Putinversteher, or folk who understand Putin, has become the new Germanism to enter the English language, as chronicled by NY Times globalist Roger Cohen. It accurately describes the Zeitgeist of a surprisingly large and wide political swath from the extreme left to the extreme right in Europe.
Russia has of course always held a certain attraction for the extreme left. More surprising at first sight is the new affinity for Moscow from the nationalist right in many European countries. But then, Putin's profile as authoritarian fighter for past national glory and strongman standing up for traditional values, as opposed to those of a depraved West, fits right into their stereotypes.
The worst among them and so far the only one officially in power is Hungary's PM Victor Orban. On occasion of a recent US Senate confirmation for a blatantly unsuited American ambassador in Budapest, John McCain described Orban as a neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Putin. He might have put it a bit bluntly, but his sentiments are widely shared in Europe, including by the Hungarian opposition.
The first family of the French nationalist right, the Le Pens, benefit openly from Russian financial largesse. Both dad and National Front founder Jean-Marie, through a personal loan from a Russian-held Cypriot bank, as well as the party led by daughter Marine le Pen, through a direct loan from a bank in Russia, finance their politics with Russian money.
More ominous are appeals recently issued by respected personalities who see a need for a 'more balanced treatment of Russia, and Putin, by politicians and the media', among them three former Chancellors (Kohl, Schröder, Schmidt), a former president (Roman Herzog), prominent German actors (Mario Adorf, Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Maria Brandauer) and internationally known film director Wim Wenders.
A colleague and friend of mine at the University of St Gallen, who grew up in the GDR, sees here a fatal mix of senility (Schmidt,Kohl) and nostalgia at work. Nostalgia for the time right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also the successful 'Ostpolitik' by West Germany of the 1970s and 80s.
This appeal has already been countered by a forceful statement from over 100 eastern Europe and Russia experts in German media and universities (no English version available) who call for 'a German policy in eastern Europe based on realities. Moscow is the aggressor in the Ukraine. We cannot sacrifice the territorial integrity of the Ukraine'. This second appeal is much closer to official German policy as represented by recent unambiguous statements from Angela Merkel, who said Putin was 'creating problems' not only in the Ukraine but also in Moldova and Georgia, and trying to make some Balkan states 'politically and economically dependent'.
Whatever one might call the present state of affairs between Russia and Europe, what is clearly on is an information war. Like in the bad old times, Putin's Russia is directing a concentrated effort at the West 'to confuse, divert and divide', as a recent NATO statement had it.
Matthew Sussex recently argued here on The Interpreter that 'it is time for the West to re-evaluate its whole approach to Russia'. It is difficult to disagree with his diagnosis that Putin's Russia is drifting away from the West and into China's open arms. However, Susex's recipe to prevent this just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. 'Dropping the West's dogmatic focus on norms and liberties – much as did Bill Clinton with the PRC'? Russia, as opposed to the international outcast China, is member to a multitude of treaties and obligations that Putin is trampling underfoot, such as the CSCE/OSCE Helsinki framework. It is simply not possible to let Putin get away with flagrant violation of norms that have been at the core of the new Europe since 1990.
Incidentally, the OSCE has a new lease of life, as the only security organisation where all parties to the Ukraine crisis are assembled around the same table and bound by the same obligations. If not for the OSCE, there would not have been a Minsk peace agreement or observers to officially monitor the constant influx of Russian arms and men into the eastern Ukraine.
This might be the time also for Australia, formally an Asian cooperation partner of the OSCE, to have a more serious look at the Helsinki process and its underlying structure. Not only is the OSCE one of the few instruments potentially apt to calm the explosive situation caused by Russian aggression in Europe, it also might provide some useful tools and lessons for a still largely absent security structure in the Indo-Pacific.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.