Over the weekend, I had breakfast with a former Downing Street official, who still lives and breathes UK politics. He asked me if I thought Russia would invade Ukraine in the next couple of weeks. I replied that I thought it distinctly possible. My friend looked stricken. “Oh, no,” he exclaimed, “a war is about the only thing that could save Boris.”
That reply captured the current mood of deep insularity in Britain. But the UK is not unique. In fact, most of the big countries in western Europe are currently in the midst of destabilising political transitions — which make them even less prepared than usual for a confrontation with Russia.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s grip on power is becoming steadily weaker. The main debate in Westminster seems to be whether the prime minister’s remaining time in office is better measured in weeks or months. In France, Emmanuel Macron is less than three months away from a presidential election. In Germany, Olaf Scholz has been chancellor for just a few weeks and is trying to hold together an untested coalition government. In Italy, an electoral college will begin voting for a new president of the republic on January 24. If Mario Draghi, the current prime minister, gets the job, the Italian government will have to be reconstituted and might fall.
Democracies usually find it hard to focus on a “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” — as Neville Chamberlain said of Czechoslovakia. But this is a particularly distracted time in western Europe, which may make it a good time for President Vladimir Putin to make his move in eastern Europe.
In Britain, Johnson now has to concentrate on trying to fend off his own political demise. Largely unnoticed by the public, the UK government has adopted a hawkish position on Ukraine. The British have been flying defensive weaponry into the country and have publicly accused Russia of planning a coup in Ukraine.
This UK stance is a legacy of a decade and more of bad relations with Russia. The British may also relish the opportunity of demonstrating that, after Brexit, the country is capable of taking notably bolder stands on security issues than the EU. But the cost of Brexit is that the UK’s ability to shape the response of Europe as a whole has been seriously weakened. It is not just that Britain is not at the table when the EU debates Russia. The Johnson government is also widely regarded as flaky and untrustworthy in the other big European capitals.
However, French and German instincts on Russia are also widely mistrusted in the rest of Europe. Macron has never disguised his ambition to be the dominant political figure in the EU — an ambition that may seem more plausible, now Angela Merkel has stepped down after 16 years as German chancellor.
But most of Europe’s smaller countries look to America to guarantee their security. Indeed, some fear that the French president could actually undermine their security, by trying to cut a deal with Russia over their heads. Those anxieties were heightened last week, when Macron gave a speechsuggesting that the EU should launch its own diplomatic initiative with Russia.
French officials reacted angrily to the suggestion that their president was weakening western unity and Nato. Yet they can hardly be surprised at this response, given that Macron has, in the past, called Nato “brain-dead”.
All his pronouncements must, in any case, be read in the context of the presidential election. For the moment, a policy of relative firmness towards Moscow looks politically astute for Macron — particularly since it highlights the French far right’s history of sympathy towards Putin. But if a Russian attack on Ukraine causes an energy crisis and an economic downturn across the EU, the timing would be very awkward for Macron — just ahead of April’s vote.
The chief question mark hangs over Germany. The Ukraine crisis hits one of the biggest faultlines running through the new coalition government. The Greens, who hold the foreign ministry, are relatively hawkish on Russia. But Scholz’s party, the Social Democrats, have many Russlandversteher(Russia understanders) within their ranks. Gerhard Schröder, the last SPD chancellor before Scholz, chairs the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that bypasses Ukraine. That pipeline has become a symbol of Germany’s unhealthy dependence on Russia and disdain for the interests of the countries that lie between Russia and Germany.
Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, the head of the German navy, has just been forced to resign — after remarking that what Putin wants is the respect that he “probably deserves”. But many Europeans suspect that he was simply saying in public what many influential Germans think in private. Berlin’s continuing refusal to supply weaponry to Ukraine is bitterly resented in Kyiv.
The German desire to play down or even ignore the dangers posed by Putin’s Russia is deeply rooted in history. But it is unlikely to be sustainable. Berlin is closer to Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, than it is to Paris. Like it or not, Germany is now uncomfortably close to the front line of Europe’s most dangerous conflict.