The PRISM Scandal, the Kremlin, and the Eurasian Union
The PRISM scandal should serve as a wake-up call for Europe and the US to pay attention to the new geopolitical fault lines in Europe, as the scandal has diminished US soft power, deepened the crisis of confidence between the EU and US, and offered Putin a new opportunity. Putin is poised to launch his project of a Eurasian Union, which would seek to expand Russian influence into the "weak Orthodox underbelly" of Europe and directly compete with the EU.
The PRISM scandal was an unexpected, but welcomed present for Russian President Vladimir Putin, for four reasons:
- The scandal caused a decline in American soft power. After the presidency of George W. Bush, Barack Obama incarnated the promise of a new, value-oriented America, a promise for which he received – rather prematurely – the Nobel Peace Prize. Five years later, the PRISM affair has dealt a heavy blow to Obama's – and America's – reputation, which was already dented by the unresolved question of the Guantanamo detainees and Obama's secret drone war.
- The PRISM scandal had a negative effect on the transatlantic relationship. It differed in this respect from the Watergate scandal: in the latter case it was Americans, not Europeans, who were the victims of illegal spying activities. For Europeans the news that the US was tapping telephones, bugging buildings, and hacking computers – not of its traditional "usual suspects," but of its European friends and allies – came as a bad surprise.
- This scandal came on top of an already existing transatlantic estrangement which runs far deeper than a momentary dip that could easily be repaired. It is a symptom of a crisis of confidence between the transatlantic partners, which finds an expression in US criticism of Europe's low defense expenditures, and in European fears that Obama's "Asian pivot" means that the US is turning its attention away from Europe.
- Not to be neglected is the fact that the scandal has opened an unexpected window of opportunity for Mr. Putin. Not only has the affair offered him a unique chance to pose as a principled defender of privacy and free information, but the transatlantic estrangement will help him realize his pet project: the establishment of a "Eurasian Union."
This project, presented by him in an Izvestia article in November 2011, is the most important geostrategic project Russia has been engaged in since the demise of the Soviet Union. It would expand the existing Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, further into the former Soviet space. On the surface it looks like an innocent copy of the European Union, however, it is infact a neo-imperial project with one overriding goal: to bring Ukraine definitively back into the Russian orbit. Its final objectives are even more ambitious, as according to Igor Panarin, former Dean of the Russian Diplomatic Academy, the Eurasian Union should have four capitals: St. Petersburg, Almaty, Kiev, and Belgrade. In addition to Ukraine, Serbia, Montenegro, and Moldova are also designated by him as future members. The Eurasian Union is, therefore, in direct competition with the EU.
This ambitious project seeks to expand Russian influence into the "weak Orthodox underbelly" of Europe. Fitting into this scheme are the recent Russian overtures made to Cyprus with the aim of opening a naval base on the island – which would compensate for the eventual loss of the Russian naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus.
At a moment in which a heavily rearming Russia plays a "Great Game" in the former Soviet space, the European Union is in a dire state. Inward-looking and in a never-ending crisis, the EU looks like a rudderless ship, with the French lacking clear ideas, the British menacing to leave the boat, and the Germans attacked everywhere for their supposed arrogance. The EU, wrongly considered a space in which a Kantian "eternal peace" has been realized, rather finds itself increasingly on the fault line of a new East-West competition.
The PRISM scandal, which diminishes US soft power, deepens the crisis of confidence between Europeans and Americans, and offers Mr. Putin new opportunities, is therefore an unwelcomed surprise, for some involved. Europeans and Americans should sit around the table – not only to build a free trade area, but also to face the new geopolitical challenges in Europe.
Marcel H. Van Herpen is director of the Cicero Foundation, a pro-EU think tank. He is the author of Putinism – The Slow Rise of a Radical Right Regime in Russia (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan), 2013.
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