On Thursday, barely sworn in as German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock went to Paris to see her French colleague Jean-Yves Le Drian. Le Drian, born in 1947, could have been his grandfather. He’s an old man in the business. He became a parliamentarian in 1978. Was Minister of Defense for five years. Has been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2017. He knows his Pappenheimers – Russians, Americans, all of them. Le Drian understands that Europe is currently in a total mess when it comes to security. And that Europe, the French and the Germans first, must try to free itself from it.
While the German Twitter exploded because Baerbock took the plane and not the train, Le Drian put his colleague on the ground. He painted a dark picture. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens to invade Ukraine. If he will actually do it, no one knows, maybe not even himself. What he wants is to draw attention to old wounds: for years Putin has been asking for a role for Russia in the European security structure and for years he has not been given one. He wants to rule the continent.
Russia is a European neighbor, he believes – a superpower that Europe must include in its plans. The tsars take part in the European Concert, from 1815. They define spheres of influence with the French, the British, the Prussians and the Habsburgs. The Soviets ruled part of Europe after 1945. With the Americans, who had the other side on their side, they discussed arms control and other strategic issues.
This is again what Putin wants: to sit around the table in Europe, to decide together what belongs to whom. Draw lines: this is yours, this is mine. First, he bit off a piece of Georgia to back up his claim. Then he annexed Crimea, disengaged the Balkan countries from Europe, intervened in Syria, Libya and elsewhere to thwart the West. But all he got was more sanctions and preaching – and no say in European security.
This is what Putin wants: to sit around the table in Europe, to decide together what belongs to whom.
Now, he sees, the time has come to continue. He sees the West as weak and divided – see Brexit, the submarine deal with Australia, the Franco-British feuds, the turmoil over Polish rule of law. America is focused on China and wants the Europeans to organize their own defense. This makes the Europeans, who have not fixed anything, insecure. The time for Putin to take over Ukraine – not an EU or NATO country, but increasingly West-oriented of his own accord – ignoring Europeans and reaching out to President Biden: we must talk, define borders.
Putin believes that a Republican will become president in 2024. It was impossible to make an appointment with the Republicans, as evidenced by Trump. With Biden, yes. Biden believes in agreements, in treaties. That’s why Putin wants to hurry.
And this week, Biden also went to talk to him. Reluctantly – this is how you reward a disruptive. But it is a dangerous situation. For the first time since 1945, a huge country is in danger of being invaded. If Ukraine surrenders, what will Kosovo’s Serbia do? Turkey with Cyprus? Is Poland or Lithuania safe if Ukraine establishes a government in exile there?
Baerbock discussed it with Le Drian before taking the train (!) To Brussels. High cost for an introductory meeting. But it is not about Ukraine, but about Russia’s role in European security.
The implication of this situation is that Europe no longer decides about its own security. This is why the two ministers want to meet with Russia. Because as long as you talk, I hope there won’t be any shots. And because he is bound to put the European fate in the hands of the Americans. Will Biden still be here after 2024? In Paris and Berlin, nobody takes poison there.
Caroline de Gruyter writes weekly on politics and Europe.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on December 11, 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of December 11, 2021
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