Times they are a-changin!
The European politics is on the cusp of change. The drift of events seems to work in Russia’s favor, auguring good times in a not-too- distant future in Russia’s ties with Europe. Most certainly, Moscow can view with satisfaction the outcome of the primary of France’s Republican party on Sunday resulting in the nomination of Francois Fillon as the candidate of the conservatives in the presidential election in May.
Fillon has an exceptionally good rapport with President Vladimir Putin. The western media even bills him as ‘pro-Putin’. When Fillon was prime minister under Nikolas Sarkozy during 2007-2012, Putin was his counterpart. That apart, Fillon argues for joining hands with Putin in the fight against the Islamic State. (He is inclined to work with President Bashar al-Assad, too.) Most important, Fillon flatly rejects the notion that Russia poses threat to Europe, and he calls for the lifting of the western sanctions against Russia.
In the May election in France, with the Socialists in the pits, Fillon in all probability will face the run-off with the extreme right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Whereas Fillon is in the mould of the late British PM Margaret Thatcher, Le Pen represents the security-anti-immigration and anti-establishment turf, which can be potent if the populist trend sweeping over Europe visits French politics. But then, Moscow also enjoys good equations with Le Pen. She too disfavors sanctions against Russia.
If France elects Fillon by the time Donald Trump settles in as US president, the prospects distinctly improve for the lifting of western sanctions against Russia. That would allow an overall easing of tensions and the revival of Russia’s stymied relations with European countries.
Equally, German-American relations are entering a bumpy period. Angela Merkel visualizes herself as the torch bearer of western liberal democratic values. She wrote an extraordinary letter to Trump on November 9 upon his election victory where she noted, “Germany and America are united by shared values: through democracy, freedom, respect for the right and dignity of every individual, irrespective of origin, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation or political attitude. On the basis of these values, I would like to offer you a close cooperation between the governments of our countries.”
For the first time, perhaps, in the annals of post-World War II German-American relationship, a German Chancellor has spelt out the terms of engagement with an American president. Merkel is incensed over Trump’s outrageous remarks about her policies (“catastrophe”) and is digging in to take on Trump’s threats to reduce US commitment to NATO, come to an accommodation with Russia and roll back free-trade agreements.
However, there are 10 months to go for the elections in Germany and that is a long time in politics. Meanwhile, there are other storms brewing, too, in European politics – especially, the constitutional referendum in Italy in December, where there could be a replay of the anti-establishment ‘Brexit syndrome’, resulting in political paralysis in another important member of the EU and the western alliance. Indeed, German politics also is susceptible to the phenomenon of populism.
Given these cross-currents and the growing disarray in EU, any further strengthening of the NATO deployments on Russia’s borders seems highly unlikely. That leaves scope for removing one major element in the US-Russia strategic mistrust. Again, Trump puts the US’ national interests above America’s ‘exceptionalism’ and has shown aversion toward preaching democratic ‘values’ to other countries, which at once raises the comfort level in Russian-American relations, as Russia prepares for the crucial presidential election in March 2018.
All in all, the political news from France on Sunday suggests that Russia can look forward to better times with the West. The barricades separating Russia from Europe that were erected though the last couple of years of the Barack Obama administration will get dismantled – gradually but surely. Fundamentally, what works in Russia’s favor is the transformation that is coming over the German-American axis.
Merkel played a pivotal role in Obama’s hardline strategy toward Russia. That axis is disappearing now with the Trump presidency. Trump symbolizes in the German perception “a new authoritarian and chauvinist international movement,” to quote the Social Democrat leader and deputy chancellor in Merkel’s coalition Sigmar Gabriel.
A recent survey showed that 86% of Germans think that Trump’s election is bad. A columnist for the mass circulation German daily newspaper Bild wrote last week, “I cannot imagine how Angela Merkel will speak with Donald Trump … She knows what he thinks of women. She knows he grabs women in the crotch.”