There’s an old saying about dealing with just about any problem, that first you have to admit that you have a problem. This is true whether you’re dealing with something minor like procrastination or a more serious issue like drug addiction. It’s also true if your problem is a nuclear-armed dictatorship that is interfering with your elections, invading neighboring countries, and assassinating people inside your borders.
It would seem impossible to ignore or downplay such a situation, but that’s exactly what Europe has done for over a decade. Vladimir Putin launched his war on the European Union and the United States long ago, calculating that conflict with the free world would help him consolidate his power in Russia. Foreign enemies are always needed for propaganda when all domestic opposition has been crushed. The West failed to recognise this until far too late—and in some cases is still in denial.
Now it’s 2019 and there are no more excuses. Europe must admit that it has a problem or it will continue to lose a war it refuses to acknowledge even exists. In this regard, it’s even worse than the 1930s because hostile actions have already taken place. The Russian military has invaded Ukraine and annexed its territory, with tens of thousands of casualties. Putin has fomented a coup in Montenegro, ordered assassinations in the UK, shot a civilian airliner out of the sky, and launched the largest information warfare campaign in history.
Europe’s response has mostly been denial and business as usual. The patchwork of tepid sanctions in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea is easily shrugged off by Putin when Europe’s dependence on Russian gas is actually increasing. Here the metaphor of an addict unable to admit to his destructive habit is almost too perfect. Twelve years ago, I wrote an article called “Gas Poisoning” for a major Italian paper, referring to Putin’s use of energy blackmail, and urged a European policy of “dictatorship substitution” to reduce his leverage. Instead, the opposite happened. Russian cash and gas have flooded the Continent, buying immense political and financial influence for Putin and his cronies. Thanks to Europe’s naïve engagement policies, Russia’s number one export is corruption.
Putin’s bloody fingerprints are also visible on another major European crisis, refugees from the Middle East, and Syria in particular. When America and Europe declined to strike Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons in 2013, it effectively handed the region over to Putin and Iran. While Putin’s main goal in Syria was to prop up his fellow dictator, Russia’s massive bombing campaign has created millions of refugees with no homes to return to. This flood has changed the political tide in Europe, even in places where not one refugee has arrived. Their images and the supposed threat they represent—stoked by Putin’s propaganda machine—have provoked a shockwave of xenophobia.
Pro-Putin politicians in Europe are found on both ideological extremes, but his natural alliance is with the far-right groups who have made the most of the refugee issue. Neo-Nazis are becoming the second-strongest party in Germany despite a strong economy. Brexit was fueled in part by the vile nativist rhetoric that unites Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Donald J. Trump, and, the spider in the center of the web, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Putin has spent years investing billions of dollars on the cyberwar engine that hacks, pollutes, and influences in dozens of languages around the world. Paltry funds are invested in combating it in Europe. The unity required to create a real deterrent against further aggression is also missing in action. Unless a rapid awakening occurs, the May elections for the European parliament will tilt the EU even further away from its founding principles of liberalism and democracy and toward the populism and nationalism that Putin promotes so well.
Trump may not make it to the end of his term, but there is no equivalent of the Robert Mueller investigation to hold out the hope of ending Putin’s malign influence in Europe. It is up to Europeans to defend themselves, to disentangle from Putin’s web of money, influence, and pipelines. Expulse his cronies, ban his propaganda channels, reduce his leverage. It could mean a second referendum on Brexit, since the first was held under false pretenses and foreign interference. It will require providing every possible form of support to Putin’s victims, especially Ukraine.
Putin doesn’t care about Russian national interests, only his own and those of his oligarch elites. Targeting them, and their families and assets abroad, is an essential method of turning the tables after their years of looting Russia while living like royalty and spreading their corruption in the free world. No matter how hard they try to launder their money and their images, they remain Putin’s creatures for life.
First and most important of all is recognizing that these steps are necessary, and that action must be taken immediately. Europe’s Putin problem isn’t going to go away on its own.