Less than a month ago, Russia officially designated two countries as “unfriendly”. One was the US — no surprise there. The other was the Czech Republic. Its inclusion on the Kremlin’s list underlines how Russian-Czech relations have plunged to a low not seen since Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces invaded the former Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring.
The proximate cause of these tensions was the Czech discovery that Russian agents were responsible for blowing up a Czech ammunition depot in 2014. Mutual expulsions of diplomats followed. But the Czechs and Americans may soon have company on Russia’s “bad boy” list.
According to Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin Russian daily, eight other countries are candidates for inclusion. Australia, Canada and the UK form a trio regarded in Moscow as incorrigibly pro-American. The other five — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine — are, like the Czech Republic, either former Soviet satellite states or countries that formed part of the USSR.
The direct consequence of being on the official Russian list is that it will be harder for the governments concerned to hire local staff at their embassies in Moscow. But the unofficial list compiled by Izvestia carries a deeper significance. Much of central and eastern Europe is on it, but France and Germany are not. According to Oleg Shein, a Russian legislator, this is because Moscow sees Berlin and Paris as “negotiating parties”.
The Kremlin’s assessment is not wide of the mark. Amid a general deterioration of western-Russian relations, it is striking that France and Germany persist in keeping open channels for dialogue despite the lack of tangible results. The show of unity that President Joe Biden and his European allies can be expected to put on at next week’s Nato summit will disguise the reality that EU policy towards Russia is in disrepair.
Put bluntly, the central and eastern Europeans place little faith in the EU’s stumbling efforts to forge a robust defence, foreign and security policy. For them, Nato and the US security umbrella over Europe are the only credible guarantees of their freedom.
The tougher central and eastern European position took definitive form on May 10 in a declaration from the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. “Russia’s aggressive actions and military build-up in the immediate vicinity of Nato . . . continue to threaten Euro-Atlantic security,” they said.
Germany and France share these concerns about Russia’s truculence. But each believes its national interests sometimes justify departures from a common EU line. For Germany, it is largely about business. Armin Laschet, the Christian Democratic party’s candidate for chancellor, points out that his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia contains 1,200 companies that have traded with or invested in Russia.
As for France, it is now two years since President Emmanuel Macron launched an effort at dialogue with Moscow, stating that “pushing Russia far from Europe is a profound mistake”. For the central and eastern Europeans, the mistake was to pursue an initiative that was not co-ordinated with France’s EU partners and risked legitimising provocative Russian behaviour in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.
Like new wine in old bottles, Macron’s reset with Russia reeks of the Gaullist yearning for an independent French role in the western alliance that includes a privileged relationship with Moscow. German policy is to separate, as far as possible, political from economic relations with Russia. Neither approach reassures the central and eastern Europeans. The chief casualty of these disagreements is the EU’s common foreign policy, which in respect of Russia remains a distant aspiration.