It would be nice to think that the harassment of the British Council by the Russian authorities would prompt a united, imaginative European response. Perhaps in a parallel universe it is. Imagine Germany's Goethe Institute, the Spanish Instituto Cervantes, the Institut Français and other Western cultural-diplomacy offices announcing joint efforts to promote the English language and British culture and hire all the staff of the British Council offices.
That would force the Kremlin to decide whether it really wanted a full-scale confrontation with its most important neighbours. Such a stance would prove beyond doubt the need for a serious rethink. If Russia backed down, the row would end.
In this universe, though, the response has been feeble, and not for the first time. When European countries have tiffs with the Kremlin, they tend to find themselves standing alone, not shoulder to shoulder with their allies.
In Britain's case, that is partly the fault of the prime minister, Gordon Brown, whose ......
........ hermit-like approach to Europe has won him few friends. A man who won't even come to the phone when the French and German leaders want to talk to him can hardly expect their instant help when things get tricky.
But it also reflects Russia's remarkable ability to strike bilateral deals. Every European country has its own agenda—perhaps the prospect of cheap gas, perhaps the chance of a lucrative investment in Russia's booming economy. Such considerations tend to override any other concerns.
The overall result is dismal. Russia tends to put countries in one of three categories: those it flatters, those it squeezes, and those it ignores. Countries can be switched with remarkable rapidity. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Romania are, for now, in the "ignore" category. Estonia and Lithuania, as well as, most of all, Britain, are in the "squeeze" category. France, Germany, Italy. Bulgaria and Poland are, for now, in the "flatter" box. Latvia was there too—but this week's news of the expulsion of a Russian embassy official, supposedly caught red-handed trying to bribe local public servants, may change things.
The result is a kind of diplomatic ratchet, which goes in one direction only. That suits the Kremlin fine—it doesn't need to be friendly with all European countries, just enough to prevent any united European policy emerging.
And when relations are good, Russia makes real gains—such as the recent energy deal with Bulgaria. Vladimir Putin, accompanied by his successor-designate Dmitri Medvedev, visited there last week and signed a deal on the South Stream pipeline.
This puts the kibosh on European hopes of building Nabucco, which could—if everything else went right—bring gas from Azerbaijan and elsewhere to European markets, without crossing territory under Russian control. With Russian deals done or looming in most of the countries that Nabucco is supposed to cross, the project looks moribund.
Perhaps in the parallel universe things are different : European countries could react to the South Stream deal by telling Russia that unless it signs the energy charter and demonopolises its pipelines, Europe is both going ahead with Nabucco and building a bunch of terminals to import liquefied natural gas.
They could also synchronise their counter-intelligenc
Europe collectively is much bigger, richer and stronger than Russia. You wouldn't know it from reading the news—in this universe at least.
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