The debate has continued over what more NATO and European Union can do to punish Russia for taking over Crimea and to stop it from going any further. History is replete with similar scenarios with one or the other European power over stretching itself based on false sense of the ground situation, while attempting to change borders
and correct history.
The fear is that appearing weak, or worse, not doing anything, can encourage further expansion that could later require an even bigger and costly response. Nonetheless, as noted in an earlier piece, US considers European stability as the bedrock of its own security paradigm and Russian actions cannot simply be ignored. This is why President Obama has spent literally the whole week in Europe meeting and assuring various allies, before heading to Saudi Arabia on March 28th. Clearly, the Middle East and Asia Pacific have moved to the background for the time being as European theater emerges as the center of gravity in world affairs.
Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping completed his 11-day trip to Europe on April 1 and stated, “The relationship between China and the EU has become one of the most important financial relationships in the world.”
For more than a decade major European powers and US have remained fixated on fighting terrorists in AfPak, Middle East and North Africa. In this, Russia has cooperated with the West, and just recently helped out in Syria as well. For the most part, however, China and Russia have stayed away from direct involvement in any of the conflicts connected with the campaign against terror. This helped them economically at a time when the West has been going through a major recession. It was this realization, in addition to other factors, which has forced NATO and US to put matters in perspective and to evaluate what level of threat the extremists pose, and who the real strategic adversaries may be. This assessment brought in to limelight the ‘Pivot to the Pacific’ strategy and the importance of reinvigorating the NATO alliance in the aftermath of US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the West and NATO go through this strategic adjustment and transition, turbulence in Europe would have been the last thing to expect. In this regard, two angles have emerged: Russians took the steps sensing the American weakness and European divisions. US has shifted its emphasis more and more towards political solutions to conflicts, especially recently in Syria and over Iranian nuclear program. The other tangent being: the Russians were provoked to intervene so as to distract it from gaining in the Middle East, which it has begun to in places like Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.
Speaking in Brussels on March 26th President Obama reiterated that Europe would have to start thinking about diversifying its energy resources and reduce dependence on Russia. With US already among the largest producer of gas, it could certainly become one of the exporters. The challenge being the US is far from Europe and that adds to the transportation costs, plus there are still infrastructure limitations in this regard. Obama repeatedly highlighted European unity in dealing with the Russian aggression.
Future of NATO
A case can be made that in the absence of any preeminent threat to Europe, and with US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, NATO alliance has been looking for a new mission. The recent NSA surveillance scandal has also ruffled up ties and disillusioned traditional European allies. In his speech, Obama emphasized that US has remained concerned about NATO members cutting their defense budgets, and he made it clear that all members would have to ‘chip in’ to provide security for Europe in the aftermath of Crimea. Irrespective of these factors, NATO takes on an additional significance as US begins a shift towards the Asia Pacific.
On the other hand, there has been a growing worry amongst European and Arab allies about what the American pivot to the Pacific means for them. This is why President Obama stressed in his address in Brussels that the European partnership is the ‘cornerstone’ of American global engagement. In this context, The Russian take over of Crimea represents a threat around which NATO and Europe can coalesce. Furthermore, it could benefit US economically if eastern and western Europe indeed starts to transfer their energy acquisitions from the US. Europe and US are also engaged in finalizing far reaching transatlantic free trade agreement to strengthen the linkages. However, this outlook does reflect the expendability of Middle East.
Europe and Middle East
Declining American dependence on energy supplies from the Middle East, accompanied by the policy shift on Iran and Syria, plus a move to the Pacific, are more than enough reasons to cause paranoia in the Gulf region. Speaking last December at the Manama Dialog organized by IISS, the US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had assured the Arab allies about the continued US presence in the region.
“Our emphasis on diplomatic tools should not be misinterpreted. We know diplomacy cannot operate in a vacuum. Our success will continue to hinge on America’s military power, the credibility of our assurances to our allies and partners in the Middle East that we will use it,” he stated. He also referred to the kind of threats being confronted: “Many challenges that the region already faced, from violent extremism to failed states to proliferation, have actually intensified, and destabilizing actor, state and non-state actors alike, have adopted more and more advanced weaponry, weaponry from ballistic missiles to cyber capabilities.”
There is evidence to suggest that other European powers are also moving in tandem with the US in the evolving strategy. For example, in April 2013, UK based think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), presented a ‘Return to East of Suez’ policy brief. The paper suggests that Britain is considering placing its land, sea, and air forces across the Middle East, for touch and go type operations. The report added that Arab awakening, the situation of Iran and Syria, has made the Middle East highly volatile and Britain is preparing policy options on how to respond.
According to the RUSI report, the potential missions could be in support of the American and NATO operations, but could be taken independently as well. And, it goes on to ease European worries that Britain is looking to operate outside of European security arrangements. In a larger framework, while US is pivoting to the Pacific, UK appears to be taking on a backstopping role in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, in June 2013, Putin declared that Russia will maintain a permanent naval presence in the area as well. “This is a strategically important region and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation,” he had stated.
Similarly, French troops arrived in Mali at the beginning of 2013 to conduct counter terror activity and the footprint has been increasing ever since. PoliTact had noted at the time that this move would likely be matched by other European powers. That has indeed been taking place with the French, Scandinavians, American, and EU troops getting involved in the conflict of Central African Republic.
It’s not just about Crimea
Thus what happened in Ukraine and Crimea have wider connections and it would be naïve to think that only the European dynamics is at play. While Russia may have seen American weakness in Middle East, US may want to distract the bear recognizing its leverage.
European economic recession accompanied by resurgence in nationalist fervor, does not reflect well on the future of European Union. History tells us that anemic fiscal conditions accompanied by resurgence of nationalism can be a combustible mixture. The risk is that the crisis developing over Ukraine and Crimea may cause the western powers to compete with each other, and shift the tensions to other regions of the world. This will then also test the resilience of Russian-Chinese ties. A Chinese expert Vasily Kashin, who is at the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) think tank, told Reuters recently, “The worse Russia’s relations are with the West, the closer Russia will want to be to China. If China supports you, no one can say you’re isolated.”
Early indications of what this focus towards Europe means for South Asia came to the fore this week when US decided to shift $10 million from Pakistan’s aid towards supporting Ukraine. Surprisingly, the coverage of critical Afghan election on April 5 is also not getting due attention in western capitals. Meanwhile, Putin thanked China and India for their understanding on the Ukraine crisis; both have refrained from criticizing Russia directly.
At the same time, China seems to speeding up its pivot to Europe for building business ties. President Xi Jinping completed his 11-day trip to Europe on April 1. “The relationship between China and the EU has become one of the most important financial relationships in the world,” Xi stated. During his trip of Europe, China sealed 50 deals with the total value of 18 billion Euros ($25 billion).