Imagining the future

The AEJ’s Tony Robinson, former FT correspondent in Moscow, Rome and east European editor, has this look past the current fighting in Ukraine.

Out of the darkness: Time to envisage another European future
From Anthony Robinson 5 March 2022

 Let us imagine that the truth about Ukrainian resistance and the magnitude of Russia’s economic, financial and political isolation spreads beyond Russia’s educated and social media addicts and leads to the collapse of the Putin regime. The sudden transition from all powerful man of destiny to Wizard of Oz has happened before.

Centuries of Romanoff rule ended with the stroke of a pen at Pskov railway station in February 1917. Six months later neither the Grand Dukes nor Kerensky could prevail against the background of military defeats and Lenin seized the chance to pick up power lying in the gutter.  I witnessed the sudden implosion of the Soviet regime after the failure of the plot against Gorbachev in August 1991. Ten years later Putin was handed power by an ailing Yeltsin.

After two decades of increasingly authoritarian “vertical power” Russia is still without an institutional method of transferring power, or indeed genuine democratic institutions of any kind.  But the splendid isolation of Russia’s apparently all-powerful uber-Czar masks a regime whose underlying brittleness is even more extreme. I would put money on the probability that Putin will fall sooner rather than later.

But Putin’s successors will face a very different external environment. Shamed by the strength of Ukraine’s resistance, contrite Western governments, finance and business people have been falling over themselves to undo decades of kowtowing.

Putin’s re-integration of Belarus and Kazakhstan, and potentially Ukraine, into the Russian sphere of influence faced Nato with the prospect of a several thousand kilometre long Cold War-type border to defend, and underlined the vulnerability of the 60km wide Suwalki gap between militarised Kaliningrad and the Baltic states.

Suddenly the scales fell from German eyes.  Until now Germany’s deep sense of shame for its behaviour in the second world war, gratitude for reunification and the sheer mutual profitability of importing Russian oil, gas and raw materials in exchange for German trains, cars, trucks, machine tools led to deep reluctance to stand up to Russia’s increasing arrogance.

Rather as Stalin continued to send trainloads of oil, metals, grain and other commodities to Nazi Germany until operation Barbarossa began in June 1941, Germany marked time on Nordstream2 and business as usual until days before Putin began his war on Ukraine with the formal incorporation of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Not only German but western companies generally were only too willing to confirm in Putin’s eyes Lenin’s deeply cynical but accurate one-liner “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we’ll hang them.” Not to speak of Londonograd, extreme symbol of the willingness to subvert laws, institutions and morals which helped convince Putin of the weakness and hypocrisy of the West.

But it was the shock decision of Germany’s new Chancellor, Olaf Schulz, to apologise for Germany’s weakness and invest Euro100bn in modernising and expanding Germany’s armed forces which could turn out to be the really serious game changer. It implies that not only is Germany prepared to strengthen Nato but assume more of the burdens and risks required to defend the ideal of a “Europe whole and free” in practice.

Some 77 years after a defeated and shattered Germany surrendered and was occupied by the soon to be bitterly divided allies, the richest and most populous European state is promising to field modernised conventional forces inside the Nato alliance alongside the US and Europe’s two nuclear armed states, France and the UK. Many also want it to take on the great responsibility of leading the European Union through the difficult and painful decisions that lie ahead.              

Germany’s emergence as Europe’s benign hegemon would be a real game changer. We can even hope that the removal in time of Putin and his siloviki backers, and a more united EU, will lead to a renewed and more intelligent and informed Western partnership with a non-belligerent Russia, once it has retired from all of Ukraine including Crimea, Belarus, Transdnistria, Abkhazia and Ossetia.

This is essential. A demoralised, impoverished Russia cut off from Europe would have no alternative than become a vassal to China. But, although neither Germany nor other Western countries, have had the time to think this through, post-Putin the EU will also have to change the way it operates, and embrace not only Ukraine and a post-Lukashenko Belarus but also the West Balkan states, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

In brief, if Putin’s war leads to his removal from an isolated Russia, we will have to rethink the whole way in which Europe is organised and thinks of itself. An enlarged Europe with Germany as its willing and acknowledged leader calls for a total re-think of the Maastricht formula of ever closer union and a one size fits all Euro monetary system.

The best brains available should be called on to work out the future shape of a new and necessarily more confederal structure, one which could also prove attractive to the UK. An all-inclusive European confederation would have to be based on the huge variety of nation states being responsible to their own taxpayers and voters.

The richer EU states, especially Germany, already played a hugely constructive role through investment, loans and advice to the former Comecon countries and Baltic States which all gave the new members access to European markets, including labour markets. Further enlargement should continue this mutually profitable process.

A Germany which has benefitted more than any other state from the EU and the uber-competitiveness bestowed by an under-valued currency, now appears willing to play a constructive role in building a genuinely inclusive and democratic Europe, by common consent; and it will need to pay possibly more than its fair share of such enlargement. The hardest thing will be to persuade Germany that the one size fits all Euro currency system needs to be drastically reformed.

The US does huge amounts of trade with Canada and Mexico, as does Australia with New Zealand. But they all have their own currencies which act as shock absorbers and provide flexibility. A better monetary system for an enlarged Europe would involve a return to national currencies, although several hard currency rich North European countries –Benelux, Finland and even the Baltic states and possibly Poland – could well informally link their currencies to a re-born German mark, modelled on the voluntary D-mark zone arrangement of pre-Euro years.

Of course, all the above is mere speculation and will remain so until Putin is removed and his war of aggression is reversed. The point I wish to make is that the post WW2, Post-Soviet collapse world is now obsolete and we need to think hard about how to create a better Europe and a thorough reform of the corrupted Londongrad syndrome.

These are thoughts I have been mulling over for many frustrating years as the West failed to listen to what Putin was saying and doing in plain sight. Five years ago I tried them out on a German friend in Almaty, then commercial, financial and cultural capital of a sovereign independent Kazakhstan. Its corrupt government has become a Russian protectorate after Putin sent in 19 planeloads of Spetznaz in support of a President waging an internal power struggle.

“Germany needs to field another armoured Panzer division” I argued to my German friend five years ago over lunch. He was deeply shocked. “Surely you do not forget how bad mannered Germans can be when they are well armed!” he replied. Last week he emailed, “The invasion of Ukraine has turned me from dove to hawk.”