Putin is weak. Europe doesn’t have to be.

tags: Russia, Putin

Walter Russell Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College, a Distinguished Fellow in American Strategy and Statesmanship at the Hudson Institute, and The Wall Street Journal's Global View columnist. 

We hear too much about Vladimir Putin these days and not nearly enough about the actual forces reshaping the world. Yes, the Russian president has proved a brilliant tactician. And, President Trump’s fantasies aside, he is a ruthless enemy of American power and European coherence. Yet Russia remains a byword for backwardness and corruption. Its gross domestic product is less than 10% that of the U.S. or the European Union. With a declining population and a fundamentally adverse geopolitical situation, the Russian Federation remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. 

Add up the consequences of Mr. Putin’s troops, nukes, disinformation campaigns, financial aid to populist parties—and throw in the power of his authoritarian example. Russia still does not have the ability to roll back the post-1990 democratic revolution, overpower the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or dissolve the EU.

The West is in crisis because of European weakness, not Russian strength. Some of the Continent’s difficulties are well known. France foolishly imagined the euro would contain the rise of a newly united Germany after the Cold War. In fact it has propelled Germany’s unprecedented economic rise while driving a wedge between Europe’s indebted South and creditor North. The Continent’s so-called migration policy is a humanitarian and a political disaster. Berlin’s feckless approach to security has left Europe’s most important power a geopolitical midget, lecturing sanctimoniously while others shape the world. Meanwhile the EU’s Byzantine government machinery grinds at an ever slower pace, creating openings for Mr. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Europe’s weakness invites authoritarian assertion in the borderlands.

Another failure of equal consequence still is not widely understood: the failure to integrate the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into Western prosperity and institutional life. The world’s 10 fastest-shrinking countries are all in Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. All expect to see their populations shrink at least 15% by 2050.

For the enterprising and mobile, there is good news; between three million and five million Romanians live and work in other EU countries, enjoying opportunities they could not find at home. But for those who cannot or do not wish to move on, life can be hard. Almost 30 full years after the fall of communism, more than one-fourth of Romanians live on less than $5.50 a day. Across Romania, less than half of households have an internet connection, and only 52% have a computer. ...

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