Europe's unlikely attempt to renew a "partnership" with Russia

Posted in Russia , Europe , United States | 22-Apr-08 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

PARIS: There is no New Cold War, the world keeps getting told, and that's nice news.

Still and all, on May 5, four French Mirage 2000 interceptors will move to Iceland with a mission to meet and not-quite-greet Russian bombers penetrating the neighborhood airspace. France, which is deploying the jets until late June, is the first country to send combat aircraft to the Iceland Air Policing Area under a rotating NATO plan that will involve the United States, Denmark, Poland and Spain in the next two years.

The Russian bombers, whose most recent appearance near Iceland dates from March 19, fly some of the same routes that Soviet aircraft did in the bad old days when they made regular (and presumably nuclear-armed) runs over the North Atlantic.

Bjorn Bjarnason, the Icelandic justice minister, who doubles as the man in charge of the country's defenses - Iceland is the only NATO member without armed forces - tells of the Russian ambassador to Reykjavik's being asked to explain the purpose of the current flights (13 all told since late 2006).

The response was Russia Resurgent to the core: Get used to them. Then, Bjarnason said, the ambassador directed his hosts to read a related statement made in August by Vladimir Putin. End discussion.

There are some exceptional ironies here.

The first is that the U.S. Air Force, thinking it had better things to do in a notionally changed world (and ignoring Russia's drive for influence and energy in the High North), departed its Keflavik base, fighter-interceptors in tow, 18 months ago, ending a continuous presence since World War II.

The second irony is more excruciating.

Just as French interceptors arrive to signal, in midair if necessary, that Russian bombers are not pals enough to enter NATO defense areas unannounced, the European Union plans to reopen talks on its dormant "partnership" agreement with Russia.

France, which takes over the rotating EU presidency in July, could be essential in carrying the ball.

Ah, partnership. The grand notion was this: With Dmitri Medvedev taking office as president of Russia on May 7, what better chance to put a new shine on EU-Russian relations? No more opportune time than now to disregard an election called disreputable by international observers, and Putin's missile threats and energy extortion aimed at the smaller EU/NATO member states of Eastern Europe.

But Putin carries on like the boss, asserting his pre-eminence as prime-minister-to-be by getting himself elected last week as president of the official government political party. The move did not fit the EU "partnership" game plan based on the argument/notion/wish that a non-subordinate Medvedev could be a liberal - remember Yuri Andropov, billed as the "liberal" Soviet leader who loved Scotch and jazz? - ready for reason and business.

There was even a here's-how-to-win-friends prompt whispered into Russian ears: Have Medvedev ratify reform of the European Human Rights agreement, ending Moscow's rejection of changes that would simplify the work of the European human rights court.

Sly subtext: If Medvedev accepted the idea, it would hardly shake the state of non-rule-of-law in Russia, because the court's 47 judges are now sitting on a pile of 100,000 unresolved cases.

But reality is elsewhere. It says a "partnership" accord will not make it past EU countries like Lithuania or Poland without a tough energy charter that provides rules that would make Russia more hesitant to intimidate its neighbors with cutoffs in gas or oil supply.

That's a beautiful dream.

As things stand, the Swedish Defense Research Agency says there were 55 politically linked energy supply stoppages by Russia from 1992 to 2006. The Estonian government counted 41 occasions last year when Russia tied political demands to energy deliveries to other countries.

Of course, there is no New Cold War, and that is fine. The problem is that what has replaced it, while no replica, feels familiar.

That was a handsome, unique photo on front pages last week of a pregnant Carme Chacón, the Spanish defense minister, passing troops in review.

There was also, if you read the German papers, a hallucinatory one from The Associated Press: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in disguise, wearing a scarlet Boston Red Sox warm-up jacket and throwing out a first pitch at Fenway Park.

Steinmeier is a potential chancellor candidate for the Social Democratic Party in the German elections next year. He has continuously tried to distinguish himself over the past two and a half years by an arm's-length attitude towards America.

In Boston, beyond the baseball pose, Steinmeier got swallowed up in a classic kind of foreign-pol-on-the-loose disingenuousness. He dissed a Harvard audience by saying that the United States is Germany's essential ally, which sounds precisely the opposite of the equidistant position between America and Russia he advocated for Europe in a speech to Social Democrats in Berlin last month.

The assumption was that the American dummies would never notice. The same way that no one outside of Germany - like Hillary Clinton or John McCain - will have read that this subtle friend of America began his talk in Cambridge with Barack Obama's phrase, "Yes, we can."

Or that like any American pol hoping to get his picture in the paper, Steinmeier got back on his plane before the Sox game was anywhere near over.

Once elected prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi invited Vladimir Putin to be his first foreign guest - no big deal, really, because Berlusconi's overwhelming sense of self-interest insulates Italy from any and all illusions.

Actually, in taking over from a paralytic left-wing coalition, Berlusconi may send an additional Italian brigade to Afghanistan and make its rules for engagement more supple. In exchange for a greater Italian role in European discussions with Iran on its nuclear ambitions, he might even be persuaded to have Italy, Iran's second biggest European trade partner, join in ad hoc Western sanctions against the mullahs that would skirt Russian and Chinese resistance.

Talking about this possibility, a former Italian official told me it ignored the fact that Italy had two foreign policies. One, he said, involved the government, and the other ENI, the Italian energy giant heavily involved in Iran. In the case of a difference of opinion, he said, he could not remember ENI losing.