Making friends is one thing. Influencing them is another. Russia has no desire to make friends out of its former empire. It settles for bullying them instead.
In startling form in recent weeks, the Kremlin has taken off the gloves in its dealings with its neighbors. It started trade wars with Moldova, Ukraine, and Lithuania, and terrified Armenia into giving up, for now, its plans to do a deal with the European Union at the Vilnius Summit in November.
A big Russian-Belarusian military exercise, Zapad-13, supposedly rehearsed counter-terrorism operations, but with warplanes, drones and missiles – to intimidate the Baltic states and Poland. It involved over 70,000 troops and was the largest military exercise of its kind since the fall of the Soviet Union. A Finnish lawyer, Kari Silvennoinen, who has written books denouncing Stalinist aggression, was detained at Moscow airport and deported.
The response so far has been modest. The EU is considering opening its market to Moldovan wine. Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrick Ilves hurried to Chisinau this week [the article was written on October 3, 2013. – Ed.] to lend support. The EU has protested about the treatment of Lithuania, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of Ministers, and of Ukraine. Ukraine is trying to buy gas from Slovakia, reversing the normal flow of the east-west pipeline, to get round the impending squeeze from Russia. But political considerations in Bratislava are slowing this down.
On the military front, NATO’s Steadfast Jazz exercise in early November is much smaller than Russia’s effort. And NATO is bending over backwards to insist that this drill, the first such exercise to be held in the new member states, is all about interoperability and certification, and absolutely nothing to do with showing the means and will to deter any Russian mischief on the alliance’s north-east flank.
NATO is in general extremely transparent for Russian observers (also known as spies) – so much so that, in some eyes, the military usefulness of Steadfast Jazz is being damaged.
What the EU should do is put pressure on Russia directly. It should back those protests up with complaints at the World Trade Organization.
The biggest weapon of all is sitting in the European Commission’s arsenal, in the form of the complaint it is preparing against Russia’s grotesque abuse of the European gas market. Attempts to settle this issue amicably have (predictably) broken down. When the statement of complaint is issued (which may be soon), it will not only expose Gazprom to fines, but also allow the victims of its price-fixing to launch their own civil lawsuits. (If readers have any Gazprom shares, now might be a good time to sell them.)
Another front is to start imposing visa sanctions and asset freezes against those involved in the death of the accountant Sergei Magnitsky, and the beneficiaries of the 230 million dollars (170 million euros) fraud against the Russian taxpayer he uncovered. The United States has taken the lead on this; European countries should follow suit. Moreover, they should help Bill Browder, a London-based financier who is Magnitsky’s former client and champion. He risks arrest when he leaves the UK because Russia is shamelessly abusing the Interpol system, claiming that Browder is a wanted fraudster. EU countries should all say that they regard this as political persecution and have no intention of acting on it. That would give Browder safe passage.
On the military front, NATO should make rather a bigger deal about Steadfast Jazz, highlighting the fact that the alliance is committed to the territorial defense of its members. At NATO and elsewhere, spy-catchers should be given the money and political backing needed to do their job.
Europe has been a playground for Russia’s intelligence services for too long. Viewed from the creepy half-light of the Kremlin, softness on spies signals weakness of will.