Either you master history or history masters you. Decades worth of political risk analysis can almost always be boiled down to this aphorism.
In the case of Europe’s dealings with Valdimir Putin, rather than mastering history, Europe has vainly tried to take a holiday from it; we’re now watching the doleful results.
First, let’s dispense with Prime Minister Johnson’s speculation that the Russian President is somehow an “irrational actor”.
While his methods are odious, there is nothing in political risk terms regarding Putin’s strategy that strikes me as remotely irrational. Forget the smoke and mirrors about Ukraine’s possible NATO expansion; Putin knows this is not going to happen in his lifetime, if at all. The real reason for Russia’s aggressive actions could not be either more organic or reasonable from the Kremlin’s point of view.
Putin, in his Peter the Great Tsarist pose, wants to restore Russia’s strategic depth, the force that has been the cornerstone of the country’s strategic playbook for the past 300 years.
Mother Russia managed to see off wars of annihilation with Charles XII of Sweden in the 18 century, Napoleon in the 19 century, and the Kaiser and Hitler in the 20th century, all by trading land for time. Surrounded by pliant client states, Russia’s leaders let the invading armies march into the vastness of their country, all the while waiting for time to pass and Russia’s game-changing winter to come. Rather than being irrational, this has formed the basis of a very successful strategic orientation since time immemorial.
With the demise of the USSR, all this was lost, as Russia was weak, led by the chaotic Boris Yeltsin, and NATO expansion proceeded ever closer to Moscow. Upon taking over in late 1999, Putin has made it his life’s mission to restore Russia to at least great power status, even if it will never play in the superpower league as the US and China. To do so, the plan is to restore the country’s lost strategic depth.
This Putin has begun to do. Russian influence in the Balkans has grown, even as Belarus and the Caucasus states (following the Azerbaijani-Armenian war) are now firmly in Moscow’s orbit. But Ukraine remains the jewel in the crown of the strategic depth strategy, for without it in the political fold, as Putin himself remarked in his national address, hypersonic missiles can strike Moscow in just minutes time.
So, Putin looks around, and what does he see? He sees a distracted America pivoting to the Indo-Pacific, where much of the strategic risk is a contest with China and much of the economic reward of the world’s future growth are both lodged.
Then he turns to the EU, and he sees absolutely no threat. The EU is economically sclerotic, politically divided, and militarily impotent. Above all an isolationist Germany, the economic motor of the continent, is addicted to Russian energy, getting over one-third of all its natural gas from Russia. With the addition of the mammoth Nord Stream 2 pipeline this economic dependence was set to become servitude. It is hard to expect the Germans to be tough with anyone who can make them very cold in the winter.
There have been warnings about this for decades, which predictably fell on deaf ears. In political war games I did to help the EU grapple with its energy dependence on Russia there was a predictable outcome: Europe needed to diversify its gas imports, taking more from Norway, Algeria (Europe’s other two major suppliers) as well as Qatar and the US. I was profusely thanked for my efforts, paid in a timely manner. And of course, nothing happened.
If the UK truly wants to “do something” about Putin, even at this late date, it must join with Europe in crafting a dramatically new energy policy, where the sources of supply are finally taken into primary account in political risk terms. The UK has avoided the Russian energy trap, getting less than five percent of its total from Putin. It can and must team up with a befuddled Europe, looking at an energy plan that does not castrate the continent, particularly when it is necessary for it to stand strong in relation to the Kremlin. Putin’s adventurism is not irrational; Europe’s energy policy is.