Europe was sharply divided in its reactions to Vladimir Putin’s election for a fourth term with some politicians seeing it as necessary to reach out to repair a difficult relationship, with others arguing Russia under Putin had irreversibly turned away not just from western liberal values but international norms. For a third group – the new rightwing populists in Europe – Putin’s victory was a matter of straightforward rejoicing.
Outside Europe, in countries as far apart as China, Venezuela Iran and Japan, elected leaders did not hold back from sending formal congratulations, or sending promises to work alongside Moscow. But in much of Europe the reaction was less straightforward.
The conflict in mainstream European politicians was epitomised by a meeting on Monday between the Polish government – the arch Russian critics inside the EU – and Angela Merkel, the European leader who has expended most energy to try to form a working relationship with Putin.
The Polish deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymański, called on Germany to cancel the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is due to send Russian gas through the Baltic Sea, into Germany and Europe.
Merkel’s allies politely declined the request, pointing out the $11bn, (£7.8bn) 760 mile (1,225km) pipeline is a private sector enterprise, and no legal grounds exist to to stop the project. Her aides instead expressed the hope that Putin in his fourth and final term would seek cooperation on Ukraine, the single biggest reason for sanctions.
Merkel is to congratulate Putin on his re-election as president, as tradition dictates, but will include cautionary advice about the “challenges” in German-Russian relations in her message, her spokesman said.
Opinion polls in Germany show strong support for a new dialogue with Russia, especially among supporters of the rightwing AfD.
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, questioned the validity of the election result, which he said was difficult to see as fair. He said he expected Russia to remain a difficult partner. He said he regretted that Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine four years ago, was also included in the election, calling the situation “unacceptable”.
Interviewed in Bild, the German defence minister, Ursula Van der Leyen, played a balancing act, saying Putin was no longer a partner, but counselled against installing red lines.
The former SDP foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel thinks sanctions should be lifted and the EU should take up Putin’s offer to allow UN peacekeepers into Ukraine, even though the mandate and scope of is unclear. “We must adopt an attitude that we are never naive, but not too afraid to offer the partner again dialogue, arms control, disarmament readiness. The voice of Germany must always be the voice of reason.”
But the EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, who visited Ukraine last week, insisted no relaxation of sanctions was possible.
In France, the attitudes are equally ambivalent. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, the man who frustrated Putin by turning the populist tide running against EU last year, after his election extended an open hand to Putin affording him a summit in Versailles.
But since then Macron’s frustration with Putin’s refusal to put pressure on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has led to a cooling of attitudes. Macron has made the use of chemical weapons by a nation state a red line in terms of upholding international law. But short of practical, or reliable US military support for action over the use of chemical weapoms, Macron has seen Assad kick over his red lines, largely with Russian protection at the UN. It has led to rare stinging criticism of Macron from his predecessor, François Hollande, for failing to enforce the threats.
Commerce also plays a role. Macron is due to take a large business delegation to St Petersburg in May, as well as hold meetings with Putin in Moscow. Across the intellectual right in France there is a strong current that argues Russia historically deserves greater respect, and if shown that respect, will respond.
But the biggest change in Europan politics has come from Italy, with the electoral success of the openly pro-Kremlin Northern League and 5 Star Movement. The League has formally joined a political alliance with Putin’s United Russia and its leader, Matteo Salvini, has been photographed in Red Square wearing a Putin T-shirt, M5S members have praised Moscow’s military intervention in Syria to prop up Assad and railed against Nato, blaming it for fomenting Ukraine’s Maidan protests that ousted Moscow ally Viktor Yanukovych. M5S has also called for lifting EU sanctions on Russia.
The greatest opposition to Putin, outside the EU, came from central European states on the front line with Russia. The Georgian president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, was the most optimistic about a watershed change of mood towards Russia. He said: “There is a ‘now moment’ in the United States; there is a ‘now moment’ in London; there is a ‘now moment’ in Brussels … a moment of comprehension of the [threats] to security for all nations that are challenged by Russia.”