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Helen Thompson

The EU wants to be a global superpower – but it has Russia to contend with

As the Belarus border crisis intensifies, migrants are once again being used as a geopolitical weapon against the EU.

The Poland-Belarus border has become a flashpoint for the EU’s difficult relations with Russia. Since October, several thousand migrants have crossed into Poland from the former Soviet republic against a backdrop of violent skirmishes between Polish and Belarusian security forces. Others have entered Lithuania and Latvia. Earlier this month, Russia sent bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons to fly over Belarus. What is at stake is much more than the fate of Russia’s last remaining east-European ally – it also concerns the EU’s long-term inability to deal with Russia as a neighbouring geopolitical power.

The immediate Belarus crisis began in August 2020 with a fraudulent presidential election in which Alexander Lukashenko was purportedly re-elected with 80 per cent of the vote. In response, the EU imposed sanctions. It then tightened those sanctions in May this year, after the Belarusian government diverted an international passenger flight to arrest an opposition journalist and his girlfriend. In retaliation, Lukashenko’s regime began to transport would-be migrants from several Middle Eastern countries, in particular Iraq, to the Polish border.

By using migrants as a geopolitical weapon against the EU, Lukashenko is imitating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who in 2019 threatened to “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way”. But because the regime in Minsk is backed by Russia, the potential for a wider geopolitical confrontation is greater in this case. Whether or not Vladimir Putin is the “mastermind in Moscow” of events at the border – as Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki alleged – all EU governments know that any resolution to the problem depends on the Russian president.

[See also: “Everyone is scared in Belarus”: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on a migrant crisis and taking on a regime of terror in Europe]

For the older EU states, such as France and Germany, Russia is not supposed to have this kind of geopolitical influence in post-Cold War Europe. Although the EU’s enlargement to include Finland in 1995 and then Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 2004 gave the Union multiple borders with Russia, little serious thought was given to the implications of any post-Soviet Russian resurgence. It would be Nato, and not the EU, that would provide the security for these newly independent EU states between Germany and Russia. This left successive German governments free to maintain the German-Russian energy relationship and present it as an economic necessity free from geopolitical risk. From Berlin’s point of view, it was Russia’s reliance on energy exports, rather than Germany’s dependency on gas imports being a vulnerability for the EU, that gave Germany leverage in Moscow.

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But Putin has long judged energy to be a geopolitical matter. He has spent two decades reconstructing the transportation of gas out of Russia into Europe to end Ukraine’s position as a transit state. This is the point of the Nord Stream pipeline, which takes gas directly from Russia into northern Europe under the Baltic Sea, and of Turkstream, which carries gas into southern Europe under the Black Sea. When the second Nord Stream pipeline finally opens – probably next year – his efforts to exclude Ukraine will be nearer completion. Tied into long-term gas networks that make Russia less constrained by Ukraine, the EU is ill-equipped to handle Russian aggression on its central-eastern borders.

Any serious EU response to Russia depends on Germany. But Germany has been caught out by Russia’s revival. When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, Angela Merkel asked: “Who would’ve thought that 25 years after the end of the Wall. . . something like this can happen right at the heart of Europe?” Now, in the twilight of her chancellorship, she has dismayed EU governments on the front line of the Belarus crisis by engaging in two recent telephone calls with Lukashenko to implore him to provide humanitarian assistance to the migrants trapped on the border, when the whole point of the sanctions against Minsk is to deny the legitimacy of his presidency.

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Yet even without Germany’s caution towards Moscow, there is little the EU can do to act as a cohesive geopolitical bloc to stabilise its central-eastern borders. The support that Poland, Lithuania and Latvia desire is military, and the EU is martial-light. The Polish prime minister demanded on 14 November that Nato take “concrete steps” to resolve the border crisis. Britain and Estonia are the only Nato countries that have so far responded to the call, sending around 100 troops each to Poland.

Ultimately, the question hanging over the Belarus crisis is the future of Ukraine. Since March, the Russian military has been increasing its presence in Crimea and on Russia’s border with Ukraine’s Donbas region, which is controlled by pro-Russian rebels. Emmanuel Macron warned Putin on 15 November that France was willing “to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. But it is hard to believe him. The EU has no military wherewithal to do any such thing. In 2008, France and Germany vetoed Ukraine entering Nato, and, even if they had not, no American president is going to send American soldiers to fight Russia over Ukraine.

In an interview in the New York Times on 11 October, the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said that Washington must recognise that the EU is a superpower peer of the US and China. Reality suggests otherwise: to be any kind of geopolitical power, the EU must first reckon with Russia.

This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos