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Beneath the Hypocrisy, Putin Is Vulnerable. Here's Where His Soft Spots Are.

In dispatching troops to Ukraine, Russia has violated international law, flouted multiple treaty commitments, and set the stage for a European war. It has no casus belli, aside from an eccentric understanding of the domestic politics of a neighboring country. The Kremlin’s surreal warmongering is bad enough, and obviously demands a response from the European Union, the entity that, beyond Ukraine itself, is most immediately concerned. Ukraine borders on four European Union members, and its new government has made joining the EU its foreign policy priority.

Russian intervention in Ukraine is directed against the EU, which Moscow has now decided is a threat to its interests and indeed a civilizational challenge. President Putin’s global crusade against gays has become, during these last few weeks, a specific foreign policy doctrine directed against the EU. The Kremlin has made clear that control of Ukraine is one step towards the creation of a Eurasian Union, a rival organization to the EU which will reject European “decadence” in favor of a defense of Christian heterosexuality etc. For months press organs close to the Kremlin have referred to Europe as “Gayropa.”

How can Europe respond to the immediate problem of military intervention in Ukraine and the more fundamental political challenge to European values and achievements? It goes without saying that the EU cannot act alone. In 1994, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial inviolability in exchange for Kiev’s agreement to destroy its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Now that Russia has violated this agreement and rejected American proposals to begin consultations based upon its premises, London and Washington are directly implicated in the crisis. Ukraine also borders four members of NATO. The United States is the relevant military power.

Yet the EU might hold stronger cards than the Russians think. Russian propaganda about depraved Europe conceals an intimate relationship. Tourism in the European Union is a safety valve for a large Russian middle class that takes its cues in fashion and pretty much everything else from European culture. Much of the Russian elite has sent its children to private schools in the European Union or Switzerland. Beyond that, since no Russian of any serious means trusts the Russian financial system, wealthy Russians park their wealth in European banks. In other words, the Russian social order depends upon the Europe that Russian propaganda mocks. And beneath hypocrisy, as usual, lies vulnerability.

Soft power can hurt. General restrictions on tourist visas, a few thousand travel bans, and a few dozen frozen accounts might make a real difference. If millions of urban Russians understood that invading Ukraine meant no summer vacation, they might have second thoughts. If the Russian elites understood that invading Ukraine meant dealing with their disaffected teenagers on an indefinite basis, they too might reconsider. If wealthy Russians understood that their accounts could be frozen, as has just happened to Ukrainian oligarchs, that might affect their calculations as well. These punishments might seem minor compared to the crime, but Putin is gambling that the EU will not do even this. These measures would have costs, of course. But the price of a military conflict in the middle of Europe would be far higher.

Of course, such steps, which can be taken immediately, would precede a general reconsideration of overall EU-Russian relations. The European Union is by far Russia’s most important trading partner, although the reverse is not the case. The EU relies upon Russia for natural gas and oil, and sends in return finished goods. Given that Russia has twice in recent years tried to use natural gas supplies to threaten the EU, and has begun to intervene military in a country across which the pipelines flow, now might be a good time to reconsider energy policy. A simple announcement of the intention to investigate Norwegian and American hydrocarbons might make a difference. Over the long run, of course, the EU has every incentive to develop fusion and other alternatives that would free it from its artificial dependence upon a bellicose petrol state.

Russian propaganda derides Europeans as fey and helpless, and we too often tend to agree. But the European Union does have instruments of influence. Its greatest power, of course, is its attractiveness to societies on its borders, such as Ukraine. But even where membership is not an option, and the EU faces unambiguous hostility, it can act. Russia’s very contempt for the European Union might force Europeans to undertake a more active foreign policy and to take responsibility for their neighborhood.