In the shadow of a neo-imperialist Russia

Not since the Cold War has the security of Central and Eastern Europe been as under threat as it is now. Without question, the greatest challenge facing the region is the fact that Russia currently appears more willing to use force.

For years now, we have heard many European experts claim that a superpower’s position in the 21st century would be based on soft power and a modern, dynamic economy. Being a superpower was supposed to involve having a major impact on other countries by using subtle and sophisticated economic and political resources to pressure them, rather than using brute force as in the past. At the beginning of the 21st century, traditional imperialism based on military aggression seemed to be becoming increasingly anachronistic. Military power was to gradually become an old-fashioned attribute, like a family sabre attached to superpower status.

However, the wars in the Middle East and in the Black Sea basin have painfully shown that, sadly, the contemporary world still resembles a jungle, much like the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes: “war of everyone against everyone”. Hobbes’ perception of pre-civilisation stage definitely favours Russia, a country that can only really compete as a global power by using tanks and nuclear warheads. Its mentality is deeply rooted in the 19th century perception of a superpower (spheres of influence) and the Concert of Europe. The ultimate aim of Russia’s foreign policy is to play a leading role as a superpower, deciding the fate of the world, hand-in-hand, with the United States and China.

An extension of politics

Russia’s neo-imperialist and militaristic attitude, which is here to stay, is going to be the largest security challenge to Central and Eastern Europe in the coming years. Apart from the significant permanent presence of the US in the region, the following actions are vital to successfully deter Russia: a substantial increase in defence spending by NATO member states on its eastern flank, a broadening of geopolitical horizons (creating a wider perception of Russia’s threat) and closer co-operation between NATO members and countries in the region that are not members (Finland, Sweden and Ukraine).

Since Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power, Russia has been increasingly rearming itself. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia’s defence spending between 1999 and 2015 has more than quadrupled (at constant 2014 prices and exchange rates). According to the Kremlin, this is in response to the growing NATO threat. However, the US, Russia’s perceived enemy number one, increased its defence expenditures by only two-thirds, while European member states have made substantial cuts to their defence budgets during the same time period. As a result of its defence modernisation scheme, militarily, Russia has become the strongest European country. In 2011, Russia’s defence budget was equal to that of the United Kingdom (at constant 2014 prices and exchange rates). In 2015, the British defence budget was a mere 65 per cent of Russia’s military expenditure. Despite its current economic problems, Russia has announced plans to further increase its defence spending while the UK and France, the most powerful NATO members in Europe, are slashing theirs.

Obviously, Russia has no chance of building a military that would be as powerful as that of the US. It is worth noting that in 2015, the American military budget was more than six and half times that of Russia (at constant 2014 prices and exchange rates). However, Russia produces its military equipment almost exclusively on the domestic market. Therefore, its purchasing power parity (PPP) needs to be taken into account. With this in mind, it turns out that Russian military expenditure is only four times lower than that of the US. Yet the more serious problem is that Russia appears to be far more willing to use its might than western countries are. For several years now, Russian foreign policy has been increasingly based on military interventions (Georgia in 2008; Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015). The Russian intervention in Syria is particularly symbolic, as it represents the first time since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that Moscow has become involved in a conflict beyond what it considers to be its exclusive sphere of influence.

Moreover, Russia’s provocation of its neighbours has become commonplace. The clearest indications of this are the numerous incidents of airspace violations involving NATO member states, especially the Baltic States and Turkey between 2014 and 2015, as well as massive military exercises close to the Polish and Lithuanian borders (during which Russian forces simulated a nuclear attack on Warsaw). In November 2015, Turkey decided to react to yet another violation of its airspace and ended up shooting down a Russian bomber on a combat mission. The last time a NATO member shot down a Russian (Soviet) plane was 60 years ago. This incident led to a very severe crisis in bilateral relations.

Such incidents involving Russian planes are not just dangerous for civil aviation. They could also lead to an exchange of fire between Russian and NATO forces, leading to potentially unforeseeable consequences, especially since Russia has declared that should escalation of a local conflict occur, it reserves the right to use a tactical nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, because of Russia’s internal situation and the worldview of its society, as well as favourable external conditions, we can expect to see an escalation of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy in the upcoming years.

Power hungry

The Russian model of social and economic development has so far been based on an unwritten agreement between the authorities and society. Russians accept authoritarian rule in exchange for increasing prosperity. However, this model has failed due to the inherent structural weaknesses of the Russian economy in the form of very high levels of corruption, low levels of economic freedom and openness to the rest of the world and a marked deterioration in what was already a limited pool of innovation. In 2013 the sudden drop in oil prices, as well as western sanctions (to a lesser extent), caused the Russian economy to shrink.

In 2016 Russia is facing a recession. An optimistic estimation for 2017 assumes minimal growth. An economic meltdown cannot be ruled out, although it is more likely that a creeping crisis and economic stagnation will occur, as the authorities look for a red herring to blame. That is why the Kremlin needs an external enemy: so that the country’s aggressive posturing acts as a means to rally society around its leader. Since 2014 the Putin regime has unambiguously based its legitimacy on anti-western nationalism and neo-imperialism (Russia as a global superpower). However, this goes beyond the internal situation. The vision of Russia as an empire and the West as its greatest enemy is deeply rooted in the cultural and historical identity of the Russian society and its elite. Unfortunately, in today’s Russia, pro-western tendencies are mostly marginalised.

The geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the US takes place predominantly in the form of proxy conflicts. Russia is much more determined than western countries to use force to achieve its political objectives. Unfortunately, Russia’s primary opposition is the incumbent American president, who is known for marking out “impassable” red lines. Consequently, Russia needs no further encouragement to test American hard power. That is why Russia, as a fully-fledged superpower, is challenging the status quo of the US as the sole global superpower; not in the form of points but on the broader eastern flank of NATO, from the Arctic to Aleppo.

Permanent deterrence

Recently, Russia has taken on a new defence doctrine that for the first time, clearly defines NATO as a fundamental threat for its security and names the US as its main opponent on the international scene. Moscow’s aim is to weaken the Alliance as much as possible by exploiting its internal divisions. Its primary aim is to minimise America’s presence in Europe and prevent NATO’s further military involvement in Central European countries, which are treated by Moscow as a buffer zone. Russia claims “hibernation” of Central Europe in the grey security zone (no NATO bases) as the sine qua non condition for keeping Eastern Europe within the Russia sphere of influence. The countries on the eastern flank are threatened, either directly or indirectly, by states neighbouring Russia or Eastern Europe. For example, Poland has a sea and land border with Russia (Kaliningrad – the most militarised zone in Europe), a border with Belarus (which, to a great extent, is controlled by Russia, at least in terms of security) and with states that are either Russian targets (Ukraine) or potential targets (Lithuania). Turkey is “surrounded” by Russia from the south (Syria), east (Armenia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia) and north (Crimea, Donbas, Transnistria). NATO staff must be having nightmares about a local conflict in the Baltic states, triggered by Russia, where the Russian army decides to connect Kaliningrad with Belarus while cutting Poland off from Lithuania, taking over the so-called “Suwałki corridor”.

Russia’s neighbours are the most severely affected by its neo-imperialism and militarisation. The first line in Europe is Ukraine, already a victim of Russian aggression. Ukraine is followed by NATO states on the so-called eastern flank (from north to south: Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Turkey). Due to numerous incidents provoked by Russian aircraft and the navy, there has been a significant threat increase in Sweden and Finland, who are not members of the Alliance but cooperate with it closely.

Setting up NATO permanent bases, especially US-led ones, in Central and Eastern Europe is key to successfully deterring Russia. However, it is not a catch-all solution. First of all, the establishment of the second Rammstein in Poland is highly unlikely because the US, Germany or France perceive this scenario as an unnecessary provocation towards Russia and as an alleged violation of the NATO-Russia agreement from 1997. In this context, the security potential of the eastern flank countries is becoming even more important. Currently, the picture remains unclear. Some countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have been downplaying the threat posed by Russia. Their defence expenditures have decreased from 1.8-2 per cent of GDP at the beginning of the 2000s to 0.8-1.1 per cent of GDP now. The attitude of Lithuania and Latvia is even more shocking. Before 2013, these countries had reduced their spending to an equally low level. Since regaining independence from the Soviet Union, Lithuania’s defence expenditure has never risen higher than 1.4 per cent of its GDP. An increase in defence spending started only after the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

When compared to Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia is the role model to follow. Unlike those countries, it has doubled its defence spending to two per cent of its GDP. It is not just about the money, but also a country’s ability to spend it wisely. For years now, Poland has been spending 1.8-1.9 per cent of its GDP on security. Moreover, the Russian aggression on Ukraine lead to a significant increase in Polish defence spending (2.2 percent in 2015). In 2015, rapid economic growth enabled Poland to increase its expenditure to 12.6 billion US dollars (fixed exchange rate in 2014). In other words, Poland pretty soon will have a defence budget similar to that of Spain. Nevertheless, at the same time, Poland’s military potential, especially aviation, missile defence and the navy, remain on a significantly worse than those of Spain.

Size matters

Poland is the main advocate of co-operation along NATO’s eastern flank. It was Poland’s initiative to organise a mini-summit of NATO member states from the region in Bucharest in November 2015. Officials from the Baltic States, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria all participated. However, size matters. In this instance, Poland has a problem, as its defence spending is higher than that of all those other states combined. From this group, the most important partner for Poland is Romania, which has the strongest military. The Romanian navy is even more powerful than the Polish one. In 2014 Romania began increasing its defence spending from 1.3 to 2 per cent of its GDP.

However, Poland also needs to co-operate with the NATO partners who are at least as strong, if not stronger. That is why, when looking at the North-South axis, Warsaw should also be considering close co-operation with Norway and Turkey. The former is a medium-sized NATO member state with vast military potential, especially in terms of its navy and aviation. At the same time, Norway’s defence expenditure is more than three times higher than that of the Czech Republic dollars (fixed exchange rate in 2014).. Turkey is also a strong European NATO member state in terms of its military capacity, only preceded by the UK and France. In recent years, the Turkish defence budget stood at 2.1-2.3 per cent of its GDP. However, the budget for 2016 is expected to grow by a significant 20 per cent.

A more effective NATO eastern flank will also mean stronger co-operation between NATO member states and their partners located between the Arctic and Aleppo (i.e. Sweden, Finland and Ukraine). Closer military ties between the Nordic Defence Co-operation (Nordefco), which includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, is a good thing, something that was reflected in a joint declaration adopted in Stockholm in November 2015. Closer co-operation in the security sector between NATO members on the North-South axis and Ukraine is equally important. Poland and Lithuania have established a joint brigade with Ukraine. At the same time, a new opening in Turkish and Ukrainian relations is even more important. In February 2016 Turkey and Ukraine agreed to set up working groups to develop weapons systems production and advanced technology co-operation. This will focus on turbojet aircraft engines, radar, military communication technologies and navigation systems. Both countries also announced their plans to organise joint military exercises.

It is worth noting that Ukraine is becoming an attractive partner in terms of military co-operation with NATO. The conflict with Russia has provided the Ukrainian army with significant combat experience, with Ukraine almost doubling its defence spending (to four per cent of GDP). Ukraine’s current defence budget is one and a half times as large as that of Romania. More importantly, Ukraine has significant potential to develop its defence industry. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2011 and 2015, Ukraine was the tenth largest global exporter of arms. Its contribution to the global export market exceeded 2.5 per cent and was more or less on the same level as Italy. Ukraine’s case confirms once again that Poland, the closest ally of Kyiv in the Alliance, is predestined to play the key role of facilitating co-operation on the North-South axis, this time as a partner to Kyiv on NATO’s eastern flank.

The upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw is a unique opportunity for strengthening co-operation along NATO’s eastern flank. However, Poland’s chances of facilitating this will be dependent on Warsaw’s relations with the key members of NATO (the US and Germany) and the Polish elite’s ability to perceive the eastern flank in broader terms, stretching from the Arctic to Aleppo.

Adam Balcer is the programme director for the conference on Polish Eastern Policy, organised annually by the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe in Wrocław. He is also a project manager at WiseEuropa, a Warsaw-based think tank.

1NEE_2012.jpg This article was published in New Eastern Europe Issue 3-4 2016: One for all, all for one?