Pinpointing the most significant meeting of world leaders in the northern hemisphere last week was not an easy task.
The impressive gathering of western allies to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Britain and France may be the first thing to spring to mind.
However, one might consider, instead, the talks between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Saint Petersburg, in which the Chinese and Russian leaders shared thoughts on their growing “global partnership and strategic co-operation”.
Caught in the grip of a trade showdown with the US, Mr Xi revealed he has met with his “best friend”, Mr Putin, 30 times in just six years.
China and Russia form an effective double act. Viewed through European eyes, they offer both significant pressures and benefits.
And now, the continent is waking up to just how much the world has changed. America has pivoted away from the European Union. President Donald Trump has heralded the opportunities of Brexit, which marks an end, of sorts, to European expansion.
Speaking at the Globsec security conference in Slovakia, Timothy Garton Ash, the distinguished historian, said that Mr Putin shared the same goal. To illustrate his point, he recalled a meeting back in the 1990s. Mr Putin – who was then deputy head of the city administration of St Petersburg – told him that Russian populations and territories left behind when the Soviet bloc disintegrated had suffered a historical wrong.
The Kremlin has since pushed back against Europe in Georgia and Ukraine, annexing Crimea and running statelets in Donbas and Kharkiv.
Active intelligence and other measures in both the Baltics and the Balkans keep Russian influence high.
Gas deals with Hungary and Germany maintain a level of bilateral closeness impervious to the EU’s common sanctions policy.
“Russia as we know it today is determined to disintegrate the European Union,” Mr Garton Ash said.
If the contest is currently in play, the score chart is not looking good for western interests.
In the squares of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where the Globsec conference is held annually, a different view of Mr Putin prevails.
China and Russia form an effective double act. Viewed through European eyes, they offer both significant pressures and benefits
The Russian leader is seen as a man rebuilding his country from the devastation of Soviet collapse, and that impulse is respected as an act of pride. According to this argument, which runs in stark contrast to those of his critics, Mr Putin is not bent on disruption, and is simply acting logically in his nation’s interest.
A regional opinion poll carried out for the summit found that only 26 per cent of Slovaks named Russia as a threat but 41 per cent saw the US as a hostile entity.
At the D-Day ceremonies on June 6, the leaders of 17 countries signed the first page of a proclamation of values. Even Mr Trump added his name, though he was criticised for writing it over the title of the document.
The purpose of the proclamation was to define a group of states abiding by values underpinning the international order. Mr Putin has sought to align his problems with the US and Europe over the Nord Stream gas pipeline and those of China over the Huawei saga, which he views as the “first technological war of the emerging digital era”.
In both matters, Europe has been caught in the middle, between Mr Trump’s US and its rivals.
Until now, China’s rise as an economic and technological powerhouse has seemed distant to many in Europe. However, port purchases in Greece and Italy and the takeover of air facilities in Greenland and Iceland make its infrastructural ambitions around the continent clear.
Now, the roll-out of 5G and Huawei’s role within that great technological leap has revealed the deficiencies in European thinking about its digital resilience.
Given that Europe is lagging far behind where it should be, geopolitical and technological experts specialising in China are reporting a sudden upturn in bookings from conferences such as Globsec, as policymakers seek to catch up with the developments unfolding around them.
The outgoing president of Slovakia, Andrej Kiska noted the widespread calls for increased defence spending in Europe. While he supported better deterrence, Mr Kiska added that investment in European digital capabilities was also vital.
“If we aren’t serious now, no investment in the military will compensate for the damage that our ignorance will cause,” he said.
The whole world is grappling with the reality of superpower advancements on these new frontiers. The mindset that once saw globalisation as axiomatic progress is finished. That penny is dropping even on the somnolent banks of the Danube.
Updated: June 8, 2019 02:27 PM