The elephant in the room
Immediately before the EU summit, an EU official told the press that the recent military uprising in Russia would be “the elephant in the room” for all discussions of Ukraine.
But on Thursday (June 29), the first day of the two-day Brussels summit, he indicated that EU leaders were not shying away from addressing internal issues inside Russia and were actively contemplating possible solutions to mitigate risks to the EU. in case of political instability. recurring in Russia, and the impact it could have in the EU.
A cautious approach
During the Yevgeny Prigozhin mutiny a week ago, Western countries approached the situation in Russia cautiously and refrained from provocative statements. Politicians, such as EU Council President Charles Michel, repeated that they were “closely monitoring the situation.” This cautious approach can be attributed to a desire to avoid being accused by the Kremlin of supporting the mutiny or contributing to instability in Russia.
It is true that the Kremlin has often blamed the West for its internal problems, even in situations where there is no direct evidence or basis for such accusations. This tendency to blame external factors is not unique to the Prigozhin mutiny, but has been observed in several cases where the Russian government faces internal challenges.
But the Kremlin has long needed no reason to blame Western countries for Russia’s troubles.
Vladimir Putin, in his speech after the failed mutiny, indirectly implicated Ukraine and its “Western patrons” in supporting the Wagner group.
By contrast, Viktor Zolotov, head of Rosgvardia (Russia’s national guard service), directly accused Western countries of “instigating” the Prigozhin mutiny.
All this week, Russian state media propagandists tried to convey to the Russian population that the country had successfully passed a “maturity test” as a result of the Wagner rebellion, showing “opponents in the West” that they were not I would repeat the same fate. such as the Russian Empire and the USSR.
Instability at the EU border
Despite the fact that Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General, emphasized during his address to EU leaders at the beginning of the first day of the summit that the Prigozhin mutiny was an “internal Russian affair”, its impact on the summit agenda was apparent.
First, each EU leader who addressed the mutiny in their remarks stressed the importance of continuing to support Ukraine in light of the instability in Russia. The vulnerability of the Russian political regime, which many Western leaders recognized as the main consequence of the rebellion, reinforced concerns about the continued threat to kyiv from Moscow.
Even if the current conflict comes to a ceasefire, the existence of successive military factions within Russia that could seize power presents a potential source of instability across the region. These factions have a great opportunity to represent a more radical part of the Russian military elite and could see a new invasion of Ukraine as a means to address internal political challenges.
Secondly, political instability in Russia poses a threat not only to Ukraine but also to all of its neighboring countries. Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland share a land border with Russia.
Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš stressed that the EU “cannot control what happens inside Russia, but we can control our actions externally”, hinting at the need to strengthen defense efforts across Europe, particularly in countries with a physical border with Russia.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas echoed this sentiment, noting that between 1999 and 2021, European defense investments increased by almost 20 percent, while Russia’s spending tripled and China’s multiplied by six during the same period.
Belarus ‘increasingly part of Russia’
Third, several European leaders explicitly mentioned Belarus in their statements.
Alexander Lukashenko played an important role in negotiating with Prigozhin to stop Wagner’s columns on their way to Moscow. This incident highlights the extent to which the Belarusian regime is enmeshed in Russia’s internal affairs. Following the violent suppression of protests in 2020, Lukashenko is gradually becoming a factor influencing Russian domestic politics.
“We see Belarus more and more as part of Russia,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared upon arrival.
Given this context, there may be a new wave of support for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus and Lukashenko’s main rival in the presidential election, who currently resides in exile in Lithuania.
Fourthly, the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, drew attention to the important commitment of the Wagner group in Africa.
If Wagner’s group is indeed forced to leave Russia, Prigozhin is likely to turn his attention to his projects in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Syria, as he did before the conflict in Ukraine.
For the EU, this would imply greater instability in neighboring countries, particularly within the traditionally French sphere of influence.
Notably, French President Emmanuel Macron did not deliver a separate speech on the first day of the summit to the press.