Anastasiya Shapochkina is a lecturer at Sciences Po on EU and Russia and a specialist of energy geopolitics.
August is a vacation month in Europe, but not for the Kremlin. The meeting between Putin and Merkel on August 18-19 in the German town of Gratz near Berlin did not bring groundbreaking results. But it symbolized a divided West, and thus marked one more score in Putin’s favor. Moscow managed to draw a wedge among different western countries on all three items on the meeting’s agenda: Syria, Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, and Ukraine.
On Syria, the meeting served as a preparation to a larger summit in September, organized by Turkey, Russia’s closest NATO ally. Erdogan has invited three other heads of state: Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and Emmanuel Macron. This leaves a missing chair for Donald Trump, despite a notable American involvement in Syria, incomparable to that of Germany, for example. The fact that a high-level summit including Western leaders and Russia on an important conflict for the US will take place without American presence marks a diplomatic victory for the Kremlin and underlines the rift between Washington and the European capitals.
This rift is even more pronounced when it comes to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project – the second agenda item of the Putin-Merkel August meeting. Russia and Germany both have a vested interest in the project, which the Trump administration perceives as a way to make Europe and its key member states, like Germany, more dependent on Russia for energy security, growing Moscow influence on the continent. This perception is shared by Central European and Baltic states, muddling waters not only across the Atlantic, but also within the EU. Finally, Nord Stream 2 represents a controversy between the German business and geopolitical interests. While the pipeline would benefit German investors, such as the petrochemical company Winterschall, it hurts state geopolitical interests, compromising Berlin’s projection of itself as a leader of a “united” Europe.
The most unexpected source of tensions inside the Union was a private event right before the summit: Putin appeared at the wedding of the Austrian foreign affairs minister Karin Kneissl, drawing criticism from Western media and political leaders, and causing a panic attack in Kyiv. The Freedom Party, which proposed Kneissl, and independent, to the ministerial post, is Putin’s outspoken supporter. It approves the annexation of the Crimea and is calling for lifting of the sanctions from Russia. But it is only one party among others. A personal invitation however by Austria’s foreign affairs minister of Russia’s head of state to her wedding becomes a political gesture, joining Austria to a handful of other EU members breaking ranks and showing a weakness for Putin. All this during Austria’s rotating presidency of the EU. To add insult to injury, the Russian president arrived with a peculiar present: a performance by a Russian Cossack company, of the same type as the Cossacks used by the Kremlin to scatter civic protest demonstrations by hitting protesters with whips. While civic protest is on the rise in Russia over the controversial pensions reform, the Cossacks may be called home soon.
Unlike in Europe, August has been the time of dramatic events more than once in Russia’s recent history: think of the putch of 1991, or the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000. When a European wedding season begets a Russian geopolitical victory, we know that weddings have become too expensive.