25 April 2019

Europe’s security gets trapped in the Russia-US confrontation

Cristian Eremia

After a small détente period for the Russian-Western relations, Moscow has chosen, in 2017, a confrontation relation with the US and Europe. Russian state’s remilitarization had been started and Kremlin has then used its new power to reacquire, including through hybrid actions, the former-Soviet area and to reach the Russian interests in further territories. The Georgia-2008 and Ukraine-2014 files have definitely showed that the European security architecture, governed by the Helsinki principles from 1975, was seriously affected and it was not a hot topic anymore. Actually, president Putin was announcing, at the security Conference from München (MSC), from 2007, that he will pass to following an independent foreign policy[1], of course, without suggesting the magnitude of the changes he was about to make.

Image source: Mediafax

From that moment on, Russia’s pan-European security’s approaches have become truly conflictual. Since then, even given that many European states have accepted and have actually enjoyed the privileged friendship gestures coming from the Russian part, Russia’s actions have constantly aimed at weakening the cohesion between the EU and NATO member state. Initially, EU has showed Russia receptivity, refusing only its demand regarding the US being eliminated from the European security businesses. Then Russia has become extremely vocal, imperatively asking for an international peer-to-peer political dialogue with the US and EU, in order to explore and negotiate a “renewed international security system”.

All in all, this was the geopolitical atmosphere back in 2017, when the US has launched its first allegations against Russia for breaking the INF Treaty, with the operationalization of the 9M729 cruise missile with intermediate range[2]. Moscow’s lack of reaction on reentering in Treaty’s provisions got US’s denouncement (immediately retorted by Russia), being, until now, the most important moment of 2019.

Paradoxically, although Europe is not part of the INF Treaty, the European security is the first and perhaps the most affected of all by these long-term consequences of treaty’s breach.

The deterioration of the European security architecture

For the Europeans it is quite normal to think that INF was, for 30 years, an important guarantee for the European security, mainly because the European states, which were not part of the Treaty, were not exposed to prohibited missiles’ “clear targets”. Hence, giving up the INF is now underlining the high dynamic of European security’s declension and it is also creating some premises for Europe to face new high security risks. Furthermore, building trust in front of the supposed enemies is a difficult process, diverted by new suspicions and the decrease of cooperation topics. Tens of years of investments in the European security system are near-miss collapse.

Along with the European allied states, Germany is concerned by the denouncement the INF parts have made against each other, because, as the German chancellor Angela Merkel (2019 MSC) has recently underlined, this treaty was built exactly to ensure “our (a.n European) basic interests” on security, through a disarmament and control mechanism of heavy missile armament proliferation in Europe. The German official admits that everything fell apart due to Russia’s breach, for years, of the INF treaty, but she also stated that her country will not stop the dialogue with Russia and will support any effort on seeking for new disarmament mechanisms. Following this logic, the German government has particularly asked Russia (20.02.2019), to “completely and transparently reduce the disputed missiles”, in its attempt to save the INF treaty.  

Concurrently, Germany and other European chanceries are blaming the unilateral decisions which have an impact on the European security system, imposed by president Trump without consulting its European allies. Actually, the European states will become the targets of the new Russian missiles, and Kremlin is relying on the fact that this exact element will determine the polarization of the important European chanceries on different positions than the North-American ones, which have distinct political interests in the confrontation with Russia. There are no favorable conditions for Moscow to produce a serious breach within the Trans-Atlantic connection, although everybody witnessed Moscow’s attempts to enlarge the breaches emerged in the Trans-Atlantic relation, or to determine the West-European states to give up US’s weaponries on the continent. On long term, Putin will try to divide the allies, by exploiting the differences of political perspectives on defence’s costs, European armies’ endowment and the Russian threats.

Russia’s first contradictory reaction (and China’s also) on the important geopolitical event are questioning the real openness to a new dialogue.

Merkel has called on the event which took place across the 2011 MSC, when Hillary Clinton and Serghei Lavrov have changed the ratification tools for the Start III disarmament treaty. Back then, this event was marking a high Russian-American strategic cooperation level, ignored in the new context, of Crimea’s invasion by the Russian Federation. Like INF’s crisis moment would have been overcame, the Russian Foreign Minister has recently stated, in München, that Russia wants to have “special” conversations with the US in regard of the Start III topic, but Trump’s Administration is refusing their proposal. Aiming at placing the White House in a negative spot again, he announced “new pressures over the US” on this matter.

On the other hand, the new European security context is already producing anxiety on Alliance’s east flank. The Baltic states, especially Poland, are more and more vocal in expressing their concerns that, from now on, Russia will find a way to weaken the Euro-Atlantic unity and, finally, to substantially deteriorate the European security and strategic stability. Additionally, it is hard to believe that the start of a new arms race could be somehow stopped, this process to include also, along with Russia, the Chinese state and (why not?) other emergent powers, like India.

The European security is worsening, and NATO does not seem to have all the political-military areas ready to face the aggressive challenges Moscow is constantly launching. Hence, NATO, and much less EU, do not seem to have, for now, proper answers to the new strategic situation Europe faces. Given these circumstances, the military threats and risks against EU’s territories security are quickly creating a tangible geopolitical reality, which can become even more dangerous than the one created during the Cold War. This is why, the European preventive and coercive diplomacy seem to be overwhelmed. 

The future of the European security is still unpredictable

Hence, president Putin has the initiative and a few steps ahead EU and NATO. The reactions of both organizations, which have great importance for the European and Trans-Atlantic security, are delayed and are offering Moscow maneuver space. We can think on the possibility for EU and NATO to underestimate Kremlin’s real capacity and determination to play the “card” of the new global order and to reshape Europe’s security architecture. Anyhow, Putin is already forcing too much the great European power’s limits (Germany, France and Great Britain), which are disoriented and undecided on choosing the proper response. The Russian diplomacy knows this detail and, most likely, Kremlin has decided to confront the US for a central place in a new global order system. The collateral winning would be, if hypothetically (less probable) the Europeans will go “on their own”, for Russia to get US’s elimination from the European security businesses.

NATO has recently debated, at chiefs of defence reunion, for the first time, the new strategic situation created in Europe by the denouncement of the INF Treaty and the impossibility for this treaty to be saved. It came out that the allies have started to plan a “world without the INF Treaty… with less Russian missiles in Europe”. For now, the Alliance does not consider launching in a new arms race or dislocating new nuclear weapons in Europe, but it will make new investments for the consolidations of its defence stance, for a credible and effective deterrence: “We cannot afford to be naïve… we must deal with uncertainty and to continue investing in our defence”[3]- was mentioning the NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, in München and Brussels. However, Stoltenberg has introduced a condition (“And IF WE REMAIN UNITED, we will be ready to face the future, no matter what the future may bring”), along with the statements according to which the European unity cannot be a substitute for the Trans-Atlantic unity.

This is where the European official, F. Mogherini, has interfered who, given that in the current context of the challenges across the “great power competition in the global policies”, is suggesting[4] “We Europeans have something totally different in mind, also given our history. We are a cooperative power by definition. We actually became a power in the moment when we understood that cooperating was much more convenient than fighting each other. We know that the logic of spheres of influence and zero-sum games does not work and that it only leads to more tensions, more instability and more violence.” Mogherini introduces the same conditionality element: “Together, JOINING FORCES, we are definitely a super-power – economically and also in security terms”[5].

In other words, ensuring the European security can be made only if there will be unity and cohesion within NATO and EU.

Given these circumstance, we must notice experts perspectives in the European security field from Germany and other western states who are fearfully realizing that, besides some concrete measures in the field and besides the declaratory content of the defence and security policies, NATO and EU are still less prepared to face the huge strategic surprises Russia “offers”[6], and even less to approach Moscow and protect the European security. Quite similar, the operationalization of the Russian SSC-8 missile[7] - which actually led to INF’s breach, was a substantial challenge for the allied military planners, because the Russian action is asking for some concrete counter military actions and the protection of the potential threatened allies, especially of those close to Alliance’s outlying areas, like the North, East or South-East of Europe.

However, the strategic discontinuities created by Russia in the European security architecture have produced, at lest at an organizational level, a “unity” in managing the geopolitical uncertainties and an unexampled institutional collaboration in defence, between NATO and EU. Even if, gathered, Europe and North America are currently stronger, economically and military speaking, it is obvious that Europe’s security architecture is completely changing towards an uncertain configuration.

Will the European allies take the lead for their security?

The nightmare of the politicians responsible with security and even with the survival of the state and its nation (in realism’s terms) from some allied European states at the border with the spaces controlled by the Russian forces are about to start. As it is easy to imagine a scenario wherein Russia would military commit a state from the East flank, for example a Baltic state, and would guarantee operation’s success by threatening with nuclear missiles dislocated on advanced position to NATO’s East and North flank. The question is: how would the European allies react to such a hypothesis?

The evaluations for making a decision are on the table. Kremlin will exploit the “official loosening” from INF’s provisions constraints to pass to dislocating intermediate range missile on advanced defence/offensive alignments on European strategic direction- even with conventional or nuclear charges, as its official argument would be the combat response to some possible western threats. Russia will produce supplementary political-military pressures over the European states from EU and NATO and will try to stay on favorable positions for negotiating, under its own rules, some claims for older and new Russian influence areas. These processes should contribute, from a Russian perspective, to achieving the foremost objective, which is for Russia to be recognized as central power in a new global order system. In these circumstances, the creation of a new pan-European security architecture seems to have a secondary stake for the Russian part. Also, Russia could try to stop the political will of the European allies to military interfere in case of crisis and defence to support some allied states which are also target-states for Moscow.

For now, experts in the field from Russia and from the West think that as much as resilient the NATO answer would be to the new European security configuration, the allies, mostly the Europeans, should pass to making extremely big defence investments and to fundamentally change the paradigm in the military-political actional plan in order to military block Russia’s aggressive behavior. It is thought that, on the contrary, Putin (which is in touch with the military capabilities shortage of the European allies, as well as with the military vulnerabilities created by difficult decisional processes, the lack of quick military mobilities of forces and methods etc.) would actually enclose NATO and EU. In other words, Moscow can create new geostrategic realities, without being affected, until now, by the deterrence measures and the allies and European policies on the East Flank, particularly on the Black Sea Region, a space wherein Moscow thinks it is “on its own”.

The reality is, however, pretty complex for Moscow too. All of this aside, Moscow can afford, with not constraints, to threat NATO and EU member states- Romania and Poland being precise targets, which did not bring it a real disservice, it can afford to promote an aggressive rhetoric with all kinds of strategic weaponries, including nuclear arms, or to develop ostentatious-unfriendly and dangerous military activities at the borders of both organizations. The lack of some symmetrical reaction from certain European capitals is not but encouraging Moscow in this direction, easing Kremlin’s blame on the US and the intensification of allies’ concerns that they could be exposed to any Russian political whim.

The first dimensions that could be improved would be the revision of NATO and EU’s strategies to combat the Russian military construction from Crimea, Kaliningrad and the Arctic Area, the establishment of new approaches for the short time development of the anti-missile defence, the conventional defence forces or the nuclear posture on the deterrence vector, as well as for the articulation of new mechanisms for the weaponry control in Europe.

All the European allies could determine NATO and EU to urgently pass to analyzing what’s new in the game for the security of the European allied territory, to (re)examine the political and military options and bravely decide over those conduit measures able to switch Moscow’s current behavior. There is more maneuver space for the European allies to retake the tied cooperation with the North-Americans. The coercive diplomacy tools would not make an exception (especially that the political “cautions” technique and the sanctions did not have the expected effect) to forcing Moscow to reenter in the abandoned treaties, in order to produce a military ambitions damp that could reestablish a power balance in Russia’s areas close to NATO and EU.

Across the EU space there are already emerging ideas according to which, basically, the Europeans should abandon the policies the Russian emergence has intimidated, to seek for innovative mechanisms to promote Europe’s security interests, concurrently agreeing over a European leader to be able to coordinate the new approaches. Probably Germany would be the right decision for this position. They could insist on US and Russia to negotiate a new INF-type of treaty, wherein to attract China and India as well, in order to transform the bilateral format in a multilateral one, and to include all types of strategic carriers for conventional or mass destruction charges.

There are speculated also some opposed opinions, actually more balanced, suggesting that Moscow and Brussels “would be willing to create and promote a new type of interaction” which, after unilaterally raising the sanctions against Moscow, to restart the “historical traditions of the bilateral relations” with Russia[8], without considering NATO’s defence policies and US’s interests in the Trans-Atlantic dimension. And there is a German approach, which starts from considering that the issue of the disputes with Russia should be seen only from a political point of view, being easier to be dealt with by integrating Russia in the European system”. It is hard to imagine how the Europeans would accept such a policy[9], as long as states like Poland think that any agreement made with Russia “over its head”, in the near future, would be devastating for this state and not only. Or that any concession to the American security umbrella for a European strategic autonomy would be possible, as Poland for a state to firmly oppose this option.  

Europeans’ political option are not that many. It is certainly difficult to choose, because any option has also a risk tied with possible dangerous actions, through the escalation of the strategic instability in Europe’s eastern part and the complete degradation of the post-Helsinki European security architecture.

In the meantime, Moscow can continue to preen, the Great Underdog and Hostage of the US-Russia confrontation being actually Europe’s Security. The European powers are aware that they have a limited capacity to influence or make the proper pressures over the US and Russia leaders, hence, they are in front of a security dilemma which is creating only difficult options. We will see if the Europeans will exploit, and how will do so, the maneuver space and the power and coercion tools they have.

[1] At 2007 MSC, president Putin has firmly stated that “They are trying to transform OSCE in a vulgar tool to ensure the foreign policy interests of a state or a group of states comparing to other states…Russia was always privileged with an independent foreign policy. We will not change this tradition today”.

[2] The 9M729 missile is a terrestrial platform-based model of the Kalibr missile, made following the Novator RK-55 Relief model.

[3] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_163733.htm?selectedLocale=enhttps:// and şi www.nato.int/cps/en/nato hq/opinions_163791.htm.

[4] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/58232/speech-high-representativevice-president-federica-mogherini-munich-security-conference_en.

[5] https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article188672127/INF-Vertrag-Nato-ist-auf-Russlands-Aggression-kaum-vorbereitet.html  and https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/ article188092039/US-Regierung-kuendigt-INF

[6] [6] The Crimea file from 2014, or the naval military incident from November 2018 provoked by Russia attacking the Ukrainian ships close to the Black Sea, have showed that the Alliance can actually be strategically surprised, which has created, across the western political and analytical circles, some concerns on the strategic planning and the ally’s intelligence effectiveness.

[7] SSC-8 is a Russian ground launched cruise missile, called by the US “missile of concern”. Known also as 9M729 or SSC-X-8 (the name of the prototype), the missile has a 2500km range capacity and a 450 kg payload. It is in the operative service since 2017. Moscow states that the missile has a 480 range of action, which corresponds to INF’s Treaty provisions.


[9] https://geopoliticalfutures.com/us-germany-strategic-divide-europe/