Denis MacShane: The mood has darkened across the whole of Europe

Wednesday 20 August 2008 00:00

After eight years of division within Europe on geo-political strategy, is the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, building a new sense of purpose in Europe and between the EU and the US?

Yesterday's Nato meeting saw the hitherto pro-Russian German foreign minister agreeing with the firm line taken by Britain's David Miliband about Russian behaviour both in launching the land, sea and air assault of Georgia and the cynicism with which the Kremlin has ignored its pledges to pull out its tanks and troops.

Far from being a chess match in which the Russian grandmaster knocks a pawn off the board, all of Europe is looking hard at what the Putin doctrine means and it does not like what it sees. Last week, President Sarkozy was patting himself on the back after his high-speed shuttle between Moscow and Tbilisi, while Berlin believed its decision to block Georgia's access to Nato was the correct policy.

Today the mood has darkened. Mr Sarkozy now says Russia must withdraw completely from all of Georgia. Mrs Merkel says Georgia can join Nato. Poland rushes to sign a deal with America on missile defence. Ukraine now moves to the frontline as Kiev looks west to Nato and the EU in Brussels for support, rather than north to Moscow for orders.

The Putin doctrine was summed up avant la lettre by America's post-war expert on Russia, George Kennan. He noted that Russia sees its neighbours as vassals or enemies. Neither Ukraine nor Georgia will accept vassal status. When Poland and the Baltic states sought to join Nato, they were told it might make life awkward for relations with Russia. They joined Nato, then the EU, and have never looked back.

Putin apologists in the West like to blame America and the Bush-Cheney years for worsening relations with Russia. Yet Senator Obama will not allow himself to be outflanked with accusations of being soft on the Kremlin. Putin has given the American arms industry and Democratic as well as Republican neo-cons a perfect opening to launch a new Cold War.

The Kremlin wants to drive a wedge between its neighbours and other European states, and between America and Europe. And in its version of Euroscepticism, Moscow wants to disaggregate EU member states into competing nations that reject EU unity.

How should Europe and Britain respond? David Miliband is seen on the Continent as leader of the EU nations that want firm language. He should now take a lead in forging EU unity on the basis of a policy that could be called Kennan-plus. George Kennan developed the concept of containment in place of the confrontation and "roll-back" advocated by hardliners after the Soviet occupation of half of Europe.

Today we need a containment and co-operation policy with Russia. As Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform points out, Russia is weaker than Putin's rhetoric implies. It has an unhealthy shrinking population the size of Bangladesh and a GDP per capita lower than Equatorial Guinea.

To be sure, Europe needs Russian oil and gas and Russia needs European investment under FDI. So co-operation aimed at drawing Russia closer to European norms of an open market economy should remain policy. David Cameron is wrong to say visa restrictions should be enforced against Russian businessmen.

But on the political front, it is time to admit that efforts since the early 1990s to be friendly to Russia have failed. Far from the West seeking to humiliate Russia, the doors of every western institution have been opened to Moscow. Her generals sit as observers at Nato meetings. Russians have been made welcome at the Council of Europe.

Russia is European by culture and it is in Europe that the bulk of Russians live. It took many patient years of containment before Sovietism expired. Sadly, Russia has refused the chance to become a full, open, partner of Europe on the basis of democracy, rule of law and respect for European norms and values. A new policy based on as much containment as necessary and as much co-operation as possible is needed.

Conservative neo-con language is as useless as those who find excuses for Putin's doctrine of anti-West aggression. Russia has insisted on asserting national interests and defied international institutions and rules. Britain should fashion a containment-cooperation policy but do so as part of Europe. If not, the sabre-rattlers in both Moscow and Washington will resume their old game.

The writer is a Labour MP and Europe minister, 2002-05

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