Despite the generally held view that a war in Europe is a thing of the past, the truth is that Russia has quietly steered us towards the next one.
Europe is sleepwalking into a major international conflagration. Drowsy from three decades of Western hegemony, the path is being paved with high-minded morality. Sadly, the edifice of Realpolitik didn’t crumble with the Berlin Wall. It merely lay scattered, indiscernible amongst the rubble of defeated ideologies, awaiting Machiavellian hands eager to gather it together.
Unless Europe’s democracies recalibrate their attitude toward the White House’s current occupant, continental war could be as little as five years away. Given the progressively shifting geopolitics of Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Black Sea states, elite attitudes towards the United States illustrate an alarming degree of foreign policy naïveté.
Since 2014, Russia has shown it will flaunt international norms, ignore the West’s rhetorical and economic sanctions, and engage in outcome-oriented, narrowly-focused military operations beyond its borders. The destabilisation of East Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and the decisive reversal of events (and utter confounding of US strategy) in Syria, characterise Moscow as a power prepared to reshape its near-abroad. This is a military-diplomatic paradigm the populations from Dublin to Dresden have long forgotten. Indeed, so comfortable are elites in their technocratic paradise, they can’t imagine what World War III might look like. It’s not a question of if Russia will send hardware and personnel into a neighbouring state, it’s a matter of when. In 20 years’ time when they write about the European war of the first quarter of the 21st century, they’ll call it a failure of imagination. Just like the GFC, Trump, Brexit and the Eurozone crisis, elites will be quite caught off guard and fall easy prey to the realists. Just as, in 2016, the experts didn’t realise how disenfranchised middle-America had become, and in London they underestimated the relevance of mass-immigration, and in 2008 across international markets, they didn’t acknowledge the volatility of the US housing market – today, the European Union is unaware (or refuses to acknowledge) how fragile it is.
The map below indicates Putin’s Grand Strategy. In the “green zone” the Kremlin covets the status of regional hegemon (to determine all political, economic and cultural life). In the “blue zone” Moscow seeks the role of central player with “veto-power”. One need only read the regime’s own documentation, The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, to apprehend the place Russia seeks in the international order.
Not only does Russia have the pedigree and intent to acquire territory to the west of its current borders, but it also has the form. Ever since Putin took control of the vast, frozen empire, he has been reforming, re-tooling, and spending far more on, a far more effective military than any other power on the continent.
While Europe has been nuzzling lazily within the warm embrace of US military hegemony, Russia has been preparing for war. Russia spends 5.4% of GDP on its military; Germany spends 1.2%. Russia has a total military personnel of 3,371,027; Germany has 210,000. Russia has 3,794 military aircraft; Germany has 698.
Russian has 20,216 tanks; Germany has 543. Even if you combined the forces of Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Austria and the UK, the “Allies 2.0” have 28,653 armoured vehicles to Russia’s 31,298. Europe is outmanned, outgunned and shortly outmanoeuvred.
In the past, these relative figures were of little consequence. Article 5 was a guiding light, and the NATO alliance was as reliable a defence partnership as the world had ever seen. The situation today is something else entirely. Since Donald Trump has become so utterly repugnant to the vast majority of the sober-minded, and in an effort to stake out the moral high-ground, European leaders have opened the door to a United States “America First” foreign policy. Thumbing the proverbial nose at Trump (and by extension the US) is tantamount to laying out the red carpet to Russia’s Iskander-Ms. These are what Putin sent in to help Assad. Watch the video; these weapons are formidable.
Unfortunately, principled decisions like Sadiq Kahn’s refusal to welcome Trump to London are exactly the wrong thing to do. Adding humiliation to an already strained relationship, and one in which the US president is naturally inclined to expend less on the defence of Europe, is a fruitless enterprise. It might make leaders feel good to take a stand against small-minded prejudices, but at what cost? An enormous cost, as it turns out.
Many will scoff and dismiss this scenario, suggesting that America’s interests dictate that Russia be kept out of Europe. The historical record doesn’t bear this out. America’s national interest precludes Russia from controlling Europe, but that’s not the same as saying that America’s national interest is adversely affected by Russia attacking, invading, or otherwise engaging militarily with Europe. Indeed, the period of America’s global ascendency was preceded by, and directly predicated upon, WWII. With European industry in ruins, her banks owing billions to the US, America became the world’s factory, lender, currency, rule-maker and regime-breaker. A truly hard-nosed realist might suggest it’s in America’s interests for the Europeans to once again plead for their salvation.
We are presently experiencing a militarily confident and competent Russia, a weak and indecisive European Union, and a US that is prioritising transactionalism over historical agreements.
In any case, Washington really does need to do something about Putin’s Russia. It is quite unsustainable to have an autonomous and confident Moscow making moves and calling shots in the Middle East. So, if Russia engages in a conflict with European powers, America can bide its time and enter the fray when Russia is too weak to defend herself on two fronts (against the EU on the East, and against the US and its Mid-East allies to the south). Theoretically, this would be a twofer for the United States. They would have found a means of addressing their $19 trillion debt, while at the same time dealing conclusively with their most pertinent geopolitical adversary.
Of course, this presumes that states such as Germany and France would react militarily if (and/or when) Russia mounts an incursion against the Baltic states or somewhere in the Balkans (Serbia would be the best contender here). If Crimea, Syria and Ukraine are anything to go by, perhaps they won’t. Instead what we’ll experience is somewhat of a “creeping geopolitics” whereby we look back in ten years and notice that the borders of the Russian Federation are further south and east than we remember them being…when Trump was in the Whitehouse. As it happens, Europe has a tendency to act like the frog in the water, splashing around in blissful ignorance while the gas is turned on, only to realise, too late, the waters frothing up around him.
Standing up to Trump is foolhardy. It’s enough not to agree with him. In fact, all one really ought do is not follow his example. There is no geostrategic advantage to sticking him in the eye merely to demonstrate to local constituents your brand of politics is kinder, gently: more humanitarian. We are presently experiencing a uniquely provocative confluence of events: a militarily confident and competent Russia, a weak and indecisive European Union, and a US that is prioritising transactionalism over historical agreements. Now is not the time for Europe to try and go it alone. This is precisely what Putin would like to see. And he has the plans, personnel and materiel to capitalise, if (and/or when) Europe does.