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  • The United States and Russia initiated a discussion on 10 January on European security and the Ukraine conflict, after Moscow demanded NATO commit to halting its expansion. Putin has already achieved an important goal: Russia has a principal seat at the negotiating table as Europe’s security architecture is being negotiated, without any other Europeans.

    For the average Ukrainian, the most concerning question nevertheless remains possible Russian aggression in the coming weeks. Despite the fact that after years of speculation and concern, Ukrainians have become somewhat numb to the daily speculations of war, the current situation is very worrying. Member states on the Eastern flank of the EU are following the situation with grave concern, especially those countries bordering Russia.

    In an interview with the Martens Centre, Russian opposition politician and former Deputy Minister of Energy and Martens Centre Research Associate Vladimir Milov gave an in-depth analysis on Russia’s intentions concerning Ukraine. In his view, Putin’s main goal is to ensure he plays a role in international fora when it comes to geopolitics, rather than truly search for conflict.

    According to Milov, the idea of a major war is hugely unpopular and would have a significant impact on Putin’s approval ratings, which Putin knows all too well. One recent poll shows that two thirds of Russians prioritise personal economic well-being and higher living standards over geopolitical greatness – among Russians aged 40 or below, this figure jumps to 70%. 

    Importantly, the Russian people do not really expect a war with Ukraine – the majority says it is unlikely. Thus, should there be a full-scale military confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, the war would come as a surprise and contradict Russian popular aspirations.

    A rapidly-rising concern is the increasing concentration of Russian troops in Ukraine’s neighbourhood.  However, these  ‘troops near the Ukraine border’, which we have heard so much about are not stationed in the field – they are amassed at permanent stationery bases like Pogonovo near Voronezh, which is geographically near the Ukrainian border, but in reality, is just a large stationery military base in Central Russia.

    As Milov points out, it is a relatively easy exercise for Putin to bring even a hundred thousand troops to military bases of that scale, because he can keep them there for an indefinite period without incurring major costs, playing with the West’s nerves and raising fears of an invasion, as a near no-cost exercise.

    The West should remain vigilant nevertheless. Russia is accumulating its combat-ready forces, and is conducting military drills with these units, which are effectively rehearsals of a hypothetical invasion. In such an environment, there are real risks of dangerous, war-triggering incidents, such as warplanes violating Ukrainian airspace during military exercises and Ukraine reacting to it. Should there be any mistake or sign of weakness from the West, Putin will use it.

    Italy’s President Mario Draghi was stating the obvious in December 2021. When it comes to resisting Russia in its pressure campaign on Ukraine, Europe has little leverage.

    However, the fundamental European problem is not the lack of common security structures with EU member states, there are plenty of those. The core challenge is not institutional but political. European countries do not have the political will nor culture to even think of engaging militarily outside their own borders, let alone in some cases taking full responsibility of their own security, even within the NATO structure.

    Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, in his widely quoted New Year’s speech, referred to Henry Kissinger’s wisdom; Kissinger pointed out that whenever avoidance of war has been the primary objective of a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of its most ruthless member.

    Motivated by Putin’s latest actions, European leaders and the public need to ask if their strategy of complacency has come to an end and if their avoidance of war, well-meaning as it may be, might be detrimental to the peaceful European continent.

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  • AUKUS was an agreement high on symbolism but low on substance.

    It symbolised the continuity of the “Pivot to Asia” policy through three successive Presidencies, from Obama, to Trump, to Biden. In terms of strategic substance, however, it did not add much to existent collective security arrangements. The US and Australia were already formally bound together, along with New Zealand in a tripartite collective defense agreement (ANZUS). The signatories of AUKUS are also members of other security arrangements, such as the “Five Eyes” agreement on sharing intelligence, that includes Canada and New Zealand.

    Furthermore, AUKUS is not an alliance in the strict sense of the term, in that it does not include a collective defence commitment like NATO’s Article 5 does. Accordingly, it does not provide for automatic collective action in the event, let us say, of a Chinese provocation in Taiwan. All this may have amounted, in strategic terms, to a storm in a teacup, if the Biden administration had not infuriated the French and annoyed the Europeans with the way it handled the whole issue.  

    The French were infuriated because the largest arms export deal in French history (roughly 56 billion euros) was “stolen” from them, and to add insult to injury to Macron, it happened less than a year from the French elections. The deal was struck in secrecy, with the Americans and the Australians failing to inform the French that they were involved in parallel negotiations. This is not supposed to happen among allies and friends, and the French struck back accusing the parties involved of lies, duplicity, and a major breach of trust. The agreement was also a real blow to France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, meticulously developed over the last several years, along the Paris-New Delhi-Canberra axis.

    Finally, there was the ghost of Nassau. The French felt, once again in their history, slighted by the Anglo-Saxons. In December 1962, it was the Kennedy administration that tried to appease the Macmillan government over the cancellation of the Skybolt missile project that was supposed to provide the basis of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrence. In order to appease the British, the Kennedy administration conceded to provide them with the Polaris missiles that represented a much more technologically advanced missile system. De Gaulle became outraged over the special treatment of the British by the Americans and the fact that a similar deal wasn’t extended to the French. He castigated this “Anglo-Saxon collusion” and, months later, blocked Britain’s entry into the EEC. It would be the beginning of de Gaulle’s independent foreign policy. The force de frappe, the “all azimuth strategy”, and the eventual French withdrawal from NATO’s military structure would become de Gaulle’s heretical actions within the Western camp during the apex of the Cold War.

    The AUKUS agreement felt like déjà vu to the French political elite. It was no accident that the French opposition revived the Gaullist rhetoric, while the official French communiqué talked about “the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy”.

    If the French felt betrayed by AUKUS, the Europeans felt that the honeymoon between the European Union and the Biden administration came to an abrupt end. First, it was America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that did not give the Europeans enough time to withdraw their own people. Second, it was the troubling aspect of AUKUS that included Britain at the expense of a European member state, giving Brexiters the pretext to boast that they have delivered on their promises on a post-Brexit “Global Britain”.

    AUKUS reminded Europeans that Europe’s geopolitical significance to American policymakers has declined after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. More importantly, it was a sad reminder that Europe is not viewed by the US as a global power with whom America needs to deepen cooperation to face common challenges.

    Suddenly, Europeans realised that Trump might be gone, but his policies remain, and Biden’s comforting words on the value of transatlantic ties did not amount to much more than words. It is no coincidence that besides the offended French, the Germans, the staunchest transatlanticists of the continent, argued that AUKUS “ought to be a wake-up call for all Europeans”.

    No one in Europe would argue against America’s urgent priority to focus on China’s rise and the need to deal with the challenges of China’s global agenda. The “Pivot to Asia”, however, together with the American withdrawal from other regions, send the wrong signals to other revisionist authoritarian powers such as Russia. They signal that America is receding from its role as a global hegemon, abdicating its global responsibilities. Furthermore, while America may be pivoting to Asia, China is pivoting everywhere, as its globally ambitious “Belt and Road” strategy suggests. Whereas China is emerging as a global power, America is perceived to be posturing as a regional Pacific power.

    The United States needs to address the rising Chinese challenge across the globe and in every relevant policy area. In this effort, “Pivoting to Asia” will not suffice. To effectively meet the Chinese challenge, America will need to resume its global reach. Doing so will require the cooperation of the European Union, and the unity of the Transatlantic Alliance. A united West “Pivoting to Eurasia” is a much more geopolitically sensible strategy to effectively counter China’s growing challenge.

    Constantine Arvanitopoulos China NATO Transatlantic relations

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    21 Oct 2021

  • For over a decade, the neighbourhoods of Europe have been faced with increasing external threats. It is not self-evident however that conflicts and disagreements will be solved within rules-based cooperation and established institutions. Recent actions of Russia, China, and Turkey, for example, have raised concerns. Is the EU capable enough to respond to new threats, such as hybrid and cyber warfare? Can the EU as a part of the Western security community respond to all the new challenges, and what options does Finland have – so far as a non-NATO country?

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  • 1. Do you think that the Vrbětice incident will weaken Central Europe´s sympathy for Russia? Can it be a turning point in the perception of Russia as a real threat to national security in the region?

    James Lamond, Director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, United States: Over the last several years, we have learned that it is both difficult and dangerous to make political predictions, and this instance is no different.  

    On the one hand, the Vrbětice incident is part of a series of violations of international norms and aggressive behaviour from Russia in recent years. This series of events has included: the use of chemical weapons on NATO soil; the invasion and occupation of large portions of neighbouring countries; an assassination in a Berlin park; an unparalleled cyber-hacking campaign; the likely use of directed-energy weapons to attack US diplomats; and interference in democratic processes around the world to encourage and support anti-democratic, pro-Russian, and pro-authoritarian political forces. This is only part of the list of malign activity abroad, which is paired with oppression at home, most notably with the recent poisoning, detention, and abusive treatment of Alexei Navalny. After each incident or revelation, there is a feeling that something must be done and something must change, but things quickly return to a familiar and destructive pattern.  

    However, this moment does feel different. Neighbours in Central Europe were quick to express support and act in unison. Brussels increasingly feels frustrated with Moscow, particularly following Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow earlier this year. And there is a new administration in Washington that is keen on countering Moscow’s malign activities. This new broader international environment, combined with revelations about how drastically Russia has been willing to violate the sovereignty of CEE countries in NATO and the EU, might just be a recipe for change.  

    Grigorij Mesežnikov, President of the Institute for Public Affairs, Slovakia: Russia has been behaving like an enemy of the West for years. It is trying to dismantle the West and its integration groupings (EU and NATO) from within. It interferes with the integrity of political processes, including elections, in the countries of the democratic West, which we in Central Europe belong to, and takes active measures on their territory. Members of the Russian secret services conducted both successful and unsuccessful attempts to assassinate persons that the Kremlin saw as opponents, endangering the lives of EU citizens in Great Britain, Germany, Bulgaria, and as is now evident, in Czechia too. The propaganda machinery of the Kremlin regime creates a hostile attitude among the Russian people towards EU and NATO countries, and when Russian spies or killers make mistakes and blow their cover themselves, the level of hatred against NATO and the EU in Moscow increases. The Vrbětice case is no exception. This is neither the first nor the only case to confirm that Russia is threatening the security of democratic states. It is important that the governments of Central European countries should respond appropriately given the circumstances – that means promptly, vigilantly, and principally. Thanks to their decisive steps, even those citizens who have so far had illusions about Russia’s “friendly” intentions could correct their views. The citizens of Central Europe should realise that thanks to the interplay of favourable circumstances in the 1990s – successful internal reforms, the readiness of Western countries to open the doors of integration groupings to the peoples of Central Europe, and the then-weakness of imperial forces in the Kremlin – Central European countries were able to successfully return to Europe after the fall of communist regimes. Today, everything must be done to preserve these gains and to sustain them for as long as possible.

    Željana Zovko, MEP, EPP Group, and Vice-Chair on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament, Croatia: The involvement of Russian secret services in the explosions in Vrbětice is a severe violation of Czech sovereignty and was rightfully condemned at all levels across the European Union. The joint statement of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Group and the strong messages of other leaders in the region and beyond, including the EU High Representative, and the conclusions of the European Summit in May, all show the wide support for Czechia and the clear opposition to illegal Russian activities on the territory of EU Member States.

    However, the Vrbětice incident should not be singled out as a turning point in the European perception of Russia. It is rather part of a series of events that have increased general distrust in the EU towards Russia, such as the poisoning and jailing of Alexei Navalny, the Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border, and the clear message of Minister Lavrov calling the EU “an unreliable partner” during the visit of HRVP Borrell to Moscow. These events have led to an accumulated frustration among European Member States that highlights the need for a united position towards Russia

    2. The Vrbětice incident has not only disrupted the security of Czechia, but also of the entire EU and NATO. Do you think the solidarity of some EU member states that expelled Russian diplomats and the statements of the EU High Representative and NATO Secretary General are sufficient responses?

    James Lamond: The solidarity shown by NATO, the EU, and other member states was an important signal sent to Moscow. Prague is also seen as a regional hub for Russian intelligence, so the expulsions there, combined with the five other Central and Eastern European neighbours, will likely have an impact on Moscow’s capabilities in the region. But the broader issue is that the transatlantic approach to Russia is often responsive in nature: Russia does something and then the US, the EU, NATO, and other member states react. The transatlantic community needs to take control of the relationship and start to define it along its terms, rather than Putin’s.  

    An instructive template to consider is when in October 2018, US, British, Canadian, and Dutch authorities jointly and publicly revealed a widespread hacking campaign against the West and international institutions, accusing Russia. This case was notable for two reasons. First, the western countries exposed the scheme, revealing the details of Russia’s malign activity to the world. Rather than providing a quick summary, they held press conferences and presented detailed evidence of how the Russian suspects committed these crimes. They displayed the fake passports, vehicle license plates, and airport taxi receipts used, revealing the tactics of the Russian operation. This established the narrative about the crimes and put Putin on the defensive, rather than the other way around. Second, American and European allies presented a clear, united front. The indictments were announced in a carefully orchestrated manner, clearly communicating that this was a coordinated response among allies to Russia’s malign activity.

    Grigorij Mesežnikov: Verbal expressions of solidarity with Czechia by the EU and NATO leadership, responding to the country becoming the target of sabotage and de facto terrorist Russian activities on its territory, can be considered sufficient. However, I expected the allied countries to be more active in expelling Russian diplomats. This time, Slovakia behaved the most solidly, expelling three Russian spies operating under diplomatic cover. Slovakia is a country with special, fraternal relations with Czechia, a partner in the former Czechoslovakia. Also, in this case, the well-known Czech-Slovak solidarity and reciprocity showed itself. Due to domestic political discrepancies, however, Czech diplomacy was apparently unable to convey to its allies in a clear and comprehensible manner what reaction to the Vrbětice case it expected from them. If Czech diplomacy had done so, perhaps the reaction of other EU and NATO countries to Russia’s subversive actions would be more robust.

    Željana Zovko: Although the decisions of Czech and other European authorities to expel Russian diplomats were a direct response to the attack on Czech national security, in the long run, these measures will not alter Russia’s attitude towards the EU. After the recent escalations in EU-Russia tensions, EU leaders tasked HRVP Borrell and the Commission in the May Council Summit to prepare a report on the EU’s strategy towards Russia. The Member States concluded that the EU needs to review its policies and create a united and determined position to counter future security threats and to withstand attempts to divide us.

    The European Union should invest in its strategic autonomy and a deterrence strategy to defend EU Member States against possible aggression of third countries. We must deliver on our commitments for collective defence made within the frameworks of the EU and NATO. We also need to contain disinformation campaigns and hybrid threats aimed at causing destabilisation and division in the EU and in its immediate neighbourhood. At the same time, the EU should conduct a strategic dialogue with Russia to de-escalate current tensions and to work on an improved mutual understanding and increased transparency.

    3. In his recent report on the state of Russia, President Putin said that no one should cross the red line in relation to Russia. Where does the West’s red line lie vis-a-vis Russia? Can we expect it to be set on the occasion of the upcoming Biden – Putin summit?

    James Lamond: Vladimir Lenin is commonly quoted as saying, “You probe with bayonets: if you encounter mush, you push. If you encounter steel, you withdraw.” Vladimir Putin appears to have taken this lesson to heart, which is why over the last few years he has continued to push against the West in new ways. This is also why it is somewhat ironic for him to issue his own warnings about ill-defined red lines.  

    During the Cold War, there were red lines that guided espionage activities between the two sides, and each knew where they stood. The problem for relations with Russia today is that these red lines no longer exist, or at least no one knows where they are. A key goal of a Biden administration approach to Russia should be re-establishing where those red lines are and making clear the contours of the relationship. The upcoming summit between Presidents Biden and Putin will be the most significant opportunity to send a clear message that the Kremlin’s trajectory over the last few years is unacceptable. Coming directly from the G7 summit, meetings with European Union leadership and the 14 June NATO leaders’ summit will all provide the symbolic message of transatlantic unity. Hopefully, the substance will match the symbolism and Biden will be able to present a clear and united message to Putin.  

    Grigorij Mesežnikov: That cannot be called anything but impudence – Russia invades neighbouring states, annexes and occupies their territories, supports separatist rebellions in these states, shoots down foreign civilian planes and shamefully denies it, interferes in elections in Western countries, organises coup attempts, murders emigrees which the Kremlin considers its enemies, uses banned chemical warfare agents against them, organises hacker attacks against the critical infrastructure of Western states, supports a lunatic dictator in Belarus who oppresses the people of that country; and Vladimir Putin has the audacity to teach the world about his own red lines. Russia has crossed all conceivable and unimaginable red lines in international politics, and is currently the aggressor and enemy of the West. The West must not be subject to Kremlin tricks, and should show no softness to Russian aggression, in any of its manifestations. You cannot meaningfully cooperate with the enemy; you can only coexist in a vigilant way, keeping the ability to respond harshly. The red line is our weakness, we must not allow it here.

    Željana Zovko: The development of red lines should be a part of the reflection process on a European Russia policy. We cannot accept threats to the sovereignty of European Member States, not via military pressure, nor via direct or indirect interferences in democratic and political processes. The EU should stand firm to guarantee the security of our neighbouring states and condemn any violation of their territorial integrity.

    Meanwhile, the EU should not refuse to communicate with Russia and must preserve dialogue with the Kremlin and Russian society. Diplomatic channels are a means to minimise divergence and build constructive strategic relations.

    Our Russia policy would be most effective if it were based on coordinated actions with likeminded states. The transatlantic relationship will play a key role in this regard. European strategic autonomy that is compatible with NATO programmes will enhance the transatlantic ability to safeguard a rules-based international order. The new US administration has shown its willingness to improve the alignment of its foreign policy with the European Union, including in relation to Russia. The upcoming Biden-Putin Summit offers an opportunity in this regard to assess where the new US administration stands towards Russia and what we can expect from future transatlantic coordination.

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