Author: Francesco Saverio Angio’, PhD * –
During the 1990s, the North Atlantic Alliance had succeeded in co-opting Russia, bringing the Kremlin closer to its initiatives. That meant sharing its strategic vision and making a partner out of Moscow to fight against new security challenges. Unfortunately, in the 2000s, the European Union was probably too naïve by not considering Moscow’s reaction to Brussels’ effort to integrate into its liberal political and economic narrative those countries on which Russia traditionally casts its shadow.
By intervening militarily in Ukraine with a renewed imperialist spirit to defend its post – Soviet space of influence and security, Russia has undoubtedly strained the balance. If Europe decides to do nothing, the eventual lack of continental assertiveness and coordination could lead to a security problem where a situation similar to that of a new Cold War is not entirely unimaginable.
Between March and April 2021, Moscow has amassed 40,000 troops in Voronezh, on Ukraine’s eastern border, and another 40,000 in the Crimean Peninsula; this is also in addition to tanks and short-range missiles and other defence systems in Rostov. After weeks of escalating tensions, Russia withdrew most of the troops stating that the drill was a success.
The Kremlin directs its foreign policy towards Russia’s nearest security space, the post-Soviet influence area. The deployment of an entire arsenal of irredentist reasons in Eastern Ukraine’s conflict demonstrates Moscow’s interventionist will. Formally, Russia threatens to intervene against any attempt of ethnic cleansing against Russian citizens in the Ukrainian rebel region. As a part of this strategy, since 2019, Moscow has issued more than 650,000 Russian passports to those who so requested in the Donbas. Donbas, de facto, is not under the sovereign control of Kyiv, whose government has been waging a low-intensity war with Russia-backed separatists during the last seven years. The war has already caused 14,000 casualties on the so-called “line of contact” in Eastern Ukraine.
Perhaps behind Moscow’s recent initiatives in the Donbas in Moscow, there is an attempt to exert pressure on Kyiv to resume the negotiations after uncountable violations of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk. Maybe Russia’s objective is to divert attention from the internal dissidents’ protests (such as Navalny) that expose the lack of respect for human rights in the Federation, the plague of patronage, and a diffused corruption. The widespread criticisms from the most liberal actors of the international community towards Russian aggressive foreign policy, or its lack of internal democracy, as well as not very encouraging economic indicators, has caused a dramatic drop in the support from the civil society to the Russian government (according to Levada Center, only 32% of those surveyed would support their president), also accused of having poorly managed the COVID Sars-2 pandemic, despite the propaganda surrounding the success of the creation of the Sputnik vaccine. Furthermore, the talks between Kyiv and NATO to establish a pathway for possible membership of Ukraine could be another trigger of the muscular “warnings” of the Federation towards the former Soviet republic.
During the last decade, Moscow has been acting as it never dared to do during the nearly 50 years the Cold War lasted when the Soviets were afraid to break that balance of low-intensity provocations with the US on which the nuclear peace relied.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a communist dictatorship that lasted 70 years, many analysts and observers believed it possible for the Russians to realise a genuine democratic transition.
The North Atlantic Alliance was also working with Moscow to cement a new relationship, based on dialoguing with, and co-opting the “Russian bear” to accept brand-new cooperation in terms of security and defence. During the most acute phases of the so-called Global War on Terrorism, NATO tried to make Russia and the Atlantic allies share the same vision on international security’s priorities and stop perceiving themselves as opponents, to focus its efforts on common enemies instead: religious fundamentalism, insurgent extremism, international drug trafficking, the rise of violent sub-state actors whose action provoked low-intensity yet permanent conflicts, among other things.
Several formal steps were taken to establish this new relationship: in 1991, Russia joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council and then, in 1994, the Partnership for Peace Program; in 1997, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council was started. In the late 1990s, NATO and Russia collaborated in the Balkans to enhance the peace-keeping process and stabilise the region. In 2002, the cooperation ties were strengthened by the creation of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC).
However, in 1999, Putin’s election to the presidency inaugurated a new Russian political and social life phase, defined as Putinism. This stage has lasted for more than 20 years. The president has been positioning his satraps in all central government and businesses strategic apparatuses of the Federation.
The thin curtain of democracy that seemed to harbour Russia after 1991 has inexorably fallen. In 2020, after the successful (for him) constitutional referendum, Vladimir Putin, who was president from 1999 to 2008 and again (after a hiatus when he was appointed as a prime minister), from 2012 until today, can run again for another two six-year presidential terms (if elected during the elections of 2024 and 2030). In case of victory, Putin will remain in power until 2036. If so, this new czar would put his seal on 40 years of Russian history and leave an indelible mark on Russian society.
The reality is that Putin’s Russia remains a geopolitical colossus and a formidable strategic adversary to fear for the so-called Western world. In 2008, the East-West unprecedented pacific relationship began to go wrong after Moscow intervened in support of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s regions from Georgia. But it was after the unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, following the secessionist insurgencies in Eastern Ukraine, when the relationship between NATO and Russia would suffer a blowhard after which it would hardly recover.
On the 18th of March 2014, the hitherto Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula and the city with special status Sevastopol within Ukraine were officially annexed to the Russian Federation. The international community (i.e., Western countries) criticised and condemned the at first discreet, then open Moscow’s economic and military support to the pro-Russia rebel militiamen. Putin recently celebrated the seventh anniversary of that event to boost the Russians’ nationalist spirit and build consensus.
At that time, the European Union probably made a mistake. It forced the hand in the attempt to overextend its integrative momentum eastward, in a security dimension traditionally linked to Moscow’s interests. Using classic geopolitical terms, the Czarist Russia, then, the Soviet Union and, later, the Russian Federation have always been obsessed with protecting their territorial integrity with a strip of territories and satellite states that served as a buffer zone against any threats coming from Europe (Napoleon before and then Hitler just confirmed those strategic views).
The community of Russian speakers in the East of Ukraine could not see any advantage for them coming from an understanding of an association agreement between Kyiv and Brussels and feared the denaturation of what they thought being the traditional Eurasian roots of their country.
Perhaps the European Union, when proposed to start a trade agreement with Kyiv as a springboard for future negotiations focusing on political integration, relied on a supposed Moscow’s weakness, or simply (maybe naively?) a change of strategic vision in Russia, that would accept, once and for all, the loss of its post – Soviet security buffer zone, as it did regarding East Europe.
Savvy negotiations would have had to consider the Kremlin’s fundamental interests in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and work to co-opt their leaders, and offer compensation for the perception of a loss of power and influence.
The lack of dialogue and hasty initiatives have probably contributed to the current situation. In Eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv does not exercise effective sovereign control, a civil war with a frozen front is waged. The violence that plagues the region has now leaked to the breaking news.
It took 20 years for NATO to build a relationship of collaboration with Moscow and co-opt the Russians to share a new vision of security and a strategic narrative that saw Russia and the Atlantic Allies fight together and cope with the challenges and threats of the XXI c. (especially those represented by sub-state, radical actors). However, in Ukraine, the Kremlin reacted in a muscular way, using all its hard power with the annexation of Crimea.
Since then, both NATO and the EU have been denouncing destabilising and provocative actions by Russia in terms of interference in electoral processes, espionage, the expulsion of diplomats, attempts to physically eliminate dissidents of Moscow on the European Union members’ territory, breach of treaties on nuclear proliferation, support to Al-Assad regime in Syria and manoeuvres of military ships in the Eastern Mediterranean and in general, increased activism in the Mediterranean (especially in Libya), sales to Turkey (a member of the Alliance) of military equipment incompatible with NATO weapon systems, support to Maduro’s Venezuela. Besides, in the Baltic Sea, Russian fighters and bombers incursions and covert cyber warfare and military manoeuvres and drills carried out on the border have made it clear that Russia never fully metabolised the inclusion of the Baltic countries in either the EU or NATO. The Kremlin never misses an opportunity to test the combat readiness of the former Western bloc and NATO commitment to the defence of its members.
In the North Atlantic, often Western interceptors scramble to identify Russian aircrafts dangerously close to the allies’ national airspaces, as it used to happen between the Fifties and the Eighties when the USSR constantly attempted to measure its opponents’ reaction. In addition, the Russian submarine fleet is now regularly cruising in the Mediterranean Sea and shows its monopoly on Arctic routes.
From the Russian point of view, Moscow indeed has perceived Western actions as an attempt to expand both NATO and the EU influence to the East, and initiatives such as the US anti-missile shield (formally, against Iran) as evidence of the process of erosion of its space of influence and buffer zone. In addition, western criticisms of corruption and the lack of respect for human rights and the LGTB+ community in Russia contribute to exacerbating the tensions and increasing distances and disagreements.
Waving the banner of the MAGA-branded isolationism, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States opened for the US a period of passivity towards Russia and progressive abandonment of the Old Continent as a security priority. This trend was already visible during the Obama administration, which pivoted on Asia-Pacific. A significant failure of the Obama administration in foreign policy was precisely the start of the hostilities with the Russians and the lack of reaction to the annexation of Crimea. At the end of 2016, Obama’s White House declared that Washington reserved the right to retaliate to Moscow’s alleged interference – or actors linked to the Kremlin – in the US electoral process. However, the president elected Trump was perceived as closer to the Eurasian giant’s interests than his predecessor. Despite President Trump’s attempts to discredit his own country’s intelligence, the CIA confirmed its suspicions of the Kremlin as the main responsible for electoral interferences’ attempts. The Agency believed that Russian agents had generated some influence over the North American country’s vote, the presidential election process, planned and executed from abroad, as if it was a Tom Clancy novel.
The objective of the Russian manoeuvres, which would be carried out through various cyberattacks and a not better-explained manipulation of the electorate, would have been to cause the defeat of the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
A strategic realism led Washington to shift its focus away from the Middle East towards the Pacific Rim. This has opened a window of geopolitical opportunities for Russia, active at the edges of the former Soviet empire. It seems clear it will not renounce its buffer zone and its space of economic and cultural influence and in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
It seems that the new president Joseph Biden would be more assertive than Trump in dealing with Putin’s Kremlin and will rely on the European Allies’ strength. However, the Old continent would need to demonstrate geostrategic proactivity that, so far, has not materialised yet. The European side of the North Atlantic Alliance is not occupying the space that Washington would abandon if Biden will renegotiate the US commitment to the defence and security of the allies of the Treaty.
A Europe that defends its interests through a strong presence in its geostrategic area of influence will have to take risks and assume responsibilities. In a word, apply a leadership that, probably, it still cannot or wants to show vis-à-vis Putin’s Russia.
The eventual lack of continental coordination of the European partners represents a security problem. If Europe decides to do nothing, a situation similar to that of a new Cold War, where the North American power would withdraw or shift its focus of attention to another geopolitical region and Russia will return to its natural status of a hegemonic power in Eurasia, is not entirely unimaginable.
* Francesco Saverio Angio’ earned his PhD in International Security at UNED (Spain), defending a thesis on the jihadist territoriality, awarded cum laude. In 2017, he was on a visiting research period at the Department of History at the King’s College London. He is currently a lecturer in a module on Turkey in the Middle East politics at Universita’ degli Studi “Niccolo’ Cusano” (Italy). He has several publications in specialised journals and contributions in open-source webpages focusing on international security and geopolitics.
ITA: Francesco Saverio Angio’ e Dottore di ricerca in Sicurezza Internazionale presso l’UNED (Spagna), dove difese una tesi sulla territorialita’ jihadista premiata con lode. Nel 2017, effettua periodo di ricerca presso il Department of History del King’s College London. E’ attualmente docente del modulo su Turchia nella politica del Medio Oriente presso Universita’ degli Studi “Niccolo’ Cusano” (Italia). Ha diverse pubblicazioni su riviste di settore e contributi su testate web specializzate open source su sicurezza internationale e geopolitica.