Ever since the EU started dealing with the migration issue on the Belarus-Polish border, relations with Russia continued to deteriorate at a faster pace. The issue with Belarus could have easily been a camouflaged attempt by Russia to divert attention away from what was taking place in Ukraine. While the migration issue was well underway, Russia was quietly amassing its troops on its border with Ukraine and considering that it was already controlling part of Ukrainian territory following the 2014 invasion, Russian troops were already deep inside Ukraine’s territory, albeit disguised as private militias.
After the EU managed to contain the threat to its border in Poland and Lithuania by striking deals with Iraq and the UAE to stem the flows of migrants flying to Belarus, the EU’s attention had to turn to Ukraine, leaving the EU and its allies trying to decipher what Russia’s intentions were.
While the migration issue was well underway, Russia was quietly amassing its troops on its border with Ukraine.
All the answers lie in history
Looking back at the post-war arrangements stemming from the Yalta agreement, where Europe was carved up into sphere of influences, Russia always sought to have buffer states. It was not a question of ideology but rather a security and defence issue. By having satellite states deep inside European territory, Russia ensured that its own security is not threatened in any way as these satellite states would have acted as an ‘early warning’ deterrent. Poland is a classic case in point, as it had always been a buffer state between Germany and Russia, both before the Second World War and more so after. This all changed in 1989 with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union.
Russia at the time was weak, its economy was in shambles, and the Russian state did not have the means to assert itself as it was relying on Western financial support to remain afloat.
That all changed upon the election of Vladimir Putin as President in 2000 and the exponential increase in oil prices, following 2001. Russia’s fortunes started to change. President Putin, himself a former KGB officer stationed in East Germany, personally witnessed the implosion of East Germany, and made no secret his regrets about the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of power.
However, Russia’s interests never changed, nor did its intentions, over the years. The loss to NATO of the former Eastern bloc countries and the Baltic States meant that NATO forces are now right on Russia’s doorstep.
Russia’s fleet has always been stationed in Crimea, and the mere possibility of Ukraine joining either the EU and/or NATO, made it imperative for Russia to protect its fleet, thereby annexing Crimea in 2014. Had it not done such a move, Russia’s fleet would have either become encircled by foreign territory or worse still, it could have lost access to the warm seas of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Such a scenario would have severely weakened Russia’s operations in the Mediterranean, and its prowess as a superpower, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. Its intervention in Syria could be interpreted as one such motive – to protect its military base, and its interests in the Middle East.
Additionally, its intervention in Libya by assisting General Haftar could also be interpreted as part of this motive. By assisting Haftar, Russia has ensured that it could somehow control the Mediterranean region by gaining a strong foothold in North Africa and ultimately earn a piece of the lucrative cake in terms of natural resources. However, this move has also enabled Russia to create a ‘bridge’ from the Black Sea right across the Mediterranean. As Turkey too, is a NATO member, the Russian perception of encirclement is further exacerbated.
The latest declarations by Finland and Sweden to decide on their own accord whether they should join NATO is another worrying factor in this geopolitical game. Sweden has always been non-aligned and considered neutral but Finland, despite being non-aligned, has always had a tricky relationship with Russia. It had fought Russia prior to the Second World War and in the aftermath of the war it was made to sign a friendship agreement with the Soviet Union, which effectively meant that Finland had to consult Moscow on any important matter of foreign affairs and security.
In their New Year’s message both the President and the Prime Minister of Finland expressed their rightful claim that only Finland can decide on its future alignment with alliances. The declarations have drawn the ire of Russia and issued a stern warning of severe consequences if Finland and to a lesser extent Sweden, were to join NATO.
Could Malta be drawn into this geopolitical game?
Technically, yes had it not been for our neutrality clause. Whereas in the recent past many argued for this clause to be updated or deleted from our Constitution, Malta being in the centre of the Mediterranean could have been easily drawn into this quagmire.
The neutrality clause was deemed obsolete in recent years, as in essence, the clause refers to the existence of two major superpowers. However, the usefulness of this clause is gaining importance once again with the re-emergence of the major superpowers’ geopolitical games in our region.
Russia is pushing for the signing of two new treaties with the US and NATO, seeking security guarantees from the US to limit its actions or support in the former Soviet Union States.
In the proposed treaty with the US, one clause states:
“The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories. The Parties shall eliminate all existing infrastructure for deployment of nuclear weapons outside their national territories”.
In the draft treaty with NATO, Russia is essentially proposing to roll back troop deployments before the former Eastern Bloc joined the alliances. By the Eastern interpretation, such a move could leave them exposed.
NATO, the U.S. and Russia will be holding discussions on security and defence to avert a crisis both in Ukraine and in Europe. However, the EU is feeling left out and the High Representative and Vice-President of the EU Josep Borrell in a visit to Ukraine expressed his concerns about this issue in quite clear terms, stating that: “we are no longer in the Yalta times. The delimitation of the spheres of influence of the two big powers does not belong in 2022. The security of Europe and the security in Ukraine – because Ukraine is part of Europe – is something that first and foremost affects Ukrainians, and Europeans”.
Unless the EU Member States find a common language on external relations issue, foreign policy will continue to be the EU’s Achilles’ heel.