European divisions over relations with Russia are being laid bare by the shooting down of a passenger plane over Ukraine.
The missile attack on Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 claimed the lives of 298 passengers, including 230 Europeans, making it the single most deadly act of terror in modern European history.
But despite a growing body of evidence that MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine, the European Union’s 28 member states have still been unable to agree on even a basic unified response to the attack.
A battery of the Russian-made Buk (SA-11) anti-aircraft missile system, which is the type of system used to shoot down flight MH17.
Western European countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands—all of which enjoy strong trade relations with Russia—have long been reluctant to antagonize Moscow, based largely on economic and energy supply considerations.
By contrast, eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, all of which experienced decades of misery under Soviet military domination, favor a far more aggressive EU policy regarding the Kremlin, which they view as posing a potentially existential threat.
Few Europeans have had the courage to follow the lead of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was the first Western leader directly to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over the MH17 disaster.
Abbot has warned Putin that his attendance at the G20 summit in Brisbane in November will be contingent on how much co-operation Australia and other countries receive from Russia in securing an independent international investigation into the plane crash.
By contrast, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, evidently fearful of angering Putin, has been walking on eggshells. «If I bang my fist against the table now… then I reduce the chances of the Netherlands and all those who support us getting the facts on the table,» he told a news conference in The Hague.
Rutte has also played down expectations that the Netherlands would support tougher EU economic sanctions against Russia or the Ukrainian separatists.
In an interview with the New York Times, one of the main opposition leaders in the Netherlands, Alexander Pechtold, said: «We are a small country, dependent on our exports, and unlike the United States, we cannot always react from our moral high grounds. Still, if it is proven that the Russians have their fingerprints on this horrible event, we cannot look in the other direction.»
Russia is the third-largest destination for Dutch exports outside Europe after the US and China. The Netherlands is also a key tax shelter for Russia’s billionaires.
Amid reports that some of the bodies were being looted or removed from the crash site, Rutte has stepped up his rhetoric. On his Twitter feed, he wrote: «Shocked by images of totally disrespectful behavior, downright disgusting. Absolutely urgent now is the rapid repatriation of victims.»
Arguably the most befuddled European response to the downing of MH17 has come from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who seemed oblivious to the scale of the disaster when she told a group of 1,000 guests gathered in Berlin just hours after the attack to celebrate her 60th birthday: «We are living in happy times.» According to those in attendance, Merkel’s words «fell flat.»
After Merkel was criticized for downplaying the crime, Merkel begrudgingly acknowledged that, «it is especially Russia’s responsibility for what is going on in Ukraine right now.» She added that the EU’s response so far has been more than «adequate.»
Merkel has urged Putin to use his influence with the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to facilitate an international investigation into what German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called an «incident.»
Steinmeier later tweeted that the killing of hundreds of innocents as a «crime beyond any imagination.» But he then employed rambling phraseology in an apparent effort not to be seen as pinning blame on Russia: «Those responsible would lose any right to claim their interests in the name of humanity.»
Observers say Merkel, who was recently named «the most powerful woman in the world,» is afraid of Putin, who provides Germany with more than one third of its gas imports.
Another key individual involved in shaping Europe’s response to Russia is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency. Renzi has been keen to avoid alienating Russia, Italy’s biggest supplier of natural gas.
Renzi is also energetically pushing for his foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, to replace Catherine Ashton as the EU’s new foreign policy chief. Mogherini, who has almost no foreign policy experience, is unabashedly pro-Russian. Her candidacy is being opposed by Poland and the Baltic countries, which believe Mogherini would be too accommodating toward the Kremlin.
For its part, the European Commission, the EU’s administrative branch, which never misses an opportunity to boycott institutions in Israel, has issued only a standard statement which reads: «The European Union will continue to follow this issue very closely.»
In France, President François Hollande is loath to antagonize Putin ahead of the delivery of two highly sophisticated Mistral-class amphibious assault warships in a contract worth €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion). The first warship is to be delivered in October, and the French navy is currently training Russian sailors how to use it at the port of Saint-Nazaire.
After the Russian invasion of Crimea in March 2014, the United States and several EU states criticized the deal. But others, including Germany, have defended France’s decision to go ahead with the sale.
In the wake of the MH17 disaster, however, a senior European diplomat told the EU Observer that France risks «international ridicule» if it goes ahead with the deal. «Putin has pursued a policy of dividing the U.S. and the European Union, as well as the EU internally. This incident [the air disaster] is going to make it harder for him [Hollande] to do this.»
For now, France appears keen to keep talk of the air disaster separate from the arms deal. «The most important priority right now is to shed light on what happened in this catastrophe,» a French government official said. «We should not turn away from this subject in order to discuss some hypothetical consequences, or to talk about subjects which are not really connected.»
In a rebuke of Merkel and other European leaders for their reluctance to confront Russia, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Europe must now «respond robustly.»
In a blistering article published by the Sunday Times on July 20, Cameron called the attack on MH17 a «direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them.»
Cameron added: «For too long, there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine…. It is time to make our power, influence and resources count. Our economies are strong and growing in strength. And yet we sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us.»
It remains to be seen whether the MH17 disaster will serve as a moment of moral and strategic clarity and cajole European leaders into confronting Russia’s increasingly increasing bellicosity.
More than 50% of the EU’s total energy consumption in 2012 was imported from outside the EU, according to the most recent data compiled by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency. A large percentage of that imported energy originates in Russia. In 2012, some 33.7% of the EU-28’s imports of crude oil were from Russia, as were 32% of the bloc’s imports of natural gas.
The EU has made only half-hearted attempts to develop alternatives to its dependency on Russian oil and gas. The Nabucco pipeline, for example, was a plan to push gas from the Caspian Sea region into central Europe by bypassing Russia and Ukraine. The project was shelved in June 2013, after Moscow pressured southern European countries into supporting the rival South Stream pipeline, run by Gazprom, which is majority owned by the Russian government.
More recently, Israel decided to ship much of its natural gas to Egypt, further confounding efforts to lessen EU dependence on Russian sources. Energy analysts say the failures point to a lack of a common EU energy policy, which means that Russia is likely to remain Europe’s chief natural gas supplier well beyond 2020.
Even if the EU were to achieve complete energy independence, however, it would hardly change the crux of Europe’s security problem, which is its over-reliance on diplomatic and economic «soft-power» at the expense of military «hard power.»
European elites, who take pride in viewing the EU as a «post-modern» superpower, have long argued that military hard power is illegitimate in the 21st century.
Unfortunately for Europe, Russia (along with China and Iran) has not embraced the EU’s fantastical soft-power worldview, in which «climate change» is now said to pose the greatest threat to European security.
The EU’s lack of a hard power deterrent has emboldened Putin to the point where he has been able to run roughshod in Crimea and Ukraine with impunity, and evidently there is not much Europe’s soft power can do about it.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.
EU Leaders Deeply Divided Over Russia
by Soeren Kern
July 21, 2014 at 4:30 am