NATO Expansion: Strategic Opportunities and Risks

October 27, 2015

by John Gennace

North Atlantic Council

When recently-appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, named Russia as the greatest threat to U.S. national security during his confirmation hearing this past July, he caught some by surprise. Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea represented a disturbing shift in Russian foreign policy that sent shock waves throughout NATO, and until quite recently one could have argued that Dunford’s assessment was unduly alarmist. In March, President Obama referred to Russia as a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” He also went on to say that Russia is not the United States’ top national security threat and that he is more concerned about a nuclear weapon detonating in New York City. With Russia’s surprise military intervention in Syria, it is now clear that Dunford’s assessment was more accurate than some believed. It may be a regional power acting out of weakness, but Russia has demonstrated that it can profoundly alter the geopolitical status quo not only in Europe, but in the Middle East, too, having built an “arc of steelranging from the Arctic to the Mediterranean Sea.

When superimposing this arc of steel over a map of Europe, we find that geography still matters, especially when contemplating strategies to counter the Russian strategy of undermining NATO’s influence and credibility. These air, land and maritime spaces are increasingly contested as Russia increases its operational tempo with the use of conventional and hybrid capabilities. What is likely already obvious to NATO planners is the fact that there are gaps where controlling or at least influencing these contested spaces could prove exceedingly difficult by virtue of the fact that they are situated in strategically important non-NATO states. Well to the north are Sweden and Finland, both occupying strategically vital maritime spaces and the latter sharing a large land border with Russia. To the south and southeast of NATO’s flanks are Montenegro and Georgia, respectively, the latter having been invaded by Russia in 2008. These states are considering (Sweden and Finland) or actively seeking (Montenegro and Georgia) NATO membership.

For NATO, the question of further enlargement should largely hinge on three considerations:  The strategic value of admitting new members, Russia’s potential reaction, and whether systemic problems within the Alliance undermine the strategic value of expansion.

The Strategic Value of New Members

A logical starting point for evaluating the strategic value of new members is to assess the current military balance between  NATO and Russia. In recent years, Russia has undertaken comprehensive military reforms which are translating into a more active, more battle-ready, and better-suited military to support its increasingly assertive foreign policy. Although it is believed that Russia’s military can be checked in certain qualitative terms, these advantages apply to only a few European NATO states. NATO’s largest European members – Germany, the UK and France – have militaries with clear qualitative advantages over Russia, but serious questions surround deployability, preparedness and logistics, which could erase any qualitative advantages. That said, NATO as a whole maintains distinct quantitative and qualitative advantage in naval forces, though assessing the balance of air and land forces is more difficult – particularly the latter. Despite Russia’s massive efforts to reform its military, European analysts estimate that only 65 percent of its new combat brigades are truly combat-ready. What they overlook, however, is that the European Defense Agency rated European land forces as 30.9 percent combat ready and 7.5 percent sustainable deployable. While both European and Russian militaries are beset with numerous challenges, they appear to be moving on opposite trajectories.

In this context, admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO would shore up the Alliance’s northern flank. In fact, defending the Baltics against a Russian incursion would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, without significant aid from Sweden and Finland, the latter having been attacked by the Soviet Union at the start of World-War II. Controlling the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, and the large land border between Finland and Russia would be essential to any campaign defending the Baltics. Moreover, as Sweden and Finland lean more toward NATO they are apparently asking themselves the same question: “Will NATO membership add to our overall security?”  Increasingly, the answer appears to be yes. Nevertheless, NATO membership is far from certain as the Alliance seems to be experiencing expansion fatigue and Sweden and Finland remain reluctant to fully embrace membership.

However, the strategic value of admitting Montenegro and, especially Georgia, is even more uncertain. Even though Vice-President Joseph Biden recently voiced support for Montenegro’s admission to NATO, whether it adds to the Alliance’s overall security remains unclear. Despite being a very small country with few resources, what Montenegro’s membership could do is definitively derail Russia’s plans to construct a naval base there – preventing Russia from gaining greater access to the Mediterranean. Does that add to NATO’s overall security? Perhaps. NATO is scheduled to make a decision on Montenegro’s membership this December.

Georgia, however, is altogether different. On the one hand, Georgia has met virtually every requirement for admission into NATO. It has a very capable military and has actively participated in NATO missions, but because of its 2008 war with Russia, several NATO members are concerned that Georgia’s membership could present a serious security risk. As one Eastern European diplomat put it: “If a country such as Georgia joins NATO, we have to be ready to defend it.” In many respects Georgia would be an excellent addition to NATO, but because of its volatile history with Russia and the very real possibility that it could invoke NATO’s Article V in defense against Russia, membership appears unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Russia’s Potential Reaction to Enlargement

Any further enlargement must consider how Russia would respond. At play is the classic security dilemma – as one party takes steps to make itself more secure (NATO), the other (Russia) interprets those steps as provocative, leading to the possibility of war. Russia has been unequivocal in saying that it opposes any further NATO enlargement.  Precisely how it would respond is unclear, however. Responding directly to Sweden’s consideration to joining NATO, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, said that Russia would adopt “countermeasures…Putin pointed out that there will be consequences, that Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles. The country that joins NATO needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to.” Moreover, Russia’s envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko, expressed the same view with respect to eastward expansion, saying there would be “catastrophic consequences” and “[a]ny political game concerning NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine is filled with the most serious, most profound geopolitical consequences for all of Europe.” NATO, therefore, faces the extraordinary challenge of shoring-up its security, while avoiding direct military confrontation with Russia.

NATO’s Systemic Problems

As the Alliance contemplates further enlargement it must view the strategic value of doing so, along with Russia’s possible responses, through the prism of its existing systemic problems. Simply stated – there are serious questions surrounding NATO’s ability to provide collective defense for its existing 28 members. Spending has fallen to dangerous levels as only 5 members are reaching the 2% of GDP spending target on defense.  This does not portray a complete picture, however. Belgium spends about 1.1% of GDP on defense, with nearly three-quarters going to personnel costs, a quarter going to operating expenses, and barely 1% to acquiring new equipment and modernization. Elsewhere in NATO, whole divisions and weapons systems have been eliminated over the past few decades. This has led to serious interoperability problems as many NATO members are increasingly unable to operate with U.S. forces, the latter being decades ahead of many European counterparts in defense technology.

Additionally, there is perhaps no greater fundamental problem besetting NATO than a lack of common vision among its members on how to address threats confronting the Alliance. Instead, there is a growing consensus within some member states that is deeply troubling. A recent Pew study exposed potentially deep fissures within NATO. It revealed that “at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.” This is arguably the root cause of NATO’s systemic problems and the reason why the Alliance should not undertake further enlargement for the foreseeable future. Admitting new members to an alliance lacking a common vision and anything less than a full commitment to collective defense would further weaken an increasingly overstretched NATO.         

John Gennace is a Transatlantic Security and Global Governance Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: NATO

Keeping Cool: A Policy of Restraint in Syria

October 13, 2015

by Andrew Blinkinsop

Obama and Putin

Depending on which headlines one has been reading the last few weeks, one could be excused for thinking that NATO is already in the middle of a new Cold War, that a revanchist Russia poses an existential threat to the U.S. and its European allies, and that Russia’s escalation of force in Syria is the latest chapter in a story of Western decline and authoritarian resurgence. The narrative is ominous, yet appealing in its simplicity and familiarity. It is also appealing to those like Senator John McCain, who bemoan what they perceive as a power vacuum caused by the apparentabdication of American leadership by the Obama Administration. At an even higher fever pitch, some recent analyses warn in dire terms of “new era of global geopolitics” and “a new Russian flank against NATO.” While the proponents of these views stop short of calling for coalition boots on the ground, there is a general feeling that NATO needs to “do something” or “be tougher” in its response to Russian actions in Syria.

On the contrary, a sober assessment of the timing and character of Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria, as well as current realities within both Russia and Syria, reveal a much different picture. Putin’s Syria gambit is best viewed as a short-term tactic given limited options, and one that does not leave Russia in an improved security situation vis-à-vis the West. Recognizing Russia’s weakness in this move is key to formulating an appropriate response. A policy of restraint, coordination, and a continued focus on Ukraine is the way forward that best defends NATO’s core security interests.

A major geopolitical inflection point?

Putin’s stated intention to join an anti-ISIS coalition of Western and Gulf powers is belied by the initial selection of targets for Russian bombing. While the Russian media does not distinguish between ISIS and the variety of rebel groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian bombers have been focusing on the latter, which pose the more direct threat to the Syrian regime at the moment. It seems clear that Russia has no near-term intention of cooperating with the West in Syria. But its move to prop up Assad does not portend thecoming defeat of NATO,” or even a “major geopolitical inflection” point, as a recent Institute for the Study of War report claims.

It is worth taking a step back to judge the current military and economic realities of both Russia and NATO. By the last officially reported totals, NATO’s total combined military vehicles outnumber Russia’s 61,000 to 28,000. NATO countries have three times Russia’s active-duty manpower. Overall, the balance of power has shifted remarkably to NATO over the last 25 years, and despite hand-wringing about boosting NATO’s defense spending and breathless warnings of the Russian threat, these facts have not changed.

The economic situation presents an even more unbalanced picture of Russia and NATO’s relative strengths. While the U.S. and Europe have recovered their GDP losses after the Great Recession, however unsteadily, Russia’s economy is feeling a tremendous squeeze from U.S.-EU sanctions and a precipitous drop in the price of oil. According to the World Bank’s baseline scenario, the Russian economy will contract by 3.8% in 2015 and continue to shrink in 2016. The Kremlin has been forced to pull from a $60 billion “secret fund” to finance its intervention in Syria. Both former and current Russian finance ministers have called present levels of military spending unaffordable. As early as May, before the recent escalation, one Russian economist predicted that Russia could keep up its current level of defense spending for less than two years before necessity compels it to withdraw from Ukraine to escape sanctions or undergo a “politically dangerous” fiscal rebalancing. Yet another foreign front will shorten this window.

In addition, military adventurism in Syria is unlikely to cause a bump in domestic approval as Russia’s policy in Ukraine has. While Putin’s approval rating is still at a solid 84%, a recent poll found only 43% of Russians support giving weapons to the Assad regime and 69% oppose direct military intervention. The deteriorating economy and the waning domestic appetite for foreign intervention will constrain Russia’s ability to supply enough force to furnish Assad with any decisive victory. In turn, the longer Russia is embroiled in Syria, the more domestic and elite pressure the Kremlin is likely to face.

Short-term thinking

Given the timing of the buildup and the situation on the ground in Syria, the Russian intervention is best seen as a short-term attempt to keep Assad in power. After a series of territorial losses over the summer, the regime was left in “the most strategically weak position…since 2013,” according to Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Centre. In particular, rebels won victories in Idlib and Homs provinces, which are precisely the areas Russia targeted during its first week of bombing. There are several reasons why Russia wants Assad to stay in power, from the maintenance of the only reliable client state Russia has in the region, to the Kremlin’s oft-stated ideological preference for dictators over “chaos.” The important point here is the reactive nature of Russia’s intervention.

Further, since the timing of the bombing overlapped perfectly with the UN General Assembly meeting last week, manipulation of the media cycle should not be discounted as a possible motive for Russia’s intervention. Indeed, despite Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s strident, passionate speech at the UN denouncing Russian aggression against his country, the news cycle has been dominated by events in Syria.

Additional symbolic motives have been proposed for Russia’s recent moves. For example, Putin may be trying to embarrass the West by appearing more decisive, tostick it to the Americansas one commentator suggested, or to boost Russia’s international prestige (although a coalition with such international pariahs as Assad and Iran is a strange way to boost prestige). While any of these motives may factor into Russia’s tactics in Syria, we must rate their seriousness before making policy. Soft notions of “embarrassment” and “prestige,” coupled as they are with attractively simple narratives of Putin and Obama’s respective images, should not provoke an overreaction.

A measured response

The conception of grand strategist Putin outfoxing a timid, flummoxed Obama plays well in U.S. politics at the moment, and the narrative of a looming Russian threat well serves those politicians who have long wanted a more muscular Western response to the Syrian crisis. The reality, though, is that the core security interests of the U.S. and NATO are not threatened by the current Russian presence in Syria. Considering the overall balance of forces between NATO and Russia, and the precarious state of the Russian economy, policymakers should be unmoved by this development as it is best characterized as a short-term tactic borne of a weak geopolitical position.

An overreaction such as the no-fly zone called for by McCain would both needlessly escalate the situation in Syria and deepen Western involvement in a messy, intractable conflict. There are not enough true U.S. security interests in Syria to warrant such a strategy. Rather, the U.S. should coordinate with the Russian military to avoid accidents and miscommunications in Syrian airspace. Furthermore, the U.S. and its European allies should keep the situation in Ukraine decoupled from developments in Syria. Unlike Syria, the future of Ukraine is of core importance to the security concerns of NATO countries, and the West should not allow Russia’s position in Syria to influence steps toward a peaceful resolution that recognizes Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

Andrew Blinkinsop is a Transatlantic Security and Community Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: The White House

Can NATO Reassure its Eastern Members and Deter Putin?

September 23, 2015

by John Gennace

100415a-HQ28-001 NATO Headquarters Brussels.

September 14th marked the start of Russia’s largest military exercise this year – Center 2015 – in which 95,000 Russian military personnel conducted war games designed to test the readiness of forces to “contain an international armed conflict.” The exercise, which took place in the immense region between the Urals and Siberia, came on the heels of a very active year for the Russian military. In August alone, it held 79 drills. For NATO’s concerned eastern members, and the Alliance as a whole, the message is clear – the eastern flank of the Alliance requires more robust reassurance and deterrence against an increasingly aggressive Russian military.

There remains, however, a disconnect between NATO’s strong rhetoric condemning Russian actions in Ukraine and how the Alliance’s actions are perceived on the ground.  While in Berlin this past June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stressed that “as Russia aggressively modernizes its military capabilities and warfighting doctrine, it’s also actively seeking to undermine NATO….”  He went on to emphasize that although the United States does not seek conflict with Russia, it “will defend…[its] allies, the rules-based international order, and…stand up to Russia’s actions and their attempts to reestablish a Soviet-era sphere of influence.” A similar view was conveyed almost three weeks earlier by NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg when he argued that “[w]hat we see is more unpredictability, more insecurity, more unrest…[however] I believe we don’t see any immediate threat against any NATO country from the east.” Even so, NATO’s eastern member states – from Estonia to Bulgaria – are lobbying hard for permanent NATO bases on their territories as a deterrent against further Russian adventurism. This is a plan that Germany and some other NATO members oppose on the grounds that it violates a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia known as the Founding Act, which obliges NATO not to place “substantial combat forces” in Central and Eastern Europe.

Although NATO has significantly increased the frequency of its exercises in an attempt to supplement its rhetorical reassurances and deterrence, their size and scope pale in comparison to Russia’s war gaming.  While Russian exercises routinely include tens of thousands of personnel mobilized in as little as 48-72 hours from all branches of its armed forces, recent NATO exercises are minuscule by comparison, sometimes involving only a few thousand troops and as little as a few hundred. For instance, the NATO exercise Allied Spirit II was conducted August 4th-24th with 1,600 troops from Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. The exercise Saber Guardian/Rapid Trident 15, which went from July 20th-31st, was a “regional command post exercise and field training exercise that focused on peacekeeping and stability operations” and was conducted with 1,800 troops from 18 countries. These exercises fall short of reassuring NATO’s eastern members and deterring the threat posed by Russia – a threat that the newly appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, emphatically described as “the greatest threat to…[U.S.] national security.”  While NATO is scheduled to kick-off Trident Juncture 15, its largest exercise in a decade involving 36,000 troops, it will take place in Western Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea – quite far from Eastern Europe, where a strong NATO presence would reassure concerned member states and is arguably more fitting.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to NATO effectively reassuring its members and deterring future Russian aggression is disagreement over the threat itself. Member states on NATO’s eastern flank are singularly focused on Russia as memories of Soviet domination inform their views on collective defense. Meanwhile, member states to the south and west are fixated on ISIS and the unfolding refugee and migrant crisis. A recent Pew study found potentially deep divisions within NATO, revealing that “at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.” Yet “coalitions of the willing” risk undermining NATO’s cohesiveness and, by extension, its reassurance and deterrence value.

Be that as it may, the near-term Russian threat remains and the U.S. must be the driving force within NATO to assume an appropriate reassurance and deterrence posture in the east.  While the U.S. has moved additional heavy weapons and equipment into the region, more should be done. The U.S. should provide Ukraine with defensive weapons in order to a) deter further Russian intervention and b) if deterrence fails, to inflict upon Russian forces such severe damage that it will reconsider its Ukraine policy and seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  Additionally, as has been argued by some, NATO should revive the Long-Term Defense Plan (LTDP) with a particular emphasis on Eastern Europe’s security. An updated LTDP would support several workable concepts such as the prepositioning of weapons and material, the creation of a U.S. Corps headquarters based in Poland, and standardizing Eastern European forces with U.S. weapons and communications systems for optimal interoperability with U.S. and other NATO forces.

For many, the notion that Russia could pose a serious military threat to Europe seemed fantastic prior to its incursion into Ukraine in February 2014. Had the Alliance more accurately interpreted Russian intentions in the months leading up to its annexation of Crimea, it could have strengthened its deterrence posture toward Russia by taking steps such as deploying forces along its eastern flank.  As we see yet again with the “surprise” of Russia’s military deployment to Syria, Putin possesses the will to move aggressively on states bordering NATO. Therefore, it is time for NATO to boost its reassurance and deterrence value or risk more unpleasant surprises from Putin elsewhere on its periphery or on Alliance territory.

John Gennace as a Transatlantic Security and Global Governance Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: NATO

Relieving Stress: The Security Case for Massive U.S. Intervention in Europe’s Refugee and Migrant Crisis

September 16, 2015

by Andrew Blinkinsop

Refugees and Migrants

It has been a stressful year for the European Union. The Greek debt crisis laid bare deep divisions between Europe’s north and south, stressing the joints of the monetary union. Now the EU is being dealt another blow in the shape of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers at its doorstep, driven from their homes by violent conflict in Africa and the Middle East. An explosion in the number of refugees and migrants, and a few cases, including the discovery of 71 bodies of asylum seekers in a truck in Austria, have propelled the issue to the fore, from Europe’s periphery to its center. As Europe struggles with finding its own solution to the crisis, attention is turning to whether or not the U.S. should respond and, if so, what its response should be. Refugee advocacy groups and some U.S. politicians want the U.S. to accept more Syrian refugees, calling the 1,500 accepted since the start of the civil war there too low.

Doing what is right or what is safe?

The issue from the U.S. perspective is often viewed as a tradeoff between humanitarian and security concerns. The moral obligation to act is self-evident and speaks to core American values inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, to welcome with open arms the “tempest-tossed.” However, the argument goes, we must balance this noble desire with the hard-nosed reality that among these huddled masses may be radical Islamists who mean us harm. But this neat dichotomy between morality and security is a false one. When we abandon the myopic frame that casts counterterrorism as the be-all-end-all of security and look at U.S. security more broadly, it becomes clear that a policy to admit a very large number of refugees serves both causes.

Islamic terrorism is, without a doubt, a significant threat to U.S. security. However, it is far from the only one, and some in the U.S. national security establishment no longer see it as the primary one. Several prominent U.S. generals give that dubious distinction to Russia and its revisionist aspirations, and others place primacy on cyberattacks orchestrated by hostile governments. Determining a “top threat” is a matter of contention. Whether facing these threats or the myriad others emerging in an increasingly multipolar world, what is clear is that a healthy, unified European Union remains indispensable to U.S. security.

Stresses on the EU’s structure

At the moment, though, the EU is in the midst of a crisis of identity and legitimacy. The pressures of economic recession have propelled euroskeptic parties to political relevance in many EU countries. From the UKIP in Britain to the National Front in France to Jobbik in Hungary, these parties disparage Brussels institutions and seek to unravel many of the ties built between EU nations in the past half-century. These and other right-wing euroskeptic parties across Europe share two additional characteristics of concern: nationalist ideologies hostile to immigrants and foreign policy positions antithetical to U.S. security goals.

Beyond the threat to U.S. security that would result from a weakened and divided EU, euroskeptic parties also often exhibit an anti-U.S. stance and some have concerning ties to Russia. For example, Marie Le Pen of France’s National Front stated that the U.S. is “not an ally or a friend” to France, while her party has substantial ties to Russian banks. Across the continent, Jobbik wants Hungary to join Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union. In general, Russia has made no secret of courting euroskeptic politicians, and the euroskeptic faction ENF in the European Parliament has a voting record closely aligned to Moscow’s interests.

The danger of euroskeptic parties should not be overstated; for now, these parties have fairly limited representation in European capitals and the EU itself. However, these parties do pose a potential threat to European unity and American security goals. A Pew survey conducted in April and May showed that despite the lack of strong electoral success thus far, many viewed the rise of euroskeptic parties as “a good thing” for politics, including a majority of respondents in the UK and Germany. This indicates substantial room for growth for these parties – room that could be filled by nationalist appeals to EU citizens’ worries about immigration, the top issue of concern across the EU according to the May Eurobarometer poll. The euroskeptic right views the refugee and migrant crisis as a path to electoral success, and it could be right.

Lessening the stress

Europe sits on a fulcrum with solidarity, unity and the benefits of open borders on one side, and nationalism, distrust and a lack of confidence in the European project on the other. Each stressor, from the Greek debt negotiations to disagreements over Russian sanctions to refugees and migrants, represents another weight on the latter side of the scale. In the interest of a Europe “whole and free,” and by extension U.S. security, the Obama Administration should work to lessen this stress and tip the scale.

The U.S. can do this by dramatically increasing the number of refugees it accepts from source countries. Explaining the moral and strategic considerations to the American public, the Obama Administration should specifically commit to accepting large numbers of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to their relevance to U.S. policy, these three countries are the source of a large percentage of refugees and migrants currently moving to and through Europe, accounting for 279,866 or 68% of Mediterranean Sea arrivals so far this year. The acceptance of 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. in 2016, as called for by President Obama on Thursday, is not nearly enough. The 65,000 figure called for by a group of 14 U.S. senators, as well as the International Rescue Committee, would make a more meaningful impact on America’s European allies.

To make this work, according to International Rescue Committee President David Miliband, the U.S. government would need to raise its current annual refugee cap of 70,000. There is also the issue that asylum requests take an especially long time to process due to security concerns. Many refugees are turned away due to trivial connections with armed groups that controlled areas they lived in. The U.S.’s strict definitions of “material support of terror groups” cast too many asylum-seekers out and are ill-suited for dealing with the complexities of a civil war. Thus, the U.S. government must issue needed guidance on material support waivers to expand groups of eligible refugees, and establish a family reunification mechanism to streamline applications.

Political feasibility

If the threat to U.S. security lies essentially in the potential for an anti-immigrant, anti-EU backlash, why would the U.S. be immune from the same effects? Given the anti-immigrant turn of the Republican primaries, how would this proposal play domestically?

This is precisely why a re-framing of the issue is needed. If the “security vs. morality” lens remains our only one, the debate will likely fall along partisan lines, with “bleeding hearts” railing against the supposed inhumanity of one side and the “hard-nosed realists” scoffing at the naïveté of the other. But that is not a foregone conclusion. Some Republican presidential candidates, including Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, have already expressed their willingness to admit more Syrian refugees. By approaching security concerns more broadly, the debate about Syrian refugees could leap the partisan divide and offer a chance for the U.S. to assert moral and strategic leadership.

Andrew Blinkinsop is a Transatlantic Security and Community Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: Freedom House

From Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) to Mare Vestrum (Your Sea): Transatlantic Insecurity in the Mediterranean

July 13, 2015

by Fabio Capano

Migrants in the Mediterranean

“The Mediterranean, by its profound influence over southern Europe, has contributed in no small measure to prevent the unity of that Europe, which it has attracted towards its shores and then divided to its own advantage.”

With these words French historian Fernand Braudel highlighted the porosity of the Mediterranean’s borders as well as competition among multiple social, political and economic systems. Although Braudel was writing of the 16th century, the Mediterranean today is just as divisive. The Arab Spring, which brought protests, civil wars and dramatic sociopolitical changes in the Middle East and North Africa, also led to massive waves of migration from the Libyan coast toward Europe. This vast movement of people, which continues today, undermines geopolitical stability and poses major challenges for transatlantic security.

The Mediterranean, which in the past was perceived as “the lake of Europe,” is now transformed into a no-man’s land. The impressive flow of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa represents not only an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy at Europe’s southern border, but it is also offering terrorist groups a unique opportunity to “export” terror to Europe’s mainland. Indeed, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that “one of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters; there might be terrorists trying to hide, trying to blend in among the migrants.”

In an attempt to respond to what was originally understood as a refugee crisis, the Italian government led a massive rescue operation that became known as “Mare Nostrum,” or “Our Sea” in October 2013.  In November 2014, the EU agreed to remove the financial and logistical burden from Italy and began Operation Triton. Despite its promise to replace Mare Nostrum, the number of deaths of migrants crossing the Mediterranean increased exponentially under the new program, mostly due to its smaller search and rescue capabilities and minimal budget. Also troubling were findings that incoming migrants rescued by Operation Triton’s vessels often entered the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, about 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia, without having their fingerprints recorded or identification documents requested. This lapse in security due to insufficient resources and poor planning has left Europe potentially exposed to radicalized migrants whose recruitment by terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda is facilitated by instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

This potential threat has been overshadowed by the human cost of the crisis. Media attention to the humanitarian dimension of this challenge placed increasing pressure on Europe to propose a more effective strategy. In May, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced three new proposals: A European naval operation to better tackle this human emergency; stronger coordination with African governments that control the shores from which smugglers arrange the mass departures of refugees; and, aware of the immense desperation of refugees to escape violent conflict in their home countries, the  use of military force to destroy the smugglers’ network. NATO confirmed its support for this last European initiative and expressed its willingness to send training forces to Libya and provide intelligence on smugglers’ vessels crossing the Mediterranean. 

Following up on Mogherini’s proposals, on June 22nd the European Council launched a naval operation against human smugglers and traffickers in the Mediterranean called “EUNAVFOR Med.” This operation consists of three phases: The surveillance and assessment of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean; search and, if necessary, seizure of suspicious vessels; and the disposal of vessels and related assets. It is too early to assess the effectiveness of this strategy, but it will greatly depend  on the agreement among EU members to move beyond this first encouraging step. Although a UN Security Council resolution would further legitimize the European plan, an EU planning paper obtained by EU Observer stated that intelligence gathering and the seizure of ships can begin without it.  

This plan responds to the criticism that Europe’s inaction has turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard rather than the cradle of European civilization. Indeed, the long stalemate inside the EU over the redistribution of incoming migrants entering the Italian peninsula greatly undermines Europe’s claims to serve as a haven of democracy and freedom for its neighboring countries. Not only did its prolonged indifference weaken its exterior image as an indefatigable promoter of human rights, but it also became a pretext for egoistic avarice and nationalistic populism, ultimately leading to calls for a more comprehensive approach to support political stability, economic development and the strengthening of local governance in its Mediterranean neighbors.

While this strategy was formed to curb illegal immigration in the Mediterranean, it also advances the fight against international terrorism. As argued above, the potential facilitation of terrorist activities in Europe under the cloak of refugees escaping bloody civil, political and religious wars has not received enough media attention. Only recently has there been some recognition that terrorist groups operating in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan are using the displacement of millions of people as a strategic weapon against international coalitions. This threat further forces Europe to reconsider its short-term strategic approach to the Mediterranean. Although the EUNAVFOR Med holds great promise, its multi-phased nature may significantly impede a rapid response to infiltration by terrorists.

A more prompt and comprehensive strategy would focus on migration at its sources. It would first consider reinforcing the stability of the Turkish-Syrian border by directly negotiating with the Turkish and Syrian government to facilitate the deployment of UN ground troops in both Turkey and Syria. However, this strategic move cannot be achieved without Russia’s support inside the UN and therefore calls for negotiations with Moscow despite the recent deterioration in diplomatic relations. This consideration further proves the interconnected nature of current crises on the eastern and southern flanks of the European Union. As a result, the EU should consider losing rather than strengthening economic sanctions against Moscow in exchange for Russian support for a UN Security Council resolution under Chapter VII in Syria (allowing the deployment of blue helmets in the country) and the enforcement of the Minsk agreements in eastern Ukraine. By no means should this be interpreted as recognition of Russian sovereignty over the Crimean region; rather, it should serve as a temporary instrument to re-launch dialogue while involving the Kremlin in a broader and more rapid response to the Mediterranean crisis.

Second, the EU and the U.S. should promptly provide tangible and financial rewards such as greater shares in potential revenue from innovation, energy and natural resources-related projects to Tunisian and Moroccan governments. This could enhance broader Mediterranean governance in exchange for the international patrolling of smugglers’ routes. Similar incentives could be extended to the Libyan government, but would only possible with successful mediation in the current civil war, which is not only devastating the country but also strengthening the position of jihadist tribes. In this case, it also appears necessary to resolve differences with both Russia and China in order to pass a UN Security Council resolution to legitimize an international intervention that establishes a truce between the opposing factions. 

Implementing these practical steps toward the creation of a safer and freer Mediterranean represents a unique test not only to the unity of intent of European countries but also to that of the transatlantic partners in the Mediterranean. After the dramatic split over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and varying degrees of disunity over intervention in Libya and proposed action in Syria, the Mediterranean crisis represents a unique opportunity for Europe to prove its willingness to act with a single voice in international affairs and deepen integration in the military sphere. Due to the global nature of the terrorist threat, Europe also needs to further deepen transatlantic ties with its American ally. Only a combined response from the main bearers of Western values and ideals can transform the Mediterranean into a crossing point of civilizations and a borderland of hope and opportunity.

Fabio Capano is a transatlantic security analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: International Organization for Migration

A Bloody Borderland: Insight into the Ukraine Crisis

June 9, 2015

by Fabio Capano

The Crimean War of 1854-1855 deeply challenged Russian military dominance over the European continent and significantly upset the balance of power that was established in Vienna in 1815. More than a century and a half later, Russia’s aggressive strategy in Crimea is reawakened the ghost of former Czarist ambitions of westward expansion. Although different in their scope and nature, these wars seemingly defied the geopolitical order established after the end of the Napoleonic Revolutionary Wars in the former case and the Cold War in the latter. Today, Russia’s territorial ambition in Crimea represents the greatest challenge to the widely shared principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and peoples’ right to self-determination that emerged from the ashes of two world wars. More than a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this specific feature of the conflict deserves the attention of the international community as it has major implications for the European order.

Putin’s War: The Return to Cold War Politics

The fall of the Berlin Wall inaugurated a season of unprecedented geopolitical changes within the Soviet bloc. Shortly before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Parliament declared its independence in the summer of 1991. Within a few months, many countries, including Russia, recognized Ukraine’s right to be an independent and sovereign nation. Ukraine’s new territorial borders also included the Crimean region, a political entity that showed strong autonomous ambitions. Nonetheless, Crimea remained an integral part of the Ukrainian state until the Euromaidan Revolution of February 2014. By the end of March of that year, life in the country had changed dramatically: its president had fled, its Crimean region had been occupied by Russian forces and quickly annexed, and its military had entered into an armed conflict in the Donbass region with separatist forces supported by Russia.

Despite the short-lived optimism of the Minsk cease-fire agreement, these events have further reignited Cold War practices and rhetoric that views Moscow as the main threat to European peace and stability. This tense relationship can be traced back to President Putin’s election in 2012, which effectively distanced Russian politics from Medvedev’s moderate progressivism. Over the years Putin’s image has transmuted into “something close to idolatry” despite a strong economic recession, which has been further aggravated by increased spending on national and military defense. His cult of personality has been facilitated by fears of Western encirclement over “free market imperialism” and NATO expansion to former Soviet satellites.

Therefore, the Ukraine crisis is both a test and an opportunity for NATO, the West and the European Union. On one hand, it is upon these powers to defy Russian aggressiveness by holding economic sanctions, supplying humanitarian aid and strengthening defenses. On the other hand, opposing Putin and his aggressive strategy may also represent a unique opportunity in which European partners can achieve energy independence, unveil Moscow’s corruption and populist demagogy, and further advance transatlantic relations toward a safer and freer world. Ultimately, the transatlantic partners’ legacy will be measured by their ability to effectively preserve what is truly at stake: the territorial integrity of independent and sovereign states.

An Unprecedented Challenge to Postwar Europe

The inviolability of the frontiers that were established after 1945 has become one of the main “victims” of the Ukraine war. This principle, sanctioned by the Helsinki agreements of 1975, long guaranteed geopolitical stability and invaluably contributed to the peaceful settling of state disputes while refraining from the use of military force. At that time, 35 countries, including the former Soviet Union, signed the agreement. Nonetheless, the Russian Federation, one of the successor states of the Soviet Union and a signatory of the Helsinki Act, has bluntly violated its obligations.

Interpreting Russia’s breach of international law by simply attributing it to Putin’s political leadership may be inaccurate. This breach is better understood within the broader frame of regime transitions that followed the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. Different from its Eastern satellites that quickly gravitated toward the European community, the Russian Federation and the other former Soviet Republic experienced a more troublesome and complex transformation from a communist into a post-communist state.

What George Kennan described in his Long Telegram from Moscow in 1946 as “Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs” survived the end of the Cold War. In a context of unprecedented political, economic, and social transformation among its neighbors, Russia also had to witness the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the communist-led military alliance that for almost 50 years guaranteed the cohesion and security of the Eastern bloc. Its counterpart, however, did not disappear. Indeed, NATO has reinvented itself by becoming the leading military response force to threats to Western security. These threats were not related to international communism, but rather the resurgence of ethnonationalism and later, religious extremism.

These changes in NATO’s scope and nature have faced major criticism from Moscow, which has often perceived NATO’s new role as an instrument of Western interference into domestic affairs of sovereign nations. When looking at today’s Ukraine, this critique appears incredibly hypocritical, yet NATO’s military interventions in the Yugoslav wars as well as multiple peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions in both Southeastern Europe and Africa have attracted more founded concerns from its detractors. Moreover, NATO’s role in the military campaigns that followed 9/11 and the harsh debates inside the UN reignited the feasibility of Western “mission civilizatrice.” However, following the Crimean events, NATO re-embraced its original raison d’être as a shield from Russian aggressiveness and an integrative force for its former republics.

The Russian-sponsored separatist war in Crimea marked a new chapter in post-war international affairs. For the first time since 1945, a country has supported the secession of a region that is part of a bordering sovereign and independent state while also using military force to invade and occupy the same region in the name of peoples’ right to self-determination. The use of force and the rebuttal of diplomacy as a means to settle state disputes certainly represent one of the most frightening features of this crisis and calls for an enduring response from the international community.    


The violent confrontation between Ukraine and Russian separatist forces is being played upon opposing nationalist ambitions over a region whose conflicting ethnic and political identities reemerged after 1989. Russia’s violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, an independent state, has been largely perceived by Western countries as a direct attack on one of their leading principles: national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States and the European Union’s response has largely relied on the use of soft power: economic sanctions against Russia, partnership agreements with the former Soviet Republics, and humanitarian aid. While the United States has gone as far as to grant military training to Ukrainian troops, EU members are still entangled in internal debates. The EU’s inability to deepen common defense capabilities has further reaffirmed NATO’s role as the single most credible instrument of defense for crisis management of the West.

More important, analyzing the Crimean conflict through the lenses of geography, politics and identity tackles the Ukrainian crisis at its core. Territorial changes in the geography of an area also imply changes in its political allegiances. According to Moscow, the local population in Crimea never strayed from its political loyalty to the Russian motherland. Thus, it argues that its reincorporation simply fulfills Western principles of peoples’ right to self-determination. In Moscow’s view, both the transatlantic partners and Russia are fighting to affirm the same principle. This message is clearly misleading and oblivious to the true nature of the issue. Conducting a referendum during military occupation impairs voters’ ability to freely express their will.

Thus, transatlantic partners need to first counter Moscow’s misleading rhetoric. Although repression and censorship is rampant in Russia, the use of international media provides an opportunity to enter into the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Therefore, supporting domestic opposition to President Putin appears to be the best means to contain Russian aggressiveness. Although some analysts have pointed out that political opposition to Putin is extremely fragmented and an easy target for governmental repression, providing financial and political support to underground grassroots movements could actually enhance voices of dissent within Russian national public opinion.

Second, European partners need to quickly overcome their divergent strategies and budget constraints. Although asking European constituencies to devote more resources to defense can be extremely unpopular in a context of the recent recession, the EU can no longer postpone the creation of an autonomous military force to rapidly and effectively respond to challenges on its borders. As the wars in the former Yugoslavia amply demonstrated, Europe was incapable of containing localized ethnopolitical violence that produced waves of atrocities unseen since 1945.

Finally, the transatlantic partners need to firmly sustain current economic sanctions against Moscow while also leaving room for dialogue with both the Kremlin and its partners. In this respect, the Ukraine crisis is proving the United Nations’ inability to serve as the defender of international peace and security. Its outdated system of governance needs to be deeply revised and rethought; otherwise, it will continue to lack the capacity to fulfill its mission.   

As history has shown, the fluidity of state borders has caused much more harm than good to Europe over the years. After 1945, the impulse to expand was subdued by the imperatives of international peace and geopolitical stability. The mutually accepted permanence of national frontiers assisted both sides during the Cold War. While it greatly helped Moscow minimize Western interference in its internal affairs, it also fostered Soviet satellites’ ambitions for national independence and territorial integrity. And just as the Soviet Union attempted to contain these ambitions through political violence and military force, it is clear that the Russian Federation has taken on the same task more than two decades later.

Fabio Capano is a transatlantic security analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: German Federal Archives 

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