If Vladimir V. Putin, as he claims, seeks a closer relationship with the rest of Europe, he is going about achieving it in a funny way.
The Russian prime minister, apparently headed for a return to the presidency according to polls ahead of the first round of elections scheduled for Sunday, has done little to endear himself to his country’s western neighbors during the campaign.
Aside from highlighting deep divisions over Syria and Iran, Mr. Putin has been taking pot shots at European energy policy and attacking European governments for failing to lift visa requirements on Russians. Nearer to home, his government appears to be gearing up for a new “gas war” with Ukraine.
Odd timing, then, to come up with a vision for a Union of Europe — not to be confused with the 27-member European Union — that would stretch from “Lisbon to Vladivostok.”
The idea figured in a lengthy peroration on foreign policy that Mr. Putin published on Monday. It portrayed the rest of Europe — once “an oasis of stability and order” — as an economic basket case whose problems could not but affect Russia’s interests.
With the tone of a distant if kindly uncle, Mr Putin wrote: “We are by no means indifferent to developments in united Europe.” Russia was already involved in international efforts to support Europe’s ailing economies, and was “not opposed in principle to direct financial assistance in some cases.”
The concept of a Union of Europe, a phrase Mr. Putin ascribed to Russian experts, was not a new one. Nor was its objective: a strengthened alliance with the rest of Europe that would reinforce Russia’s position between the United States and the emerging powers of Asia.
Sergei Karaganov, a political analyst and former deputy director of European studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, wrote in 2010 under the title: “A Union of Europe: The Last Chance?”:
“If Europe does not unite, it will be the U.S. and China that will call the tune in the future world, and the brilliant half-millennium of Europe will be over.”
Igor Yurgens, an adviser to Dmitri A. Medvedev, the outgoing president, made a similar argument back in 2008 when he wrote: “If isolated from one another, and of course in a climate of rivalry between Russia and Europe, neither…will be able to claim a role of a first-class center of strength in the future world order comparable with the U.S. or China, instead becoming objects of politics of external forces.”
There’s little indication that Europe’s present leaders want to jump aboard Mr. Putin’s Union of Europe bandwagon. Like their historic predecessors, they are reluctant to be embraced by the Russian bear. As Mr. Putin’s warnings about Europe’s energy policies indicate, Russia can prove a coercive suitor.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for foreign affairs, is among those not so easily wooed. In a speech this month, she decried another job swap between the Russian president and prime minister that “made many Russian citizens feel that things were being decided between only two men, over the heads of voters.”
If anyone needed help, it was not Europe but Russia itself, she suggested. “We will continue our support to modernize both Russia’s economic basis and the foundations for a dynamic society oriented towards the future,” she said.