One principle ought to be bred in the bone of any European after the carnage of the 20th century: that no act of state bears such ominous consequences as changing a border by force. Plenty of passionate voices said as much after Russian troops rolled into Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia on Aug. 8. On the night of Aug. 12, a day when Russian planes dropped cluster bombs on the town of Gori, the Presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine took the stage in front of the Georgian parliament building beside Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. "Everyone who believes in democracy says today, 'I am Georgian!' " said Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. His Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski, railed against Russia: "Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the next day perhaps my country!"
Stirring words are the easy part, of course. The question that the leaders of the 27 member states of the European Union had to address as they gathered in Brussels on Sept. 1 was whether words would be enough to answer its giant and unapologetically bellicose neighbor to the east. The meeting was only the third such emergency summit that E.U. leaders have held. The first came after the Sept. 11 attacks; the second, riven with discord, convened in the run-up to the Iraq war. This conclave is as unlikely to enter the hit parade of diplomatic history as the first two. The leaders condemned Russia's unilateral recognition of South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia, and called for Russian forces to be withdrawn "to the lines held prior to the outbreak of hostilities." Until that happens, they said, the E.U. would postpone further negotiations on a new trade agreement between itself and Russia. They also committed to deploy as many as 200 civilian observers to monitor the imperfect cease-fire French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered with Moscow a few days into the fighting.
Sure, this was a principled restatement of the E.U.'s belief in the rule of law. But more than anything it was a sobering reminder of how little the European Union can do to enforce its wishes against an unreasonable and powerful adversary, and a far cry from the "root and branch" review of Europe's relations with Russia that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had called for on the eve of the summit.
Which should surprise absolutely no one. Europe has more than august principles to worry about in its clash with Russia. For all the intense memories in the Soviet Union's former vassal states, and the Churchillian traditions and electoral concerns that motivate Brown's tougher line, there are also a few hard truths to factor into a common response to Russia. Most vitally, Europe has a deep dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. Its citizens, moreover, are concerned that Europe should not contribute to what German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called a "spiral of provocations" that could lead to a conflict far beyond Europe's capacity. And while it's hardly an end in itself, European consensus is essential in the face of Russia's growing ambition.
The Flow of Power
Nowhere do those moderating considerations weigh more heavily than in Germany, which buys about a third of its oil and some 40% of its gas supplies from Russia. There's no straight concordance between energy dependency and forbearance toward Russia. Poland and the Baltic states, which pushed for a tougher line against Moscow, would freeze without Russian natural gas and oil and indeed, Lithuania, Ukraine and the Czech Republic have all seen the spigot closed on deliveries from Russia in recent years. But German politicians, particularly many in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) the junior member of Christian Democratic (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition have long felt a special responsibility for keeping a line open to Moscow, from Willy Brandt's Nobel Prize-winning Ostpolitik in the 1970s to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's much criticized acceptance, at the nomination of Russian gas giant Gazprom, of a key post on a pipeline project he had backed while in office.
Eckart von Klaeden, foreign-policy spokesman for Merkel's conservative bloc in parliament, acknowledges that the pressure to go easy on Russia comes not just from the left, but from his German business constituents as well. Germany contributes nearly 40% of total E.U. investment in Russia. "I can understand how they feel their business is threatened," says Von Klaeden. "But they also say that politics should remain in the political sphere and that the two sides should never mix."
Alexander Rahr, a Russian expert at Germany's Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that the business lobby played a large role in Merkel's "dramatic" climbdown from her outright endorsement of Georgia's NATO membership in Tbilisi last month to her softer stance in Brussels. John Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who is now the chairman of the German unit of investment bank Lazard, says that while he opposes sanctions himself, Germany's tolerant attitude toward Russia goes even deeper. "Germans are very, very ready to take the Russians' side," he says. "This crisis will make the appeasers even more appeasing than they have been until now."
The question of appeasement has long been barbed and dangerous in European history. Taking its measure became a major source of tension between old Europe and new Europe, to use the notorious nomenclature coined by former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during Europe's last big foreign-policy dilemma, over Iraq. This time, though, Europe was able to agree in a matter of four hours on a unified response to a direct and threatening neighbor.