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17/10/13

How do you solve a problem like Russia?

The Guardian беспокоится: From its diplomatic triumph on Syria to the jailing of Greenpeace activists, the Kremlin's newfound confidence is both confusing and concerning Europe. Should the EU be worried? We ask foreign policy experts.

A resurgent Kremlin is setting the agenda on major world issues and has once again started to boss its back yard. Buoyed by his Syria diplomatic triumph, Vladimir Putin has regained some of the swagger that temporarily deserted him during protests against his re-election last year.

Greenpeace activists have been put behind bars, a Dutch diplomat beaten up, and former Soviet republics hounded, with the Kremlin banning Lithuanian cheese imports for its hosting of an EU summit with eastern European states and bullying Ukraine for daring to attend.

So what is the reaction to Putin's newfound foreign policy confidence in Europe's major capitals, and are they responding with one voice?

France: Yves-Michel Riols and Piotr Smolar, Le Monde

Ever since he arrived in the Élysée Palace last year, François Hollande has been trying to solve a conundrum: how to adopt the right stance towards Moscow. Implacable on major issues such as Syria and Iran, Russia has also conducted an aggressive policy in the parts of its backyard (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) that are tempted by European integration. Domestically, the "vertical power" introduced by Vladimir Putin remains largely a monopoly. Rejecting any interference in its affairs, the regime has developed an anti-western rhetoric, whether towards US imperialist designs or European tolerance of gay marriage.

"Russia systematically forces a showdown on all subjects," said a French foreign ministry official – an approach illustrated by the Syrian crisis. For months, Russia proved inflexible, supporting Damascus unconditionally. Then suddenly it turned around and concluded, to general surprise, a deal with the US on the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons.

The episode was galling for France, which had adopted an aggressive stance towards Syria. Now, at the Quai d'Orsay, the only consolation is the foreign ministry's view that "the Russians did not move spontaneously. They responded to threats of [military] strikes supported by France."

But in fact, France's influence in Russia is limited. Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, came back from a trip to Moscow in September empty-handed. "The Syrian crisis has unveiled strong tensions between France and Russia, even if they were not publicly displayed," noted Thomas Gomart, Russia specialist at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

He added: "Since the western intervention in Libya in 2011, the Russians are very critical of the close ties between Qatar and the French political class. Moscow considers Qatar and Saudi Arabia as destabilising regimes that encourage Sunni extremism in Syria and also in the Russian Caucasus."

Before Syria, Franco-Russian relations were generally improving. After years flailing behind Germany and Italy, France decided to copy them by emphasising the bilateral relationship. France's new ambassador to Moscow, Jean-Maurice Ripert, who studied with Hollande at the elite National College of Administration (ENA), will have a clear roadmap: continued rapprochement. Ever since the financial crisis took hold, European powers have been forced to court emerging markets more. Moscow meanwhile wants to diversify its own economy. There are mutual interests here.

Once upon a time, France lagged behind in direct investment, with only its biggest companies such as Alstom and Total in Russia. Now 400 have operations there and 6,000 do business with Russia. Investment shot up to nearly €12bn in 2012. Military co-operation is intensifying. The first French-built Mistral-class helicopter carrier, the Vladivostok, will be delivered to Russia next year.

The casualty of this increased co-operation is the focus on human rights. France has remained silent on the issue during the new Putin presidency. Hollande summed up the attitude towards Putin's repressive array of new laws during his first official visit to Moscow in February: "I do not have to judge, I do not have to evaluate."

UK: Simon Tisdall, foreign affairs columnist, the Guardian

It has long been plain that Vladimir Putin, Russia's nationalist strongman, is no gentleman. Russia's increased assertiveness internationally is attributed in part to his crude, combative, take-no-prisoners attitude.

But appearances can be deceptive. According to British diplomats and experts on Russia, the power and influence of both Putin and Russia, measured in political, economic and demographic terms, are steadily eroding while the EU's leverage is growing. The more noise Moscow makes, the more it seems to be striving to disguise the evidence of decline.

"The premise that Russia has become more assertive is correct," said Sir Andrew Wood, Britain's ambassador in Moscow from 1995 to 2000. "Is this due to weakness or strength? Weakness, probably. There are growing problems with the economy, large internal problems and tensions. The ruling group is trying to reassert control."

Like other British observers, Wood noted that particular Russian angst, bordering on paranoia, surrounded the expansion of the EU's Eastern Partnership. This programme seeks to strengthen ties with former Soviet republics that Russia once deemed its property.

The issue will come to a head next month at a summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. It is widely expected to produce an EU association agreement, including a free trade deal, with Ukraine, and possibly with Moldova and Georgia.

"Losing Ukraine would be a massive blow to Russia. It's the most important post-Soviet state," said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House thinktank in London. "Ukraine is viewed by Putin as part of Russia. He'll ask himself, how can you be a great power if this huge appendage is lopped off? Overall, Russia is losing the battle for control of the sandwich states between Russia and the EU."

Russia's discomfiture stems in part from the blow such defections would deliver to its own pet Customs Union project, part of Putin's grandiose plan for a Eurasian union. In a sign of distress, he imposed a partial trade embargo on Lithuania. Moscow has also reportedly offered Kiev an $8bn gas price cut if it joined the Customs Union.

"The EU has been very feeble in the past in dealing with Russia," said Sir Anthony Brenton, Britain's ambassador to Moscow from 2004 to 2008. "We received zero support from our EU partners over the [Alexander] Litvinenko affair [the former KGB spy who was poisoned in London in 2006]."

That was changing, he said. "If Ukraine wants the association agreement, and if they release Yulia Tymoshenko [the jailed opposition leader], then the EU should go ahead and also launch proceedings against Russia through the WTO [World Trade Organisation] over Lithuania."

Brenton and other British diplomats expressed satisfaction that Germany was taking a tougher stance towards Russia after years of placing its energy supply requirements ahead of other considerations. Growing human rights concerns, and high-profile trials involving the punk group Pussy Riot and now Greenpeace, had changed attitudes. They also noted that France under François Hollande has a less cosy relationship with Moscow than in Nicolas Sarkozy's time."The United Kingdom has always pursued a relatively tough, robust policy," said Wood. "I think we're now seeing a new realism about Russia on all sides in the EU, free of delusions about a special Washington-Moscow relationship. The EU is now the third leg."

David Clark, chair of the independent Russia Foundation, said Britain's relations with Russia had undergone a "mini-reset" under the Conservative government, involving tacit agreement to draw a line under the Litvinenko affair, greater emphasis on business and commercial ties, and co-operation on matters of shared interest. One result was last week's $5.3bn BP-Rosneft oil deal. Despite this, relations remained "in a bit of a rut", he said.

Charles Grant, director of the London-based Centre for European Reform (CER), said that while Putin's personal relationship with Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, was famously bad, David Cameron was said to have developed a pragmatic working relationship with the Russian leader. Foreign ministers William Hague and Sergei Lavrov also "got on well" together. But such bonhomie did not prevent the hurtful sneer at last month's St Petersburg summit, attributed by some to Putin, that Britain was "a small island that no one listens to".

Wood said the large number of Russians living in "Londongrad", including the so-called oligarchs and wealthy middle class who have bought football clubs, driven up property prices and competed for elite school places in fashionable areas such as Knightsbridge, was an indication of the underlying strength of the bilateral relationship.

But he said last month's arrest of Greenpeace activists in the Arctic was an example of how the Russians could shoot themselves in the foot. "Obviously this was done as a demonstration of some kind. Putin has distanced himself from it, but it is convenient for him. It's not aimed at the EU specifically, but is aimed at asserting Russia's primary role in the Arctic.

"Russians are very contradictory people. They hire people to improve their image, then they do things like Greenpeace and Pussy Riot. Maybe it makes them feel strong and powerful. But it doesn't do them any good in the outside world."

The CER's Grant said the EU possessed other levers to counteract Russian over-assertiveness. They included Brussels' insistence that Moscow observe the EU's energy market rules, and the prospective launch by the European commission of a multi-billion dollar anti-trust case against the Russian energy giant, Gazprom.

Clark said Putin continued to be motivated by fear of encirclement and the imposition on Russia of western political and civil rights agendas. His diplomatic success over Syria notwithstanding, his posture was essentially defensive.

"Russia's economic position is very fragile due its dependency on global oil prices; it is very exposed, very vulnerable. There has been no progress in modernising and diversifying, despite what Putin says," Clark said.

Despite a contracting economy and falling popularity ratings, Putin remained a formidable opponent, Brenton said. "Putin is very professional. He is very well briefed. He tends to go for the jugular if he sees an opportunity. He is not a diplomat. He's not the sort of guy you would invite to a tea party. But we have to do business with him."

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Source: The Guardian

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