FOR a time after Vladimir Putin first became Russia’s president almost 14 years ago, there were hopes that, though no liberal, he was moving in a pro-Western direction. But as he prepares to welcome global leaders to the G20 summit in St Petersburg next week, it is ever more obvious that, whether in international diplomacy over Syria or on domestic issues like the jailing of opposition leaders or gay rights, he is on an explicitly anti-Western course. Indeed, hostility to the West has become a hallmark of his third presidential term (see “Russia and the West: Cold climate”).
Fortunately, Mr Putin’s influence is declining. European countries who were dependent on Russian gas used to be easy to bully. Now a mix of falling energy consumption, new pipelines that skirt round Russia, the exploitation elsewhere of shale gas and oil, and the subjection of Russian energy producers to EU competition rules has eroded his clout.
Yet Russia is still a power of serious consequence. It remains the world’s biggest oil-and-gas producer; it has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a nuclear-weapons stockpile. The West needs to deal with it on such matters as Syria, Iran, leaving Afghanistan, arms control and international terrorism. Except on Iran, Russia has offered little co-operation on any of these issues: witness Mr Putin’s continuing protection of the vile Assad regime in Syria (see previous leader). That argues for a tougher approach from the West.
In the past when facing Mr Putin, continental Europeans, especially Germany and Italy, too often put business dealings above democratic principles. More recently the Americans have often been the soft ones, but Barack Obama’s cancellation of his planned summit with Mr Putin was an overdue reassertion of a harder line–which is also visible in Germany, where Angela Merkel is fed up with his antics. So there is a chance of a more co-ordinated, forceful response. Three areas seem especially promising to apply a little pressure.
One is the arc of countries around Russia’s borders, where Mr Putin’s clout through energy, trade, media and mischief-making is greatest. These should be treated as frontline states, where resisting Russia’s influence is crucial. For instance, Mr Putin is arm-twisting ex-Soviet countries to join his Eurasian Customs Union. For most of them, that is a poor alternative to the European Union. The Europeans should push ahead with the process of bringing in the more suitable countries, such as Moldova. But the balance can be delicate. The biggest prize, Ukraine, is no showcase for democracy either, so if it wants to sign an association agreement with the EU in November, as planned, it must do more on the rule of law first. Resisting Russia’s bullying does not mean lowering the standards that make the EU attractive in the first place.
One up the Kremlin
The second pressure-point is security. Russia’s privileged status at NATO is based on the assumption that it is a friend. Now that Mr Putin says NATO is his enemy, the kid gloves should come off. Russian spies there (and elsewhere) should be hunted down and the sources they recruit prosecuted.
The last area is the dull but important world of international organisations. Mr Putin has a sorry record of obstruction in outfits such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (which deals with issues such as election-rigging, media-freedom and minority rights). Russia cannot be expelled from these bodies, but it can be confronted more boldly. And why let Mr Putin into any more? Russia has applied to join the OECD, a Paris-based think-tank for well-run countries. This body has a “like-mindedness” test for membership. Russia, under Mr Putin’s unpleasant regime, clearly fails it.
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