Discover more from TL;DRussia
European diplomats and Russian anti-vaxxers find inspiration across the Atlantic, at their own peril
Guess who’s (maybe) coming to dinner!
The big news today was the surprise announcement by German and French diplomats in Brussels that Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron had invited Vladimir Putin over to play. And by surprise, I do mean genuine surprise: by all accounts, the other EU member states (with the possible exception of the Italians) had no idea this was coming. And many of them clearly wished it hadn’t been.
The idea — unsurprisingly, of course — is very much in keeping with the longstanding French and German policy of keeping channels of communication open with Moscow, a policy to which the EU, too, is broadly committed. But the timing is odd: In just the last week, the Kremlin has doubled down on its hounding of the opposition, declared an American university to be an “undesirable organization”, lobbed projectiles in the general vicinity of a British naval ship, and mounted a valiant crusade against the forces of reality in the ongoing MH17 trial in The Hague — none of which would seem to suggest “c’mon, let’s do business.”
“It makes sense to think about the added value of high-level discussions — which is exactly what the US did in … Geneva.”
It’s not really clear, though, what kind of “value” the French and Germans have in mind. As I wrote last week, the summit in Geneva was a success only because it wasn’t an abject failure, but the only thing of value it really achieved was to begin to map out a path towards designing a plan of action to begin to consider making progress towards an agenda that may or may not lead anywhere. In the scheme of US-Russian relations — and with nuclear weapons on the table — that is an achievement.
EU-Russian relations are different. For one thing, they are already much more robust than US-Russian relations: the two sides trade more, have more person-to-person interaction, and interact on everything from migration to fisheries. But for exactly that reason, EU-Russian relations are much more fraught. What the Kremlin does in Ukraine or Belarus or the South Caucasus or even at home is something the Americans have the luxury of choosing whether or not to care about. Europe doesn’t have that option: Russia can and does disrupt European security in very tangible ways and on a very regular basis. (Witness the aforementioned MH17 trial, or the recent Ryanair grounding in Belarus.)
Bringing Putin to the next EU summit, then, cannot possibly produce the kind of conversation that Putin had with Biden: there’s too much to talk about, and too little common ground on any of it. Without months and months of lower-level negotiations — including between EU member states themselves — it’s hard to see how it could be anything other than a disaster for Europe and a gift for Putin ahead of September’s Duma elections. The ECFR’s Kadri Liik summed up the point as follows, in a recent Twitter exchange with Bruno Maçães:
Or, as RUSI’s Jonathan Eyal put it (somewhat less diplomatically):
To be clear, this is not to say that Europe and Russia shouldn’t be talking. But talks, as the German and French diplomats themselves pointed out, should be effective and valuable. We’re not there yet.
Anything you can do, we can do cruder…
Meet Egor Beroev, a Russian stage and screen actor, whose life goals evidently include channeling Marjorie Taylor Greene.
A bit of backstory here: As I have written about before, the Russian government has been struggling with some of the highest levels of vaccine hesitancy in the developed world. This week, officials in Moscow decided the problem had become sufficiently acute as to warrant what amounts to a vaccine mandate. As of August 15, service-sector workers will be required to have had two doses of an approved vaccine (at this point, Sputnik-V or CoviVac) if they want to keep their job. Rules are also being put in place that would bar unvaccinated adults from visiting restaurants, cafés, hotels and other leisure facilities.
Asked whether this contradicted Putin’s earlier statements that vaccination against Covid-19 would be strictly voluntary, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied:
“All in all, vaccination actually remains voluntary. If a Muscovite is working in the service sector, he needs to get vaccinated. If he has taken the decision not to get vaccinated, then he needs to stop working in the service sector.”
According to some reports, the mandate sent many Muscovites (and others) flocking to vaccine centers. According to others, though, the lines were at least as long for Covid-19 antibody tests and PCRs, as some sought — and were willing to pay for — a way around the vaccine. (Can we please put to rest the conventional wisdom that Russians are passive and hunger for authoritarian rule?)
And so, enter Beroev, who could think of nothing better to do than to use his speech upon receiving a prestigious Teffi award to pin a yellow star on his jacket and compare the non-vaccinated to Jews in the Third Reich. And, with t-shirts like these popping up around the country, Beroev is not alone:
To be clear, Beroev didn’t come up with this on his own. For all of the Russian elite’s practiced anti-Americanism, they are very much attuned to what happens in the United States, and there is a particular affinity for the tropes of the Republican Party. Let’s play a little game, shall we? Here are two statements, one by Beroev on Tuesday, and one by Greene (no relation!) back in May. Can you tell the difference?
“Vaccinated employees get a vaccination logo just like the Nazis forced Jewish people to wear a gold star. Vaccine passports and mask mandates create discrimination against unvaxxed people who trust their immune systems to a virus that is 99% survivable.”1
“Today, I woke up in a world where this became a mark of difference — whether you are a citizen, or whether you will be stuck on a reservation, whether you can go out to venues and events, whether you can enjoy your rights and privileges. … Let’s not divide people into smart ones and dumb ones, people with Down syndrome and without Down syndrome, Whites and Blacks, Jews and non-Jews, vaccinated and unvaccinated.”2
Or how about these two? One of them is is Sergei Naryshkin — head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) — and the other is Texas Senator Ted Cruz, both describing the Biden Administration:
“These so-called paragons of liberal democracy don’t even realize that they’re turning into a liberal totalitarian regime!”3
“This is a bizarre, lunatic, totalitarian cult!”4
The affinities between the Russian ruling elite and the European and American right are, by now, well known and well documented.5 Republican talking points on Black Lives Matter and the supposed dangers of ‘Cancel Culture’ are also widely resonant in Russia today, both on television and in common conversation.
It’s worth noting, however, that the influence sometimes feels like it flows both ways. Days after Russia banned Bard from teaching its liberal arts curriculum in St. Petersburg, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to defund universities there for “liberal indoctrination.” Nothing totalitarian about that, of course.