Angela Merkel has given Europe’s authoritarian leaders an act letter


Vladimir Putin is Alexander Lukashenko they are not natural twin souls. The Russian president finds his autocrat partner in Belarus a volunteer ally. What unites the two leaders is a determination to hold power at any cost because of a ruthless repression of the political opposition.

They also share the same perception of the West in general and Europe in particular. Although Western democracies can suffocate and suffocate to uphold international rules and regulations, they are essentially flaccid and weak.

Flagrant violations of international law can sometimes prompt the EU to take action. But the sanctions are invariably short of real economic pain that will change the Kremlin’s cost-benefit analysis. And reprisals can be put to a goal. Putin’s nationalism launches Russia forever under the threat of Western aggression. Sanctions enter the narrative.

This is the calculation that informed the annexation of Crimea by Russia and its occupation of territory in eastern Ukraine. He encourages Moscow in its support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in the assassination of regime opponents living abroad and the arrest of Alexei Navalny at home. It also encourages Russian intrusion into Western elections and cyber attacks directed by the Kremlin.

It’s a comfortable bet that Lukashenko shared the assumption of impunity when he ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair passenger jet to seize the dissident journalist. Roman Protasevich. Given the evidence of Europe’s response so far, he was probably right.

U The EU’s response to this flagrant air piracy was to advise airlines to avoid overrunning Belarus and to ban the state carrier Belavia from European airports. Key figures in the regime may also face travel bans and blockades of assets. Disadvantage? Yes. A threat to Lukashenko’s power? Poorly.

It is unclear whether Putin gave his explicit support. European diplomats say he was almost certainly kept informed. However, EU sanctions now repair Lukashenko more firmly in the Russian field.

The EU will never find it easy to reach an agreement on sanctions. Its 27 members have different interests and stories. Germany, Italy and France pay close attention to economic opportunities in Russia. For Poland and the Baltic states, security is paramount. German Angela Merkel, however, also dealt with the autocrats a trump card.

Few can agree with Merkel in her rhetorical devotion to the rules-based international system. Putin’s ambitions are entirely antithetical. He wants a return to the spheres of influence of great power politics. Undoubtedly, the German chancellor is sincere in her condemnation. Germany has prospered greatly from multilateralism. And yet. It is almost always the voice of caution when the conversation revolves around the application of the rules.

In part, this may have some time to do with time. He arrived at his post soon enough after the United States had gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq – hardly the best publicity for a bold intervention to defend the international order. There is also temperament. Like many of a centrist disposition, it can mix moderation and hesitation.

That said, Merkel takes her role of champion for German industry seriously. The foreign policy must be carefully calibrated to avoid damaging the country’s legendary export performance.

So Berlin has taken the initiative to push through the latest EU investment agreement with China despite Beijing’s growing disregard for international rules. Closer to home, its fellow members in Hungary have become a pivotal manufacturing center for the German automotive industry. Its prime minister, Viktor Orban, is marching the country towards authoritarianism. Merkel has always applied a brake on EU action to defend Hungarian democracy.

With Russia, the test for Merkel is the pipeline under the Baltic to bring Russian gas to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is in the process of being completed. It immediately promises to undermine the EU’s common energy policy, to offer strategic economic security to the Kremlin and to weaken Ukraine. The removal of the bill will show a serious intention on the part of the west to defend an order based on the law. It would also impose a significant cost for German companies.

Ignoring the pleas of the United States and many European governments to call for an arrest, Merkel sets a clear limit for Europe’s response to the Kremlin’s illegality. Putin can do as he pleases in the knowledge that the EU’s reaction will be limited by Berlin. Sanctions can hurt, but they won’t hurt. Merkel cannot complain if others see her as an ally of the autocrats.

philip.stephens@ft.com



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