From Republic.ru, Feb. 25, 2021, https://republic.ru/posts/99671, complete text:
Moscow has every reason to welcome the outcome of the special session of the Munich Security Conference that took place on Feb. 19, despite the Russian Foreign Ministry’s discontent that Russia “was not invited” (officially, it was a meeting for NATO allies to discuss “transatlantic unity”).
The main positive news is that worse did not come to worst. A new “post-Trump” anti-Russian united front between the US and Europe – which analysts had warned about, calling it nothing short of a new potential Treaty of Brest-Litovsk – failed to materialize. Moreover, such prospects are hazy at best.
In his debut remarks as US president, Joe Biden made a powerful case for doing precisely that – rapidly restoring a unified front of Western democracies against Russia and China, whose rising authoritarianism poses an existential threat to democracy. “We’re at an inflection point,” Biden said.
The US president’s remarks were those of a liberal hawk, whose confidence in the “end of history” [since the collapse of the Soviet Union] remains unshaken. [According to Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations], [Biden] called for a new global cold war against authoritarianism and in defense of democracy to revive a head-on confrontation over values; for a “systemic crisis” between the “free world of democracies” and the “unfree world of autocracies,” into [the latter of] which he immediately lumped Russia and China.
According to Biden, China is a long-term strategic competitor. For its part, Russia is a short-term and somewhat different challenge, but a real threat [sic; Biden said: “We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China.*** The challenges with Russia may be different than the ones with China, but they’re just as real.” – Trans.]. The US approach toward Russia and China here is not just “pretty competitive,” but “adversarial” [says Elbridge Colby of the Marathon Initiative].
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world. We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that***autocracy is the best way forward***and those who understand that democracy is essential.*** I believe that***democracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.*** So let’s get together and demonstrate to our great-great-grandchildren, when they read about us, that democracy***functions and works, and together, there is nothing we can’t do,” [Biden said].
Biden urged Europe to forge an alliance with the US in this crusade of democracies against autocracies. “I hope our fellow democracies are going to join us in this vital work.*** The partnership between Europe and the United States, in my view, is and must remain the cornerstone [of all that we hope to accomplish in the 21st century].” This alliance is “rooted in***shared [democratic] values” and “built on a vision of a future”; partnerships are “not transactional***[and] not extractive” (which is a rejection of [former US president Donald] Trump’s mercantilist approach of “pay us more for protecting you”). [Biden also] reversed Trump’s decision to reduce US troops in Germany.
Overall, according to US analyst Elbridge Colby, there are two really striking things about Biden’s Munich speech. The first is confidence – almost sanguinity – about the ability of the US and its “allied democracies” to deal with the challenge of the “rising Chinese and Russian autocracies,” and to prevail in a new “conflict of state systems.” This confidence is rooted in the 1990s, when the US was the sole superpower and the world was at the point of “American unipolarity.” Second, it’s marked by deep faith in the willingness of other democracies to join a global alliance under US leadership against the autocracies.
In a sense, Biden’s Munich speech is an ideological response to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, where he warned about the imminent collapse of unipolarity and US leadership [see Vol. 59, No. 7, pp. 1‑4]. Biden hints, as it were, that Putin jumped to conclusions at the time.
However, this is February 2021, not 2007, and there is a snag. Washington’s calls for an alliance of democracies to wage a global values-based and geopolitical fight against the emerging authoritarianism of Russia and China elicited a lukewarm response from at least two key European partners – France and Germany. German political analyst Ulrich Speck comments that “Biden is proposing a new partnership to Europe – an alliance of democracies standing up to and competing with authoritarian Russia and China. [French President Emmanuel] Macron ignored the proposal. [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, as always, took a wait-and-see approach. But [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson strongly endorsed the US’s new agenda. After the freeze in relations under Trump, I expected more warming from the Europeans to ‘America’s return.’ I don’t see it yet.” According to Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who was in line to become the National Security Council director for Russia in the Biden administration (but turned it down at the last moment for personal reasons), “We weren’t just going to be able to show up and say, ‘Hey guys, we’re back!’ ”
Macron’s and Merkel’s reactions showed that Biden’s hawkish approach and calls for confrontation with Russia and China make Paris and Berlin nervous. Moreover, the attempt to get everyone into an “indestructible alliance of democracies” under US leadership conflicts with Paris’s and Berlin’s own understanding of their interests in relation to Moscow and Beijing. Merkel, with her characteristic tactfulness, said that “our interests will not always coincide.” Berlin does not want to jeopardize its exports to China (China has become Germany’s main export market, overtaking France just recently). And while it views China as a strategic economic and technological competitor, it definitely does not see it as a military adversary, preferring to deal with human rights issues and equal access to markets within the framework of European Union-China trade agreements. Germany’s attitude toward Russia has drastically changed since 2014, and especially since the “incident with [leading Russian opposition figure] Aleksei Navalny.”1 However, Berlin is not prepared for a new cold war with Moscow and sees no point in that, especially after Merkel leaves politics in September; Berlin is only willing to freeze high-level contacts with Moscow as part of the EU’s overall policy.
1[Navalny became ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow; he was later transported to Germany, where doctors diagnosed him with Novichok poisoning; see Vol. 72, No. 34‑35, pp. 13‑16, and No. 36, pp. 10‑12. – Trans.]
Macron vs. Biden.
However, the main challenge to Biden was issued by French President Emmanuel Macron. It is hard for Moscow to disagree with what [Macron] said in Munich and even before Munich (i.e., his policy statement at the Atlantic Council in January [sic; February – Trans.] and his interview with The Financial Times ahead of the G‑7 leaders’ video conference in early February).
In Munich, Macron ignored Biden’s agenda and did not elaborate or even comment on it in a substantive way. Instead, he pursued his own agenda: “I’ve listened to President Biden and I appreciate his list of challenges, but we in Europe have our own unique agenda.” Reiterating the well-known narrative about Europe’s strategic autonomy, this time Macron focused on adapting NATO to the requirements of European strategic autonomy: Europe has its own set of threats and security problems, and it does not need the US’s help or permission to address them. These unique threats to Europe are in the Middle East and North Africa, which is “our neighborhood***not the US’s.” So Europe, within the framework of NATO, should act independently to neutralize such threats. At the same time, Macron did not mention threats from the East – i.e., Russia.
In his speech at the Atlantic Council [sic; Financial Times interview – Trans.], Macron went even further. “The US has full control over NATO, including priority in buying US weapons, and this is an anachronism.” US military presence in Europe and neighboring regions is hard to justify and support, since there are no direct US interests there. Europe, within the bounds of NATO, should be fully in charge of its neighboring regions, while NATO’s mission needs “clarifying as a matter of urgency”: After all, “[NATO] was founded to face down the Warsaw Pact. There is no more a Warsaw Pact.” (Macron was let down by his speechwriters, who failed to check the facts: NATO was established in 1949 and the Warsaw Pact was founded in 1955, following “NATO expansion” to the Federal Republic of Germany).
It is noteworthy that from Macron’s perspective, a key challenge to European security is not Russia, but Turkey, with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s geopolitical ambitions in Libya, Syria and the Transcaucasus. NATO’s unique agenda, according to Macron, is to force Turkey from Libya, Syria and [Nagorno-] Karabakh. It does not matter that Turkey is a NATO member with the largest army. Bulgarian political analyst Dimitar Bechev comments that “France views Turkey as a strategic competitor and Russia as a potential partner. Great Britain sees Russia as a strategic competitor and Turkey as a potential partner. And Germany views both Russia and Turkey as major markets and potential partners.”
According to Macron, NATO should become not so much a military alliance as a political one ensuring a new transatlantic security architecture with the participation of Russia, which requires frank dialogue. However, [such dialogue] has not produced any results yet. With regard to Russia, Macron is pretending that 2014 never happened. Would Moscow argue with that? “Macron is ours!”2
2[Reference to a popular hashtag following the annexation of the Crimea, #KrymNash, which translates to “the Crimea is ours.” – Trans.]
That’s not all. Macron talks about the need to reorganize the work of the UN Security Council, which is no longer able to resolve major regional conflicts. It would be “insane” of its permanent members to allow the Security Council to be replaced with competing regional formats. Reforming the Security Council may help avoid escalating tensions between the US and China, Macron says. France, Great Britain and Russia – the three other permanent members of the Security Council – are advocating to resume close contacts “in order to create a new zone of cooperation with China, if China is interested.” Macron is effectively appropriating Vladimir Putin’s main foreign policy initiative on holding a summit of permanent members of the UN Security Council, and is seizing the role of its promoter (this may even cool Moscow’s interest somewhat). And as soon as [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that Russian-EU relations had hit an all-time low [see Vol. 73, No. 6‑7, pp. 10‑14], Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev gave a warm welcome to his French counterpart, Secretary General for National Defense and Security Stéphane Bouillon.
Macron’s stance shows that the West’s much-touted consolidation against the Russian and Chinese autocracies is at best being put on hold and, at worst, will never happen. The situation where the US decides whom to engage in what fight, while its European allies follow its lead like “junior wingmen,” is no longer acceptable to Paris and Berlin: Europe may have its own unique interests and agenda, including along the Russian track.
The US and the EU don’t see eye to eye on the Navalny situation.
This is also evident from the situation involving the “incident with Aleksei Navalny.” Whereas the US, as demonstrated by Secretary of State Tony Blinken, continues to say that “Russia has used chemical weapons to [try to] assassinate its own citizens,” and keeps demanding an investigation into the use of weapons of mass destruction, the EU has practically stopped talking about the use of a military-grade toxic nerve agent in the Navalny case (and this despite “Macron’s red lines” on chemical weapons that he drew in Putin’s presence after their meeting at Versailles in May 2017 [see Vol. 69, No. 22, pp. 3‑6]). Meanwhile, the new sanctions the EU is imposing over the Navalny case have to do with human rights violations (the EU’s new legal mechanism, similar to the US’s Global Magnitsky Act [see more detailed coverage in the second feature, above]). Yes, the sanctions imposed in October had to with the use of chemical weapons [see Vol. 73, No. 42, pp. 7‑9], but no one was added to the list following the Bellingcat investigation.
This shift in the EU’s rhetoric (switching the issue of chemical weapons into a “mere coincidence” category) is beneficial for Moscow. According to Fyodor Lukyanov [research professor at the Higher School of Economics], “If European institutions and their representatives insisted, for example, on charges of using military-grade toxic nerve agents, stressing the dangers of their uncontrolled circulation, then the issue could be treated as an international one. And a significant one for [Russia’s] external partners. However, the brunt of the criticism focused on violating democratic norms, human rights and liberties in Russia – which, judging by the EU’s statements, it will never tolerate. This was precisely what Borrell kept saying during his trip to Moscow.” It is extremely difficult to brush off the “unsanctioned use of chemical weapons on one’s own territory” (i.e., suspicions that a new Aum Shinrikyo cult movement is active in Russia, committing terrorist acts with the use of Novichok): This is about combating terrorism involving the use of weapons of mass destruction, and this is an international security issue. As for the EU’s demands to immediately free Navalny, those are easy to dismiss as interference in domestic affairs and disrespect for Russian law. By all indications, it makes sense for Moscow to support this rhetorical restraint on the EU’s part and not stir up further debate about chemical weapons in the Navalny case, especially with quick-and-dirty active measures.
The emerging mismatch between the Biden administration and [the US’s] key European allies on next steps regarding Russia theoretically requires Moscow’s reaction in order to expand and deepen the disagreements among the allies. It’s anybody’s game now, and it would not be a bad idea to take advantage of an opportunity that may not come around again. At the very least, this requires introducing new flexibility in foreign policy rhetoric; adjusting or scrapping “planned active measures”; planning new foreign policy in relations with Paris and Berlin; toning down angry, accusatory histrionics toward the EU; and avoiding the temptation to “kowtow to Washington for a new reset.” However, right now the most likely scenario seems to be preserving the status quo in the official narrative about the inevitable emergence of a “post-Western world,” which requires nothing but ramping up aggressive rhetoric.