Precisely what happened when a British destroyer sailed past Russian-annexed Crimea on Wednesday remains in dispute. There is little doubt, though, that Russian ships fired shots in the vicinity of the Royal Navy vessel, in one of the most high-profile confrontations between Russian forces and a Nato member in recent years. All this took place just as France and Germany launched what turned out to be an abortive effort to persuade the EU to sit down for talks with Moscow. The two episodes highlight the dilemma facing western democracies over how to handle Vladimir Putin’s Moscow.
On one level, the Black Sea incident bolsters the argument for dialogue to reduce tensions. Russia’s claims to have dropped bombs in the path of HMS Defender are rebuffed by Britain’s defence ministry and reporters on board. Artillery fire was heard, though was apparently out of range. Yet fighter jets and coastguard ships came dangerously close to the UK destroyer. The vessel was engaged in a freedom of navigation operation, but this was not the first such instance, and it had a right to innocent passage via a designated shipping lane through waters most countries recognise as Ukrainian.
The desire of Paris and Berlin to put the EU back at the diplomatic high table is understandable, after US president Joe Biden’s summit with Putin. If the EU wants to be seen as a geopolitical force alongside the US, it needs to play its part in handling the biggest threat to security on the continent.
Yet a newly-arrived US president can hold an exploratory meeting with a Russian counterpart without this necessarily signalling a policy shift. The EU, by contrast, suspended twice-yearly summits with Moscow after Russia seized Crimea and fomented war in east Ukraine in 2014. Putin’s behaviour has not changed since then. Reinstating summits without very careful messaging could be seized on by Moscow as a sign of faltering resolve.
French president Emmanuel Macron, moreover, tried personal diplomacy with Putin in the past two years without success. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, maintains contact with Putin, but she has long lost patience with what she sees as the Russian leader’s habitual lying.
The attempt to re-engage with Russia was apparently designed to set an EU policy towards Russia and assert the bloc’s unity. But the Franco-German initiative needed to be more transparently co-ordinated with Washington, and between EU states. Berlin and Paris failed to do the groundwork, leaving a number of EU members justifiably suspicious.
Direct EU-Russia contacts still have a potential place in efforts to restrain Moscow’s increasingly troublesome behaviour, not just in Ukraine, but in cyber warfare, misinformation, and attempts to assassinate opponents such as Alexei Navalny. But EU engagement should be backed by clear policy, which is currently lacking, and strategy. It must also have realistic goals, and rather low expectations. It would be foolish to assume Putin’s Kremlin shares a desire for a more stable relationship. It is far more comfortable being a disruptive adversary.
As Fiona Hill, a former US presidential adviser, told the Financial Times this week, Moscow is unusual in being run by ex-intelligence agents with no domestic checks and balances, whose modus operandi is “illicit tools”. The best the west may hope for is constraining it until someone new is in the Kremlin. That means hard-headed engagement, setting clear red lines, and being ready to defend them — including by asserting navigation rights in the Black Sea. This week’s altercation off Crimea will not be the last.