Renzi meeting Putin: really bad for Europe?

By Hafez – 27 mars 2015

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As Italy’s PM, Matteo Renzi visited his Russian counterpart, Mr. Putin early March this year, some commentators were flabbergasted that he had had the nerve to consult the unpopular (on the international political scene that is) Russian strongman on issues such as Libya – after all, Mr. Putin already had his hands full supporting various autocratic and despotic rulers, from President Assad in Syria to Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, whose human rights abuses are now as notorious as the unflattering portrait of him in the 2010 Wikileaks scandal. Surely, Mr Renzi, the representative of a respected if cash-strapped country could not possibly display political deference in public to a man that has been somewhat ostracized by the international community and who until very recently was even rumoured to have been overthrown by Kremlin opposition. At a time when the rest of Europe is desperately trying to shown its mettle by confronting Mr. Putin over his country’s involvement in Ukraine, surely Mr. Renzi actions sap the afore-mentioned European efforts?

The Libyan chaos is a poisonous cancer that afflicts the whole region

As the Bardo museum recovers from the terrible attacks that saw two Tunisian symbols attacked (tourism, a major revenue source for the country, and the Bardo museum itself, the gatekeeper to Tunisia’s past, present and future identity) Tunisian media outlets were quick to lay the blame on the Libyan chaos occurring just across the border. True, the attackers were Tunisian, but their actions had no-doubt been facilitated by the ideological cancer now spreading visibly throughout the Middle East, baring a newly minted “Islamic State and associates” brand. For Tunisian political observers, it was evident that the country had experienced first hand the mindless butchery and intellectual hijacking that was occurring over the fence, in the neighbour’s backyard. Lest we forget, the chaos that currently grips Libya is a complex result of foreign intervention, greed and lack of back-up plans – in a land where the proclaimed government is not safe in its own parliament, small wonder that murderous thugs roam freely, dishing out warped visions of Islam in order to carve out personal fiefdoms and at last satisfy the primal wish to be a wolf to the fellow man (to paraphrase Hobbes). Italy, a country battling its own identity issues and historically and geographically close to Libya is rightly frightened of this latest turn of events. But why Russia?

Egypt is the key

As this website has previously stated, Putin’s trip to Cairo was duly noted – his wish to strengthen economic and military ties was seen as a way to alleviate some of the pressure experienced at home, as well as taunt the European and US leaders by posing with an ally that had hitherto been very westernised indeed. Whatever one’s opinions might be with regards to Al-Sisi, his geostrategic importance, already very high due to Egypt’s crucial role in the Middle East, grows each day. Indeed, whether it be with regards to Israel’s security, or the stemming of Libyan chaos to the west, without mentioning the conflicts and instability to the south, Egypt and therefore Al-Sisi involvement in Middle-Eastern politics is inevitable. Putin has very clearly understood this, and uses his timely unpopularity with Europe to open up other channels. Whether these new Russian outlets are successful is beside the point. Consulting Putin on action to be taken in Libya is now almost obligatory – firstly, a Russian veto in the UNSC could shatter any new foreign intervention in the country. Secondly, from a psychological point of view, to involve Putin is to massage his ego and more importantly, give him an opportunity to show that he too can work with the international community to resolve a Middle Eastern mess. Renzi has very evidently understood the inescapable need to involve the Russian bear in any Middle East peace process.

Europe must confront its own failures – if not a political future, build an economic giant at least

Europe’s own failures on matters of foreign policy or even economic opportunism have been harshly highlighted these last months – whether it be Syria, and the current humiliation suffered by many European governments for not seeking a more subtle exit of Assad, instead of vocally swatting away the possibility from the onset, Libya and the turn of events once the dictator overthrown, or even Iran, with the US holding a more pragmatic approach than some of the European partners, Europe’s reading of international politics is out of focus at best. Since it’s main achievement is economic, Europe must focus its energy on expanding its influence in that particular sphere – peace is therefore needed in order to be able to develop and foster new forms of softpower beyond its borders – that does not mean giving in to intimidation. It simply means being smarter and holding neighbours by their economic pips, so as to be able to gently remind them of the potential to make them squeak.

Extremism, in all its forms, is the true danger for all

Coming back to Tunisia, Italy and Russia, it is clear, whether in Europe or outside it, that extremism, in all its forms is dangerous; obsessively shunning Russia when one does not have complete control over all economic and political outcomes is dangerous. Cutting all ties to the Assad regime early on, then being forced to backtrack is dangerous and foolhardy. A gun-ho attitude in Libya without fully preparing the aftermath is dangerous. So too is any form of ideological and religious extremism. By talking to Russia, without forgetting to lay the flower wreath in front of final place where Nemtsov last drew breath, is both pragmatic and smart. Some might call it weak politics – however, it is far more subtle than that. Indeed, Putin most probably desires external recognition than internal adulation from less than recommendable characters (think Kadyrov who recently distinguished himself by staging mass protests against the Charlie Hebdo counter-demonstration in January this year). By maintaining a channel of communication with the Kremlin strongman, reasoning is still possible. As the Mongol tactics during the 13th century demonstrated, it is far better to provide the opposition with an escape route than non at all, and instead force him into stubborn resistance and confrontation till the bitter end.

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