Is Russia Europe’s greatest threat? This is the question that Carnegie Europe asked a group of ‘experts’. Their answers are revealing.
There was remarkable consensus among the experts. With a few exceptions, the respondents agreed that Russia is a threat to European security but not the ‘greatest’ one. What really threatens Europe, the majority feel, is ‘complacency’. The problem is that Europe lacks resolve and isn’t willing to defend itself. This invites attack from a Russia which is continually probing for weakness and looking to exploit it. The greatest threat to Europe is therefore its own internal feebleness. As one expert, Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform, puts it:
The biggest threats facing Europe are internal. Reluctance to invest in defense, unwillingness to tackle violent extremists of all sorts, failure to invest in civic education, failure to tackle inequalities in society—all of these are bigger long-term threats than a sparsely-populated country with terrible infrastructure and an economy smaller than South Korea’s. Russia is a threat to Europe only because Europe allows it to be.
Others take a very similar line. For instance, Ian Cameron, director of the EU-Asia Centre, says that:
The Kremlin is constantly probing for weak links and is … also extremely adroit at exploiting opportunities (such as the Brexit referendum and other elections) … Only slowly has the EU woken up to this threat, and its response to date has been totally inadequate.
Along the same lines, Anna Maria Kellner of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation notes that, ‘Europe’s biggest threat is Europe’ and cites ‘the shortfalls and credibility gaps of NATO and the EU.’ Stefan Meister from the German Council on Foreign Relations similarly remarks that Vladimir Putin is able ‘to challenge the Western liberal order – not because he is so strong, but because we are weak.’ Andrew A. Michta of the George C. Marshall European Center considers that ‘the greatest threat confronting Europe today is internal … Europe needs to find enough political will to spend resources on real defense capabilities within NATO.’ Elizabeth Pond and Gianni Riotta both identify ‘complacency’ as Europe’s biggest threat. What is needed, Riotta argues, is for Europe to ‘keep building a twenty-first-century ready military defense, support the Baltic states, apply stern sanctions, and not give in to Putin’s macho bluff.’
What we can see here is quite a consistent view of the world – one in which Russia is inherently aggressive, but not very strong and therefore only able to succeed if Europe lets down its guard, at which point Putin will mercilessly exploit any sign of complacency. Russia per se isn’t a danger: rather, European decadence is. The solution is to be strong, talk tough, and back it all up with a big stick.
All of which goes to show how detached from reality the broad consensus of security experts is. Europe could hardly be said to be weak. As I never tire of pointing out, it spends four times as much on defence as Russia, and outguns it in just about every military department. Furthermore, one could hardly accuse European states of passivity vis-à-vis Russia. NATO expansion, for instance, wasn’t exactly a sign of weakness. Meanwhile, the EU is planning to continue its own expansion into the Balkans.
Furthermore, there is good reason to consider the EU’s Eastern Partnership program (which seeks to strengthen the EU’s ties with former Soviet states) as targeted specifically against Russia. An American document leaked by Wikileaks notes that one of the Eastern Partnership’s creators, former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, described it to US officials as designed, among other things, to ‘stem growing Russian influence’. The primary purpose of the program, according to the document, was to ‘Counter Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe.’ It was, of course, the refusal of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to sign up to the Partnership which led to the protests in Kiev, his eventual overthrow, the annexation of Crimea, and war in Donbass. In other words, it wasn’t EU ‘weakness’ and ‘complacency’ which led to the conflict in Ukraine, but rather an effort by the EU to expand its own sphere of influence and ‘counter Russia’s influence’ – in effect, the exact opposite of what the respondents above claim.
Behind the consensus displayed in the answer to Carnegie Europe’s question lies an assumption about Russian motives and behaviour which is faulty – namely that Russia is bent on undermining Europe and will exploit any opportunity to do so. The possibility that Russia might instead be reacting to what it perceives (rightly or wrongly) as European efforts to undermine Russia is never considered. Consequently, the solutions proposed involve doing more of exactly the kind of things which led to the problem in the first place. It’s often said, ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’ It’s advice European security ‘experts’ seem incapable of heeding.