Despite the serious escalation of tensions in Northeast Asia in recent weeks, Russian diplomacy has been prioritizing European intrigues. The biggest upcoming event in this context will be the meeting between President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, scheduled for May 2 in Sochi. In Berlin, this visit is being downplayed as part of the preparations for the G20 summit in Hamburg; in Moscow, however, it is seen as a major step in re-energizing the Kremlin’s high-level networking in Europe (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, April 28). Putin has already greeted Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Moscow in April, held talks with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in March, and traveled to Budapest for a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in February. He did not, however, meet with Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, when she came to Moscow on April 24.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played host to Mogherini and argued for overcoming the “artificial obstacles” that stood in the way of returning Russian-EU relations to a partnership track (TASS, April 24). Mogherini responded with a terse point that it would be “absurd” to speak of partnership in the situation of mutual sanctions (Politcom.ru, April 27). The Kremlin seeks to present the common EU position on opposing Russian aggression in Ukraine as the product of an “aggressive anti-Russian minority” inside Europe—but the EU’s top diplomat refused to accede to such a narrative (Kommersant, April 25). The sanctions are set to be extended for another six months; to be lifted, Russia will first have to return to the rules and norms of agreeable international behavior (Newsru.com, April 28). But Moscow instead aims to prod every weak link in European unity and is annoyed by Montenegro. The latter Balkan country was long counted as an asset for this policy of sowing discord—but has now completed the work on joining the North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO) (RBC, April 28).
The main focus of Russia’s European maneuvering has certainly been on the presidential elections in France, and the outcome of the first round looked like a disappointment for the Kremlin. Putin placed a bet on Marine Le Pen and greeted her in the Kremlin in late March. Moreover, Moscow deployed all the big propaganda guns in her support, which has done more damage than good for her cause (Carnegie.ru, April 28). The strong showing of the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron (who is the current favorite to win the second-round election against Le Pen, on May 7) is seen as a serious setback for European right-wing populism, into which Moscow has invested so much political capital (Republic.ru, April 24; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 28).
One traditional instrument of applying pressure, which Moscow now finds difficult to wield, is the export of natural gas to Europe. Sustained low oil and gas prices have made Russian gas attractive for European customers; in fact, Gazprom has managed to boost export volumes to Europe and increased its share of the EU market in 2016 (Kommersant, April 27). Nevertheless, it has to make every effort to present itself as a reliable supplier and erase numerous past stains on its business reputation (RBC, April 27). The Russian gas giant even has to carefully manage its permanent conflict with Ukraine, currently doing nothing other than quietly indicating on its balance sheet the claim for an accumulated debt of $37 billion (Gazeta.ru, April 27).
While Gazprom anxiously monitors the trickle of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States to the European market, Putin is closely following the tentative cultivation of ties between US President Donald Trump and European leaders (Russiancouncil.ru, April 19). His own meeting with Trump was provisionally scheduled for the margins of the G20 summit in Hamburg, but now he hopes for a date in late May (Kommersant, April 26). Too much toxic evidence of Russian interference in US elections has accumulated to expect a miraculous breakthrough to a beautiful friendship (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 28). Putin is perhaps more interested in Merkel’s difficulties in developing rapport with Trump, in which he likely wants to find signs of erosion of US leadership (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 25). Russian propaganda relentlessly amplifies every strain in transatlantic relations, and domestic public opinion is presently, for the first time, more negative toward the EU than to the US (Levada.ru, April 10).
At the same time, Moscow is trying to tap into a particular Russian angst about the Middle East. The US missile strike on the Syrian Shayrat airbase, on April 7, left Russia momentarily stunned and isolated in its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime; but there has been no follow-up yet by Washington, and the Russian-Syrian offensive on rebels in Idlib province has resumed (Gazeta.ru, April 23). Turkey’s growing irritation with US support for the Kurdish forces (YPG), meanwhile, as well as the skeptical attitude within the EU regarding the April 16 constitutional referendum creates an opening for Russia, and Putin will be meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Sochi the day after his meeting with Merkel (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 29). Moscow may see Libya as another opening, and Mogherini tried to dissuade Lavrov from engaging in a spoiler game in this conflict; but the EU’s failure to manage that North African crisis is all too obvious for Russian trouble-stirrers (Carnegie.ru, April 13).
The fiasco of the Kremlin’s inability to forge a workable connection with the new US administration, and the apparent incapability to claim a role in resolving the North Korean crisis have reawakened Moscow to the fact that Europe remains the single most important direction in its policy. The smoldering war in eastern Ukraine is a natural focus for Russia’s efforts in this theater. But before taking another proactive step in this war zone, the Kremlin needs to make sure that the Europeans are preoccupied with other matters and too divided to undertake a coherent response. Macron is an untested quality in this regard, and Moscow has reasons to assume that his support base is shallow and amorphous. Merkel is certainly a formidable leader, but Libya shows the limits of German leadership. And fatigue with Ukraine is deepening in many EU member states. As domestic discontent becomes a worry, Putin may decide to score another “victory.” His conflict of choice needs to be within easy reach—and outside the attention span of the over-stressed and under-staffed Trump administration.