of Spain (20 minutes in 2006) and Queen Elizabeth II (14 mins in 2003). In addition, Putin likes to make his guests uncomfortable, for example bringing a dog to a meeting with Angel Merkel, who has a fear of dogs.
The reams of commentary on the meeting focused both on Putin’s psychology and on the role of Macron.
On Putin, the quip from the French statesman Aristide Briand that ‘people think too historically. They are always living half in a cemetery’ is worth considering in that Putin seems to think and act in the ‘blood and iron’ mindset of the late 19th century, an approach that today is brutish and dangerous (fittingly Bismark noted that ‘not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided…but by iron and blood)
Macron is potentially more difficult to fathom than Putin. Despite the widespread belief that he is being played by the Russian president, the aspect that people underestimate most in him is that he is a risk taker. Moreover, he is singularly the only European leader with strong and coherent ideas, and political energy, on the future of Europe. What has however troubled some other European politicians (especially the Baltic and Eastern European ones) is that Macron deigns to speak for them.
In this respect, Macron is taking advantage of the poor design of European foreign policy – it has been expressly set up so that it does not have one single voice, or as Henry Kissinger put it – ‘who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?. In effect, Macron is solving Kissinger’s dilemma in that he is setting himself up as the go to person for the likes of Anthony Blinken, but he is not regarded by Europeans as the ‘voice of Europe’.
In that respect, the role of the EU’s foreign policy commissioner is one that is designed not to pronounce a singular voice. He or she (rarely a top flight, independently minded politician) is kept at a safe distance from power, usually imprisoned in an airplane (for instance in 2011, Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief flew over 430,000 miles, over three times that of his American counterpart Colin Powell). That is not to say that EU foreign policy is itself neutered, it’s just very complex, and designed to be at the mercy of large countries with a taste for foreign policy, like France. It is also game theoretically difficult to agree on a common foreign policy stance across twenty seven countries, at speed.
Yet, in policy areas where there is a very specific competence or topic – trade and Brexit are two good examples – the EU can be focused, competent and show solidarity across member states.
The question from here is whether stress tests such as the tension around Ukraine force a structural change in EU foreign policy, in just the same way that the euro-zone financial crisis catalysed a much better organized approach to EU economic and financial policy. Here, there are some tests ahead.
First there is an emerging pragmatism, especially around security operations where (the evacuation of Kabul was an example) missions are undertaken by ‘coalitions of the willing’ instead of having to cobble together a common stance across 27 countries. For military operations this approach is quicker, and enables cooperation with the likes of the UK, Denmark and Norway.
Second, assuming that there is no ‘hot’ conflict in Ukraine, there is a need for deep dialogue between the Baltic/Eastern European states on one hand, and France and Germany on the other. This dialogue may also become mixed up in the bigger debate around European values.
The Ukraine crisis is also a ‘discovery’ moment for Germany and its new chancellor in terms of his shameful ambivalence.
Thirdly, in areas where foreign policy becomes mixed with ‘megatrends’ like climate security, cybersecurity and data protection, the EU will have the time to take a more considered and deliberate approach.
As I send this note it is not clear what could transpire next week – I will grant that the US and UK are in control of the international PR battle, but the troubling private feedback from Macron’s visit to Moscow is that he found the Russian president more pre-occupied with history and more belligerent than ever before.