The sabre-rattling in Ukraine is heating up the Black Sea

As things heat up between Russia and Ukraine, George Vișan explains the stakes for each player and the strategic landscape in the Black Sea region.

Seven years have passed since Russia annexed Crimea and began a proxy war against Ukraine. These events marked the beginning of the most brutal and serious armed conflict in the Black Sea region since the end of World War II. The advent of war between Russia and Ukraine in 2014 has had a negative impact on the regional security environment. Furthermore, subsequent events have changed the regional balance of force in Russia’s favour. 

Russia: projecting force within the Black Sea region and beyond

Since 2014 the Russian Federation has been engaged in a proxy war against its neighbour Ukraine. The purpose of the Kremlin’s military campaign against Kyiv has been to stop it from joining the West and thus bring Western influence closer to Russia’s border. Russia claims the former republics of the Soviet Union as its own sphere of influence.1Moscow began its aggression against Ukraine in 2014 when it became clear that rather than joining Russia’s Eurasian Union, the country would have preferred to have closer relations with the West, by signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Russian elites construed Ukraine’s option for the EU as a further step towards NATO accession. Despite being a part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), Ukraine’s NATO accession was not on the table in 2014 and seemed a very unrealistic possibility. There was no consensus in 2014 within Ukraine in favour of becoming a NATO member, and there was no consensus within the Alliance for Ukraine to join it. 

In February 2014, Russian troops wearing unmarked uniforms took over military installations in Crimea, as well as key civilian infrastructure. On 18 March 2014, Crimea was officially annexed by the Russian Federation after an illegal referendum. In parallel with its actions in Crimea, Russian-sponsored individuals started a breakaway movement in eastern Ukraine, in the coal-rich and mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region. When Ukrainian armed forces decisively beat back the rebels in Donbass, Russian forces intervened on their behalf, decimating the Ukrainian troops with precision fire and armoured assaults.

The annexation of Crimea provided Russia with an important geostrategic asset in the Black Sea region and beyond. The Kremlin can now effectively project force within the Black Sea region, as well as beyond in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Despite the Minsk agreements signed in 2014 and the ongoing Normandy Format talks, fighting continues in eastern Ukraine to this day. Russia is fighting a proxy war of attrition against Ukraine, the goal of which is to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in order to turn Kyiv away from its Western path. 

The annexation of Crimea provided Russia with an important geostrategic asset in the Black Sea region and beyond. The Kremlin can now effectively project force within the Black Sea region, as well as beyond in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the new US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, “Russia’s strategic goals in the Black Sea include maintaining access to the Mediterranean Sea and facilitating the defense of the Russian homeland. In the Eastern Mediterranean Russia seeks to expand power projection capabilities, demonstrate expeditionary reach to potential partners and influence a variety of ongoing diplomatic issues in its favor”2

The value and relevance of the annexation was proven in 2015, when Russia intervened militarily in Syria using Crimea as the main staging ground for the operation. The only limitations regarding the use of Crimea as a power projection asset are geographical and legal: the Straits of Bosporus & the Dardanelles, and the Montreux Convention. In the Black Sea, Russia’s military presence is reinforced by its naval base at Novorossiysk and by the troops deployed in the breakaway ‘republics’ of Abkhazia and Ossetia, in Georgia. 

Over the past seven years Russia has managed to gradually overturn the military balance in the region in its favour. Moreover, the Kremlin has learned how to take advantage of the existing differences between NATO members and use it to its favour. Turkey’s grievances with the US, Greece and France have been exploited and used as a wedge against NATO.

One of the Russian Federation’s main priorities after it took over Crimea from Ukraine has been to revamp the military assets based in the peninsula: the Black Sea Fleet (BSF), air bases for naval aviation and the Russian Air Space Forces, as well as infrastructure for the land forces. 

Since 2014, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has received six new Kilo class submarines and three new Admiral Grigorovich class guided missile frigates. It should have received six of this new type of guided missile frigate, but Ukraine cut off the supply of turbine engines. Nevertheless, until Russian industry can replace the Ukrainian turbines with similar products, in place of the three frigates, the Black Sea Fleet has received small missile corvettes capable of launching land attack cruise missiles. Moreover, the shipyards in Crimea have started building fast attack craft for the Russian navy. 

The Crimean peninsula has been transformed into a ‘strategic bastion‘ by Russia in order to protect its territorial acquisition as well as to project power. It has also become one of the places where Russia showcases its latest military technology, for both strategic reasons and marketing purposes. In Crimea the Kremlin has deployed S-400 Triumf long-range integrated air defence systems, as well as Bal & Bastion-P coastal defence systems3. It has created an area denial and anti-access (A2/AD) network  which secures the newly acquired territory, provides a good air and maritime picture, increases the cost to outside actors of projecting force, and allows it to blackmail neighbouring countries into submission during a crisis. In the near future Russia will improve its surveillance and awareness of the Black and Mediterranean Seas by deploying the Voronezh-SM long range radar in Sevastopol4.

Lacking new large surface combatants, the Russian navy has been forced to deploy Kalibr cruise missile on every newly commissioned submarine and surface combatant.5 This tendency towards ‘Kalibri-sation’, as the Military Balance has called it, is being used to compensate for the newer and larger surface ships which are now beyond the capabilities of the Russian shipyards, as well as for the cost of such vessels. It represents a trend for escalation dominance and operational flexibility, as the Kalibr missile in its land attack variant is capable of hitting targets as far as 2000 km away. 

Of particular note for the Black Sea region is the development and deployment of the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. This is likely an Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile adapted for launch from MiG-31K long-range interceptors6. Its stated purpose is to take out ballistic missile defence interceptor bases, such as the one at Deveselu in Romania. This particular combination of missile and aircraft was first deployed in the Southern Military District which encompasses the Black Sea region. This is a very potent combination of carrier and vector: the MiG-31 is a high-speed long-range interceptor designed at the height of the Cold War to deal with US SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. The Iskander-M is equipped with an electro-optical guidance system which allows is to make terminal manoeuvres before hitting its target. The MiG-31K and the Kinzhal could be used to strike time-sensitive targets in the region such as air bases, naval bases and reinforced command centres. 

Russia plans to further escalate the arms race in the Black Sea region by deploying the first hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile in the world, the 3M22 Zirconwhich is currently undergoing operational testing. If the system works as advertised by Kremlin propaganda, it will provide the Russian Navy with a capability without parallel in NATO navies. Moscow considers hypersonic weapon systems as a major component of its conventional deterrence. 

Of particular concern for US planners is the so-called ‘escalate to deescalate’ strategy, which is defined as “a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use”. The Kremlin could use this strategy in a potential conventional war against NATO to secure territory Russia seizes by threatening and even using tactical nuclear weapons. However, it must be noted that this strategy has not been mentioned in any Russian policy-planning document, but has been inferred by US military and nuclear weapons experts.

Although Russia seems to have achieved some sort of local military superiority, it has by no means overtaken NATO. Overall the Alliance, and the United States in particular, still have the lead. However, Russia is trying to use some of its few competitive advantages in missile technology to offset NATO’s military preponderance by trying to exploit its dependence on follow-on reinforcements.19 The process of modernising the Russian armed forces began in 2011, but has not yet been completed. Russia’s armed forces still depend on battalion tactical groups (BTGs, similar to Western battle groups) rather than standing operational military formations. Russian forces now have around 136 battalion tactical groups made up exclusively of professional soldiers; the target is 200 such groups20

Russia’s military posture may not be sustainable in the future for a multitude of overlapping reasons. First, Russia has overextended itself militarily over the past seven years: it has been involved in conflicts or has deployed troops to Ukraine, Syria and Libya. It maintains a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, and has plans to build bases in the region. Losses from these conflicts have mounted over the years, sapping political support at home. Second, its economy has been affected by the cumulative effects of the sanctions imposed after 2014, the drop in oil prices and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, with access to Western technology being curtailed, Russian defence programs have stalled or been delayed7. Third, the pandemic is forcing the Kremlin to pay attention to domestic developments. The handling of the SARS-CoV 2 pandemic has not been stellar, Russian authorities being forced to acknowledge at the start of 2021 that more Russians have died of the pandemic than previously announced. Finally, the protests that have developed following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his subsequent arrest is forcing the Kremlin to prioritise the survival of the regime, rather than force projection.

In the ex-Soviet space, Russia’s reputation as an ally and security provider has taken a serious hit after Azerbaijan’s success in reclaiming some of its territory in the Nagorno Karabakh region, following a short but highly sophisticated war in 2020. Moreover, an outside power (Turkey) has been allowed to give military support to a client state (Azerbaijan) in Moscow’s ‘backyard’ (Central Asia) without visible consequences. The security guarantees provided by the CSTO and Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in its near aboard have been called into question. In the case of Armenia, the Kremlin has sacrificed strategic credibility for dubious local political gains.

Russia presents a complex strategic picture of military and diplomatic prowess, but also of political fragility. This situation defines Moscow more as a regional actor, with some limited capabilities of power projection, than as a global player which could keep up with the US or China. However, this disparity between capabilities and status should not lead to underestimating Moscow’s will to generate instability in its near abroad. 

NATO: a two-speed approach for the eastern flank 

Seven years after the annexation of Crimea and five years after NATO’s Warsaw Summit, the alliance is maintaining a two-speed approach for the eastern flank: Poland and the three Baltic states are recipients of the Enhanced Forward Presence force-posture approach, while Romania and Bulgaria have to make do with the Tailored Forward Presence. A two-speed approach regarding the security and defence of the eastern flank is not conducive to a coherent deterrence posture. The Trump administration exacerbated this issue with a schizoid policy regarding NATO and a Janus-faced approach to Russia. Despite deploying more troops on the eastern flank and allocating more funds to the European Deterrence Initiative, the Trump administration did not fundamentally alter NATO’s military posture on the eastern flank.8 Moreover, it failed to articulate a new NATO strategic concept; also, President Trump’s instinctive distrust of multilateral alliances dealt a severe blow to the Alliance’s cohesion. The decision taken in July 2020 to withdraw troops from Germany, because Berlin was not meeting its 2% of GDP spending target and for supporting the ill-conceived North Stream 2 gas pipeline, has needlessly exacerbated relations with one of Washington’s most important allies in Europe and has called its commitment to Europe’s security into question.9 Overall, the American attitude towards NATO in the past four years has had a negative impact on the Alliance’s cohesion, and has contributed to what President Emmanuel Macron has termed NATO’s ‘brain death‘. 

If Washington exposed profound divisions between the president and the deep
administration over strategic directions and tactical execution, some Western European members have sent mixed signals that have negatively impacted NATO’s posture on the eastern flank. Germany and France have indeed deployed troops in the Baltic states and Poland; however, Berlin is still underinvesting in defence and cooperating with Russia in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Paris considers terrorism to be the greatest security threat it faces, and is mainly focused on the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific.10 The eastern flank is merely an afterthought on the Élysée and the Quai d’Orsay – or even a source of irritation, when the countries in the region acquire US military equipment11

Turkey: NATO’s linchpin in the Black Sea region

Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits combined with its military prowess, make it the most important alliance member in the Black Sea region. However, most of Turkey’s strategic attention has been focused on the Mediterranean Sea, Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East as far as the Indian Ocean. However, the main issue with Turkish foreign policy is not necessarily its reach, but its predictability. 

Over the past two years Ankara has successfully confronted Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in its own backyard, in the Caucasus. Most debates concerning Turkey right now concentrate on its dispute with Greece over maritime exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean, the procurement of the S-400 Triumf integrated air defence system and its descent into authoritarianism. Turkey has a complex relationship with Russia, characterised both by competition and cooperation. The Kremlin did indeed exacerbate the tensions existing between Ankara and its western allies over Syria, Iraq and the attempted coup in 2016 in order to separate it from the Western alliance. However, Turkey proved to be a genuine competitor to Russia in Syria, Libya and in the South Caucasus. Ankara was instrumental in Azerbaijan’s successful campaign in Nagorno Karabakh and deployed advisors, foreign fighters and state-of-the-art military equipment in support of the Azeri forces. In Libya in 2020, Turkish equipment and military advisors helped the GNA to stem the attacks launched by the forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose main supporter is Russia12

Over the past two years Ankara has successfully confronted Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in its own backyard, in the Caucasus.

Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 missile system is both a cautionary tale of political hubris and diplomatic brinkmanship as well as a lesson to the rest of the Alliance. Turkey was not entirely satisfied with the military assistance it received in protecting its territory from ballistic missile attacks and air raids during the Syrian civil war. Moreover, Ankara has technical and technological ambitions that the Western allies have not taken seriously, as they have not offered a level of technological cooperation commensurate with Turkey’s expectations. The Turkish defence industry has progressed a great deal, and the Turkish authorities want to cash in by creating lucrative partnerships with large Western manufacturers. Technical cooperation concerning the development of an integrated air defence system would represent a high-tech prestige project for Turkey which would emphasise the advancements in science, technology and military power Ankara has made over the past 100 years in general, and under the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in particular. In the case of the S-400 procurement, Erdoğan felt that his country was not being taken seriously and needed to send a signal to its allies in NATO. However, his brinkmanship may have not paid off, as the United States has eliminated Turkey from the F-35 Lightning II multirole fighter programme and has imposed a number of sanctions against it. The F-35 programme is far more lucrative in financial terms, and has more cutting-edge technology than what the Russian Federation may offer in the long run. 

The Kremlin may have overplayed its hand when it comes to separating Ankara from the US and its NATO allies. Despite the ongoing controversies regarding the Erdoğan regime, Ankara’s disputes with Athens in the Eastern Mediterranean, tensions with Paris over Libya and Syria and with Washington over the S-400 procurement and Syria, Turkey remains anchored within the Western camp and disapproves of Moscow’s policies in the Black Sea. Turkey is helping Ukraine rebuild its navy and its shipbuilding industry by selling its latest type of multirole corvette. In 2020, Turkey discovered a rich gas field in the Black Sea13. This discovery may help resolve some of the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece, France, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, while at the same time focusing Ankara’s attention on the Black Sea. 

Romania: the fulcrum of NATO in the Black Sea region

The importance of Romania for the Western alliance has steadily grown since it became a member of NATO in 2004. Bucharest’s strategic partnership with Washington its and support during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have enhanced Romania’s strategic profile. In 2011, Romania along with Poland became the host nations for the US ballistic defence system in Europe. Romania’s main interest in the Black Sea is to balance Russian power by means of integrating the region into what is broadly termed the Western Alliance, that is NATO and the European Union. A defining feature of Romania’s strategic posture is the large popular support enjoyed by NATO and the EU in the country, as well as the general consensus of its political elites concerning the benefits of being a member of these two organisations. 

The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine began in 2014 have greatly affected Romania’s security posture in the Black Sea. For the first time since World War II the region has become a theatre of war. The main threat in Bucharest’s perception is the re-emergence of the use of force as the primary means of resolving disputes between states and territorial revisionism.14

After 2014 Romania’s diplomatic and military efforts concentrated on improving its defence posture by allocating 2% of its GDP to defence, securing the deployment of NATO and US troops on its territory in order to deter any potential aggression, and promoting a Black Sea agenda in NATO and the EU, in order to maintain the international diplomatic focus on the region. Bucharest has been moderately successful in its efforts to improve its strategic posture in the face of the Russian challenge.

Romania’s main interest in the Black Sea is to balance Russian power by means of integrating the region into what is broadly termed the Western Alliance.

Largely neglected until 2014, defence procurement plays an important role in counterbalancing Russia. In 2017 Bucharest began an ambitious defence acquisition programme worth €9.3 billion in order to revamp its military. However, after four years most of Romania’s procurement programmes are suffering from delays due to litigation, and have been implemented later than originally planned15. The branch of the Romanian armed forces most affected is the Romanian Naval Forces, which have seen all of their procurement programmes delayed. Without a modern navy, Romania cannot be a credible actor in the Black Sea region.

After 2014, the US and NATO deployed troops on the eastern flank of the alliance on a rotational basis. Ever since becoming a member of NATO, one of Romania’s main aims within the Alliance has been to host US or allied troops on its territory on a permanent basis. The rotational nature of the US and allied forces deployed in Romania is suboptimal, and not conducive to a coherent deterrence posture on the eastern flank. This is made worse by the alliance not treating the eastern flank as a single, coherent space. The distinction made between Enhanced Forward Presence status for Poland and the Baltic states on one hand, and Tailored Forward Presence for Romania and Bulgaria on the other, translates into a less credible deterrence posture on the southern tip of the flank. Although Bucharest has been lobbying to have this status changed, it has so far failed to achieve a change of policy. 

The Trump administration, despite improving the US presence on the eastern flank, also introduced an element of unpredictability, as was demonstrated by the ill-conceived decision taken in July 2020 to withdraw US troops from Germany.16 Most of those troops would have been sent back to the US, while the rest would have been deployed on the eastern flank and in Italy. Worse, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a unit originally deployed to Romania and Poland in 2015, would have been sent back to the US. Besides the political hurdles Romania faces concerning the deployment of Alliance troops on its territory, the country’s poor infrastructure hinders the deployment, mobility and re-enforcement of US and NATO forces.

Nevertheless, despite Romania’s misgivings regarding the status of US and NATO troops on its territory, there have been some palpable benefits for Bucharest. The US has pre-positioned heavy equipment in Romania and is investing in modernising Romanian military bases. Recently the US has deployed unmanned Predator aerial vehicles at the Câmpia Turzii air base in order to improve the Alliance’s naval command over the Black Sea. Moreover, Bucharest is hosting a NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU), the Headquarters Multinational Division South-East, East, the Multinational Brigade South-East, and is also investing in modernising its basesespecially Mihail Kogălniceanu near Constanța. 

Romania is promoting a Black Sea agenda within NATO and the EU. The most successful diplomatic projects so far have been the Bucharest Nine forum (B9) and the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The B9 is an intra-alliance forum which promotes the issues of eastern flank, while the Three Seas Initiative promotes economic development for the member states in the EU adjoining the Black, Baltic and Adriatic Seas. 

Bulgaria – the ‘soft underbelly’ of NATO on the eastern flank?

Bulgaria has a complex relationship with Russia. On one hand there is the cultural and historic relationship between Bulgaria and Russia; on the other, Sofia is a member of both NATO and the EU. Bulgaria’s security dilemma in the Black Sea is further complicated by its fraught relationship with Turkey. Sofia is concerned at Turkey expanding its influence into the Western Balkans. Moreover, Bulgaria wants to leverage its geographic position in order to become an energy hub in the region. Consequently, Sofia’s policy is oriented towards avoiding direct confrontation with Russia, but also maintaining and benefitting from its status as NATO and EU member.

Despite sharing the same security dilemma in the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have not agreed on a strategic agenda for the region.

Compared with the eastern flank’s northern tip, the southern tip has not agreed on a particular strategic assessment regarding the threat posed by the Kremlin. Despite sharing the same security dilemma in the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have not agreed on a strategic agenda for the region. When Romania proposed in 2016 the creation of a Black Sea flotilla to train and patrol in the region, Bulgaria initially agreed to the Romanian project, but then withdrew its support for the project before NATO’s Warsaw Summit. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov then stated that he wants to see “sailboats, yachts, large boats with tourists, and not becoming an arena of military action … I do not need a war in the Black Sea.”17

In the Black Sea region Bulgaria, along with Romania, are the only regional states that are both members of the EU and NATO. They are also among the poorest members of these international organisations, which limits their defence capabilities as well as their regional influence. Sofia has started to modernise its air force and its navy, after a long period of time in which it had underinvested in defence. Bulgaria has bought 8 F-16 Block 70 multirole fighters, and it is likely to buy 8 more in the near future in order to have an operational squadron. Lürsen has won a tender to build two multirole patrol ships, roughly equivalent to multirole corvettes. Bulgarian is participating in the Multi-National Brigade South East, based in Romania. The United States uses four Bulgarian bases and training facilities in Bulgaria, and will deploy 2500 troops in the country over the next 10 years.

In Russia’s assessment Bulgaria may be the ‘soft underbelly’ of NATO on the eastern flank. This is proven by the latest espionage scandal that has affected Bulgarian-Russian relations and has cast doubt over Sofia’s credibility as a NATO ally. A network of six Bulgarian active and retired military personnel has been caught spying for Russia. What made matters worse is that some of its members were officers in the military intelligence service of the Bulgarian armed forces. 

Ukraine needs to maintain diplomatic momentum on Crimea and the Donbas

Kyiv is currently facing a triple challenge. First, there is the conflict in the Donbas that has yet to be resolved. Second, the pandemic has affected Ukraine quite hard, and the government has had trouble finding vaccines for inoculating its citizens. Third, it has been difficult to continue the democratic upgrade of Ukraine’s institutions while fighting a war. 

Russia failed spectacularly in 2014 when it decided to use force against Ukraine in order to support its proxies in the east of the country. The Kremlin’s main aim was to undermine and irreparably damage Ukrainian sovereignty; but despite this, Ukraine managed to survive the Russian armed onslaught. Ukraine’s resilience in the face of territorial losses and aggression proved the Russian narratives about the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood to be entirely wrong. It reconfirmed the old political science adage that ‘states make war and war makes the state’18; Ukrainian statehood has been consolidated by the conflict. The election of Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 as Ukraine’s president demonstrated both the country’s capacity to resist prolonged aggression, as well as the need for structural reforms in order to make the state more accountable to its citizens.

Ukraine is trying to build up its civilian and military institutions with the help of the West. Nevertheless, the help that has come from Europe and the US has not come without controversies. Germany and France insist that the conflict in Ukraine is civilian in nature and does not represent an instance of foreign aggression. The Minsk and Normandy negotiation formats are premised on this notion, and consequently favour Russia. The Kremlin has consistently ignored the Minsk agreements, despite Kyiv adhering to them. The lack of US participation in both formats further tips the scale in Moscow’s favour. 

Although NATO has no plans to admit Ukraine within its ranks in the near future, it has helped the Ukrainian military deal with the Russian threat. Advisers and trainers from NATO countries helped the Ukrainian armed forces get back on their feet after the initial defeats at Donețsk and Ilovaysk. The US, Turkey and the UK are providing training and are selling naval vessels to Ukraine to rebuild its navy. Non-lethal and lethal equipment has been donated or sold to the Ukrainian military; most importantly Washington has provided Kyiv with Javelin anti-tank missiles to deal with advanced Russian armour. Unfortunately, in the case of US military aid this has been entangled in American partisan politics. As the 2020 elections approached the Trump administration conditioned US military aid on Kyiv providing incriminating evidence on Donald Trump’s political rival Joe Biden. When the information was leaked to the press it led to Trump’s first impeachment trial; the scandal came close to compromising US-Ukrainian relations.

Kyiv has also invested its limited resources in modernising the Ukrainian armed forces. Leveraging its existing industrial base, Ukraine is developing locally designed anti-ship missiles, anti-tank missiles and armoured vehicles. Ukraine is forging industrial partnerships with Turkey and Poland to build tactical UAVs, multirole corvettes and advanced anti-tank missiles

Ukraine’s resilience in the face of territorial losses and aggression proved the Russian narratives about the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood to be entirely wrong.

On the diplomatic front, Ukraine is trying to put Crimea on the front burner of international diplomacy by promoting the Crimea Platform project. If the fighting in eastern Ukraine still catches the eye of the international community, Crimea is being treated as de facto Russian territory. In Western chancelleries the prevailing wisdom is that Ukraine has no chance of taking back Crimea, either by peaceful means or through force. However, it is diplomatically important to keep Crimea on the international agenda, especially now that it has become an asset for Russian power projection. 

For Ukraine, maintaining diplomatic momentum on Crimea and the Donbas in the near and medium term is important. Crimea may be drowned out by other issues on the international agenda such as the pandemic, strategic arms limitations and climate change. Faced with internal pressure and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, Russia in the near future may be tempted to ‘freeze’ the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Such a development would have a negative impact on Ukraine, which would find itself in a strategic limbo. 

Georgia: resisting creeping annexation 

‘Creeping annexation’ is how Georgian officials are describing the process through which gradually Russia is annexing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war was the first instance of military aggression in the Black Sea region and showed that ‘frozen conflicts’ in the former Soviet space can be rekindled. In 2021 Tbilisi obtained a symbolic but significant victory at the European Court of Human Rights, which acknowledged that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are under occupation and that Russia committed war crimes during the 2008 conflict. Nevertheless, this decision changes very few things on the ground. Russia’s military presence in the breakaway territories has increased, while Georgia is facing a troubling political crisis. Before the 2008 war, Georgia was described as a post-Soviet success story; now it looks more like a ‘frozen conflict success story’ for the Kremlin. 

Conclusions

The Black Sea region is going through its greatest period of instability since the end of World War II. Control of the region is being disputed between NATO and Russia, as the Black Sea offers access to other geopolitical relevant regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia has obtained a certain military advantage at the regional level, but it is not clear whether this is sustainable over the long run. NATO and the US need to have a coherent approach to the eastern flank in order to deter Russia and secure the Black Sea. This approach should consist in viewing the eastern flank as a single and integrated military space. A unified Alliance military posture should be applied to the entire eastern flank. The U.S. should increase its presence on the eastern flank while maintaining an adequate response force in Germany. Paris and Berlin should also increase their military presence on the eastern flank: this will improve the case for European strategic autonomy. Key infrastructure for military mobility should be improved as soon as possible to improve the deployment of follow-on forces.

The Black Sea region is going through its greatest period of instability since the end of World War II. Control of the region is being disputed between NATO and Russia, as the Black Sea offers access to other geopolitical relevant regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia.

NOTES

1 Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016)

2 Senate Armed Service Committee Advance Policy Questions for Lloyd J. Austin Nominee for Appointment to be Secretary of Defense, p. 39

3 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Military Balance 2020’, (Routledge: London, 2020), p. 170

4 Ibid., p. 170

5 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), op. cit, p. 6

6 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Military Balance 2020’, (Routledge: London, 2019), p. 169

7 Overall some of the comparative advantages of NATO over Russia are: better and competent command structures; the advantage of ‘home turf’ in defending the eastern flank; better training and a greater pool of experienced troops than Russia’s armed forces; better communications and command facilities; superior ISR capabilities; a more balanced force structure overall.

8 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Op. Cit, p. 171

9 Author’s conversation with a Russian defence analyst.

10 The EDI began in 2015 with $985 million in funding. The effort peaked at $6.5 billion in FY2019, while in FY2020 it was reduced to $5.91 billion. Source: Congressional Research Service, ‘The European Deterrence Initiative: A Budgetary Overview’, 16 June 2020, pp. 1-3, available at https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10946

11 Heinrich Brauß, ‘The US Troop Withdrawal Plan: Bogus Strategic Claims and a Warning Signal for Europe’, DGAP, pp. 1-3, available at https://dgap.org/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/dgap-commentary-2020-24-en.pdf

12 Interview du Président Emmanuel Macron au think tank américain Atlantic Council, Élysée, February 5, 2021, available at https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2021/02/05/interview-du-president-emmanuel-macron-au-think-tank-americain-atlantic-council. See also Le Grand Continent, ‘The Macron Doctrine. A conversation with the French president’, 16 November 2020, available at https://geopolitique.eu/en/macron-grand-continent/

13 Ibid.

14 Jason Pack and Wolfgang Pusztai, ‘Turning the Tide: How Turkey Won the War for Tripoli’, Middle East Institute, pp. 1-22, available at https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2020-11/Turning%20the%20Tide%20-%20How%20Turkey%20Won%20the%20War%20for%20Tripoli.pdf

15 Reuters, ‘Turkey lifts Black Sea gas field estimate after new find: Erdogan’, 17 October 2020, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/turkey-energy-blacksea/turkey-lifts-black-sea-gas-field-estimate-after-new-find-erdogan-idINKBN2720MF

16 Strategia Națională de Apărare a Țării pentru perioada 2020-2024: Împreună pentru o Românie sigură și prosperă într-o lume marcată de noi provocări, available at https://www.presidency.ro/files/userfiles/Documente/Strategia_Nationala_de_Aparare_a_Tarii_2020_2024.pdf

17 George Vișan, ‘The Known Unknowns of Romania’s Defence Modernization Plans’, ROEC, 3 July 2017, available at https://www.roec.biz/project/the-known-unknowns-of-romanias-defence-modernization-plans/

18 Suspended in 2021 by the Biden administration pending a review of the US military global commitments.

19 Reuters, ‘Bulgaria says will not join any NATO Black Sea fleet after Russian warning’, 16 June 2016, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/nato-bulgaria-blacksea-idUSL8N19835X

20 Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, A.D. 990-1990, (Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1993)

‘If the EU fails, we can say goodbye to the liberal order’ – an interview with Samir Saran, President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

To what extent is Europe important for the future of the world order? Europeans feel like they count less and less on the world scene.

Europe is, paradoxically, the single most important geography that will define the future trajectory of the global order. If Europe remains rooted in its fundamental principles – of being democratic, open, liberal, plural, supporting a transparent and open market economy, defending rule of law, the rights of individuals, freedom of speech – the world will have a chance of being liberal. If the European Union is split between the north and south, east and west and we see a large part of it deciding to give up on the Atlantic project and align with more authoritarian regimes – which is quite tempting, due to the material side attached to the choice – that will be the end of the Atlantic project. An EU that is not united in its ethics is an EU that will eventually write its own demise. How will Europe swing? Will it be an actor, or will it be acted upon? 

I have the belief that post-pandemic EU, as a political actor, will see a new lease of life. A new political EU may be born as the pandemic ends. Unless that happens, I believe this is the end of the European Union itself. It is a do it or lose it moment. Unless Europe becomes strategically far more aggressive, far more expansive, aware of its role, obligations and destiny you will see an EU that fades. For me, the most important known unknown is the future of Europe. Will the EU hold? Will the 17+1 become more powerful than the EU 27? Which way will the wind blow on the continent? Will it really be the bastion of the liberal order or will the liberal order be buried in Europe?

The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety

We’ve been used to only existing as part of the transatlantic relationship. In the past few decades, Europe has never really seen itself as an individual actor, but rather in coordination with the US. That is something that is starting to shake now. Do you see Europe acting on its own terms, as a global actor, in the positive case in which the member states do get their act together? Are we rather going to continue to act together with the US? Or find some other partners?

I suspect that with Brexit, you might see a far more cohesive EU, organised around the French military doctrine and French military posture. With an absent UK, I have the feeling that the political cohesion of the EU will increase and that the EU will be far more coordinated in its approach to the geostrategic and geopolitical questions. France realises that by itself, without the size of the EU, it might not be a significant actor. A French military presence will be compelling only if it acts on behalf of the EU.

Europe believed that it could change China by engaging with them, however I suspect China will change the EU before the EU changes China.

In terms of other partners, Europe has made one error. Europe believed that it could change China by engaging with them, however I suspect China will change the EU before the EU changes China. The mistake that the EU makes is that it imagines that an economic and trading partnership will create a degree of political consensus in Beijing. Nevertheless, Beijing is not interested in politics, but in controlling European markets. 

What Europe should do is to consider the importance of India. If the European continent needs to retain its plural characteristics, South Asia is the frontline. What is happening today between India and China is actually a frontline debate on the future of the world order. The Himalayan standoff is just the first of the many that are likely to happen unless this one is responded to. If China is able to change the shape of Asia and recreate the hierarchical Confucian order, don’t be surprised if the fate of Europe will follow the same path. If Europe needs to feel secure in its own existence it needs to create new strong local partnerships – with India, Australia, Indonesia, Japan. The EU needs to see itself as an Indo-Pacific power. The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety. If the Indo-Pacific was to go the other way, the mainland is not going to be safe.

What do you think about the CEE’s role in the new emerging order? We see an increased competition for hearts and minds here. How could India help, in an environment of increased competition and active engagement of China in this space?

The Central Europeans are going to be the centre of attention for many actors. China will buy their love, America will give military assurances and so on. In the near future, many actors will realise the importance of the CEE, simply because it is these countries that will decide which way Europe finally turns. In some ways they are the swing countries, the swing nations that are going to decide whether Europe remains loyal to the ideals of its past or decides to have a new path. CEE countries are in many ways the decisive countries.

CEE has two important options and two important pressures. The options: will they be able to create a consensus (between the Chinese, the Russians, the Old Europe and the new countries like India) or will they be an arena for conflict? Can we create a ‘Bucharest consensus’, where the East and the West, North and the South build a new world order and the new rules for the next 7 decades? If you play it wrong you might become the place where the powers contest, compete and create a mess.

There are also two pressures. Firstly, there is an economic divide in Europe. You are at a lower per capita income, you need to find investment funds for the infrastructure, employment, livelihoods and growth, which results in an economic pressure that needs to be tackled. Therefore, Europe will have to decide if the provenence of the money matters. Does it matter if it is red or green? Does it matter if they come from the West or the East? That is one pressure that needs consideration. How do you meet your own aspirations, while being political about it? 

The other pressure is the road you want to take. How do you envisage the future? Is it going to be a future built on cheap manufacturing? Being an advanced technological society, are you going to be the rule-maker of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or its rule-taker? Secondly, the nature of the economic growth that you are investing in becomes another pressure. This is the second choice that the CEE will have to make. In that sense, I believe that India becomes an actor. As we have experienced this in the past 20 years, we are one of the swing nations that could decide the nature of the world order, thus we may share this experience with you. We have also decided that we don’t want to be a low-cost manufacturing economy like China, but rather a value-creating economy, building platforms. Even if we have a small economic size, we have a billion-people digital platforms, digital cash system, AI laboratories and solutions. 

What is happening today between India and China is actually a frontline debate on the future of the world order. If China is able to change the shape of Asia and recreate the hierarchical Confucian order, don’t be surprised if the fate of Europe will follow the same path.

As we move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the tyranny of distance between Europe and India disappears. We don’t have to worry about trade links, land routes and shipping lines. Bits and bites can flow quite rapidly. As we move to the age of 3D printing, to the age of quantum computing, of big data and autonomous systems, the arena where we can cooperate becomes huge. 

India gives Europe room to manoeuvre, room to choose. When it comes to choosing, besides the traditional American and Chinese propositions, there is also a third one – India, a billion-people market.

Do you expect that there is going to be a shift in the EU toward reshoring and ensuring that manufacturing is not captive to Chinese interests or to Chinese belligerence?

I think that we are going to see a degree of reshoring everywhere. It is not going to be only a European phenomenon. Political trust is going to become important. Political trust and value-chains are going to affect one another. Countries are going to be more comfortable with partners who are like-minded. They don’t have to agree on everything, but they should be on the same ideological and political spectrum. 

There are two reasons for this. One is the pandemic that we are currently facing and in a way it exposed the fragility of globalisation as we know it. The hippie and gypsy styles of globalisation are over. I think that people are going to make far more political decisions. The second is that as we start becoming more digitalised societies, individual data and individual space are going to be essential, thus you don’t want those data sets to be shared with countries whose systems you don’t trust. Value is going to increasingly emerge through intimate industrial growth, far more intimate in character – it is going to be about the organs inside your body, it is going to be about the personal experiences, about how we live, transact, date or elect. They are all intimate value chains. The intimate value-chains will require far greater degree of thought than the mass production factories that created value in the XXth century.

The EU may be setting the format for managing our contested globalisation

You mention the rising value of trust, as a currency even. In Europe, we often point out that we are an alliance based on values. But even our closest partner, the US seems to be moving in a much more transactional direction, let alone China and others. You are describing a worldview that is relying increasingly on shared values, at least some capacity to negotiate some common ground, on predictability, whereas in many ways it seems that things are moving in the opposite direction, a much more Realpolitik one. Is this something that is going to last?

The pandemic has brought this trend to the fore. People are going to appreciate trust and value systems more than ever. But I think this was inevitable. If you would recall, India used to be quite dismissive of the EU, calling it “an Empire of gnomes”, with no strategic clout. But if you look at the last two years, India has started to absorb, and in a sense to propose solutions that the EU itself has implemented in the past. India came up with an investment infrastructure framework in the Indo-Pacific that should not create debt trap diplomacy, should create livelihoods, respect the environment and recognise the rights and sovereignty of the people. India came up with this when it saw that the Chinese were breaking all rules and all morality to capture industrial infrastructure spaces. The Americans under Donald Trump also came up with the Blue Dot American project for the Indo-Pacific – a framework that was based on values. Whenever you have to deal with a powerful political opponent you throw the rule book in there. If you don’t want to go to war with them, you will have to manage them through a framework of laws, rules and regulations. The value systems are a very political choice. They are practices and choices enshrined in our constitutions and foundational documents. Therefore, dismissing values and norms as being less political or less muscular is wrong. The EU, “the empire of gnomes” that was much criticised for the first two decades as weak and not geopolitical enough, may well become an example for other countries. If it remains solvent, a vibrant union, and if it is not salami-sliced by the Chinese in the next decade, the EU may well be setting the format for managing our contested globalisation.

This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing

How does India see the future of the Quad? Usually the Quad is associated with a certain vision of the Indo – Pacific, free from coercion and open to unhindered navigation and overflight. Are we going to see the emergence of a more formal geopolitical alignment or even an alliance to support a certain vision about Asia?

The Quad is going to acquire greater importance in the coming years. It is going to expand beyond its original 4 members. We’ve already seen South Korea and the Philippines joining the discussion recently. We are going to see greater emphasis by all members doing a number of manoeuvres, projects and initiatives together. The next 5 years will be the age of the Quad. The pandemic started this process. I see three areas where the Quad can be absolutely essential.

One is in delivering global public goods, keeping the sea lines open and uncontested so that trade, energy and people can move with a degree of safety and stability. In a sense, I see the Quad replacing the Pax Americana that was underwriting stability in certain parts of the world. 

The second area is going to be around infrastructure and investments in certain parts of the world. I see the Quad grouping many initiatives that will allow for big investments in countries which currently have only one option – China. The Quad will be able to spawn a whole new area of financial, infrastructure and technology instruments closer to the needs of Asians, South Asian, East African, West Asians including the Pacific Islands. The Quad will be the basis of this kind of relationships in the upcoming years.

Thirdly and most importantly, the role of the Quad will be to ensure that we won’t reach a stage where we have to reject the Chinese. None of us wants a ‘No China’ world, because all of us benefit from China’s growth and economic activities. Many of us have concluded that the only way to keep the Chinese honest in their engagements, economical or political, is to be able to put together a collective front in front of them, not negotiate individually. The EU has done that longer than anyone else and that’s why the Chinese don’t like the EU and apply a ‘divide and conquer’ methodology to get more favourable deals. The Quad is in many ways an expression of that reality, as well of that the middle powers in Asia and Pacific (Indonesia, Australia and Japan) will have to work together, sometimes without the Americans, to negotiate new terms of trade and new energy, or technological arrangements. The Quad in many ways is also the ‘make China responsible’ arrangement, an accountability framework which will keep the Chinese honest and responsible actors in the global system.  

The next 5 years will be the age of the Quad. The Quad in many ways is also the ‘make China responsible’ arrangement, an accountability framework which will keep the Chinese honest and responsible actors in the global system.

Do you also see this trend extending into the political sphere in a kind of collective endeavour both in Asia (through the Quad) and in the West (starting with Europe perhaps) to build a new kind of world order? Do you feel that this ‘middle powers concert’ is one possible way to go? Or do you believe that we are going to be disappointed, as we were by the BRICs, when some of the members drowned in their own domestic problems? 

We are part of a world that doesn’t have any superpowers. The last superpower was America, and that ended with the financial crisis ten years ago. Ever since, we have been literally in a world which had quasi-superpowers like the US, to some extent Russia, the Chinese, but there was no real hegemon that could punish people for bad behaviour and reward people for good behaviour. 

Some of the most interested actors in the Indo-Pacific in the last two to three years happened to be the UK and France. A few years ago, they sensed that if they want to be relevant in the future world order, as it is built and as it emerges, they need to be present in the debates that are unfolding in this part of the world. Both partnered with India – to do military manoeuvres, to create maritime domain awareness stations, to invest in infrastructure and to create clearly the beginnings of a new order that might emerge from here. We will have to create these coalitions to be able to get things done.

The pandemic tells us something which is also quite tragic. Ever since I was born I have never witnessed a global crisis that did not have America as a response leader. This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing. What makes it even more complicated is that the successor to Captain America has caused the crisis. Hence, you have the old power, which is absent and engrossed in its own domestic realities, and the new power that has been irresponsible and has put us in this position. Both the previous incumbent and the new contender don’t have the capacity to take action in this world by themselves. This tells us that building a coalition of middle powers is absolutely essential. It is not a luxury, it is not a choice. This is something concerning our own existential reasons that we must invest in.

Do you see this coalition of middle powers as some sort of a ’league of democracies’? It is a concept that was previously advanced by John McCain and now Joe Biden is embracing as his overarching framework for foreign policy. Do you see the potential for creating this league of democracies as some sort of manager and defender of the liberal international order?

I think it is inevitable. Technology is so intimate that we are not going to trust our data with folks we have a suspicion about. Thus, it is this reality that makes this coalition of democracies and like-minded countries inevitable. Even if we may never call it that, it is going to become that. We are going to notice countries engaging in these intimate industries with others who are similar, who are like-minded, who have similar worldviews. Still, this process may take longer than we have. We do not have the luxury of time, because we are going to be destroyed, divided, decimated and sliced in the meantime.

A few countries will have to take leadership – either the French, the UK, the EU itself, or India, or all of them. Until there is an agreement on a big vision for the new world order we must agree to an interim arrangement and have to create a bridging mechanism that takes us from the turmoil of the first two decades of this century to a more stable second half of the century. We don’t want to go through two world wars in order to achieve this unity, as we did in the past century. We need to have some other mechanisms that will prevent conflict, but preserve ethics. 

In this context the EU-India and the CEE-India projects are essential. It is us who have the most at stake, because our future is on the line. The more the world is in turmoil, the less we will be able to grow sustainably. It is our interest to create and invest in institutions and informal institutions that could preserve a degree of values and allow for stability.

Such a coalition reuniting countries from Central Europe, Western Europe and from Asia (such as India, Australia, Japan) will normalise the behaviour of both America and China. I do not think that they behaved responsibly in the last few years – one because of its democratic insanity, and the second because of its absolutist medieval mindset. Along these lines, you have democratic failure at one end and a despotic emergence at the other end. We need to ensure that democracy will survive and that the middle powers will be able to normalise this moment.

What is Russia’s role in all this? Is Russia going to be on our side? Or is it going to be on China’s – considering that sometimes they seem to, although their agendas perhaps align only when it is opportune for both of them?

Russia has an odd reality. It is a country that has a very modest GDP (the second smallest within the BRICs) but it is also a country that is possibly the second most powerful military force in the world. A big military actor with a very small economic size. This is creates a policy asymmetry in Moscow. It has very little stakes in global economic stability or global economic progress, but it has huge clout in the political consequences of developments around the world. The Russians have somehow to be mainstreamed into our economic future. Unless Russia is going to have an active role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution or have real benefits, their economy will stay in the 20th century and therefore their politics is going to reflect a 20th century mindset. If they are included in the economic policies of the future, their politics will evolve too. It is not an easy transition. Nevertheless I would argue that the Russians have to be given more room in European thinking so that they don’t feel boxed into the Chinese corner. The last thing that we should be thinking of is giving Russia no option but to partner with the Chinese. Perhaps the immediate neighbours (the CEE) will not be open to a partnership, taking into account their political history. But countries like India would be able to offer space for manoeuvre. In that sense, India could be a market, a consumer, an investor in the Russian economic future and the CEE-India partnership could become important. Can we together play a role in normalising that relationship? Can we give the Russians an option other than China? If Russia’s economic future is linked to ours, it doesn’t have to be in the Chinese corner. The Russians are not the Chinese. The Chinese take hegemony to a whole new level; the Russians have this odd asymmetry that defines their place in the world. This asymmetry should be addressed with new economic possibilities and incentives. 

The rise of the Middle Kingdom

We’ve been discussing how to react to a world that is increasingly defined by China. But what are China’s plans? What does China want? 

I do not know their plans, but I can tell you how I see China’s emergence, from New Delhi. I define it through what I call the 3M framework.

Firstly, I see them increasingly becoming the Middle Kingdom. Chinese exceptionalism is defined in those terms. They believe they have a special place in the world – between heaven and earth. They will continue to defy the global rules and they will not allow the global pressures to alter their national behaviour or domestic choices.  So we will see the first M, the Middle Kingdom, emerge more strongly in the years ahead.

This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing. What makes it even more complicated is that the successor to Captain America has caused the crisis.

Secondly, this Middle Kingdom will make use of modern tools. They see Modernity as a tool, not as an experience. In that sense they use it to strengthen the Middle Kingdom, not to reform and evolve. Such tools include digital platforms, the control of media and a modern army with modern weapons to control and dominate. 

Thirdly, the final M deals with a Medieval mindset. They are a Middle Kingdom with Modern tools and a Medieval mindset that believes in a hierarchical world. We are a world which has moved away from the hierarchies of the past. The world is more flat, people have equal relationships. The Chinese don’t see it like that. They see a hierarchical world, where countries must pay tribute to them. They sometimes use the Belt and Road Initiative to create the tribute system or the debt trap diplomacy to buy sovereignty. Likewise, they use other tools to ensure the subordination of the countries they deal with.

These three Ms are defining the China of today.

Samir Saran curates the Raisina Dialogue, India’s annual flagship platform on geopolitics and geo-economics, and chairs CyFy, India’s annual conference on cyber security and internet governance. He is also the Director of the Centre for Peace and Security at the Sardar Patel Police University, Jodhpur, India. He writes frequently on issues of global governance, climate change, energy policy, global development architecture, artificial intelligence, cyber security, internet governance, and India’s foreign policy and authored four books, the latest of which is called ‘The New World Disorder’. 

The interview was conducted by Oana Popescu and Octavian Manea, as part of the Central Europe-India Forum Initiative created by the Observer Research Foundation (India), Keynote (Czechia) and GlobalFocus Center (Romania).

“We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world:” Brent Scowcroft & the world he helped fashion

Almost exactly thirty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Brent Scowcroft sat on a small airplane. Crammed in the seat in front of him, their knees touching, sat George H.W. Bush, the President of the United States. Bush spent the flight on the phone, calling up leaders around the world.

Scowcroft, who was the American President’s principal foreign policy advisor, was madly revising the speech Bush was going to give at their destination in Colorado – he had to make it compatible with the things that had happened the day before. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, had sent his troops to invade neighboring Kuwait. The entire world was now watching the United States. The Cold War was almost over. The Berlin wall had fallen. Two Germanies would soon become one. Faced with naked aggression in a somewhat less-than-crucial context, would American leaders look the other way? Or would they conclude that it was in their country’s interest to intervene?

He had had “absolutely no doubt” about Bush’s determination, Scowcroft subsequently recalled (1). A few days later, after landing back at the White House, Bush told journalists that “this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” And another few months later, an international coalition led by US military forces defeated Iraq’s army, with broad reverberations throughout the international system (2). Brent Scowcroft died a few weeks ago, on 6 August 2020. He was 95. Today, the question on many an analyst’s mind is whether America was very much a different country three decades ago, or whether Washington’s key policymakers back then were a different type of people.

Despite Bush’s clear words and Scowcroft apparent lack of doubt, the decision to intervene had not come easy. “Yours is a society which cannot accept [ten thousand] dead in one battle,” Iraq’s dictator had told the US envoy in Baghdad before his daring move. He was implying that Americans had no stomach for long wars in far-away places. For as long as America’s capitalist democracy had been engaged in a deadly battle with Soviet totalitarian communism, leaders in both Washington and Moscow had had little choice but to intervene. But now the Soviets were down and the Americans were surprised by their sudden success, the Iraqis reasoned. The world seemed remarkably unrestrained. These circumstances “will not happen again for fifty years,” an adviser told the Iraqi dictator. It was the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Moscow had its own fish to fry and Washington would swallow his land grabbing, Saddam concluded (3).

“We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future.

The Iraqi despot was not alone with his assumption. Before boarding for Colorado, Bush and Scowcroft had attended a meeting that seemed to reach that very conclusion. The US government’s key policymakers had congregated for an hour at the White House. “There was sort of a fait acompli atmosphere,” Scowcroft later recalled (4). All gathered had agreed that they had to protect Saudi Arabia – it was inimical to US interests to permit any power to “gain dominance over Gulf oil supplies,” Pentagon planners had argued before. But the world needed oil, and Saddam would provide it, the officials at the meeting had concluded. Liberating Kuwait was “not viable,” budget officials concerned with the costs of a potential deployment had opined. Military leaders doubted whether their political masters possessed the resolve to go to war over Kuwait. Some had even argued that the crisis offered an “interesting opportunity” to boost production and drive down the global price of oil – to the benefit of US consumers. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Secretary of Defense at the time, later remembered that the general feeling had been that most citizens of Kuwait lived “in the south of France anyway.” (5)

Mere hours later, jam-packed on their small plane, Scowcroft told Bush that he was very disturbed at the tone of the morning meeting. It had skipped over “the enormous stake the United States had in the situation, or the ramification of the aggression on the emerging post-Cold War world.” (6) First, there was a regional dimension. Washington wanted to stabilize the Gulf, and Saddam’s actions were reinforcing old antagonisms. Also, neither Iraq nor Iran could be allowed to dominate the region, and Saddam’s incursion was threatening to start tilting the balance in his direction. However, the second – the global order – dimension was dominating. “We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future. (7)

In other words, had the remaining superpower allowed a rogue dictator to do what he wanted, others would have registered the message. Scowcroft, together with his principal White House staffers, worked in the background. Luckily, upon further consideration, various other decisionmakers throughout the US government came to the same conclusion. By the time of the next meeting on the crisis, the tenor had changed. “This is the first test of the postwar system,” Larry Eagleburger, the Deputy Secretary of State, underlined. If Saddam succeeded, “others may try the same thing.” This would be a “bad lesson.” The world would become a more dangerous place – with long-term negative consequences for America’s goals of constructing a liberal and democratic global order. Both US security and prosperity would suffer (8). The bottom line was that the US leadership had to accept the costs of intervention now in order to prevent larger future threats to the national interest.

And yet, Bush’s choice – as preordained as it appears in the rearview mirror – was anything but easy (9). For instance, US military leaders were aware that high losses would once again damage their reputation and, hence, their position within the American society. Scarred by the war in Vietnam a few decades prior, military commanders wanted the armed forces to have the support of the population. Their “number one priority was to rearrange the relation with the American people,” a former official told me a few years ago. Thus, military leaders pushed the President to authorize an overpowering but very expensive deployment – they believed that decisive force would end the war quickly and save (American) lives. (10)

This type of military expedition ultimately delivered a crushing victory, but significantly increased Bush’s political costs in case of defeat. Towards the end of August 1990, Bush met Secretary of State James Baker – who was also his best friend – at the White House. Baker cautioned that the Iraq crisis had “all the ingredients that brought down three of the last five Presidents: A hostage crisis, body bags, and a full-fledged economic recession caused by [expensive] oil.” Bush replied: “I know that, Jimmy, I know that. But we’re doing what’s right; we’re doing what is clearly in the national interest of the United States. Whatever else happens, so be it.” (11) Thus, when the military leadership asked for very large forces to be dispatched to the Gulf, Bush – at Scowcroft’s advice – listened carefully and then stood up and said, “You’ve got it. Let me know if you need more.” He then promptly walked out of the room, leaving everyone stunned. (12)

Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended.

Ultimately, Bush and Scowcroft’s choices were grounded in a particular reading of international affairs and, implicitly, of the post-Cold War era. “We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world,” Scowcroft later remembered his and the President’s thinking. “We thought it was going to be a messy world.” (13) Francis Fukuyama, who was at that point the deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, had just advanced his famous and popular end-of-history thesis: With communism dead, nations would converge, and conflict would be avoided. But Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended. Regional disputes, long suppressed by the US-Soviet competition, would be reawakened, and new “political and economic” forces would be “unleashed.” Without the US global engagement, Washington’s international politico-economic designs would be imperiled.(14)

Today, we face a chicken and the egg problem. We see how Donald Trump, the current US President, is abandoning long-held American responsibilities. Was America so different three decades ago that it brough people like Scowcroft and Bush to power to served its interests at that point in time? If this is the case, we should brace ourselves – any American President will be transactional, less interested in global order and stability, and more likely to question the utility of the transatlantic alliance. Conversely, maybe the United States did not change that much, but the people who governed it three decades ago were different individuals, with different priorities and different ideas. Should this be the case, there is hope. Maybe the next President will be able to go back on some of the steps this Administration has taken, especially towards mending Washington’s relationship to Western Europe. In any case, the future remains interesting and uncertain. What is certain is that Scowcroft wisdom will be sorely missed.

References:

  1. Philip Zelikow and James H. McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project, released August 2020.
  2. The best overview is Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). For a more recent narrative, John Gans, White House Warriors (New York: Norton & Co, 2019), 89-114.
  3. Cited in Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 381 and 388.
  4. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 59.
  5. Sandra Charles, “Memo for Haass: Minutes from NSC/DCM, August 2, 1990, on Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” January 22, 1991, Bush Library, Richard N. Haass Presidential Meeting File CF0118-019, NSC Meeting – August 2, 1990 Re: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; Philip Zelikow, “Interview with Dick Cheney,” March 16, 2000, 55, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project; and Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (New York: Bantam, 1993), 297.
  6. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 317–18; and Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2017). Also, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 9.
  7. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61 and 72–73.
  8. John Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House, 2015), 426; and Andrea Mitchell, “Interview with Brent Scowcroft,” November 7, 2007, Princeton University Library, James A. Baker Oral History Project.
  9. For the same conclusion, see Stephen Knott, “Interview with Richard Haass,” May 27, 2004, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  10. Interview with Joint Chiefs of Staff official, March 2018, Washington D.C. See also Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero.
  11. James A. Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam, 1995), 277.
  12. Robert M. Gates, “The Scowcroft Model,” Foreign Affairs, August 13, 2020.
  13. Philip Zelikow, “Interview #1 with Brent Scowcroft,” November 12, 1999, 52, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  14. Brent Scowcroft, “Memo for Bush: US Diplomacy for the New Europe,” December 22, 1989, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (December 1989). Also, “Memo for Bush: Your Meetings in Brussels with NATO Leaders,” November 29, 1989, and “US Policy in Eastern Europe in 1990,” January 1990, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (November 1989) and NSC Collection, Robert D. Blackwill Chronological Files 30547-010, January 1990. For Francis Fukuyama’s essay, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.

Murder, Blackmail and Corruption: Why CEE needs the Magnitsky Act

What action can the CEE countries take against the “bad guys?” How to send out a clear message that political corruption, blackmail, organ trafficking, rape and other crimes have no place in our countries? And how can we protect ourselves from the worst criminals of the world?

The answer has three words: the Magnitsky Law. An unprecedented global initiative to pass legislation that would allow national governments to impose personal sanctions on human rights violators resembles a thriller movie more than anything.

Who was Sergey Magnitsky, the man whose name probably makes Vladimir Putin grind his teeth in anger? Why is there an undeclared hybrid war raging around this piece of legislation? And how can passing the legislation help the CEE region? 

The story of Sergey Magnitsky – an auditor who changed the world

Eleven years ago, in November 2009, Sergey Magnitsky died in a Russian prison. The reason was neither old age, nor an unfortunate deadly disease. He was tortured, denied medical care, eventually dying of a gall bladder infection. Until the very last moment, he did not stop believing in justice and the positive power of rule of law. Each week, he submitted lengthy official complaints about the state of his health and the way he was treated, requesting contact with his family and proper medical care. During 358 days in detention, he wrote over 400 complaints and petitions seeking justice.

His name is often mentioned together with Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, as a straightforward example of  yet another Russian who paid with his own life for fierce criticism of the Russian political regime. Yet Sergey Magnitsky was never a member of the Russian opposition. He was a lawyer and accountant, working for British billionaire businessman Bill Browder and his hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management, which was until 2004 the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Before his arrest, Magnitsky was investigating a 230 million dollar web of financial fraud, allegedly involving Russian government figures misappropriating funds related to companies which were confiscated from Browder by a criminal group with close ties to Kremlin representatives. His investigations were completely apolitical, purely business-motivated.

Yet in November 2008 three representatives from the Russian Interior Ministry arrested Magnitsky. Ironically, the Interior Ministry officials who arrested him worked for the same officer he testified against. A year later, Magnitsky died in prison. His death has become a symbol of the fight against corruption and the oppression of human rights all over the world. Magnitsky was a tax lawyer and auditor who changed the world, and one who may yet change it even more.

Putin’s Biggest Enemy and International Crusade for Passing the Magnitsky Act

Magnitsky’s death set in motion a spiral of events no one could have anticipated. However, if there was ever a man who could make the impossible possible, Magnitsky’s boss – Bill Browder – was a likely candidate. This billionaire with influential connections at the highest levels of global politics turned almost overnight from one of the biggest advocates of appeasement with the Russian regime and the biggest foreign investor in Russia into, as some call him, Putin’s number one enemy.

His motivation was quite straightforward: there were no legislative tools to bring criminals responsible for Magnitsky’s death to justice. So he decided to persuade the British and the American government to change the legal gamefield. Simply, this law imposes visa bans and asset freezes on individual human rights abusers — particularly those who played a role in Magnitsky’s false arrest, torture and death. However, eventually he decided to turn this into a global initiative, with the ultimate goal of persuading governments all over the world to implement their own version of a piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act. Browder has spent the last nine years fiercely campaigning for the law, and his efforts are bearing fruit.

Explaining the Magnitsky Act

Proponents call it the first solely human rights violations-focused sanction mechanism in the world. The Magnitsky Act, specifically, is a piece of legislation allowing individual countries to impose personalised sanctions on individuals violating human rights anywhere in the world. The measures which can be implemented include the power to freeze bank accounts and other assets, and ban individuals from entering a given country.  As a result, the Magnitsky Act can be perceived as a tool to strengthen the foreign policy toolkit of individual countries. So far, seven countries have implemented the legislation: the US, Canada, the UK, and the three Baltic countries; the newest addition to this group is Kosovo, which passed the Magnitsky Act at the beginning of 2020.

However, it is not always sunny in the realm of human rights protection, and the piece of legislation does have a number of forceful critics too.

One of the strongest arguments against it concerns a fear of unnecessary antagonisation of Russia, while other critics call the legislation superfluous, given that there are already a number of recognised and effective international sanction regimes under the auspices of international organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations.

A final common argument against it is the altogether defeatist retort that “sanctions will not change anything.” Taking each of these in turn however, reveals these concerns as largely misplaced and unfounded.

a) Universal Human Rights Protection Tool

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the law „a purely political and unfriendly act“. And just days after the US act was passed, Russia retaliated through deploying a number of countermeasures, including barring Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

More importantly however, even though the initiative was originally envisaged as a tool against a criminal group with close connections to Russian police and the ministry of finance, responsible for Magnitsky’s death, it has since developed much beyond that. Currently, sanctions apply to 148 individuals and entities suspected of human rights abuses and corruption worldwide.

The US government, for instance, has unilaterally imposed sanctions on 94 individuals and 102 entities from 24 countries, including South Sudan, Uganda, Iraq and Cambodia. Among the individuals listed, we find Myanmar officials responsible for the genocide of Rohingya; doctors and Chinese officials involved in illegal organ trafficking of Uyghurs; and warlords from Africa.

The most prominent individuals listed on the US Magnitsky sanctions list include: Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov; the daughter of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who is involved in political corruption; 17 individuals involved in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and, billionaire Israeli mining magnate Dan Gertler.

b) Targeted Sanctions Mechanism

To address the second counterargument, unlike many international sanctions regimes, the Magnitsky Act, by targeting individuals rather than entire countries or sectors, avoids ‘broad-brush’ sanctions that can disproportionately affect more vulnerable citizens in target states.

This targeted approach also enables the direct sanctioning of malicious individuals and networks, even from countries that are considered to be allies or crucial for broader foreign policy priorities. For instance, the 2017 and 2018 US Global Magnitsky sanctions listed above involved Saudi and Israeli nationals, individuals from countries which are strategic allies of the US and, thus, unlikely to be the subject of broader international financial sanctions.

It is true that the EU already has the power to impose sanctions to promote international peace and security, prevent conflict, fight terrorism and defend democratic principles and human rights. Sanctions can be imposed upon governments of third countries (as is the case of Iran, Burma, Venezuela and others), or non-state entities and individuals. However, this current mechanism seems to be insufficient in ever changing geopolitical environments, and the context of challenges that democracies must face.

The EEAS has already undertaken steps to prepare a new sanction mechanism based upon the same principle as the Magnitsky Act.

It is very likely though that the EU will decide to omit Magnitsky’s name, to avoid creating an impression that the law is primarily anti-Russian. This would go directly against the main idea behind the new EU sanctions regime proposal, which is to enable the EU to impose visa bans or to freeze the assets of individuals from any country in the world who commit serious human rights violations and abuses.

Among the proposed crimes that would trigger such sanctions are: extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. If the law passes, this would send a strong message to those who may commit or be complicit in abuses that the financial centres and currencies of the world’s two largest economies (the EU and the US) are off limits.

Nevertheless, some EU member states still choose (or have chosen to) pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. One of the reasons for this might be that this piece of EU legislation is not without its flaws – the proposal only applies to human rights abuses and doesn’t cover corruption like the US version does.

The original version of the Magnitsky Act in the UK does not cover corruption either. The most likely explanation is that they prefer not to rely solely on the EU’s often slow and cumbersome foreign policy processes. Indeed, the Magnitsky Act can actually strengthen the foreign policy even of the member countries of the EU and make it less dependent on it. The Act enables national countries to pass sanctions more quickly and flexibly or pass them against those individuals whom a majority of EU members might not agree about.

c) Projecting Strong Global Message

It is important to maintain that the Act is not simply a symbolic ‘virtue signal’ of international law. Personalised sanctions are of course only one part of the anti-corruption puzzle, but they are an important tool in the arsenal. Such sanctions make it more difficult for criminals to launder illicit gains or continue to do such business in dollars, pounds or euros, the most common global currencies.

They will enable countries to freeze the bank accounts and assets of individuals within their own territories or local banks. They are a successful example of concrete action being taken against the corrupt and the worst human rights abusers, hitting them where it hurts the most – in their pocket. Indeed, as Browder himself states: “These types of individuals keep their money in the West, where property rights and rule of law exists. This led to the idea of the Magnitsky Act, which freezes assets and bans visas of human rights violators.”

Additionally, the inconvenience of being denied entry to the US, Canada, UK or the EU is also a significant penalty, as is the considerable stigma that comes with being sanctioned. Australia, for instance, is currently considering setting a new precedent in its version of the Magnitsky Act, by also including family members of targeted individuals into travel bans, such as children wanting to study at private schools and universities or parents seeking to go to hospitals.

In the words of Elaine Pearson, director of UN Human right watch: “By joining other countries with similar laws, Australia will be sending a strong message to abusive leaders everywhere that there are far-reaching consequences for their actions.”

Implementation in the CEE space

For Magnitsky-type laws to be effective and to have a meaningful impact, it is crucial that more states join in and introduce an equivalent of the Magnitsky Act. Besides the EU, Australia and Sweden, three countries in the CEE region are currently taking steps to pass the law: the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. What then must these countries do, in order to successfully implement the Magnitsky Act, and ensure that its detractors are proven wrong?

Czech Republic: a one-man crusade

In the Czech Republic, the crusade to get the legislation passed has largely taken the form of a one-man show. The legislation is currently being advocated for by one Member of the Czech Parliament – member of the Czech Pirate Party, vice chairman of the committee on defence and the foreign affairs committee, Jan Lipavský. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, social-democrat Tomáš Petříček, a supporter of the EU version of the Magnitsky Act, seems reluctant to embrace a Czech version of the legislation. This could be, at least in part, a result of political pressure from his own political party and from the Czech president, both of which are known for their closeness to autocratic regimes such as Russia and China.

The Pirate Party is in opposition and therefore has very limited options to get any piece of legislation passed. This means that the chances for passing and implementing the Magnitsky Act by the end of the current political mandate in October 2021 are very slim, to say the least. Similarly to the EU approach, Mr. Lipavský has also decided to omit the name “Magnitsky” in the title and simply name it “The Law on Human Right Protection.” Primarily, because it is against the Czech common practice to name laws after people. Secondly, for reasons akin to the EU’s; to avoid allegations of intentionally targeting only Russian officials.

Slovakia: an outsider agenda

For Slovakia, the Magnitsky Act bears a unique meaning. Until this day, Slovakia is the only country from the CEE region which has a citizen who has been directly targeted by the Magnitsky Act. The US administration has decided to add to its sanction list Marián Kočner, a Slovak oligarch who is directly responsible for the murder of Slovakian investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Maria Kušnírová in early 2018. Similarly to the Czech Republic, Slovakia also supported the European version of the Magnitsky Act.

Nevertheless, Slovak political representatives have indicated their interest in the Magnitsky Act before the decision made by Washington. Like in the Czech Republic, the main driving force behind the legislation was a group of MPs led by a member of the Slovak Parliament and leader of the Political Party “Together”, Miroslav Beblavý. One of the promises he made during the political campaign was the promise of passing this legislation if re-elected. During the late February 2020 parliamentary elections, the coalition of liberal parties Together and Progressive Slovakia did not pass the threshold for entering the parliament. With no other political party having the implementation of the Magnitsky Law on its agenda, it is very unlikely that there will be any significant progress on this matter in the foreseeable future.

Romania: a victim of political power play

Out of the three CEE countries in question, the Magnitsky Law proposal got the furthest in Romania, being presented on the floor of the Romanian Senate. The main initiators of this legislation were three members of the Save Romania Union (USR); Adrian Prisnel, Iulian Bulai, and Cristian Ghinea.

Fighting corruption is the most important topic for the third biggest Romanian party and so it made sense for the USR to make this human rights initiative their own. New sanctions were to be made more “flexible” than the older, country-based ones, and were therefore predicted to have a “strong psychological effect” on the abusers. The main punishment was supposed to be the visa ban and asset freeze.

However the proposal was primarily focused on severe human rights abuses. Similarly to the UK and EU Magnitsky Acts, the Romanian proposal did not list corruption as a crime. However, this might come as a surprise for many observers, given that the proposal came from the so-called “anti-corruption” party.

When the three MPs submitted their proposal to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of Romanian Senate in April 2019, they may have expected a positive reaction from fellow MPs. This was partly because, in 2018, 43 Romanian MPs signed a petition urging the government to adopt a ‘Magnitsky Act’, imposing sanctions on human rights abusers. It was also because the draft had been signed as a sign of support by 33 MPs out of 136, most of them from their own faction, but also by three deputies from the ruling Social Democratic Party and two from the National Liberal Party, the second largest party. Thus, there was an indication of broader support. However, the draft was finally declined by the Committee and only members of the USR ended up supporting it.

In the Romanian case, some claim that the Magnitsky Law became a victim of political power play. Indeed, it may well have been viewed by other Romanian political forces as a potential internal political weapon in political battles with the Social Democrat Party and in the ongoing attempt by the USR to take over support from the National Liberal Party, while also reinforcing its position in its tenuous alliance with the PLUS party, another reformist entity led by former European Commissioner and technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Cioloș.

Another possible explanation is that maneuvering against the proposal may also have simply been an attempt to prevent further antagonising Russia, with relations between the two countries at their lowest point in decades and dialogue practically non-existent. However, the USR was not completely discouraged by their loss. In January 2020, the leadership of the USR announced that they would seek to reintroduce a new version of the law.

There has been no progress on this matter ever since. Partially also because according to some, there is a sense that institutions like the DNA (Anti-Corruption Directorate) are strong enough to handle corruption, including transborder.

Also, the state had shown the will in the past to sanction individuals, such as denying Dmitri Rogozin the right to transit Romanian air space. In conclusion, there is very little urgency or impulse to the Magnitsky act and it is very unlikely it will resurface in a foreseeable period of time.

Why it matters

There are also key reasons, specific to the CEE region, for passing this piece of legislation. Primarily, it is about enhancing an international order based on universal values, which is equipped with mechanisms for preventing their extortion.

CEE countries stand to gain from a rules-based order that has powerful enforcement mechanisms, as opposed to a more transactional system, where their negotiating power is likely to be limited. A piece of legislation strengthening their foreign policy in the name of human rights is an epitome of such an order and a logical addition to a national diplomatic toolkit of post-Soviet countries.

At a more profound level, the Magnitsky package, with its both human rights and anti-corruption dimensions, should become part of an expanded arsenal of tools to compete in the 21st century geopolitical arena. Creatively used, it can simultaneously be leveraged for deterrence purposes, but also for lawfare especially against those foreign adversaries that instrumentalise corruption to manoeuvre, exploit and weaponise certain vulnerabilities within the CEE space. The region is particularly prone to malign foreign interference via corruption, clientelism and lack of transparency. The comprehensive Magnitsky legislation could be seen as an important step in enhancing regional resilience to hybrid operations.

CEE: a hybrid target
Recent years have seen frequent hybrid operations intent on meddling in the internal affairs of CEE countries on the part of both Russia and China, clearly indicating that neither of them respects the sovereignty of the CEE region countries. Such influence operations include, but are not limited to, strategic corruption, espionage, blackmail, performed through hacking, as well as other forms of cyber attacks, including the spread of hostile propaganda and disinformation in both the public and virtual space – with a recent spike since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can recall attempts of espionage in Poland from Chinese-owned Huawei in 2019, the attempted state coup in Montenegro in 2017, and the attempted assassination of Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria, to name but a few. Or the very recent “Koněv affair” where the decision of the local government of Prague 6 to remove an old statue of Soviet Marshall Koněv from a square in Prague led to a chain of disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and the activation of Czech far-left and far-right civil actors.

“Europe has no interest in decoupling from Asia” – interview with Parag Khanna

Dr. Parag Khanna is a leading global strategy advisor, world traveller, and best-selling author.

Sometimes crises put history on fast forward. What would you expect to be the geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? To what extent is Covid-19 accelerating some of the trends that were discernible even before the pandemic? 

For me the biggest geopolitical and geoeconomic trend under way for quite a few years is regionalisation. It is an organic process given the growth of the Asian regional environment, given the renegotiation of the North American trade relationships, but also because of the US-China trade war. In the post-COVID world regionalism will accelerate because it is very difficult to travel outside of one’s region for an indefinite period of time, as the supply chains are going to be more entrenched within the regions; it will accelerate because of the growing suspicion of outsourcing to China across long distances. In short, there are many reasons why we will see this emphasis on the region, instead of the global. This is a very significant geopolitical trend that began before the pandemic.

There is no West…

You are a researcher of globalisation and connectivity. What will change in the pattern of globalisation? How will globalisation be restructured and recalibrated? Especially in a context shaped by pressures for decoupling and fears of deglobalisation.

It is very important to emphasise that decoupling and deglobalisation are different things. Deglobalisation is if all globalisation stops. But Europe and China are both trading more with Asia, therefore you do not have deglobalisation. Decoupling simply means that the US might invest less in China, it might buy less from China and the reverse. Some connections are weaker and some connections are getting stronger. But when it comes to trade, the United States is not nearly as important as Asia. We should be looking at the globalisation of trade from the Asian standpoint, not the American standpoint. Trade between Europe and Asia is much larger than trade with America. There is not necessarily deglobalisation, but we can identify sectorial decoupling. 

In the post-COVID world regionalism will accelerate because it is very difficult to travel outside of one’s region for an indefinite period of time, as the supply chains are going to be more entrenched within the regions; it will accelerate because of the growing suspicion of outsourcing to China across long distances.

We can talk about increasing globalisation or decreasing globalisation by sector. In the energy sector, you have deglobalisation because oil is abundant, but consumption is down, so you have less trade in oil. You have some slight deglobalisation of finance, as some portfolio capital has been removed from some emerging markets. In digital services there is an increase of globalisation – everyone is using Skype, Zoom and Netflix. We have an increase in trade in digital services, which is a very high value-added component of globalisation. It is more important and more valuable than oil. We usually see the oil tankers as the embodiment of globalisation, but they are not. Internet is a better embodiment of globalisation.

To what extent is this phenomenon of decoupling reinforcing the trend of regionalisation? In both United States and Europe we can hear calls for reshoring some strategic industries and creating some sort of Western resilience from this perspective. Should we expect massive shifts in this direction? 

When we talk about infrastructure, supply chains and resilience we should not be talking about the West. The West is a cultural concept and it has nothing to do with supply chains and resilience, which are essentially geographical concepts. We must focus on North America and Europe completely separately. For example, Europe is moving towards some degree of decreasing the dependence on fossil fuels, therefore it is not competing for global oil supply. When you look to North America – United States, Canada and Mexico, all are major energy powers. North America has energy self-sufficiency, a large labour force, it has industrial potential, it has technology, labour, land. All of these potential inputs for self-sufficiency and resiliency are present in North America. Europe does not have its big software companies, but it has more people than North America, it has enough land, it has renewable energy, it has financial capital. It still needs to import some energy, it is still importing food from different parts of the world, but it is trying to be more self-sufficient. If Google were to stop Internet access for Google in Europe, that would be a problem for Europe. But there is no particular technology where you would say that if Europe switches off that access to America, then America is in trouble.

Time for Europe to take itself seriously

I also want to discuss a bit the dynamic that you see inside the Atlantic system. The COVID crisis that started in China hit the West dramatically, right at its core. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the strategic unity & solidarity of the Atlantic system? We see a lot of calls from the other side of the Atlantic trying to persuade Europe to align with the U.S. in the broader great-power competition.

Europe has no interest in decoupling from Asia. Europe is much more export-dependent than America is. Europe still needs to trade and export to Asia. That is why you can see that while the US is trying to block the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Europeans were joining the AIIB. There are different perspectives on this issue. In terms of a strategic community, you can still argue that there is a cultural West, but in terms of geo-economics, you cannot argue that there is a common West. America’s geopolitical allies are also its geo-economic rivals. They are competing with each other to gain market share in Asia.

How would you see the EU faring in a post-COVID international system where we see so much internal fragmentation, between North and South, Old Europe and New Europe, but at the same time a world in which the “return of history” and Machtpolitik, not multilateralism define the new normal? 

I don’t believe in the language of Robert Kagan. It is reflective of a trend focused on measuring capabilities in a way that is very different from the way sophisticated people measure capabilities today. In the XXI century, there is no particular reason to privilege the size of a nuclear arsenal over market access. Europe’s strength derives from areas where a) it acts coherently, and b) where it demands reciprocity and where it insists on high standards. This is a very important source of European influence. Europe has to actually act on these capabilities in trade, in regulations, in human rights. What we are seeing over the last couple of years is Europe trying to be tougher on China in terms of reciprocity, demanding to have a greater share in the BRI projects, demanding reciprocal market access, it has declared China as a strategic competitor, it is working to develop a big fund to support strategic industries. All of these are indications that Europe does want to be a more coherent strategic player, but this will require of course that Europe evolves towards a common fiscal policy as well.

When we talk about infrastructure, supply chains and resilience we should not be talking about the West. The West is a cultural concept and it has nothing to do with supply chains and resilience, which are essentially geographical concepts. We must focus on North America and Europe completely separately.

Balancing China

In the recent past, the way China has been rising has created a lot of resentment in Japan, in Australia (as we’ve seen in the last few weeks) in the whole East Asia, because of Beijing’s aggressive push in the South China Sea. Does the US have the ability to create a balancing coalition to check China’s strategic ambitions there? Or is that a role to be played first and foremost by local countries (like the TPP-11)?

The answer is definitely both. The most important thing to remember is that Japanese, Indian, Korean and Australian interests have been aligned for a very long time. As neighbours of China, they’ve been concerned about China’s rise for much longer than anyone else. It is important not to argue that the United States are leading the effort to balance China. That is not true. Japan and India really are leading the effort. America has the most powerful capabilities and it is wisely supporting efforts like the Quad arrangement (Australia, India, Japan and United States). The four navies are working together to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The aim is to prevent China from dominating the South China Sea, from dominating the Indian Ocean. This is going to shape Chinese behaviour. It is not a formal alliance, as in Asia alliances are very rare. It is a coalition of countries based on a very strong structural agreement on the desire to contain China.

In the book (“The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century”) published last year you point out that “Russia and China are today closer than at any point since the heyday of their 1950s Communist alliance”. Do they learn from each other in challenging the status quo? Are they coordinating their movements?

It is more an axis of convenience than a real alliance. Russia remains very suspicious of China, but Russia is also accepting a lot of investment from China. What will happen over time is a China that is being very careful not to alienate Russia, as it could potentially cut down on the amount of the Chinese investments in the country, even though it needs it desperately. In the long term, China has significant interests in using Russia for access to Europe and the Arctic, but it has to be careful not to appear too dominant. I can see that right now Russia is the country that is most compliant with the Chinese interests, but in the medium term it could be the country where there is a substantial backlash against China.

In a shifting global landscape where we will see a change in supply chain patterns, will the Belt and Road Initiative remain a comparative advantage for China or could it become a liability?

The Belt and Road Initiative is an integral part of China’s grand strategy. A lot of people are discussing whether China is going to speak less about BRI or de-emphasise it. We should focus less on what they say in speeches and more on following the money. This is the bigger issue. What we will see is that China will talk less about BRI as it has become controversial, but I think it is still a strategic priority to achieve the supply chain diversification, to build these infrastructure corridors, to access West Asia and access Europe through infrastructure. There will still be BRI, but China will talk less, it will try to multilateralise more and it will have to make concessions on issues of debt relief in the wake of the pandemic.

In terms of a strategic community, you can still argue that there is a cultural West, but in terms of geo-economics, you cannot argue that there is a common West. America’s geopolitical allies are also its geo-economic rivals. They are competing with each other to gain market share in Asia.

Lessons from Asia in managing COVID-19 

South Korea and Taiwan were at the forefront in managing the pandemic. What lessons in terms of resilience and effective governance should be learned from their example, including by the West?What is crucial to remember is that these are democratic states (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan) that performed very well during the pandemic. The key aspect is that they are democracies, but they are also technocracies. They have democratic elections, independent branches of government and separation of powers, but they have a very strong civil service, really competent and professional bureaucracies that know how to get things done to meet the basic needs of the people to deliver high quality medical care. It is very important to appreciate that countries can be democratic and technocratic at the same time. Very often that is something that we ignore.

The experience of Singapore

Singapore is a country that embodies a lot of hesitation and concern about China, even if it is a majority Chinese country. You have Chinese people in a country that is not China, but they are very worried about China. In a way, the more Chinese Singapore has become demographically, the less comfortable it has become with China geopolitically. I believe there have been times when, even though Singapore was suspicious about China, it was also naïve, as they hoped that China would have a peaceful rise. That has not been the case. Now, Singapore has been very clever to make sure to emphasise to China that it will maintain its strategic relationship with the United States, that it will not back down from allowing American naval forces to have a presence on its territory. It is a strong sign of Singapore’s independence and neutrality. When it comes to the US and China it is much more of a binary. But countries like South Korea, Thailand and Singapore have been very good at maintaining good relations with both. This is tricky because there is very strong US pressure on one side and very strong pressure on the other side.

Short-term vs. long-term trends

“The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-first Century” is about the competing efforts of the United States, of Europe and of China to develop spheres of influence in emerging regions and ‘swing-state’ sort of areas like Eastern Europe, Arab world, Latin America, Central Asia or Southeast Asia. In each of those regions you see a very different landscape of influence. In the short term you hear people saying that Russia calls the shots in Syria, that it is very influential in the Middle East. In the long term that is nonsense, because Russia cannot be influential in those regions. Through the 2000s we thought about Central Asia as part of the American dominion because U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and had a very large military presence there. In 2020, American presence has declined to almost a symbolic one and American influence is almost zero. Geopolitically we have to make a distinction between a very artificial and short-term situation like the occupation of Afghanistan, versus the long-term reality that countries like China and Iran will be much more influential in countries like Afghanistan.


Parag Khanna is Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. Parag’s newest book is The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century(2019). He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.

“Governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside” – interview with Mathew Burrows

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

What would you expect to be the possible geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? 

The obvious path that we are on at the moment is a world shaped by bipolarity, in particular by the competition between the U.S. and China. Within the West there are some common concerns about China. The Chinese side seems to feel more and more embattled, becoming more defensive in their diplomacy and announcements. There is very little multilateralism. The US pullout of the WHO, while a terrible idea, is also a leading indicator of the mood inside the Trump administration. There are other measures too: the Trump administration not allowing the US government pension system to invest in Chinese stocks; there is growing support for the repatriation of the supply chains in order to have far less dependence on China (especially for pharmaceutical supplies). If anything, I would say that we are seeing less globalisation (at least in terms of trade and investment flows), more political antagonism between the US and China and very little global cooperation. There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

Can the COVID crisis become also an opportunity – a change in mindset for a more united West, especially a Europe ready to embrace the great power competition against China? Even the debate inside NATO has lately taken a China angle. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the Atlantic strategic unity & solidarity?

I see Europe being ambivalent about going along with the US on all the measures that the Trump administration is taking against China: on tariffs plus a prohibition against Huawei in Western networks. I don’t think many in Europe want to be too closely aligned with the US in such strident attacks against China. They understand the US point of view and share many of the concerns, but they are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more. Moreover, the EU took a blow in this pandemic, where every member state had to fend for itself. Certainly Italy felt that it didn’t get the support from the other member states that it was entitled to or from the EU as a whole. There is an ongoing debate about the economic recovery: who pays? Many feel that Germany and Nordic countries should be much more generous in terms of the economic recovery support. There is a lot of division, and Europe remains far from speaking with one voice.

For sure, NATO is also split. A key factor on the European side is the distress created by the Trump administration. Germans worry that the Trump administration could impose tariffs on the automobile industry, an export which the entire German economy depends on. Of course, if there would be a sudden Russian move against the Baltic states, I would still see NATO coming together. The problem to me is when there is no major live external threat like that, and given that you have different interests by all the players and a US administration that is disengaged, disintegration has the upper hand.  

Europeans are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold WarThere is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.

How would you see the EU faring in a world in which power politics, not multilateralism is again the new normal? 

This is not the world that Europe expected. A decade ago the EU was looking forward to a postmodern world in which there were far fewer conflicts, where  European integration would become the model for others. Obviously that world is not happening. What is essential is Europe’s ability to reach or retain a political consensus. In the recent crises (whether the euro-crisis or the migration crisis) the end result has instead been a deepening of the divisions between east and west, north and south. The pandemic looks like that, too, deepening the same cleavages. That is what I worry the most about. Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming these divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations. In general, the EU has a tendency of coming together at the eleventh hour, but in finding a solution at the last minute it allows hard feelings and resentments to accumulate. Trying to speed up some of the solutions will help the process of binding together the community again, necessary for remaining a force on the world stage.  

It is said that history rhymes. To some observers the current pandemic brings parallels with the type of world in which Spanish Influenza was spreading after WWI – intense geopolitical competition, inward focus and protectionism, nationalism on steroids and nation-first type of responses, democratic recession, a crisis of international architecture, all wrapped up in a profound economic recession. What can be done to avoid/ tame such an interwar cycle? What lessons should we be reminded of?

We should be very worried about the economic recovery. High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers. The bankers got bailed out, it was the ordinary guys that paid the price. So if you have another iteration of the same pattern, you will create a class that feels that they have few stakes in society or in a democratic government that doesn’t work for them. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, and we know that part of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s was a middle class which felt dispossessed (by the combined conditions generated by WWI and the economic collapse that followed). Consequently, it didn’t have any particular faith in democracy and saw its salvation in strong leaders. That could happen again, although we are much more sensitive to the signs of that happening. The tendency with many economic crises has been that they do prop up the strong, and those that are weaker pay the biggest price. This has to be our number one concern. Another concern should be not to fall in the trap (which we see the US falling into) of seeking shelter under protectionism, even if the feeling against China is running very high. This is another lesson of the 1920s and 1930s, that protectionism may feel good in the short term, but it will make it harder to recover in the long run.

Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming internal divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations.

These days we see the revival of an old idea meant to fix to some extent the crisis of multilateralism, but also to respond to the new revisionism – a global concert/alliance of democracies (supported in the past by John McCain, embraced today by Joe Biden, promoted in a certain version also by Heiko Maas). Is such an idea feasible and operationalised?

I am not sure that it solves what I think is the real issue. People lost faith in democracies because they don’t seem to be working particularly well for the less skilled or the lower strata of the middle class. There are very few people in the US that think this democracy works. So governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside than from the outside.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? 

During the pandemic there was an initial period where people were coming together. Congress passed in record time the 3 trillion dollar stimulus and rescue plans. In the recent weeks it has returned to the old pattern of partisanship. The pandemic seems to be reinforcing the division between Blue and Red states. Blue states like New York and California have suffered far more so far than Red ones. At the same time Donald Trump openly tries to deepen these divisions as part of his strategy is to keep his base mobilised. It is very hard for both sides to work across the aisle, because they are stuck in a system in which they derive more advantages from this polarised atmosphere. Partisanship is deeply entrenched. In the long run, you may have more populism on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders type of socialism focused especially on providing free university tuition and better healthcare to those struggling in the middle class. What certainly will be different for the US is that the state is going to be a lot more powerful as a result of it having to save the economy in this pandemic. In this context, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival too of the Tea Party on the right, opposed to the big government and to moving the US closer to the European model.

Is the West, and especially Europe in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post-9/11 campaigns, in the sense of ‘never again’? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilisation operations or R2P today. But sometimes they might be needed. Can Europe recapture the patience of winning the peace? Especially in a world in which Europe continues to be affected by MENA instabilities that could be even more significant in a post-pandemic world?

High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.

I don’t really see anybody prepared to do what the US and NATO did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Europe the main effort will be to protect itself against huge flows of refugees. The effort will be focused on not allowing the crisis to get to the worst-case scenario. It will be an effort to drive down some of the worst outcomes of conflict, but not to really settle them. 

In the 1990s, the West — both the US and Europe — was at the height of its power, which also made it confident of solving others’ problems. Hence the wish to solve the world’s ills, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. There are groups today within Western societies — NGOs and civil society — that remain activists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done enormous good in combatting disease in Africa and other developing regions. But because of the internal problems, Western governments don’t have the means or bandwidth to solve the world’s big problems. Instead of offense, it’s defence. They get involved if there is the threat of the conflict having the potential to spill over in the form of terrorism, threatening the West. And then the effort is to seal off the problem, not solve it. Syria is a prime example. The US effort was geared to combating ISIS, not supporting the rebels against Assad.     

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.