Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has just enough allies in just enough places to throw a wrench in the efforts of Western alliances to thwart his ambitions – deepening the wedge between member states that suits his purposes to a tee.
Putin’s closest ally in the European Union, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has threatened to veto proposed sanctions on Russian oil that the other 26 member states have approved.
Similarly in NATO, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not looking favorably at the possible accession of historically neutral powers Finland and Sweden, and on which the rest of the alliance is supportive of them joining.
With these kinds of useful friends in Orban and Erdogan, Putin may be perfectly positioned to continue on his current path in Ukraine or beyond – with impunity.
A host of different ideas have emerged of how to deal with these crises that threaten to sap the ability, if not the will, to confront the Kremlin directly.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went racing off to Budapest to confront Orban last week. But in the end, von der Leyen could report only that she’d succeeded in “clarify[ing] issues” with the Hungarian strongman.
Considerable diplomatic efforts have also gone into persuading Erdogan to change course, though he continues to condemn the assistance Finland and Sweden have afforded the Kurdish independence group PKK, which Turkey brands a terrorist organization.
And few want to risk losing the largest standing army within NATO after the US, especially one that also commands the strategic Bosporus and access to the Black Sea.
So, what to do about these toxic delays being forced by Hungary and Turkey? The answer is sadly simple – play the same game Putin’s been playing for years. When you can’t win by traditional rules, go around them.
In this case, do carve-outs. Make Orban and Erdogan irrelevant. All 26 other EU members should simply implement the oil embargo. And NATO should simply pave the way for Sweden and Finland’s accession.
What’s the worst Hungary or Turkey could do – sue? Pull out? There was a lot of thought given toward banishing Turkey from NATO anyway – especially after Erdogan bought Russian S-400 air defense systems from Russia three years ago.
Perhaps now is precisely the moment simply to stand up to these lone strongmen who have managed to burrow their way deeply into democratic institutions.
It might not be so far-fetched. “You are absolutely right to urge the EU to just forge ahead without Hungary,” Harvard Professor Robert I. Rotberg, founding director of the Intrastate Conflict program at the Kennedy School of Government, told me in an e-mail exchange.
“The ‘unanimity’ rule was foolish to begin with and now is the time to test it,” added Rotberg. Though he conceded what others have feared – that Hungary could refer the decision to the European Court of Justice – which is both bad and good.
“It would take years to resolve,” Rotberg continued, “tying the EU up in knots.” Still, the European Court of Justice has already dismissed Hungarian challenges to huge financial penalties levied by the EU for Orban’s violations of democratic rights and freedoms
In the meantime, if the other 26 EU member states do implement their boycott, Russia would lose a major market for its oil that could become permanent if the continent continues on its mission to wean itself from Moscow’s energy resources.
One solution to the problem posed by the leaders of Hungary and Turkey, which is being actively pursued by Rotberg together with a group consisting of some 40 former heads of state and an equal number of Nobel Prize winners, is the creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court. He noted this “would be a good place to try Erdogan, Orban, Putin, and many more. That is why it is needed. So, we are moving.”
Putin has been playing on the concept of unanimity for years. In fact, Russia has been playing that card since Joseph Stalin set up the game at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when he demanded a veto for all five permanent members of the UN Security Council as the price for agreeing to participate in a United Nations – and Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, also desperate for Soviet help to finish off the Axis powers, agreed, though apparently with little real appreciation of the eventual consequences.
The problem is not dissimilar to the dilemma established by America’s founding fathers in creating the Electoral College.
Its original goal was, at least in part, to persuade the smaller American states to agree to a union that they thought – quite rightly – would otherwise be dominated by a handful of larger states.
This fear and the compromise have long outlived their usefulness and are now being used to hold hostage a majority of the US population to the whims of a minority. In the case of the EU and NATO, not to mention the UN Security Council, this has truly gone amok.
Now is the time for democracies to dig in their heels and proclaim that enough is enough – that right will be forced to triumph. In the end, we will all be stronger for it.