Western Europe and Russia – Coming Together

Commentary No. 270, December 1, 2009

The slow process of creating a lasting geopolitical alliance of western Europe and Russia has a long history, which is slowly maturing. It may be traced to the visit of President Charles De Gaulle to the Soviet Union in 1944, where he signed the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance. It was a way to reassert France’s centrality in European politics and to take his distance from his somewhat reluctant allies, the United States and Great Britain. For De Gaulle, geopolitical interests overrode ideological differences.

The next crucial moment was the pursuit by West Germany’s Social-Democratic Chancellor, Willy Brandt, of the so-called Ostpolitik, after he came to power in 1969. It involved new diplomatic détente with the Soviet Union (as well as the opening of communications with East Germany).

The third crucial moment was the great debate in the late 1970s and 1980s about the construction of a gas pipeline (gazoduc) from the Soviet Union to western Europe, which was supported by Germany, France, and even Mrs. Thatcher’s Great Britain.

The fourth crucial moment was the proclamation by Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 of the need to construct “a common European home.”

What was common to all four moments was that they were all seen by the United States as at least dubious propositions and at worst initiatives that potentially undermined the global interests of the United States.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia under Boris Yeltsin shelved all these ideas, giving its priority to developing close relations with the United States. The post-Communist regimes in east-central Europe all were relieved by the decreased signs of closer relations of western Europe and Russia.

However, when Yeltsin was succeeded by Vladimir Putin, Russian policy reverted to seeking closer relations with western Europe, and with France and Germany in particular. This seemed to come to fruition in February 2003, when the three countries joined hands in defeating the attempt of the United States and Great Britain to get the U.N. Security Council to endorse the about-to-occur invasion of Iraq. This time, the United States quite openly defined this collaboration as hostile to U.S. global interests.

Since then, and somewhat under the world’s radar, these relations have continued to advance, despite U.S. continued hostility and the general fear and opposition of the governments in power in the erstwhile satellite states of eastern-central Europe.

Putin continues to use the mechanism of one of his biggest trump cards, Russia’s natural gas exports, as the mode of consolidating these links. The debate since the 1990s has been over the routing of new massive pipelines from Russia and Central Asia to western Europe.

The Russians have favored what are called the North Stream and the South Stream. The North Stream pipeline would go from Russia through the Baltic Sea to Germany, circumventing Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltic states.

The South Stream would go from Russia via the Black Sea to Bulgaria, and then have two branches, one northwest via Serbia, Hungary, and Slovenia to Austria and one southwest via Greece and the Adriatic to Italy.

The United States has been pushing a third pipeline project called Nabucco, which seeks to circumvent Russia by getting gas from Turkmenistan. It would cross the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, continue through Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary to Austria and then from there to Germany and the Czech Republic. But since the gas supplies of Turkmenistan are limited, the gas would ultimately have to come from Russia, which diminishes the geopolitical utility of Nabucco.

In any case, in what Le Monde calls a “masterstroke,” Putin came to Paris in late November to seal a deal with the French to work together to achieve both the North Stream and the South Stream pipelines. A key French figure, the CEO of GDF Suez, Gérard Mestrallet, said “Russia is an indispensable partner, for the future and for Europe.” France’s President, Nicholas Sarkozy, has called for “a space of common security” between Europe and Russia. This is the same Sarkozy who is hailed in Washington as the most pro-American French president since 1945. Once again, geopolitical interests are overriding ideological differences.

The eastern-central European states will probably fall in line, unhappily and fearfully. But geopolitical reality is that the United States can do very little now to slow down the approaching grand alliance.