The freedom and wealth of the EU threaten Putin as much as NATO does

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with young award-winning culture professionals via videoconference in Moscow on March 25.Mikhail Klimentyev/The Associated Press

The belief in the West is that Russian President Vladimir Putin gets agitated more by former Soviet republics joining NATO than by their becoming members of the European Union, though they sometimes join both. He has certainly given that impression, often describing their embrace of the military alliance as an existential threat to Russia.

But that belief may be wrong. He must abhor and fear the very principles the EU stands for: freedom, democracy and the right of sovereign states to determine their destinies. They are alien concepts in his own country.

And one other feature that evidently comes with EU membership – rising wealth – must frighten him too.

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Mr. Putin has made his hatred of NATO expansion clear. He did so at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, when the alliance indicated Ukraine and Georgia would be invited to join, though no timeline was set. He told the delegates that Ukraine’s membership “would be a hostile act toward Russia.”

Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia and seized its South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, which represent 20 per cent of the country’s land mass. Six years after that, Russia annexed Crimea. Last month, Mr. Putin launched a full invasion of the rest of Ukraine. Georgia and Moldova think they are next in line for the Kremlin’s “special military operation” treatment.

For Mr. Putin, the EU seemed a different matter – not so much threat as opportunity. In 2003, in an interview with the Italian media just before the Russia-EU summit (yes, they held such events not long ago), Mr. Putin said: “For us, Europe is a major trade and economic partner and our natural, most important, partner, including in the political sphere. Russia is not located on the American continent, after all, but in Europe.”

We now know his comments were designed to lull Europe into complacency. With the help of folding European leaders, especially German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his successor, Angela Merkel, Russia was able to turn Germany and the rest of Europe into its biggest oil and natural gas client, earning vast fortunes for the Russian treasury, the Kremlin -controlled energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft and the usual gaggle of kleptomaniacal oligarchs.

In time, 40 per cent of Europe’s gas imports and a quarter of its oil would come from Russia. Germany, the EU’s largest economy, became a virtual slave to Russian oil and gas and endorsed a Gazprom pipeline-building spree to ensure Russian supplies would keep growing. Germany was so confident of cheap, plentiful, reliable Russian energy that it announced in 2011 it would shut down its entire nuclear generating fleet over the course of a decade.

For Russia, the European energy partnership worked brilliantly – until it invaded Ukraine. Today, every EU country is trying to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. The process will take years but it will happen.

But Mr. Putin’s affection for the EU as a paying client did not mean he had affection for its political and economic successes – far from it. There was a time when post-Soviet Russia sought closer ties, even integration, into the European project. That vision began to end with Mr. Putin’s rise to power in 1999.

At the time, many former Soviet countries were eager to join the EU and were reorienting their economic and political systems toward it – that is, away from the Russian model. They were attracted by the EU’s civil liberties, rule of law and the new-found wealth that would come from joining the world’s largest trading bloc and tapping into the Brussels wealth-transfer machine. That machine acted as another Marshall Plan, delivering billions of euros in structural funds from wealthy to not-so-wealthy EU members.

Mr. Putin must have been worried that EU contagion would spread to Russia, challenging his increasingly autocratic system of governance. The Polish example must have especially alarmed him.

Before it joined the EU in 2004, Poland was relatively poor, struggling with terrible infrastructure and shabby technology and had an insular outlook. Most Poles did not travel. The country’s transformation after it joined was astonishing. The EU’s structural funds came pouring in, roads, schools, sewage-treatment plants and other bits of infrastructure were rebuilt, trade flourished and the wealth curve went nearly vertical. By 2018, Poland’s GDP per capita was more than 80 per cent higher than in 2003, and its economy expanded even during the financial crisis years.

To somewhat lesser but still impressive degrees, the other former Soviet republics that joined the EU that same year – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia – underwent near-miraculous economic transformations too. At the same time, they all distanced themselves from Russia, none more than Poland, which would emerge among the leading advocates for hitting Russia hard with sanctions after it invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 and did not shy away from telling Germany that its reliance on Russian gas was a dangerous security threat (Germany actually listened and, just before the invasion, stopped the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia).

No wonder Mr. Putin was rather horrified by Ukraine’s desire, first expressed way back in 1993, to join the EU. He felt the same about Georgia’s goal of joining the EU (and NATO), which is actually written into the country’s constitution. While it has become fashionable to argue Mr. Putin fears former Soviet states joining NATO more than seeing them join the EU, both represent threats to his increasingly repressive doctrine. He could barely hide his glee when Brexit happened.

Of course, Mr. Putin’s disdain for NATO and the EU has backfired massively – he has reinvigorated both. The EU feels more united and sure about the European project than ever. Even Germany, which had forged strong economic ties to Russia and always maintained cordial relations with Mr. Putin, has turned on Moscow, to the point that it is supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine, ramping up its NATO spending and cutting trade ties with Russia.

Yes, the EU contagion has spread, and will keep spreading, leaving Russia isolated and equipped with an economic and political model that is admired only by a few autocracies.

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