The main theme of SPIEF 2016 was that it provided the Russians with an opportunity to explain their foreign policy to the Europeans.
One of the most sterile debates that goes on in certain sections of the Anglophone media is on whether Putin is a strategist or just a tactician. There are any number of articles that debate the question with the answer usually given that he is just a tactician.
The correct answer to the question is that Putin or more correctly the Russian leadership most definitely do have a strategy, though the Anglophone media commentators who debate the question can be forgiven for always giving the wrong answer because – as their articles all too clearly show – they haven’t the least idea of what this strategy actually is. This is very surprising because Putin has explained it on many occasions. With large numbers of Europeans in the audience at SPIEF 2016 he took the opportunity to do so again, emphasising this time the key role Europe – and specifically the European Union – plays in it.
Here is what Putin said:
“In 2011, with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and relying on the dense network of cooperative relationships we inherited from the Soviet Union, we formed a common customs space, and then upgraded it to the Eurasian Economic Union.
As early as June we, along with our Chinese colleagues, are planning to start official talks on the formation of comprehensive trade and economic partnership in Eurasia with the participation of the European Union states and China. I expect that this will become one of the first steps toward the formation of a major Eurasian partnership.
Friends, the project I have just mentioned – the “greater Eurasia” project – is, of course, open for Europe, and I am convinced that such cooperation may be mutually beneficial. Despite all of the well-known problems in our relations, the European Union remains Russia’s key trade and economic partner. It is our next-door neighbour and we are not indifferent to what is happening in the lives of our neighbours, European countries and the European economy.
Let me repeat that we are interested in Europeans joining the project for a major Eurasian partnership. In this context we welcome the initiative of the President of Kazakhstan on holding consultations between the Eurasian Economic Union and the EU. Yesterday we discussed this issue at the meeting with the President of the European Commission.”
This is not only a strategy; it is a hugely ambitious – even grandiose – strategy. It aims to link the two sides of the Eurasian continent into a single economic space with Russia at the centre, acting as the link and bridge. It is a proposal not for a “Eurasia” but for a “Greater Eurasia”: a single colossal economic unit extending all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Moreover it is quite clear this project is fully supported by the Chinese leadership, China of course being the eastern half of the project. Indeed it is a certainty the Chinese had a hand in making it and that their Silk Road project is part of it.
Far from seeking the break-up of the EU as so many neocon writers in the West claim, what Putin wants is the EU to become a full partner in this project. Far from being forced to choose between “Russia in Europe” and “Russia in Eurasia”, Putin sees no contradiction in working towards both. Far from wanting to choose between the EU and China as Russia’s partner, Putin wants Russia to have a partnership with both of them, bringing the two together.
This colossal conception is very much in the style of how the Russians and the Chinese – two great continental powers accustomed to thinking in global terms – often think. As it happens similar ideas circulated in St. Petersburg in the 1890s early in the reign of Nicholas II, though the political and technical means to put them into effect simply did not exist at that time. The famous Soviet politician Vyacheslav Molotov also came up with a somewhat similar project in the 1950s, though it was one which gained little favour with the rest of the Soviet leadership.
By contrast I doubt that the provincial politicians of Europe, narrowly focused on their domestic concerns, are capable of understanding such a project even when it is explained to them as clearly as Putin did at SPIEF 2016. I am sure Putin knows this even if he sometimes struggles to understand the fact, and that he realises that if Europe is ever to be won over to this project it will have to be done one step at a time.
One Western power does have the strategic vision to understand such a project and significantly it is the one that has no place in it. That power is of course the US.
It was quite clear from many of the things Putin said during SPIEF 2016 that he and the rest of the Russian leadership believe the Maidan coup in Ukraine was a ploy by the US to divide Russia from Europe so as to derail the Greater Eurasia project. As it happens I think Putin is wrong about that – I doubt the US has much conception of the Greater Eurasia project and I think the US was pursuing in Ukraine its own very different strategies – but regardless of that Putin made pretty clear at SPIEF 2016 his bafflement that the Europeans so lack vision and a conception of their own interests that they allowed themselves during the Ukrainian crisis to be so easily manipulated by the US in its own interests. His speech to the plenary was basically a call to the Europeans to wake up and start acting in their own interests rather than Washington’s:
“I also understand our European partners when they talk about the complicated decisions for Europe that were made at the talks on the formation of the Trans-Atlantic partnership. Obviously, Europe has a vast potential and a stake on just one regional association clearly narrows its opportunities. Under the circumstances, it is difficult for Europe to maintain balance and preserve space for a gainful manoeuvre.
As the recent meetings with representatives of the German and French business circles have showed, European business is willing and ready to cooperate with this country. Politicians should meet businesses halfway by displaying wisdom, and a far-sighted and flexible approach. We must return trust to Russian-European relations and restore the level of our cooperation.
We remember how it all started. Russia did not initiate the current breakdown, disruption, problems and sanctions. All our actions have been exclusively reciprocal. But we don’t hold a grudge, as they say, and are ready to meet our European partners halfway. However, this can by no means be a one-way street.”
Whether the Europeans will heed this call – or are even able to understand it – is another matter. Personally I doubt they are. It is striking how the Western news media – including the European media – has reported nothing about the Greater Eurasia project and has said little about Putin’s call for a restoration in relations in order to carry it out. European leaders who were present at SPIEF 2016 – Juncker, Renzi and Sarkozy – all pressed for better relations with Russia but said nothing about the Greater Eurasia project.
Though Putin’s and the Chinese leadership’s commitment to the Greater Eurasia project there is no doubt, they have been careful not to let it become a trap for them by allowing it to become a project upon which they are so sold that they sacrifice their countries’ other vital interests in order to achieve it. That was the big mistake Mikhail Gorbachev made in the 1980s when he sacrificed the USSR’s entire position in Europe and ultimately its very existence in his quest to achieve what he called “the common European home”. If the Europeans prove unreceptive to the project then the Russians and the Chinese and their Central Asian allies have made it clear they will simply go ahead with the project on their own.