viernes, 17 de octubre de 2014

Putin´s Multi-Front Diplomacy

Putin's Multi-Front Diplomacy in Europe

October 16, 2014 | 2056 GMT


Russian President Vladimir Putin visited two European cities this Thursday, and the reception he got could not have been more different. Putin's day began with a visit to Belgrade, where he was invited to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the city by Soviet troops during the final stages of World War II. Later in the day, he visited Milan, where he was to take part in the Asia-Europe Meeting. While Putin's visit to Serbia was pleasant -- he was the guest of honor at a military parade -- his activities in Italy are arguably more important. He is there to discuss some of the hottest topics in Russia's bilateral relationship with the European Union, including natural gas flows and the cease-fire in Ukraine.

Putin's visit to Serbia is highly symbolic. Like many other countries in the European borderlands, Serbia has traditionally been under the influence of external players, including the Ottomans, the Habsburgs and the Russians. As a Christian and Western nation, Serbia feels that it belongs to the West. This identification with the West was partly a reaction to Ottoman rule. (Serbia traditionally saw Habsburg Austria as a counterweight to the Turks.) But because Serbia is a Slav and Orthodox country, it also has a strong cultural bond with Russia. The countries developed a political relationship during the 19th century, and in 1914, Russia's alliance with Serbia was one of the many triggers of World War I.

Since Yugoslavia broke up, however, Serbia has moved slowly toward integration with the European Union, even if formal accession is still far away. Like most countries in the western Balkans, Serbia believes EU accession would increase its foreign investment and trade. But Belgrade is also interested in preserving its ties with Moscow, as Russia provides political, financial and energy support. Serbia's simultaneous negotiations with the European Union and Russia reflect a key feature of Belgrade's foreign policy: to extract as many concessions as possible from both powers. The crisis in Ukraine has made this strategy more difficult for Serbia, as Belgrade is under pressure from the European Union to apply sanctions against Russia and freeze the construction of the South Stream natural gas pipeline.

From Moscow's point of view, Belgrade is an important ally, but not a crucial one. Russia is interested in keeping good relationships with as many European countries as possible. Good relations would make signing trade and energy deals easier and would enable Russia to further influence the politics of the European Union. In this regard, Russia's relationship with heavyweights such as Germany and Italy is more important than its rapport with Serbia.

However, the crisis in Ukraine has soured relations between Russia and the West. There are not many places in Europe where Putin can be received as a guest of honor, which, along with Serbia's participation in South Stream, enhances Belgrade's value to Russia. Russia is interested in showing that it remains influential in some parts of Europe, and Putin's visits abroad are a part of this strategy.

In June, Putin visited Austria, a non-NATO country at the heart of Europe and a key transit hub for Russian natural gas. During the visit, the Austrian government confirmed its participation in the South Stream project. Then in August, Putin visited Finland, another non-NATO member of the eurozone. Finland shares a large border with Russia and has expressed concerns about the negative impact of European sanctions against Moscow. While both visits had mostly symbolic meanings, they are meant to generate as much disruption as possible within the European Union.

Putin's visit to Milan is considerably more important, even though no concrete outcomes are expected. During his short stay in the northern Italian city, Putin will meet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in addition to the leaders of some of Europe's largest countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and representatives from the EU Commission and the EU Council. At the top of the agenda will be the two main sources of dispute between Russia and the European Union: Russia's natural gas supplies to Ukraine and the status of the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. The South Stream pipeline will probably be discussed as well, because the dispute over the legal aspects of the pipeline is intrinsically connected to the overall status of Russo-European relations.

The timing of the summit is also significant. Russia, Ukraine and the European Union will probably hold a new round of negotiations over the price of Russian natural gas exports to Ukraine next week. Winter is approaching, and the Europeans are growing increasingly nervous about an escalation of tensions between Moscow and Kiev, which could trigger a cutoff to European countries downstream. In recent weeks, Gazprom has delivered less natural gas than Central and Eastern Europe requested, and many European governments fear that this is only a preview of harsher measures. Ukraine will hold parliamentary elections Oct. 26, and the Ukrainian government is seeking a delicate balance between keeping a hard stance on Russia and making progress in the negotiations to secure natural gas deliveries during the winter.

Finally, with the German economy slowing down, and with large countries such as France and Italy stagnating, the European Union is counting on a de-escalation of the crisis in Ukraine so that it can progressively ease or lift its economic sanctions against Russia. While Moscow can still endure sanctions, the volatility of the ruble and the fragility of the Russian economy threaten to erode popular support for Putin. If the economic situation gets worse, it could generate political conflicts within the Kremlin.

The Milan summit will not end the standoff between Russia and the West. However, the constraints on all of the involved actors are making them increasingly interested in breaking the current stalemate between Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. They hope to find some relief, even if the crisis seems to be leading to a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine