Home / News / World /  A decade of illusions over Putin that led to war

If a week is a long time in politics, as the UK’s Liz Truss has found out, a decade can be another era.

Ten years ago, the G7 was the G8, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pitching his country as open for business, in keeping with investor hype for emerging markets. The US was in a modest recovery, led by its first Black president. The UK was inside the European Union but outside its crisis-ridden euro area. The EU, seen as a paragon of postwar reconstruction, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today would shock the class of 2012: A Russia waging an unprovoked war on its neighbor (an EU candidate) and consigned to financial pariahdom; a polarized US that could put a twice-impeached Donald Trump back in charge; a weakened UK out of the EU and cycling through leaders at an Italy-like rate — with market reactions to match. As for the EU, its inability to stabilize post-Cold War Eastern Europe is eclipsing its success in digesting a united Germany.

For Francois Hollande, elected president of France the same year as Vladimir Putin returned to the helm in Russia in 2012, the past decade of disorder has shattered the idea that benign economic globalization brings lasting peace.

“This view of trade and shared prosperity turned out to be an illusion," Hollande tells me in his Paris office, where memorabilia including a poster commemorating socialist icon Jean Jaures hangs on the wall. Just as the US’s support for China embedded in world trade failed to avert their current great-power rivalry, so Germany’s status as top buyer of Russian gas failed to avert Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine this year.

Hollande has chronicled these “upheavals" in a new book that unintentionally coincides with the emergence of a new 44-member “European Political Community," led by his successor and one-time protégé Emmanuel Macron. It looks like a first positive step toward a less naïve, more geopolitically aware postwar grouping – one that excludes Russia and includes aspiring members of the EU like Ukraine and Moldova (as well as ex-member UK). The anchoring of these countries is crucial, Hollande says, and will require the EU to reform itself.

At the core of Hollande’s reading of the buildup to war is a West that both emboldened Putin through weakness while also feeding his grievances regarding Russia’s loss of prestige. In one-on-one meetings, Hollande recalls Putin sketching out his view of NATO’s “encirclement" of Moscow. But the ex-French president thinks more relevant catalysts were a lack of Western resolve in showdowns with Putin ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria and by the messy NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, combined with an increased pro-Western turn among citizens in ex-Soviet countries.

The result was a Russia more willing to risk redrawing borders by force, strengthened also by support from Beijing. The test now is Europe’s ability to decouple from Moscow ahead of a winter that will likely bring recession — something Hollande says will be expensive but that should have happened far sooner. And, for the West, the ability to stay united. Hollande doesn’t buy the idea that Putin is insane or irrational; rather, what he wants is to sow fear by pushing up energy prices, by raising the possibility of attacks on energy infrastructure and by making veiled nuclear threats — “which look more rhetorical than real.'

“The hour is not for negotiation," says Hollande.

Of course, Hollande’s own presidency exemplified the West’s awkward tango with Moscow. He put a halt in 2015 to a planned delivery of French-manufactured helicopter carriers to Russia but only after worldwide condemnation of the deal. He and Germany’s Angela Merkel brokered an ultimately failed truce with Putin in eastern Ukraine, known as the Minsk agreements, which served to freeze the conflict but also cemented Ukrainian territorial losses and in the eyes of critics offered Putin cover without extracting a high-enough price.

Hollande still thinks some of Minsk’s goals worth defending, though — namely the territorial integrity of Ukraine and more political decentralization for eastern regions. And he defends Merkel’s record as being less spotty than her predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who lobbied heavily for the Nord Stream pipeline project linking Russia to Germany and who took cushy jobs at Kremlin-linked energy companies.

There is an opportunity for Europe in Hollande’s eyes. Unity on sanctions and a shift away from soft power and neutrality have opened the door for more defense spending and less free-riding on the US. The pain of energy prices is pushing the EU to share resources. And as grim as the prospect of a painful recession striking Germany, the biggest European economy, may be, Hollande says the end result might also be more fiscal solidarity similar to the legacy of the response to Covid-19. “The longer this war continues, the worse the recession gets, the more likely it is that Europe will move to more joint borrowing," he says.

I suggest this is a dispiriting way of ensuring the cost for European citizens will be higher than it would have been by acting sooner. He agrees – but that’s how Europe works, he says. After all, it’s easy to forget the four years that elapsed between the collapse of Iceland’s banking system in 2008 and the 2012 declaration by European Central Bank President Mario Draghi to keep the euro going, “whatever it takes."

Paris won’t emerge unscathed from the coming recession, and the past decade has seen its path to economic reform offset by the persistent rise of political extremes and failed military intervention abroad. But as Hollande suggests, if there’s any hope after a decade of upheavals, it’s that Europe can overhaul itself before the next one.

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