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Edward Lucas: Europe divided - reflections from Tallinn

One route to defeat is labeled “Panic.” The other is “Complacency.” Avoiding both was the theme of last weekend’s Lennart Meri security conference in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Panic stems from gloom coupled with helplessness. If you believe that Russia’s propaganda is as persuasive as its money is irresistible, and that the West is irreparably divided and distracted, then you are ill-placed to make sensible decisions in a crisis.

Reasons for gloom abound. Russia has got away with seizing part of another country. Another bout of fighting in Ukraine seems to be looming. Economic difficulties have not deterred Vladimir Putin. Nor has Western censure.

Diplomacy is going badly. Ukraine and the European Union are talking past each other. The EU will not offer visa-free travel or serious money; Ukraine’s government – admittedly the best one ever – still fails to convince the doubters.

Germany is part of the problem. It seems determined to excise any mention of EU membership for Ukraine, even as a distant aspiration. Some wonder if Germany and Russia have cooked up a secret deal on Ukraine, in which Russia gets Crimea and the eastern rebel regions in return for Germany closing the doors to Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership. That may be wrong. But German diplomats’ behavior gives cause for concern. The foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, simply refuses to answer when asked by other EU foreign ministers to explain his country’s position.

Gloom is justified. But it is not total, and we are not helpless. The Estonian foreign minister, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, reflected on this in a speech at the conference in Tallinn. To say that Russia’s use of force in Ukraine has destroyed the European security order is an overstatement, she argued. A better formulation is that it has been violated, and needs to be restored, with stronger, more resilient institutions and greater deterrents for rule-breakers.

Which is happening. The much-mocked Obama administration has introduced serious sanctions on Russia, beefed up its military presence in the region, and installed one of its most impressive generals, Frederick “Ben” Hodges, as its European commander. Nothing like that happened after the war in Georgia in 2008. American isolationism – a pressing worry only a couple of years ago – is diminishing. All serious U.S. presidential candidates (in both parties) believe in American leadership and the Atlantic Alliance. So does Congress.

The European Union, thanks to Angela Merkel (who actually makes the final decisions on foreign policy not just for Germany but for Europe), has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia. And thanks to the admirable new competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, it has launched the legal equivalent of a drone strike into the murky heart of the Kremlin’s business model: the way it exports gas to Europe. Gazprom must either climb down and mend its ways, or face fines, damages and enforced changes to its business model.

NATO is invigorated too. It has restored territorial defense as the centerpiece of its strategy. It has established new regional headquarters dealing solely with the defense of northeastern and southeastern Europe, rejiggered its defense plans (still secret, meaning that the Russians know them but the public doesn’t). The “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” is taking shape (its first exercise was in early April), as are the small, new NATO Force Integration Units. Non-NATO Sweden and Finland are playing a greater security role than ever before.

A great deal more remains to be done. But we should frame the discussion around building on what – by past standards – is remarkable progress. That is not just fair-minded. It also helps strengthen the West’s most vital fortification: morale in the frontline states.

 This article was first published by the Center for European Policy Analysis. Edward Lucas is the Senior Vice-President at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Editor: S. Tambur

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