President Putin is visiting Germany, the country with which he has had a long and warm(ish) relationship. It was, after all, in Leipzig that much of his active service as KGB officer passed and where he picked up his supposedly flawless German.
His present friendship with Chancellor Schröder, clearly cannot date back that far but it does raise some interesting and disquieting questions.
The EU has sometimes been seen as a necessary bulwark against an increasingly aggressive, though not precisely confident Russia. In the discussions about the need for endless enlargement, sooner or later somebody points out that the need to take in all the European countries, whether it is the most sensible policy from anybody’s point of view or not, is clear because of Russia. These countries need protections and Europe must stand together.
Alas, the EU does not see it that way. In fact, for various reasons, a central plank of its barely-existent common foreign policy is close friendship with Russia. This, clearly, does not go down terribly well with the new East European members and, in particular, the Baltic states, who have put some pressure on the West Europeans to toughen their stance, if only a little.
During the last bout of the Ukrainian crisis, Javier Solana did a good deal of toing and froing, not to mention wringing of hands, trying to bring about some sort of a compromise. Unfortunately, it was not compromise or stability that the Ukrainians wanted but transparency in the electoral process. The EU was sidelined very early on.
It was suggested by many at the time that negotiations should be conducted by two countries that knew best about the Ukrainian situation and were most closely connected with it historically: Germany and Poland. The Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, together with his Lithuanian counterpart, rose to the challenge, supporting the people’s revolution and the calls for democratic accountability. Germany demurred. Chancellor Schröder had no desire to annoy his good friend Vladimir.
Schröder’s attitude has caused some disquiet in his own party. He has steadily refused to subscribe even to the mild criticism that other European leaders have expressed of Russia’s behaviour in Chechnya and has called President Putin a “flawless democrat”, an odd statement in the light of recent political decisions in Russia.
The warm and disturbing friendship is not based on purely personal alchemy or the wearisome preference western European leaders show for dictators: there is a purely practical aspect, as well. Germany gets a third of its oil and gas from Russia, while bilateral trade was worth $25bn (18.6bn euros or £12.8bn) last year and is growing steadily.
As Russia works hard to increase its share of the gas and oil supplied to the West and tries to take over the distribution networks, we may see similar friendships flourishing in other countries. Not quite what the East Europeans expected when they joined the EU.