New threats to European security


The destabilisation of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the Russian resort to force in Ukraine marked the end of the post Cold War era in Europe - the era characterised by the absence of direct threats to the national security of the European states. The bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s (see Chapter 2) had not posed direct military threats to its state neighbours, and Russia and NATO’s member states had ceased viewing each other as adversaries and threats.

From the perspective of liberal international relations (IR) theory, the 1990s were a dream come true. The Paris Charter, signed by all members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in 1990 had liberalism written all over it:

The era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended . . . Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. . . Ours is a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our peoples have cherished for decades: steadfast commitment to democracy based on human rights and fundamental freedoms; prosperity through economic liberty and social justice; and equal security for all our countries.

(Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, 1990)

Realist scholars were much less optimistic about Europe’s future. Mearsheimer (1990) published a much-cited article with the provocative title, ‘Why we will soon miss the Cold War’. He argued that the transition from bipolarity to multipolarity would result in increased great power rivalry, and that the best way to maintain stability would be to arm Germany with nuclear weapons. Mearsheimer and other realists were wrong to predict that NATO would wither away and pave the way for increased rivalry between Europe’s old great powers: Germany, France, Russia and the UK. But they were right in predicting that the liberal recipes for peace and prosperity - disarmament, démocratisation, institutionalisation, integration and free trade - would be insufficient to create the undivided and peaceful Europe that many were hoping for, and that liberal and constructivist scholars believed was within reach. The liberal recipes failed vis-à-vis Russia and the MENA region , and their failure contributed to the rise of new threats to the East and in the South. The direct threats to national and European security that disappeared with the end of the Cold War have made a comeback.

The purpose of this chapter is to trace the resurgence of direct threats to European security. It does so by tracing the gradual breakdown of relations between Russia and Western states, and particularly Europe’s two key security organisations: the EU and NATO. These organisations completely marginalised the OSCE, which played a key role in ending the Cold War and laying out the liberal visions for a new and undivided Europe (see Chapter 5).

The chapter has five parts. The first part shows how the liberal-inspired peace policies, which brought prosperity and security to the states joining the EU and NATO, helped bring about a renewed rivalry between Russia and the West. The second part analyses the different Russian and Western perceptions driving the confrontation, the rise of hybrid threats, and considers the likelihood of a direct military confrontation between the two sides. The third section turns south, showing how failed EU and NATO attempts to democratise and stabilise the MENA region helped create the cocktail of terrorism, state collapse, migration and refugees that now pose a direct threat to European security. The fourth examines how the EU and NATO have perceived and tackled the new direct threats from the South. The fifth and final part sums up the main findings and discusses their implications for the future of the EU, NATO and European security.

From partnership to rivalry: the deteriorating Russian–Western relationship

In 1998, George Kennan, the American diplomat who conceived the containment strategy that the USA employed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, deplored the decision to expand NATO eastwards:

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war ... I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else ... It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are - but this is just wrong.

(cited in Friedman, 1998)

Unlike realist scholars, Kennan did not consider a return to Cold War-style rivalry inevitable, because of the anarchic structure of the international system or human nature. Kennan took a more constructivist view of the Russo-Western relationship. He believed that a positive relationship with Russia was possible if the West understood Russian concerns, considered them and treated Russia with respect.

Liberal scholars and practitioners shared the view that a positive relationship with Russia was possible, but only if Russia adopted the liberal ideals and ways of the West unconditionally. Russia could only become a true partner of the W est if Russia met the criteria for EU and NATO membership (see Box 10.1). In the Western perspective, partnership was about westernising Russia. The EU partnership and cooperation agreement was based on the ‘respect for democratic principles and human rights as an essential element of the partnership’ and the objective is to ‘support Russian efforts to consolidate its democracy, develop its economy and complete the transition into a market economy' (European Union, 1994). NATO also based its cooperation agreement with Russia on the premise that Russia would continue its process of transition towards democracy and market economy, and ‘that democracy, political pluralism, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and civil liberties and the development of free market economies’ was key to the development of a successful partnership (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1997).

Box 10.1 EU and NATO membership criteria

'[EU] Membership requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate's ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.' (European Council, 1993, Section 7.A.iii)

'NATO membership is potentially open to all of Europe's emerging democracies that share the alliance's values and are ready to meet the obligations of membership. We have made clear that, at a minimum, candidates for membership must meet the following six requirements:

  • • New members must uphold democracy, including tolerating diversity.
  • • New members must be making progress toward a market economy.
  • • Their military forces must be under firm civilian control.
  • • They must be good neighbours and respect sovereignty outside their borders.
  • • They must be working toward compatibility with NATO forces.
  • • New members must be invited by a consensus of current members.'
  • (U.S. State Department, 1997)

This constructivist-style socialisation approach worked well in stabilising and democratising the central and Eastern European countries, who were willing to do virtually anything to join the two organisations. It did not work with Russia, however. The Western understanding of partnership made its realisation contingent upon a successful Russian transformation to a liberal Western democracy with an open market economy compatible with EU standards.

This was a tall order, and it made a deterioration of the relationship with Russia inevitable, when its démocratisation process went into reverse after Putin's accession to power in 1999.

The Russian understanding of partnership was very different. Russia wanted the West to respect it as a great power with privileged interests in its “near abroad”. In the Russian perspective, the partnership never became real because the Western powers consistently refused to respect its great power interests. They dismissed repeated Russian proposals for a new pan-European security organisation based on the OSCE, and ignored Russian protests against NATO’s bombing of the Bosnian Serbs (1995), NATO’s air war over Kosovo (1999), the Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence (2008) and NATO’s air war against Libya (2011). Yet, the principal cause of disagreement was NATO expansion. When President Yeltsin pleaded with the USA’s President Clinton not to expand the alliance, Clinton told him not to worry; Russia’s security would benefit from it. Then he added, ‘No country will be allowed to veto expansion’ (cited in Marshall, 1994). NATO expansion was a fait accompli that Russia had to learn to live with.

President Putin begged to differ. He made clear at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in 2008 that he regarded Georgian and Ukrainian membership as a ‘direct threat to Russian security’ and that ‘the efficiency of our co-operation will depend on whether NATO members take Russia’s interests into account’ (cited in Blomfield and Kirkup, 2008). He was serious. Later that year, Russia intervened militarily in Georgia in support of Abkhazian and South Ossetia’s separatists, subsequently recognising the two regions as independent states.

Russia’s reaction was equally hostile when the EU launched its Eastern Partnership, offering Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine closer economic and political links. Moscow perceived this as an attempt ‘to extend the EU’s sphere of influence' (Pop, 2009). It responded by launching a competing plan for a Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) and lobbied hard to persuade these countries to join the ECU instead of signing Association Agreements with the EU. The EU fuelled the rivalry, insisting that ECU membership was incompatible with its Association Agreements, and the EU unwillingness to engage in dialogue with Russia over Ukraine reinforced Russian perceptions that the objective was to reduce Russian influence (Marocchi, 2017, pp. 4-5). It was the Ukrainian government’s decision to yield to Russian pressure that triggered the violent protests that brought down Ukrainian President Yanukovych in 2014. When the new Ukrainian government declared its intention to sign the Association Agreement and speed up integration with the West, Moscow annexed the Crimea and resorted to proxy warfare in Eastern Ukraine.

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