Putin’s Latest Moves Tip the Balance of Power Toward Russia

Moscow's diplomatic victory in Ukraine was a thumb in Brussels's eye. It's all part of the Kremlin's emboldened foreign policy.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Nikolsky Alexei / ITAR-TASS Photo / Corbis

Russia's president Vladimir Putin at his annual press conference at Moscow's World Trade Centre, on Dec. 19, 2013.

With the New Year approaching, leaders across the European continent paused, as people usually do around this time, to take stock of their efforts in the past twelve months. What they faced was a lopsided picture. In the East, Russia’s prowess in foreign affairs had managed to tip the balance of power sharply away from the Old World, while in the West, E.U. statesman were confronted more starkly than ever with their own indecisiveness, which left them licking their diplomatic wounds as the year came to a close.

Without question, the hour belonged to Vladimir Putin. Nearing the end of his 13th year as Russia‘s leader, he took time out on Thursday afternoon to drink in the praise of admiring journalists at his annual year-end press conference. One starstruck Russian reporter presented him with a teddy bear. Another invited him to a party in Siberia. Given the microphone, yet another began to ramble, then nearly swooned, then broke into tears, while the most cogent compliment of many during the four-hour event came from a representative of the Iranian press. “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich!” the journalist began. “It looks like 2013 is the most brilliant year ever for Russian foreign policy.” And he was right, which made it hard for Putin not to smile. He felt so secure in his power after the event that he granted a pardon to his oldest enemy, the imprisoned oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who walked free on Friday after spending nearly 11 years behind bars.

Across the continent in Brussels, E.U. leaders were gathered on Thursday and Friday for their annual summit with a whole lot less to celebrate. They had watched in the preceding month as their hold over Ukraine, the largest and most important country in Eastern Europe, slipped from their fingers and landed in Russia’s lap. Desperate for cash to avert economic collapse, Ukraine’s leaders had invited a bidding war for their allegiance, as the unaligned states of Eastern Europe have tended to do in recent years, Belarus being the prime example. In this case as in that one, the E.U. balked and backed away, while Putin stepped in with a lavish offer – a $15 billion loan and a steep discount for Ukraine on Russian natural gas. On Wednesday, when he presented the deal at a briefing in the Kremlin, the hall of Ukrainian statesmen broke into applause. Then, too, Putin looked up at them and smiled.

Perhaps the simplest lesson to be drawn from this outcome for Europe was best summed up by George W. Bush back in 2000, when the U.S. President famously remarked that winning consensus in government is “a heck of a lot easier” in more authoritarian countries. European leaders, like their American allies, just don’t have that luxury. Regardless of the geopolitical stakes, they cannot do what Putin did for Ukraine. They cannot just take a quarter of the rainy day funds set aside to support state pensions and loan it out to a foreign country on a whim. For the people of Europe, that is probably a good thing, but it still makes E.U. leaders seem outgunned in a face-off with Russia. “We are not able to make strong decisions, strong engagements, to spend money to develop our interests,” says Stefan Meister, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It is the weakness of how the E.U. works.”

And in the coming years, Russia will only continue to exploit that weakness. By 2015, Putin wants to have laid the groundwork for his Eurasian Union, the grand political vision he has referred to as “the will of the era.” Cobbled together from former Soviet states like Belarus and Kazakhstan, this alliance is meant to balance against the influence of the E.U. on the continent, making Moscow seem more like its center of gravity than Brussels. In many ways, the struggle for Ukraine was the decisive one in this contest, says Chris Weafer, a political risk analyst and consultant in Moscow. “And now it’s over,” he says. “The for-sale sign has been taken down in Ukraine, and it’s sold to Moscow.”

So far, E.U. statesmen do not quite seem ready to admit that and cut their losses. As the first day of their summit wound down, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the bloc’s outspoken point man on integration with the East, tweeted that Europe is still “ready to give Ukraine free trade, association and modernization partnership.” But Ukraine clearly doesn’t want it anymore. Speaking to reporters a few hours earlier, its President began taking his lines straight from Putin’s playbook as he warned the E.U. to start minding its own business. “Some countries should not meddle in our internal affairs and should not believe that they can be the bosses here,” President Viktor Yanukovych said. “I am categorically against having someone come here and teach us how to live.”

So the E.U.’s best option at this point is to salvage what’s left of its Eastern Partnership initiative, the mechanism it has been using to pull former Soviet states closer to the West. With Ukraine lost, the main consolation prize now becomes Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. “So regardless of the European Partnership, Europeans now need to coddle and warm Moldova as much as they can, to show how much Ukraine is losing out,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy expert in Moscow. Already, E.U. officials have started pushing for Moldovans to be granted visa-free travel, a privilege that both Russia and Ukraine have coveted for years.

But beyond these gestures, the E.U. will have to come up with a better strategy to counter Russia’s growing influence across the continent, a trend that seems to have caught the bloc flatfooted despite being clear in Putin’s rhetoric for years. “Now it is really clear that Russia is becoming more assertive,” says Joerg Forbrig, an expert on Eastern Europe at the German Marshal Fund in Berlin. “And it will be pushing Europe much harder on issues of the eastern neighborhood.” So in the coming months, Europe will have to find a way to win back some of the momentum it lost in Ukraine. But with all of its internal divisions and economic worries to deal with, “the EU is not ready to enter this competition,” Forbrig says.

Putin seems to realize that better than anyone. Asked at Thursday’s press conference about the struggle for Ukraine, the Russian President had his game face ready. “I’ll tell you like a lover of sport,” he said. “We only need to flex our muscles a little bit, and everything will become clear.” That kind of bluster, a mainstay of Putin’s style of diplomacy, is not exactly part of the repertoire of his counterparts in the E.U. And even if European statesmen could pull it off, it would be difficult to back up.

51 comments
Yuriy Khodyrev
Yuriy Khodyrev

All strong countries (like USA, UK, Germany) killed people for own benefit. It's normal for them

Timmy Shanti
Timmy Shanti

John-Jack Holland and what "white" countries have not an aging population ?

Yuri Smirnov
Yuri Smirnov

он не просит.....это твои проблемы, кому ты веришь...

Isyaku Ibrahim
Isyaku Ibrahim

Putin seems likely to spring more surprises, apart from winning over and retaining Ukhraine with economic bailout and cheap Gas; and latest presidential pardon to his staunch critic and prominent political prisoner. Moreover,his successful role in finding solution to Syria's Chemical Weapons impasse that saved his Ally from imminent Air strikes, was a diplomatic breakthrough. The agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons has also saved the US from embarassment had Congress refused air strikes.

John-Jack Holland
John-Jack Holland

Russia has an aging, declining population. They have maybe a 20 year window to move their boundaries. If they do not they will be at a distinct geopolitical disadvantage for this century.

PrettyTatiana
PrettyTatiana

EU offer to Ukraine was not only pathetic but also extremeky dangerous for both EU and Ukraine economies.  The continuing expansion and especially  "Drang nach Osten"  policy is an obvious bubble which might explode at any time. It will certainly benefit EU bureaucrats at the expense of ordinary folks. The cheap talk about democracy and gay rights cannot substitute for the bread, butter and heating temperature at theis houses in the winter time.      .  

Vijay Banga
Vijay Banga

Putin will prove to be not a ordinary politician but a diplomat Statesman to be remembered for his terms as head of Russia and seems to be planning, to change the course of History . I wish you well Vladimir and Happy Christmas

Marlon Rumambi
Marlon Rumambi

I do know it, and I know how Putin directs your country. But I was not talking about that!

Nadia Sayenko
Nadia Sayenko

You obviously don't understand the meaning of "dictatorship"

Nadia Sayenko
Nadia Sayenko

Russia hasn't lost anything. It killed millions to take what wasn't theirs to take and now it's holding onto the last straw. Enough is enough.

SashaYasnikovskyy
SashaYasnikovskyy

Ukraine, wants nothing to do with Russian Gov.  No matter how bad the economy is Ukraine will not be easily convinced to receive help from the crooks that murdered Ukrainian people by the millions, who also have been overcharging Ukraine for that same gas they are "giving a substantial discount" on for decades. The trade between Ukraine and Russia has been a pure, plain and simple robbery. Its a shame that the world sees this as a rescue. Its a hostile take over. I just hope that Ukraine can come out on top of this when it is over.

Daniel Parcon
Daniel Parcon

Such as prestige and a major decision power in world affairs.

Daniel Parcon
Daniel Parcon

Choosing between leaders, i.e. the States and Russia? I agree with Putin's leadership man

Daniel Parcon
Daniel Parcon

We can't blame Putin for who he is (an "ex" spy too) and what he is standing for. He is just a firm & able leader for a country that has a major global population..and a world leader. He is taking back what Russia rightfully belongs to her. Taking back what she lost after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Guylaine Joly
Guylaine Joly

I always said do not trust mother russia...more is coming, wait and see.

João Roque
João Roque

gives with one hand and takes with the other and you could be sure putin is never losing

Marlon Rumambi
Marlon Rumambi

Well Time, Putin's period as Russian's leader is 9 years not 13. 2000-2008, 2012-2013!

marloninverdale
marloninverdale

Well Time, Putin's period as Russian's leader is 9 years. 2000-2008, 2012-2013!

Nona Nolet
Nona Nolet

history of rome: western division, eastern division: same empire

Jon Dodson
Jon Dodson

There ya go TIME. News that effects real people.

Sarcastic One Liners
Sarcastic One Liners

I'm starting to think that the gym really isn't for me. I went this morning and laid down on the mat to do some sit- ups. I woke up 2 hours later. Like us for sarcasm :)

outspoken
outspoken

Ukraine  is  the  birth place of  Kruchev.  How  the  pesky  EU can grab  from  Mother  Russia ?  It is the  bond  of  blood of  history. Those EU  should have   to think  twice.


AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

This scenario is but one being played out around the world that will ultimately work to challenge U.S. leadership.  It's not only Russia that is becoming more influential, it's China and Iran and even third world countries that sense a lack of cohesion within our political framework and a continuation of the erosion of confidence within the U.S. in general.


As we American's fight with ourselves we lose the strength and resolve to counter actions and events that challenge our own self interests around the world. 


Richard Haas describes this situation perfectly in "Foreign Policy Begins at Home. The Case for Putting America's House in Order." - http://www.cfr.org/politics-and-strategy/foreign-policy-begins-home/p29767


"Many of the foundations of this country's power are eroding," he warns. "The effect, however, is not limited to a deteriorating transportation system or jobs that go unfilled or overseas owing to a lack of qualified American workers. To the contrary, shortcomings here at home directly threaten America's ability to project power and exert influence overseas, to compete in the global marketplace, to generate the resources needed to promote the full range of US interests abroad, and to set a compelling example that will influence the thinking and behavior of others." 

ameerjabril
ameerjabril

Yes i'm sure pravda.ru, RT and other russian propaganda centers who's anti western rhetoric is grounded in the past will tell u that.

ameerjabril
ameerjabril

US doesn't seem to have one. Though even with the white population growing its still tiny compared to the explosive growth of its latino population.

AliDCat1
AliDCat1

"killed millions to take what wasn't theirs to take". That sounds like what the europeans did to america (not the US but the whole continent).



ameerjabril
ameerjabril

Why because he is white and Obama is black?

RB1
RB1

@JohnNagel What an Id*#t you obviously are! This cr*p your slinging isn't fit to be printed anywhere. How about taking all that aluminum foil off your head and waking up to reality! What a je#k!

MrdudePerson
MrdudePerson

@JohnNagel @RB1 You are a more on sir.  Next you should post an inquiry into how Putin had dissenting journalists poisoned and murdered.