””

News analysis

Putin dangles olive branch and wields sword in Europe policy

Russia woos Hungary while continuing to test the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected in the Hungarian capital of Budapest today for his first overseas trip since the inauguration of Mr Donald Trump as United States president.

Mr Putin's visit will be keenly watched by European governments for any signs that the Russian leader may be prepared to tone down his anti-Western rhetoric, in pursuit of a more friendly relationship with the Trump White House and its European allies.

But for the moment, all indicators are in precisely the opposite direction: Far from proving more malleable, Mr Putin appears to have authorised Russian-supported rebels in Ukraine to intensify their fight against Ukrainian government forces, while Russian intelligence officers continue to be accused of hostile actions, such as hacking into European government computer servers.

President Putin's choice of Hungary for his first visit this year is not surprising, for Hungary has long been one of Russia's best friends in Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-wing nationalist politician frequently at loggerheads with his European Union colleagues, has always opposed the sanctions which the EU, together with the US, imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Since then, the Hungarian and Russian leaders have hosted each other for three bilateral meetings in as many years, a record no other European country holds. And during the preparations for President Putin's arrival in Budapest today, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto publicly dismissed the EU economic measures against Russia as "ineffective and harmful".

The military clashes in Ukraine allow the Russian leader to test Western resolve, and particularly President Trump's response, at little risk to Russia itself. Meanwhile the trip to Hungary offers Mr Putin the chance to remind Europe and the US that it has a way out of the current confrontation. The olive branch and the sword are now both part of Russia's policy.

President Putin is dangling some juicy economic cooperation projects, including the expansion of a nuclear power plant which a Russian state-owned company has pledged to construct on very soft financial terms, and a contract to deliver Russian gas to Hungary on preferential rates.

The speculation among commentators is that, in return for such concessions, Mr Putin will expect Mr Orban to veto the renewal of the sanctions on Russia, when the topic comes up for discussion before the EU heads of government in June. The decision must be taken by a unanimity of member-states.

Hungary has toyed with imposing such a veto before, yet recoiled from making that choice for fear of isolation. But with Mr Trump pledging to lift America's own sanctions on Russia, Mr Orban may well be emboldened to do the same in Europe.

Mr Putin may also be tempted to use the Hungarians as an indirect channel of communication with Washington. Mr Orban is an enthusiastic Trump supporter; he predicted Mr Trump's electoral victory early last year, and feels vindicated that the man he regards as a friend and soulmate is now in charge of the White House.

While President Putin will be making friendly noises in Budapest today, tensions between Russia and other European countries are rising. Ukraine is witnessing a huge spike in bloody clashes; at least 10 Ukrainian soldiers and as many civilians were killed in skirmishes between Ukrainian government troops and Russian-backed separatists. There are indications that the fighting is intensifying, with reports of tank movements on both sides yesterday.

The bloodshed is unusual at this time of the year, with most of Ukraine frozen in the depths of winter. But there is no question that the rebels would not have launched an offensive against government forces unless they had the tacit backing of President Putin, who no longer even bothers to deny that Russian troops are on Ukraine's soil.

Meanwhile, other European states report no let-up in what they allege are Russian efforts to undermine their governments. A top European official told an audience in the European Parliament earlier this week that in its effort to destabilise the EU, Russian propaganda is focusing on discrediting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful advocate of continued sanctions against Russia.

And the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic announced on Tuesday that it has suffered a "highly sophisticated" cyber attack whose methods "very much resembled attacks against the Internet system of the Democratic Party in the US" - the reference to Russia is obvious.

Mr Putin's preferred strategy is to sound conciliatory while at the same time continue to act in a confrontational manner. The military clashes in Ukraine allow the Russian leader to test Western resolve, and particularly President Trump's response, at little risk to Russia itself.

Meanwhile, the trip to Hungary offers Mr Putin the chance to remind Europe and the US that it has a way out of the current confrontation.

The olive branch and the sword are now both part of Russia's policy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2017, with the headline 'Putin dangles olive branch and wields sword in Europe policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe