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After Crimea: ‘hold’ the east, plough the ocean

Six weeks after Russia’s invasion of Crimea and with ‘pro-Russian’ groups asserting their power in Eastern Ukraine, in this second of the ‘Standpoint Series’, two of European Geostrategy’s Senior Editors, James Rogers and Luis Simón, zoom out and look at the broader implications of the crisis in Ukraine for European geostrategy, both regionally and globally.

1. The circumstances in Crimea were exceptional: Russia is not a revisionist power

Yes – and no. Recent developments in Donetsk have shown that – for some in the Kremlin – the temptation of further forays into Eastern Ukraine are too difficult to resist. However, Mr. Putin will continue to try to reassure European governments that he will go no further, instead placing his emphasis on de-escalation. The appearance of restraint and moderation is Putin’s best weapon: it allows him to capitalise on sympathetic voices within Europe, which might – through hook or by crook – help prevent Europeans from awaking from their decades-long strategic slumber; from increasing their military spending; or, worse, from pushing back hard against Russian geostrategy.

Under the mask of political moderation, academic impartiality and ‘defensive realism’, pro-Russian narratives have started to spread like wildfire across much of Western Europe. Voices can be heard murmuring ‘Crimea is different, it has always been part of Russia’; ‘Putin is no fool: he knows were the West draws its redlines’; ‘Western Ukrainians are a hotchpotch of incompetents and rightwing extremists’; ‘there are no realistic alternatives to Russian gas for Europe’; ‘Russia remains Europe’s indispensable partner and neighbour, and like it or not we must accept that’; ‘no one wants another Cold War, de-escalation serves everyone’s interests’, and so on and so forth.

All of these voices are extremely effective at creating confusion among Europeans – which serves the Kremlin well. Not least, they speak directly to many Europeans’ puerile fantasies about ‘effective multilateralism’, ‘normative power’, ‘comprehensive approaches’ and ‘strategic partnerships’. As Jonathan Eyal points out, some Europeans may even prefer to hide behind their ideological wall than accept the cold hard reality of the resurgence of European geopolitical competition. If Mr. Putin is really clever he will lay low for a while. That would be the best way he can get pro-Russian narratives to stick.

In particular, Western European complacency will ensure that Eastern Europe becomes more ‘open’ for the Kremlin – particularly as the United States (US) ‘pivots’ towards East Asia. This does not mean that Moscow will be sending in its rusty tanks and armoured cars to invade European territory anytime soon. Rather, the Kremlin will try to talk softly and push softly, carefully pulling the various levers that can assist its march westwards: from energy blackmail and divide-and-rule diplomacy, through the agitation of Russian minorities living in Eastern Europe, to cyber-attacks and financial penetration – all the while under the threat of potential military action. Europeans should be under no illusion: Moscow is trying to create an empire for itself by denying Europeans access to the east, and it will do whatever it can to fulfil that objective.

2. The time has come to focus on territorial defence

Only temporarily. Make no mistake, boosting the defences of the Baltic States, Poland and Romania and increasing security cooperation with Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia should be Europe’s immediate geostrategic priority. An increase in military spending and strategic cooperation among Eastern Europeans and a transfer of a moderate number – either through a permanent repositioning or through a system of temporary rotations – of British, French and German aerial and ground defence forces from Western and Central Europe to Eastern Europe would consolidate the advantageous European position from Tallinn to Bucharest. Paradoxically, and contrary to those – inadvertently pro-Russian – European voices of moderation, doing that resolutely and swiftly is the best way of avoiding a new ‘Cold War’ of sorts, one which could easily end up draining European strategic resources and attention in the medium and longer terms.

Refocusing on territorial defence, however, while necessary, must not become all-consuming. Relative to Moscow, European capitals have overwhelming power at their disposal. What Europeans lack is concerted action and effective geostrategy. Moreover, unlike Russia, which is at best a regional power, Europeans have truly global interests, in every sector and across every vector. Thus, if they cannot defend themselves from Russia without prejudicing their global orientation, Europeans have a serious problem. For there is one thing the Crimea crisis will not change: the simple fact that the world’s economic and geopolitical fulcrum is shifting, and rapidly, towards the Indo-Pacific region. The US is ‘pivoting’ accordingly. Unless Europeans do too they will be little more than a sideshow in the geopolitics of the twentieth century. So the sooner Europeans rebuild their military power, enact an assertive geostrategy and move to harden their eastern flank, the easier it will be for them to plough – where they belong – into the open ocean. For the sea will remain, as it has throughout history, the true source of wealth and power, and to control it, either unilaterally or multilaterally, means influence over the destiny of the world.

Vol. 6, No. 28 (2014)

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