Recently I watched a TV documentary called "the Apocalypse - the First World War". What impressed me most were the unlearned lessons. History books are full of details on battles, generals, politicians, horrors, numbers - dead, injured, lost without trace but mostly reflecting the history mainstream. It is rather difficult to distill from the averages the unheeded sobering calls coming from European and US intellectuals, politicians, scientists, public figures, who warned that the post war euphoria that leaving losers, humiliation and frustration behind inevitably leads to new wars. John Maynard Keynes and many other public opinion leaders - American and European politicians, sounded the alarm but mass myopia, populism and euphoria prevailed and .... WWII followed in just slightly more than 20 years.
Europe finally seemed to learn its lessons starting the European Union project, that despite its flaws managed thus far to keep at bay all national egos within a cooperative mode without leaving humiliation and hurt pride behind. Rather than leave Germany in ruins, the US offered it the Marshal Plan and helped it raise to its feet and become one of the pillars of European security and prosperity. There are not that many Europeans today that would contest Germany's right to lead the continent through its own exemplar hard work, judgement and discipline.
The European leaders finally realized that if they do not stop staring at the history maps of past grandeur, nationalism and imperial peaks - the next world war would be knocking on the door. Europeans succeeded in their most important self test - mastering and controlling their nationalistic egos. The fact of the matter is that today there is no European Union member nation that feels constrained within its state borders. European citizens and companies not only aim at the EU market through efficient use of the four freedoms - movement of goods, services, capital and people, but they use Europe to scale up their global reach.
President Vladimir Putin is trying to rewind the wheel of history and revive Russian national egocentrism in a recharged Soviet-Russian global project. This echoes a past Europe tries hard to forget.
History flirts with "humiliation" suffered at the loss of the Soviet Union and the messianic drive are among the few things the Russian leader can offer to legitimize his continued grip on power. After 15 years at the helm of the Russian state he still does not have a convincing plan how to bring about a modern, diversified and competitive Russian democracy and economy. The total capital value of the stock of all Russian companies listed on the Moscow stock exchange is twice less than the market cap of the largest US company. Putin's pride - Gazprom stock - returned to market values below that of Yukos 12 years ago. In essence the Russian president as returned to where this all started.
Kremlin's switch to a more virtual or idealistic preaching - pain today for pride and boon in the future - speaks for the total loss of direction and feasible reform agenda. The type of egocentric nationalist policies that Putin pursues substitute welfare perspective for a geopolitical bravado. This invariably generates tensions, conflicts and leads to wars. The annexation of Crimea, the hybrid war in Ukraine, the creeping accession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are all logical links in a policy chain that marks the resolve to part with Eltzin and Gorbachov's accommodation with the West.
Putin consciously revived the hanging threat of war by invading neighbors in a desperate attempt to earn recognition for his seemingly last remaining trump card - military force. His nuclear arsenal is a good deterrent but its is not an offensive weapon. The key pro-active strategic asset - the energy weapon - the natural gas and Gazprom's monopoly - have all defaulted in the acknowledgement of the end of the South Stream. The redivivus of the classic Cold war word mongering has been carefully amplified by the Kremlin to reflect the preference of form over substance. The target is to put under strain, probe and encourage cracks within NATO and further erode the resolve of EU member countries to sustain adequate military spending and engage in collective action.
The accompanying propaganda package - buzzwords like "benderovtsi", "fascists", "restoring historic justice," etc. - is just the verbal fireworks distracting attention and rallying support from ordinary Russians. Suffice to discern the "historical" logic behind Putin's testament of "sacrosanctity" of Crimea and the comparison drawn to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Putin offered an upgrade on the classic Russian blend of caesaropapism and the Third Rome mantra with the expediencies on the current political landscape.
The evolving argumentation base reaching messianic heights is not just a sign of temporary aberration. The Russian President is well aware that his country does not command the resources to sustain a Russo-centric global alternative to the EU and NATO, let alone compete at par with the leading global centers - the US, the EU or China.
He might have been successful in selling his Russian civilization pitch to his home crowds but he definitely overstretched his base by crossing a red line challenging EU and NATO's existential base. Putin overlooked this core risk when green lighting the annexation of Crimea and overestimated the ability to reach out and mobilize a support base in the West. The Russian leader could not control his euphoria and ego after a consecutive chain of wins - successfully thwarting the spread of the color revolution to Russia, the spill over of the US shale technology to Europe by exploiting ecological fears and material dependencies. President Putin believed he could push one more time the limits of the possible after denying Central and East Europeans access alternative gas supplies via the strategic Nabucco pipeline and noteworthy challenges to the US in Syria, Georgia and Iran.
What those supporting the Russian President - including Western leftists, nationalists and intellectuals see as Russian legitimate interests - is an extremely destructive national project that undermines postwar peace and stability in Europe. It is also a war trigger that rekindles the flares of considered tamed European national egos. If Putin wins over Crimea and Ukraine this will mean the end of the European Union in the form we know it. Changing borders and starting military conflicts on European soil can not be confined to a single country or a conflict - there is always a spin off and loss of control that ends up in wars, casualties and destruction. More than 4,300 have already lost their lives in what is called a "contained" conflict and collateral damage.
Vladimir Putin is not alone in cross border peeking - his military adventures are greeted with enthusiasm by European nationalists and authoritarian leaders across the region. Parallels are often drawn with the authoritarian rule of President Erdogan. Even in the EU - there are leaders that sympathize with the Russian President's policies- the common denominator being political expediency - need to cling on to power amidst economic crisis, deficits in reform and governance failures.
At the end of 2014, President Putin signed a new military doctrine of Russia, which explicitly determines NATO as an enemy. The collapse of Putin gazplomacy, loss of South Stream and privileged status of Gazprom will certainly earn the EU the equivalent adversary status in economic security terms. This is a hard fact Central and Eastern Europeans have to get used to and it will not go away by brokering "separatist "deals with Moscow or subservient talk.
It hardly makes sense to echo Kremlin's confrontational rhetoric. But there is certain logic reading into the motives behind Putin's attempts to confront the West and attract attention. Russia's new tzar tries not to portray himself as an irrational leader - he seeks recognition for his Euro-Asian oligarchic script of state capitalism and tries to secure buffer zone separating his new empire from the Euro-Atlantic community. Putin wants to swap his oil and gas cash for a Helsinki type deal of non-interference, peaceful co-existence and right on his own sphere of influence - Ukraine, the members of the Eurasian Economic Union and parts of the CEE.
Due to its size, self-proclaimed exclusivity and perceived loss of global status, the synchronization of Russia's internal and external process with the Euroatlantic integration matrix seems a mission impossible. But its isolation presents a much greater threat. Neither scenarios - a new 1917 and a extreme nationalist replacing Putin nor the gradual slide into irreversible economic and political dependence on China are acceptable. Such trends if not reversed will be pregnant with unprecedented geopolitical shifts.
A potential platform for a post Putin rapprochement and return of Russia to its European roots could be designed after the TTIP format, which can be accommodated for Russia's specifics yet incorporate the core values of democracy, non-oligarchic market economy, rule of law and human rights. Sanctions might help tackle Putin's extremism - but Russia is more important than the fate of the current Russian president. The leaders after Putin and the Russian people need a positive agenda and an integration road map alternative to Putin's Eurasian verbiage and a new October revolution. This is a must today not after Putin leaves the Kremlin.
There should be no illusions - the battle against reactionary nationalism in Europe and Russia is our ultimate battle as it will reflect on Europe's future and Russia's chance to retain its European anchors and identity.
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