Russia's Intensifying Diplomatic Courtship of Europe

11 MINS READDec 7, 2010 | 13:14 GMT
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at Poland, Italy and the European Union. These efforts come shortly after a tepid NATO summit in Lisbon that left many NATO members feeling that the alliance is becoming irrelevant. The moves are designed to strengthen Moscow's relations with key players in Europe, other than France and Germany, to smooth the way for Russia's resurgence in its near abroad.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev arrived in Poland on Dec. 6 for a two-day state visit. The visit comes amid a whirlwind Russian diplomatic offensive on Europe. Before Medvedev's visit to Poland, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Medvedev hosted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Sochi, and after his visit to Warsaw Medvedev will go to Brussels for a Russia-EU summit. Russia's relations with France and Germany, Europe's heavyweights, are at their best in decades. This gives Moscow the capacity to concentrate on other major European players. Poland, Italy and the European Union are not as relevant as France and Germany, but each is important to Moscow in its own way. The timing of Moscow's diplomatic offensive is important; it follows a rather tepid NATO summit in Lisbon, where the alliance drew up a Strategic Concept that leaves many, especially in Central Europe, feeling that NATO is becoming irrelevant. Europe appears to be receptive to Russia's advances, and Moscow is making sure its relations with all the major European players are solid.

The Polish Front

Medvedev's Dec. 6-7 state visit to Warsaw is intended to conclude a number of business and strategic deals with Poland. Traveling with the president are six Russian ministers, two governors, the chief executives of several major firms, including LUKoil and Gazprom, and the Russian public prosecutor. The visit caps 15 months' worth of a Russian "charm offensive" targeting Poland that coincidentally began with the 70th anniversary of the joint Soviet-Nazi invasion of Poland. At that anniversary observance, in September 2009, Putin visited Gdansk to attend the ceremonies and wrote an opinion piece called "Letter to Poles" in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza condemning the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (a nonaggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union). Putin's extension of friendship was followed by a joint commemoration of the Katyn massacre — a significant historical thorn in Polish-Russian relations — with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on April 7 and then an outpouring of grief and official state collaboration on Moscow's part following the crash of the Polish presidential plane near Smolensk on April 10. Since these early efforts, relations between Russia and Poland have continued to strengthen. A considerable natural gas deal was concluded in early 2010 and finalized in October after Warsaw and Moscow worked together to thwart a legal challenge from the European Union, which wanted to force Russian energy giant Gazprom and its Polish partner PGNiG to unbundle their control over the Polish section of the Yamal-Europe pipeline. The negotiations pitting Russia and Poland against the European Union seemed to bring Moscow and Warsaw closer. Collaboration has also progressed on emotional historical issues between the countries. The Russian Duma on Nov. 26 recognized that the 1940 Katyn massacre of Polish officers was a crime ordered by then Soviet leader Josef Stalin and that the documents about the incident published thus far have not disclosed "the extent of this terrible tragedy." Medvedev's visit also illustrates progress in cooperation on practical matters, with the potential for expansion in business and trade relations. During the president's visit, Russian oil majors Rosneft, Gazprom Neft and TNK-BP have expressed interest in bidding for Poland's second-largest refiner, Lotos (leaders from all three companies are in Warsaw as part of the Russian delegation). The purchase would be a strategic move by Russia to gain control of a key energy asset in Central Europe, but also a way to show Poland that it can put money behind its symbolic gestures of goodwill. Poland is currently undergoing a significant privatization drive to raise capital to lower its budget deficit, and Russia would love to take advantage of the opportunity to purchase key assets in Poland. Russia is also interested in Polish participation in its ongoing modernization efforts. From Moscow's perspective, relations with Poland will always be strained on some level. Warsaw will not let go of centuries of suspicion because of 15 months of good relations. In fact, amid the improved relations, Polish diplomats are still pushing the EU Eastern Partnership program — which Russia has publically stated it does not want in its sphere — on Ukraine and Belarus, which Russia considers essentially satellite states. Furthermore, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister, will visit Moldova on Dec. 10. Moldova is also central to Russian strategic interests, and Buzek's visit comes right after contentious elections in Moldova that Russia hopes to use to lock down the country. Russia also is not happy with Poland's recent announcement that it intends to host American F-16s or with Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich's Sept. 30 visit to Washington, during which he requested that the United States take more interest in Polish defense and even base troops in the country. In fact, after his meeting with Medvedev, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski will pay a visit to Washington, likely a signal to Russia that relations between the two countries may be improving, but Poland's relationship with the United States is still crucial. Moscow's diplomatic offensive with Poland is thus not meant to completely mend relations with Warsaw. That may never be possible. Rather, it is an attempt to minimize Warsaw's activism in the Russian sphere of influence and to remove Poland as a constant obstacle in Russian-European relations. Poland is a major EU state and it has in the past blocked cooperation between Russia and the EU. Russia wants to make sure that relations between Moscow and Warsaw are comfortable enough that Poland is restrained from such activism. It also helps that Tusk and Komorowski continue to strengthen their domestic position against the virulently anti-Russian Law and Justice party, which just suffered another setback during local elections and is staring at a rebel breakaway party looking to steal its thunder on the right end of the spectrum of Polish politics. However, Polish activism in Eastern Europe is growing, particularly in Ukraine and Belarus. When Poland takes over the EU presidency in the second half of 2011, Moscow will expect Warsaw's moves regarding the Eastern Partnership on the Russian periphery to be minimal. It is not certain that Warsaw understands how serious Russia is on this point, and it could be an issue between Russia and Poland in 2011.

The Italian Front

Medvedev held talks with Berlusconi in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi on Dec. 3-4. Putin joined them as they inspected Superjet medium-haul airplanes built by Russia's Sukhoi. Putin said Dec. 6 that Italy is ready to purchase large quantities of the planes. Getting a major Western economy to commit to the new airliner would be a significant break for Sukhoi. During his visit to Russia, Berlusconi also agreed to conduct bilateral military exercises with Russia in 2011 — not a common practice between Russia and NATO member states — and to potentially begin building Iveco-licensed military trucks in Russia for export to countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. A deal between Russian power trading company RAO and Italy's energy group Enel was also concluded during the visit. Media coverage of Berlusconi’s visit has placed it in the context of the recent WikiLeak-released U.S. diplomatic cables as evidence of the close Rome-Moscow relationship. Some of the released cables mentioned close relations between Putin and Berlusconi and speculated that the Italian prime minister was personally profiting from the relationship. The cables also hinted at the close relations between Gazprom and Italian energy giant ENI. STRATFOR, however, has followed the relationship intently for years. ENI and Gazprom are collaborating on the proposed South Stream and the Blue Stream pipelines. ENI also owns 19.6 percent of SeverEnergia, a Russian energy company that is majority-owned by Gazprom, and has been involved in Sakhalin field and the Russo-German pipeline Nordstream via its energy construction subsidiary Saipem. ENI has also in the past offered Gazprom a share in its Greenstream pipeline, which takes Libyan natural gas to Europe via Sicily and is supposed to have helped Europe diversify from Russian supplies. Italy is not as strategic to Russia as Poland, Germany and France. However, it is a large EU member state, an important contributor to NATO and is Europe's fourth-largest economy. Fostering good relations with Rome therefore makes sense for Moscow if it wants to be on good terms with all the major EU powers as it resurges in its periphery. Furthermore, Italy's location in the Mediterranean may not mean as much strategically in the 21st century as in the past, but it is still a potential transit route for North African natural gas to Europe — an alternative to Russian supplied natural gas via Eastern European transit countries. As such, Gazprom has cultivated extremely close relations with ENI, including at the personal level with its leadership, to make sure that Italian and Russian energy strategies remain synchronized. Italy is also an important importer of Russian natural gas — the second largest in Europe, after Germany — and one could argue that Italy is even more dependent on Russian natural gas because a larger proportion of its total electricity generation depends on natural gas. (click here to enlarge image) Berlusconi's trip to Russia also comes at a difficult time for the embattled Italian prime minister. His coalition partners are looking to position themselves for a succession battle. Berlusconi likes to flaunt his relations with Libya and Russia as Rome's forte, making Italy indispensible for Europe as an EU member state capable of dealing with difficult energy suppliers. It also plays well domestically for Berlusconi to show that he has the diplomatic acumen to deal with Putin and Medvedev.

The EU Front

After his meeting with the Polish leadership, Medvedev will make his way to Brussels on Dec. 7 for a Russia-EU summit with EU President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. On the agenda are the potential for an EU visa waiver for Russia —– an important domestic political issue for Moscow — and EU support for Russia's World Trade Organization bid, which Moscow is not necessarily too concerned about. The most important issue for Russia regarding the European Union is to make sure that the various EU institutions, particularly the Commission, are not actively looking to curb Russian influence in Europe, particularly on the energy front. The European Commission attempted to rein in Russia by acting against the Polish-Russian natural gas deal, and Russia wants to be able to stop such activism. The visit is therefore as much about clearing the air between the EU bureaucracy, which has often taken a slightly anti-Russian stance compared to Paris and Berlin, and Moscow as it is about specific proposals. Therefore, during his visit Medvedev will hope to push for a new Partnership Cooperation Agreement with the Europeans to replace the 1994 accord that expired in 2007. Russia wants to formalize its relationship with the European Union in a new treaty that will in some way account for the Russian re-emergence and resurgence in Europe since the 1990s. Russia's moves in Poland, Italy and the European Union are symbolic of a confident and resurgent Russia. They also fit in with the recently improved Finnish-Russian relations. Moscow wants to assure that its gains on its periphery, particularly in Ukraine, are not reversed, so it wants to build relations with players other than France and Germany. That the visits come right after the lackluster Nov. 19-20 NATO summit in Lisbon is important. Central Europeans are being made aware of just how lonely the North European Plain is in what is effectively becoming a post-NATO Europe. Russia hopes that the rest of Central Europe will take the hint and sit down to talk to Moscow in 2011. With the United States continually distracted in the Middle East, Germany pushing for Russia's inclusion in the NATO Strategic Concept document, France selling Russia advanced military equipment and Italy conducting military exercises with Russia, there seems to be no alternative to suing for terms with Moscow — unless of course the Central Europeans decide to form their own bloc, supported by Sweden and potentially the United Kingdom. This is why Polish decision-making in 2011, and particularly its relationship with Sweden and the United Kingdom, will be central to understanding how combative Central Europeans intend to be with Russia.

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