Nikita Gubankov argues that a bet on the EU army could be a mistake for Russian interests.
In a time of perceived threats from Russia and China and greater US disengagement on foreign affairs, the prospect of a united and fully independent Europe is becoming increasingly popular. Testament to this is the latest proposal of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, on the need to create a “European army”, which would be independent from the United States and NATO.
Furthermore, the French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire urged the European Union to become an “empire like the USA and China.” According to Le Maire, the “European empire” should not be “afraid to use its power”, while upholding the principles of law and order. He vouched for the continent’s sovereignty, asserting that Europe should not necessarily depend on the US with regards to matters of trade, presumably relating to the nuclear deal with Iran revoked by President Trump.
Despite the presumed Russian aggression being a cause for the EU Army concept, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, found encouragement in Macron’s idea: “In principle, Europe is a powerful economic entity, a powerful economic union, and on the whole it’s quite natural that they want to be independent, self-sufficient in the field of defence and security,” the Russian President said in an interview with RT France.
This might come as a surprise, considering Russian rhetoric regarding the perceived Western threat. Nevertheless, the President’s position is not completely illogical. Putin believes that the emergence of a more independent Europe with its own army would strengthen the multi-polarity of the world, benefiting Russia – both in terms of trade and security.
Nevertheless, it is now becoming clear that Europe is unlikely to put this idea into practice. Per usual, President Donald Trump tweeted to show his outrage, deeming Macron’s tirade ‘insulting’. As a result, the French leader had to explain his comments, and agreed with Trump on the need to evenly distribute the financial burden among NATO member countries. Macron also recognised that the European army would not be a replacement for NATO.
Quite obviously, Europe will not give up on NATO without a replacement, but a sense of separation is evident from the latter-day discourse of European politicians. Moreover, the outlined US withdrawal from the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) would place Europe directly under a Russian nuclear attack, if such a risk exists. Therefore, Russia has nothing to lose if the shift in US foreign policy encourages the EU to acquire more autonomy. The gains would be significant – an alleviation of pressure at Russia’s European border, and more direct negotiations with a more independent EU. This is exactly why Vladimir Putin is prepared to risk Russian relations with the United States to establish more profound relations with EU partners.
This view, however, might be quite opportunistic. Generations of Europeans are used to be living under the shadow of American influence, especially after the Second World War. Historically, any controversial move from US was met with piecemeal criticism or nervousness, but nothing that could potentially destabilise the global balance of power (or hegemony, for that matter). Consider, for example, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was condemned by Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac. However, nothing came of their stance. Considering the situation at the time concerning the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, no real action could be taken against this undoubtedly frightening decision. The now fragmented EU understandably lacks the economic and political strength to respond firmly to the challenges continually posed by the US, especially in the wake of even more global turbulence.
Thanks in part to a dependency on the United States, Europe has deprived itself of its old political and military ambitions. Some operations, like the 2011 French intervention in Libya, have more of a situational character. Moreover, the European technocrats are likely to believe that Donald Trump, and his subsequent worsening of relations between the EU and the US, is a temporary situation, pending impeachment or the next election. From then on, a new character will restore the traditional US-EU relationship. In this instance, Europe will most likely continue to follow US foreign policy – albeit with a heavy heart.
Vladimir Putin’s gamble on the geopolitical division of the West is fairly logical, but very unlikely to pay off. Ultimately, the Unites States will remain the watchman of the world, and Russia, like Europe, can never be truly free of American influence. Joint cooperation is still required in questions of trade, commerce, and ongoing conflicts – in spite of the Syrian case. Perhaps it would be better for Russia to strengthen its own political and social institutions to combat Western influence from within. Time will tell, but at least for now, President Putin chooses to employ a different strategy: protection through polarisation.