38

Various (western) commentators and politicians state that "the only one happy with/benefiting from [insert bad scenario here] is Putin/Russia" (I'm not sure which one(s) of the two they mean). Examples of "bad scenario here" may be a no-deal Brexit, a weak government after the Swedish elections, or just general disarray within the EU. I don't understand the reasoning. Why would Russia or Putin benefit from problems in the EU or individual EU countries? Although trade has decreased since 2012, Russia still exports a lot of raw materials to the EU. If crisis strikes the EU or individual EU countries, those exports may well drop. If not in economics, where would be the supposed benefit for Russia or Putin?

Related (opposite) question: What political benefit would there be in stronger ties with Putin and Russia?


NB: I welcome answers focussing either on Putins aims or on Russias aims.

  • 5
    "Russia still exports a lot of raw materials to the EU" - to each country in turn, not to the EU as a whole. The sum of individual trades between each country and Russia does not reflect the view/preferences of the leading EU officials – Newton fan 01 Aug 3 '18 at 13:42
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    I think this question is a specific sub to "How does a nation benefits from having their neighbors weakened even if it would affect exports?" – Mindwin Aug 3 '18 at 15:37
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    @Mindwin It may be depend on the power balance, though. Europe benefits from strong & stable & peaceful & democratic North Africa (less refugees). USA benefits from same in Mexico & Central America (similar reasons). But here, EU is more powerful than Russia. I can't immediately think of many other pairs of powers where this allegation is being commonly made. – gerrit Aug 3 '18 at 15:42
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    @Newtonfan01 You're making a distinction without a difference. One could equally well say that Russia doesn't export to EU countries, either: rather, Russian companies (some state-owned or state-controlled) export to European companies (some state-owned or state-controlled). It is clear that this was the intended meaning all along and gerrit wasn't claiming that the EU, as an institution, buys raw materials from the Russian government, as an institution. – David Richerby Aug 3 '18 at 15:54
  • 1
    For the russian strategy, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundations_of_Geopolitics , a very revealing book. – asmaier Aug 3 '18 at 16:55
17

The other answers sort of beat around the bush about Russia's motives. It is pure and simple: The Russian people feel a security threat from NATO and the EU. Because they are worried about various sorts of deprivation, they seek to defend themselves. The actions of Putin and the Russian government are generally popular with Russians.

Why on Earth would the Russian fear EU / NATO? There are a bunch of popular reasons:

  1. Memories of the food shortages and economic upheaval of the 1990s. Many people were very hungry, and many lost pensions and economic stability. These shortages are viewed by some as a direct consequence of losing the cold war against an enemy who was the aggressor.

  2. Incessant Border Wars: In the 120 years, Russia has fought a war on the vast majority of its borders. While many millions died in WWII, veterans from the hot wars in Afghanistan 1980s and China in the late 60s/early 70s are still around. And there is communal memory of the civil wars, and the great game, and conflict with Japan. I, from the United States, find if hard to know what it feels like to have a historical communal fear of invasion. It all started, really, with the Mongols and the Golden Horde.

  3. Residual Soviet propaganda: The Soviet Union was the enemy of the United States and Europe. Decades of propaganda in newsprint has left many in Russia retaining these feelings.

  4. Current propaganda: Putin, in an effort to stay in power, controls much of the press and manipulates the population that is already susceptible to #1, #2, and #3. He does this, according to a friend who is from the region, so that he can steal the wealth of the country.

  5. A vocally hostile USA: The USA, military hegemon in today's world, is vocally hostile to the Russian state. This is true in the Trump era, as well as in the Obama era. The evidence they see, in their view, is how the US plays a role in sowing discord the world over: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Koreas, Ukraine.

While each of my statements can be viewed as true or untrue depending on your political alliance, the fact is that many in Russia do feel insecure, and support the current regime for that reason.

Did I miss any reasons?

  • 8
    I would add, that it is not so much that Russia wish for a weak EU. A strong independant EU, that would not align on USA foreign policies would be great to them. It is more USA that need a EU strong enough to be useful but weak enough to be kept under control. – xrorox Aug 6 '18 at 16:31
  • 1
    Yes. Oil prices. – grovkin Aug 6 '18 at 17:25
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    I think you missed a big one. The propaganda seeks to create a common enemy for the people because that allows the current government to stay in power. Putin and the government is the one that defeats the enemies and wins wars. Even if they have to create the enemies themselves. Note that many of the border wars in the recent years were initiated by Russia, not the other way around. – Sulthan Aug 7 '18 at 12:17
  • Also, strong EU and strong European countries means countries without internal problems. If there are no internal problems, countries tend to solve problems in other countries, therefore being in conflict with Russian interests. Countries with internal problems don't have time to create influence (e.g. trade treaties) in other countries. – Sulthan Aug 7 '18 at 12:19
  • @Sulthan how is your "big one" not covered by my #4? – axsvl77 Aug 7 '18 at 16:32
50

There is currently a power-play going on between the EU and Russia concerning the political influence over the countries between them.

The most visible struggle is certainly the Ukraine conflict. But there are also other countries in the geographic region of not-quite-Europe-not-quite-Asia which are currently wondering whether they should side with Russia or with the EU. Turkey, for example, recently made some EU politicians pretty nervous by responding to criticism from the EU with showing closeness to Russia.

An EU which is weak and occupied with infighting would have difficulties exerting influence over East Europe / West Asia and make it easier for Russia to gain more influence in the region.

  • 3
    General point is correct but Turkey is the worst possible example. Turkey/EU tensions have absolutely NOTHING to do with either Russia OR for that matter internal divisions in EU. – user4012 Aug 3 '18 at 12:24
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    @user4012 I didn't claim that. I used Turkey as an example of a country where the EU and Russia are competing for influence. But if you know any better examples, please suggest them. – Philipp Aug 3 '18 at 13:08
  • 5
    Georgia too. See how Russia seized the old Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and used the precedent of Kosovo independence to weaken Georgia by recognising the independence of Abkhazia. – gerrit Aug 3 '18 at 15:22
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    @user4012 you make it look like weapon sales isn't a big point of friction... it is. – Cris Aug 3 '18 at 15:47
  • 3
    "East Europe / West Asia" ... and not forgetting the Middle East: Syria, Libya. – Nigel Touch Aug 3 '18 at 17:48
41

This is really pretty simple. Putin does not want a neighbor on his western border that is far stronger than Russia.

Russia is a country of about 140 million people, and an economy about the size of Germany's. The EU collectively contains about 500 million people, and has an economy that is more than 5 times as large.

Individually, no state in Europe is stronger, but together they would be quite capable of pushing Russia around if they felt like doing so. So from his point of view, Russia is far more powerful and secure with a weak (or better yet, dissolving) EU than with a strong one.

  • 3
    You can't compare the EU against Russia. You have to compare the EU against, at minimum, the CIS, which has a population of 282 Million. – user71659 Aug 4 '18 at 2:41
  • @user71659 - Disagree, because the question was about Putin and Russia, and for the purposes of that calculation the other independent states in CIS don't really enter the equation. If push came to shove, its possible Putin might be able to get Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to fight on his side, but they don't directly take orders from him. In the realm of international brinkmanship Putin operates in, those countries are catchers, not pitchers. – T.E.D. Aug 4 '18 at 17:52
  • 5
    Of course, comparing economies solely based on population size and basically ignoring the infrastructural challenges of a country the size of Russia compared with, say, Germany when working on the same simplified metric of e.g. GDPs is bound to be a flawed comparison. Nevertheless, in essence I feel this answer is very good, even though I would argue that the argument should not only be an economic one, but also one of general political power (even though this of course has a lot to do with underlying economical factors). – Sty Aug 4 '18 at 19:52
  • @Sty having the infrastructure difficulties that Russia has makes the point more valid, as a greater % of the GDP needs to go into it - leaving less to go into military. – UKMonkey Aug 6 '18 at 9:15
  • @Sty - I've seen interesting arguments comparing Russia's (non PPP) GDP, Development Index, Corruption Index, etc. to Mexico's with the ultimate argument being that Russia is basically Mexico with Nukes. Its a fairly convincing argument, but I think it underplay's the country's true global heft. That's why I used the much more generous PPP number for GDP. It may be an overestimate, but I think in this case that's a better choice than an underestimate would be. – T.E.D. Aug 7 '18 at 15:49
8

The conflict that Philipp emphasizes is mostly between NATO and Russia. Of course since most EU members are also NATO members, that may seem a "duh, obvious" conclusion: EU is in the same conflict with Russia as NATO is, but EU (unlike NATO's) expansionist moves in what Russia sees as its "sphere of influence" have been more limited, and vary by EU country:

The Eastern Partnership, in which partner states are meant to eventually sign a free trade agreement and a wide-ranging association agreement with the EU, was conceived of by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in 2008. It was built as an offer of closer relations with six countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—following the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. [...]

Germany’s support for the Eastern Partnership was always halfhearted at best. Merkel provided some rhetorical backing before the November 2013 Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, calling on Russia to accept Ukraine’s sovereign right to choose its alliances. But neither Berlin nor other big member-state capitals sent clear signals to the Kremlin that the EU was ready to confront Russia over the right of countries in the post-Soviet space to associate themselves more closely with the EU.

When Moscow began to put pressure on Ukraine and Moldova in summer 2013 using embargoes and bans, the EU failed to respond in a resolute way that might have convinced Russia that the union and its powerful member states were ready to make Russia pay a price for sabotaging the Eastern Partnership. When Armenia suddenly stopped its process of EU association in September 2013, apparently under pressure from Moscow, EU leaders just shrugged; no EU government made an effort to change Yerevan’s mind. And the promise of EU accession—the strongest carrot—has never explicitly been offered to Eastern Partnership states (it hasn’t been excluded either, though).

The EU has two vital interests at stake in the current conflict with Russia. First is a stable and prosperous neighborhood in the East. The second is Russia’s respect for the ultimate taboo of Europe’s peace order—the prohibition against changing borders by force. For a bloc that is founded on accords between states, upholding the rule of law in international agreements is vital. And to see a powerful country invading and annexing the territory of a weaker neighbor for Europeans brings back memories of a darker age of ruthless competition.[...]

Still, the EU remains very reluctant to move with full steam toward a confrontation with Russia, for a number of reasons: Economic ties are strong, especially in energy, finance, and the arms industry. Western European countries are less concerned about Russian aggression and want EU attention to instead move toward the Southern neighborhood. Some EU members fear being confronted with a Russia that appears to be driven more by emotion than by rational considerations. And European governments cannot ignore sections of the public that sympathize with Russian action (partly driven by values that they feel are supported by Russia, partly driven by the wish to balance U.S. influence by moving closer to Russia). [...]

In the struggle over Ukraine, both sides have lost illusions, about themselves and about the other. The EU understands now that it has to back up foreign policy with substantial power—in a world that is much less “postmodern” than Europeans have hoped for in the past, a world that still largely looks at the international system in the terms of classical power politics. It also understands that Russia is not interested in the kind of partnership Europeans—guided largely by Germans—have proposed for two decades. [...]

Russia, meanwhile, has found out that it is much less attractive to states in the neighborhood, especially in Ukraine, than it had hoped. And it has learned that when faced with a vital challenge, the EU can be a much tougher opponent than the Kremlin might have expected: EU member states, under German leadership, have managed to uphold a credible threat with massive economic sanctions for months, and they have built and upheld a common approach with the United States.

So basically Russia wants an EU that isn't strong enough to oppose it politically in a major way, especially in what it see as Russia's "sphere of influence" (mostly post-Soviet countries)... but Russia also has some conflicting interests in maintaining some EU market access etc. And EU countries also perceive this conflict. So your (gerrit) observation/assumption is basically correct: simplistic analyses that Russia automatically gains by anything going bad in the EU... are just that... simplistic analyses.

But clearly Russia has given support (even if just verbal) to European movements that seek a rapprochement (a less harder stance toward Russia), typically populist movements, e.g. the latest alliance that won power in Italy or LePen in France; Russian support for the latter was more than vebal. But regarding Brexit: it's not clear that Putin has taken a side in that (although some lesser Russian figures have), but what is more clear is that some Brexiteers (declaratively) favored better ties with Russia, well... until they came to power, anyway.

And what I said about simple analyses can probably be summarized by this snippet from the last article linked:

Moscow's Mayor Sergei Sobyanin believes Russia wins from Brexit.

"Without the UK in the EU, there will no longer be anyone so zealously standing up for sanctions against us," he tweeted.

Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the upper house of parliament's foreign affairs committee, admitted to Life TV: "Considering our difficult relations with the EU, there is a temptation to gloat over the EU's misfortunes."

But Mr Kosachev himself resisted the temptation. He pointed out that the EU remains Russia's largest trading partner.

"If the EU falls apart at the seams," he warned, "this will affect our trade relations".

4

There is a number of answers here which try to analyze this as military positioning (rather than posturing). They are all based on the pseudo-strategic world view imposed by Putin's claims. And they range from myopic to downright silly.

The truth is much simpler. It's about the same thing it was 15 years ago. It's about a better negotiating position between the industrial economies and the resource economies. Russian Federation is the strongest (militarily) resource economy. It's also the largest exporter of oil in the world. And I do mean oil. It's more known for it's gas exports, but it exports more oil than any one other country in the world.

"The West" (which essentially includes both West and East now) are the industrial economies.

Those who sell resources want to extract more value from those who transform these resources into life-enabling goods. The most obvious way to do that is by increasing prices of oil and other commodity resources.

Putin has managed to capture "The West"'s attention by the fantasies of the long-term strategic thinking while, in reality, he is just trying to create enough instability to raise short-term oil prices. Political instability always causes short-term increases in oil prices. On the other hand, short-term political instability rarely slows down technological progress. So the resource-exporting nations don't risk much by throwing this monkey wrench into the industrial machines of the world. They just create a better negotiating position.

Every move that Russia made externally was aimed at "freaking out" the industrial world. For example, Russia built 2 nuclear fission plants in Iran. Iran (which is rich in oil) would serve its energy needs much better by building gasoline refineries to enable domestic gasoline production from all the oil it exports. But the possibility of a war with Iran increases oil prices every time it gets mentioned in the news. As another example, Russia agreed to build 20 nuclear power plants in India. This would create a constant source of instability in the newly-industrialized Indian peninsula (due to tensions with Pakistan and also India's own Muslim minority). It would also increase the world-wide prices of Uranium (much of whose exports are controlled by Russia).

  • 1
    Interesting analysis, but do you have any evidence, sources to back it up? – gerrit Aug 6 '18 at 18:22
  • @gerrit, I stated some known facts and some of what is my own analysis. I haven't provided sources for the facts. How about I identify what I consider known facts (by "citation needed" link)? Or do you think that my analysis needs sources as well? Because I don't know how to source analysis without appeals to authority. – grovkin Aug 6 '18 at 20:28
2

Ironically this is actively explored in a recent Netflix drama (fiction) release, Occupied. From a review (emphasis mine)

Norway’s environmental ambitions and sudden disruption of energy supplies cause all kinds of economic problems across Europe, and one day Berg . . . finds himself kidnapped by Russian-speaking masked men. They give him an ultimatum: Allow Russia to reopen Norway’s oil and gas production or face a full-scale invasion. Berg turns to the European Union for help, and finds the EU has more or less given Russia its blessing. It becomes clear that without the United States, NATO doesn’t really function at all.

A good portion of Occupied portrays Norway’s progressive, sophisticated, well-educated political class slowly realizing that no one is coming to rescue them. Month by month, the Russians take over more and more of how the country operates, and the country’s beloved soft power is impotent in the face of hard power and military force. There are a lot of darkly funny deer-in-the-headlights moments for Norwegian Green politicians as they realize that they have no idea how to handle the kind of military crisis that they thought was left to history; meanwhile, the tough old grouch who runs the national military academy is the only guy who sees the threat clearly and is formulating a plan to deal with it.

While that's all fiction, it's not terribly far from where the geopolitical realm is right now.

The idea here is that Russia softens the EU up enough that it can act with near-impunity. That was why NATO was created: to raise the cost of Russia doing this sort of thing. Indeed, we've already seen what Russia can do without NATO to worry about. Russia has even seemed to be willing to go much further (i.e. they allegedly planned a failed coup in Montenegro) to achieve its ends. It's not hard to see where a weakened EU plays well for Russian interests.

  • 3
    Is it ironic because it apparently portrays a situation where the opposite happens — EU and Russia teaming up against Norway? It does appear very fictional, and although entertaining, I'm not convinced it is particularly informative of contemporary geopolitics. – gerrit Aug 3 '18 at 15:13
  • 2
    @gerrit I think you've misread me. The EU doesn't approve of Russia's actions in that storyline, they simply refuse to take actions to stop them. Even the US refuses to intervene, even though Russia is gaining more and more power throughout the country. This is what Russia has more or less done in eastern Ukraine (where they fomented pro-Russia sentiment and have a de-facto government) – Machavity Aug 3 '18 at 15:20
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    OK, but I still don't understand the relevance. In the storyline, the EU has "more or less given Russia its blessing". In the real world, the EU certainly hasn't in Crimea, Abkhazia, or Donbass. If Russia were planning to invade Norway (which I don't believe), then Russia would benefit from a weak NATO. Norway isn't in the EU. Russia dislikes how residents of historically close countries (like Georgia or Ukraine) prefer the EU over Russia, and may not if the EU is in disarray while Russia does well. But that situation does not apply at all in Norway, real or in the fictional storyline. – gerrit Aug 3 '18 at 15:36
  • 1
    There is an argument to be made, but I'm not convinced that a Russian invasion of Norway is at all a realistic scenario. All post-WW2 Russian and Soviet foreign interventions have been in their satellite states (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Georgia/Abkhazia, Ukraine/Crimea/Donbass) or to aid pro-Russian governments in their sphere of influence (Korea, Afghanistan, Syria). Russias behaviour has been to (aggressively) keep what it has (such as fleet access to Sevastopol) in response to external changes (Ukraine and Georgia pro-Russian governments replaced by pro-EU). – gerrit Aug 3 '18 at 17:17
  • 1
    Not terrible far for people who have been swallowing anti-russian propaganda no. Using the same logic U.S could also invade Norway as it clearly has a history of illegal unsanctioned invasions. – dan-klasson Aug 4 '18 at 7:17
-2

It's called war, where's the surprise?

Putin, unlike most other leaders, is not just an illiterate parvenu who happened to be lucky in winning an election. He is a very dangerous man who didn't become his country's leader by accident, and who is not only as unscrupulous as intelligent, but who has demonstrably read and understood Sunzi's works as well as Jia Lin's comments. He has been acting accordingly, and successfully, for decades. The particular strategy of splitting the enemy into fractions is described in chapter VI.

A similar strategy was successfully applied by Gaius Julius Caesar ("divide et impera"), although Sunzi's work is a much more exhaustive blueprint to the entirety of things that happened and happen.

  • Are you saying Putin is aiming to split the EU and/or NATO because Russia is planning World War III? – gerrit Aug 6 '18 at 10:01
  • @gerrit a "hot war" usually only happens when somebody did not reached his aims by other means. No sane leader wants a war when he can have the desired results without bloodshed – Martin Aug 6 '18 at 10:48
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    @Myself Splitting the enemy into fractions is a successful strategy to win a "hot war", or indeed perfectly democratic elections (in particular in first-past-the-post systems). It is a means to achieve a certain aim. The question is: What is Russias or Putins aim here? – gerrit Aug 6 '18 at 10:52
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    @gerrit I got it that the aims are the point of the question here. In my understand your comment indicated that a "hot war" is the only possible reason for an "divide et impera" strategy. I just wanted to point out that the term "war" in the above post could also indicate something as a "cold war", without WW3 as a planned future – Martin Aug 6 '18 at 10:57
  • 1
    Please note that we try to maintain a neutral point of view on politics.SE. Answers should not be unnecessarily one-sided. And if they contain allegations, they should at least be objectively sourced. – Philipp Aug 6 '18 at 11:08

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