It is glib to argue that history repeats itself, but given the right circumstances, it can rhyme on occasion. Historically in Europe such “rhyming” has anticipated a new power distribution cycle, when power realignments combine with national aspirations to force course corrections that up to that point seemed all but impossible. Today we are on the cusp of such an inflection point: Russia’s power and national grievances are driving her revisionist agenda, and what’s left of the “post-Cold War” era optimism is fading fast. Geopolitics is back in Europe, putting a modern spin on the old spheres of influence formula, and casting an ever-growing shadow over the normative idealism of the past two decades.
As recently as eight years ago, before the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit and Russian-Georgian war that erupted in its wake, Western self-confidence still abounded that the “end of history” marked in Europe the consolidation of a normative security order, and that the enlargement of democratic institutions and free markets would continue apace. Today, with Crimea firmly a part of the Russian Federation, and with Moscow embedding the Donetsk and Luhansk territories into its administrative structures, the pattern of change has reversed course; Russia is increasingly pushing from East to West once again. The new Eastern Europe, which includes Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova, is sliding back into the Russian sphere of influence, while the belt of countries from the Baltics through Poland to Romania and the Balkans are at a risk of becoming a contested space yet again—“lands in-between.” With the next NATO summit in Warsaw just three months away, an increasingly militarized fault line dividing Russia from the West is in place, running along the eastern frontier of the Baltic States, Poland’s border along the Bug River boundary, and farther south along the frontier of the Black Sea NATO allies. And there are reasons to believe that the process of a further geostrategic readjustment in Europe has barely begun.
The key factor contributing to the reordering of Europe’s security landscape has been the resurgence of Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Today Russia is unequivocally a revisionist power. Putin seeks to undo the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he has called the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,” and Europe is his primary target. Hence, the United States is facing in Europe an aggressive and revanchist Russian regime that is determined to pursue its objectives not just through economic and political means but also through its increasingly modern military. Since Putin came to office, Russia has sought to reclaim a sphere of privileged interest along its periphery, and in the process to become again a major player in global affairs. Putin’s two principal goals in Europe have been: to hollow out the existing security regime by undermining NATO’s ability to act collectively in a crisis; and to exploit the current crisis in the EU, especially the MENA migration crisis, in order to paralyze European Union institutions to a point where business is transacted predominantly on a national basis.
NATO has responded to a resurgent Russia but with enough hedging—no permanent bases along the northeastern flank—to keep Putin’s opportunistic momentum going. Since Russian power was significantly degraded in the 1990s, Putin has played from a position of relative weakness. Nonetheless, before the collapse of energy prices, he managed to capitalize on Russia’s energy resources to consolidate state power and to modernize the military. Putin’s decision to launch that ten-year military modernization program—at a time when Europe has effectively disarmed and the United States has withdrawn assets from Europe—has significantly altered the balance of power along NATO’s northeastern flank. Russian deployments in Kaliningrad and more recently in Crimea constitute a direct challenge to NATO’s ability to operate in the Baltic and the Black Sea (and following the Russian military campaign in Syria, also in parts of the Mediterranean). This changing strategic landscape poses a direct threat to the United States, our European allies, and, increasingly, Turkey.
In the near term, by increasing military pressure along NATO’s periphery, Putin expects to break the allied ability to mount a unified response in a crisis, to force the lifting of economic sanctions, and ultimately to bring key European states into an accommodation with Russia on his terms. The Baltics may become the principal area of Russian-American competition, but Russian pressure and influence are also increasing in Moldova and in the Balkans. Moreover, Putin’s strategy reaches beyond Europe, challenging U.S. interests in MENA and the Pacific, where Russia has positioned itself in opposition to the United States and aligned itself with its competitors and adversaries, even as it presents itself as a status quo power.
There is a clearly defined military component to Russia’s strategy. Putin’s goal is to make the Russian military combat ready without the need first to mobilize its reserves. The rapid succession of snap exercises, which in 2015 involved almost 300,000 personnel, has served to drive this message home across his military structure. In contrast, NATO’s largest military exercise, Trident Juncture, with 36,000 troops, hosted by Italy, Spain, and Portugal in late 2015, focused on the Mediterranean—away from the most exposed northeastern flank of NATO. Still, the alliance is beginning to wake up to the Russian threat and the new reality of military power distribution in Europe, asking the United States to take the lead and establish the necessary tripwires. But the current focus on political messaging as the centerpiece of deterrence is not enough; there must be clarity about what NATO would do if a wire were tripped. This forces the larger issue of the need for the United States to rethink its strategy towards Europe since the end of the Cold War, with an eye to revisiting the fundamentals of collective defense that served NATO well against the Soviet Union, including its nuclear component and the maritime dimension.
It should be recognized, however, that the past 16 years of U.S. policy has contributed to the current ambiguity about the foundations of security in Europe, beginning with the withdrawal of U.S. forces and, following the 9/11 terror attacks, the refocusing under the George W. Bush Administration on the global fight against jihadi terrorism as a key task in NATO’s mission. Barack Obama’s 2009 “pivot” to Asia put more daylight between the United States and its European allies, as it conveyed the Administration’s belief that Europe was essentially “done.” The Asia pivot assumed that the existing level of strategic engagement with Europe would suffice, and that the United States would further dial back its military presence there. In total, over the past twenty five years the level of U.S. military deployments to Europe have imploded from an average in the Cold War of about 300,000 to a mere 60,000 in 2015, with the Army’s total in 2015 at roughly 30,000 (the Obama Administration’s recent decision to return an armored brigade to Europe and a one-time $3.4 billion dollar increase in funding will raise these numbers somewhat). There is also a larger question about U.S. operational experience and training. The Army, which for the past 15 years has restructured and concentrated on counterinsurgency as its critical mission, needs urgently to refocus on training to fight in a state-on-state scenario in which control of the air space is not a given and the ability to deploy large forces is a key requirement.
Europe bears most of the blame for its current security predicament because of the unwillingness of successive governments in its key capitals to spend money on defense, preferring instead to rely on the United States. The implosion of defense budgets across Europe has been the hallmark of the past decade, justified both by other spending priorities and the belief that the overall security situation on the continent was benign. Even after Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine and the ringing declarations delivered two years ago at the Newport NATO summit to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, only four European allies met the target last year, sending a powerful message to Putin that, when it comes to real money, European rhetoric and reality do not match. An equally glaring failure has been the inability of Brussels to anticipate the renationalization of Europe’s politics, both in the “old” and “new” EU. Since 2008 Europe’s political landscape has changed in several critical areas, beyond the inevitable aftershocks of the Eurozone crisis, the narrowly avoided Grexit, and the accelerating MENA migration crisis, the last of which strained the EU’s institutional arrangements to a breaking point.
One of the key questions confronting the European Union is how Brussels, Berlin, and Paris will respond to the surge of national assertiveness in Europe, especially that which has marked the coming of age of the first generation born into freedom in the postcommunist states. In Poland in particular, but also in Hungary and increasingly in Slovakia, the notional idea of Central Europe has merged with the political project of building a regional grouping around the core of the Visegrad Four: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. So recompiled, this Central European project could accelerate the process of the regionalization of security within NATO, anticipating a change in Central Europe’s foundational relationship with Germany, with the burden of historical legacies potentially resurfacing and putting more daylight between Berlin and the region. The revisiting of the Visegrad idea can serve to strengthen security cooperation in Central Europe, but it also carries a risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Greater regional cooperation within a larger NATO umbrella is a welcome development, but regionalization that generates more distance between the allies will weaken the already tenuous consensus on allied solidarity. If the regionalization of security in Europe puts more distance between the “old” and the “new” Europe, it risks transforming today’s Mitteleuropa into another incarnation of Zwischeneuropa, making it more vulnerable to Russian pressure. As NATO faces a growing threat from the East, Europe is fracturing along lines of historically defined national interests. And there is precious little coming from Berlin or Brussels to assuage the current sense of vulnerability pervading Central Europe; on the contrary, Germany remains opposed to calls for permanent U.S. and NATO installations in the Baltics, Poland, and Romania.
As NATO gears up for the Warsaw summit, it remains politically in flux. The current divisions suggest that the emerging three-tiered structure may go on to define Europe in the years to come: the Charlemagne Europe of old, encompassing most of what between 1945-90 was broadly construed as the West; the “In-Between” Europe, still called “Central Europe” or “Central Europe and the Baltics,” but now increasingly consigned to its middle position; and Eastern Europe, lying beyond NATO’s “red line” in the East, where the expansion and consolidation of Moscow’s influence in places like Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova is gathering speed and likely to continue, notwithstanding protests from the United States and the European Union.
When the history of the past quarter century has been written, it will likely record the slogan of a “Europe whole and free and at peace” as a noble effort steeped in American liberal internationalism and mixed with a dose of gullibility. Geopolitics has returned to Europe not because history has been forgotten but because it has been learned so well that the assumptions from a bygone era are constraining our present policy choices. In extreme cases this process may even awaken ghosts of the past that many thought no longer haunted us.