When I visited Belgium and Spain this spring to speak at a European Parliament joint event on the U.S.-E.U. Free Trade Agreement negotiations, I wasn’t surprised that the crisis in Ukraine dominated nearly every discussion.
What’s surprising is that since returning from two weeks there, I’ve somehow met with more European diplomats here in Washington, as scores of senior delegations have been crossing the Atlantic to talk Vladmir Putin.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Latvia’s Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma, Georgia’s Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, and other high-level European leaders from Finland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria and more have collectively made the rounds at the White House, Congress, think tanks and beyond. Though opinions varied, some key messages definitely emerged.
Here are the top themes I heard:
U.S.-EU weakness has emboldened Russia – Ironically, it was Europeans who cheered the loudest in 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama campaigned in Germany as a “global citizen” and called for a “world without nuclear weapons.” Most of them now realize those utopian concepts that won him a Nobel Prize combined with his abandoned “red-lines” on Syria chemical weapons only emboldened Vladimir Putin’s power plays.
Meanwhile, the three Baltic States, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia appreciate the deployment of a few dozen U.S. fighter aircraft along with 600 paratroopers split between them and Poland — yet they understandably still worry about Russia’s long-term threat. Who can blame them? After all, Putin had no qualms putting 40,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders. He’s in it for the long haul and won’t stop being their neighbor.
Improved energy policies can lessen Putin’s power – Europeans are proud to lead the way in green energy initiatives and energy efficiency, yet understand that market-based realities still dictate heavy reliance on oil and natural gas for transportation, heating, etc. About one third of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia, and they know Putin uses energy prices as a weapon.
Russia cut off Belarus and Ukraine before, sending ripple effects throughout the region. The White House can help offset Putin’s power through expediting export licenses to ship surplus liquid natural gas abroad. Export terminals here and import terminals in Europe will take years to complete, but expediting those permits now will help grease the wheels for the massive investments required. Hungary’s Ambassador at-large for Energy Security, Dr. Anita Orbán recently met with House Speaker John Boehner and testified before the U.S. Congress on this issue.
Russia’s population decline and massive social problems are major factors in Putin’s actions - In order to more effectively deter Putin, more emphasis should be placed on understanding his endgame. One reason he’s trying to re-constitute a “greater Russia,” is because Russia is fading fast due to demographic changes stemming from the world’s highest abortion rates, divorce rates and alcoholism.
Russia has shrunk from 148-143 million people since 1994, yet Muslims areas in southern breakaway republics like Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia make up 20% of the nation’s population and are growing so fast, it could be a Muslim-majority country by 2050. It’s why he’s so desperate to “save” ethnically and religiously similar, Eastern Orthodox Christian, Russian-speakers in neighboring former Soviet republics. American Foreign Policy Council’s Ilan Berman outlines Russia’s severe internal challenges in his new book, Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America.