2. Keep your eyes opened in 2018
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The Western Balkans, Nicholas Williams
Russia will continue to be the dominant factor in European security calculations and the determination of the West to deter Russian goals at all levels of activity means that confrontation will have primacy over cooperation.
The resulting emphasis on collective defence in Europe for reassurance will inevitably lock in strategic priorities for defence and limit options elsewhere. This emphasis reflects the dire state of relations between Western member states and Russia. Two sharply divergent narratives compete to attribute responsibility; each contributing to the collapse of dialogue and cooperation.
The need for engagement has never been greater. Yet the divergence is widening and as a consequence the incentive is narrowing. Russia is turning towards Eurasia and away from Western values, increasingly assertive abroad in reclaiming influence and repressive at home.
For the EU and NATO enlargement has brought new members whose historic experience means they see dialogue as a sign of weakness. Moreover the pervasive dominance of the narrative that sees Russia as omnipresent stifles efforts at dialogue, dismissing them as naive or even subversive “the Kremlin’s Trojan Horses”: an approach itself both divisive and counter-productive.
Alongside these political differences military structures and dispositions are being deployed in sensitive regions. These activities constitute a potential catalyst for miscalculation and exacerbate the existing risks posed by unconstrained military activities. A continuation of existing conditions carries unacceptable risks; the only alternative is a return to engagement on common challenges; above all in military contacts. The prospects may be remote but engagement with Russia must return as the guiding principle for European security.
Earlier this year China inaugurated a new satellite station on Greenland. That’s not as surprising as it sounds. Chinese companies have been investing in the Arctic island for several years, and the locals – who govern themselves as a largely independent region of Denmark – are happy for the interest in their struggling economy.
But China isn’t investing in Greenland (or Norway, or Iceland, where it also has a disproportionately large embassy) out of compassion. On the contrary, its presence in the Arctic is part of a long-term strategy to make it a key player there. That’s because while climate change is beginning to impact all parts of the world, the Arctic is particularly affected.
From an environmental perspective, the melting Arctic ice is bad. But for China, it’s good: it means a new viable shipping route to and from Europe. Chinese companies’ investments are accompanied by a growing government presence. The new satellite station is thought to be dual-use.
China is not alone in staking out a spot in the warming Arctic: Russia has been opening and reopening military bases. The United States, meanwhile, seems to be losing the Artic race. Vice Admiral Fred Midgette, the commander of the Pacific Area (which includes the Arctic) warned last year that the US was falling behind Russia in military presence. It only has one icebreaker that can patrol Arctic waters, and it’s ageing out of service. Russia, meanwhile, has several dozen including six new ones.
The US will no doubt wake up to the race, while frenemies China and Russia continue their sprint. During the Cold War the Arctic was an exceptionally rare region where scientific cooperation between the Soviet Union and, for example, NATO member Norway thrived.
Today even such cooperation is suffering. Indeed, the new Arctic geopolitical race makes the region both more prominent and less stable than it was during the Cold War. We should pay close attention.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: org