SMThe security angle of the EU referendum argument tends to revolve around the threat posed by ISIS and associated terrorism. But there are much bigger security concerns being overlooked, for EU foreign policy is provoking Moscow.

Russia, unlike the ‘Caliphate’, is a nuclear state. It has recently developed the RS-26 Rubezh ICBM and the SSN-30A Kalibr missile, the latter capable of delivering a nuclear payload to any European target from a naval vessel. The long-range version of Kalibr can reach London from Kaliningrad, where Russia is focusing much of its new missile deployment. This would be worrying enough at the best of times, but is even more so now that the EU (as much as NATO) is in geographical expansionist mode, pressing against Russia’s boundaries. (As Tim Marshall points out in Prisoners of Geography, Russia is extremely sensitive about its borders.)  In so doing, the EU is antagonising Moscow. Whether this is being done deliberately or just ineptly, the effect on Putin is the same.

Putin’s foreign policy is successfully attempting the aggressive reassertion of Russian might and pride, lost in the rubble of the collapsed Berlin wall. He is ever-ready to deploy force in pursuit of his foreign policy aims: Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria. Shedding blood does not trouble him: this is a man who views war as a Clausewitzian extension of politics. He means business and he needs to be treated with great caution. But the EU, enthusiastically pursuing its expanded foreign policy mandate since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty has put itself on top of Putin’s hate list due to its relentless expansionism.

The end of the Cold War rendered Russia disorientated as its ruling ideology of communism was left in tatters. From the turn of the century, Putin tried to anchor Russia into the West politically, strategically and economically, especially in relation to NATO and the EU. He was repeatedly rebutted and, in the process, he and his nation humiliated. For, at heart, Russia wants respect as a world power. There were numerous good reasons not to embrace Russia. But there were better ones for doing so, such as to prevent the predictable consequences now playing out, as Moscow throws around its military weight. After all, the EU is happy to make overtures to Belarus and Turkey – hardly beacons of liberal democracy.

Moscow’s fur was ruffled when Poland and the other Visegrad countries (Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) joined NATO in 1999, and it was furious when the Vilnius group of the Baltic states became part of the club in 2004: the Russkiy Mir, the ‘Russian World’ or sphere of influence, was being undermined.

Many foreign policy experts warned this was an unnecessary provocation as Russia did not then pose a threat; indeed, it was trying to find a relatively collaborative role with the old West. But NATO, similarly disorientated by the sudden and startling advent of the post-Cold War geopolitical world, was trying to find a new raison d’être for itself. Adhering to Milton Friedman’s observations on ‘the tyranny of the status quo’, NATO opted to keep pressing ahead with Cold War policies.

This suited the EU, which jumped on the NATO bandwagon. In fact, the two organisations have become disconcertingly close in their parallel pursuits. These were conflated in 2004 when the Visegrad and Baltic states acceded to the EU. Unsurprisingly, these countries were seeking extra security within both NATO and the EU against their giant neighbour with its recent history of oppression. Of course, as independent countries, they had every right to make this decision. Confirmation of this NATO-EU conflation was formalised in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty which stipulates that accession countries (most of which border Russia) must align their security and defence policies with those of NATO.

The EU’s activation of its Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative in 2009 was the last straw for Moscow. EaP is designed to prepare for EU membership the post-Soviet countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and, of course, Ukraine. The last of these show how disturbingly easily the EU’s reckless foreign policy can lead to actual armed conflict. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent and author of the hugely important Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (2015), demonstrates how EaP was instrumental in provoking the Ukrainian crisis with Russia. He writes that the EU ‘has only exacerbated the tensions’ with Russia, due to its ‘Brussels-centric vision of a European core that extended into the heartlands of what had once been an alternative great-power system centred on Moscow. The increasing merger of Wider Europe [the EU’s vision] with the Atlantic security system only made things worse’.

BCThere are two geographical areas within Europe where EU foreign policy has – or is leading to – dangerous levels of volatility. Putin is ready to exploit the ‘shameful’ treatment of Russian speakers in the Baltic states and to ‘defend the rights of … our compatriots abroad, using the entire range of means available’. The 2013 Zapad-13 joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises saw 70,000 troops involved in war-gaming a Baltic scenario. (The Russians could annex the states in 48 hours). But first he is waiting to see how the Ukraine situation pans out following the annexation of Crimea and Russian intervention in the eastern part of the country, where we can see what he implies about the ‘range of means available’. Here, of course, a devastating war is being waged which could still escalate.

Putin is deploying his increasingly powerful military, as in Syria, to influence a deal on the Ukraine. He also sees the tsunami of Middle Eastern refugees hitting Europe as weakening it. This, as with Ukraine, is his intention: a damaged EU will be less able to draw the Ukraine, Belarus and other bordering countries out of Russia’s orbit. But if the EU keeps poking the bear, it risks getting mauled.

Dr Sean McGlynn is an author, lecturer and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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6 Comments on "Brexit and Russia"

  1. Would agree with most of what you say about how we got here Sean and also about the likely flashpoints. Of course this is when misreading each others resolve can prove catastrophic. It does seem to me that the EU expansionism has coincided with the growing strength of Germany within the bloc, whether that is coincidental or not is hard to assess from the outside.

    • This months Foreign Affairs mag has for its opening essay an article with which the opening chapter of ‘Prisoners of Geography’ agrees – Russia, dealt a poor geographic hand, has always responded by being belligerent and expansionist. The essay goes on to suggest though that although the Russian elite has succesfully introduced a post cold war ‘stab in the back’ theory to its public, in fact most of the overturnes for co-operation were made by the West and rejected by Moscow. It’s a good read.

      • Yes it is an interesting read Tim. It does acknowledge that the US exploited Russian weakness during the Yeltsin tenure and I do wonder if the West finds itself in a self perpetuating cycle with the Russians. Both sides have looked at the other guardedly for the last couple of centuries expecting with some justification the other to engage in some sort of armed aggression. It follows then that given the chance to make some gains during a time of weakness either side will do just that. As the article rightly points out Russia is in no position to challenge the US and the EU militarily or economically, what could be a game changer though would be a limited conflict erupting between China and the US, that would perhaps provide just the window of opportunity that Russia would need to push harder than it would normally consider prudent.

  2. Peter Kennedy | 26th April 2016 at 5:39 pm | Reply

    So far as the article is concerned I agree with every word however I have different arguments against the admission of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova into the European Union, these countries are in Asia. The same argument can be used against the admission of Turkey, something which I do not believe will happen in the near future, Turkey is an Asian country with a tiny part of its land mass in Europe. As such I do not believe that these countries belong in the European Union but I suspect that I will just be a voice in the wilderness.
    As for Ukraine? Arguments can be made for both sides and the best way of resolving the situation is a free and fair referendum on the issue with the result being binding on both sides. Given the current unstable situation in Ukraine such a referendum is unfortunately impossible.

    • I suspect you are far from being a voice in the wilderness, Peter. Even supporters of the EU think the expansion of the EU to its current size has been a mistake. Further expansion would make it unmanageable and politically nonviable.

  3. Many thanks for these interesting and informative comments. I agree that Russia is not a victim and that the old “stab in the back” excuse is now very convenient. But I do think that western concessions around 1990 and soon thereafter were not realistically accommodating. It’s more that, as Prof Sawka and others have pointed out, the EU (and NATO) have been – and continue to be – worryingly tactless in dealing with such a sensitive and volatile issue. Rather like the notion of the shark being in perpetual motion to survive, so the EU needs continuing expansion, in this case replenishing the increasingly jaded views of its old blood with a transfusion of fresh blood. And Peter’s argument that the accessionary countries lining up are not really European (especially Turkey) underlines the point about unrestrained expansionism. Perhaps the EU has entered a variant phase of Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overstretch”?

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