Against the tide: Deep freeze – east and west
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Against the tide: Deep freeze – east and west

The crisis in Crimea should give the west pause for thought in its relations with eastern European states and with Russia.

Whatever happens in Ukraine, the events of the past few months mark the start of a period of frozen relations between Russia and the west. It might not take the form of the old Cold War, as Russia is much more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union ever was and the ideological baggage that came with the Cold War is also less relevant. But it will rearrange the military deck in Europe and creates new economic and geopolitical risks, both in the European theatre and globally.

The real crisis is not about Crimea, but about how the entire territorial map has evolved since the end of the Cold War in 1991. For the west, the evolution of Europe is perfectly acceptable. For Russia, the inclusion into the EU and Nato of former satellites is pure western encroachment. Ukraine’s desire for closer co-operation with Europe (triggered at the EU’s behest) is simply seen as taking this expansion to its extreme. As a result, this is a crisis that will run and run, since it cannot be resolved even if the immediate dispute over Crimea passes.

Sense of security

Western nations have spent more than two decades telling eastern Europeans that they should not worry about Russia; that today’s Russia is not yesterday’s Soviet Union. But the eastern Europeans have been proved right in their trepidation. Russia is a menace to their security. So Nato will now have to redeem the security guarantees it gave the eastern European nations when these were incorporated into the US-led military alliance. Nato military bases will be pushed further east in order to reassure the eastern Europeans. Military equipment will also have to be pre-positioned there. That fundamentally changes the security equation in Europe.

Eastern Europeans have been proved right in their trepidation. Russia is a menace to their security
Eastern Europeans have been proved right in their trepidation. Russia is a menace to their security

Nato and the EU have changed. Both of these key institutions now include a sizeable number of eastern states. The eastern Europeans are the biggest single bloc of identifiable countries and all vote in unison when it comes to hostility towards Russia. This forces Germany to make a choice: either maintain its friendship with Russia, but lose Poland and render the EU as a whole impotent, or stick with the Poles on an anti-Russian policy and sacrifice friendship with Russia on the altar of European cohesion.

All the indications are that, for the moment, chancellor Angela Merkel will opt for the latter. Her criticism of Russia is the most strident by any German leader since the years of détente. The Germans have spent decades trying to avoid choosing between Russia and the new EU states, but the choice is now unavoidable, with serious consequences that will not be easily reversed.

The fact that a military invasion could take place in the heart of Europe in the 21st century and that the invader has simply grabbed territory will mean the overhaul of all current defence and military assumptions. A massive rearmament is not in the offing, but greater resources will have to be devoted to defence, and particularly to tanks, armoured personnel carriers and soldiers, the kind of territorial defence arrangements that until recently Nato thought were no longer relevant.

There is also an urgent need to diversify Europe’s sources of energy supply to reduce dependency on Russian oil and gas. Although the process will take years, once unleashed it will produce results that are all but irreversible. This is inconvenient for Europe, but far more harmful to Russia, whose infrastructure centres on these markets. Then there are the more immediate steps taken by the west that will hit Russian coffers. Meaningful sanctions would do more than inconvenience oligarchs’ wives’ shopping plans. They would restrict access to financing as well as investment. This is critically important given the technological gap from which Russia continues to suffer, both within the resource sector (aspirations for shale gas and oil are now likely to be a nonstarter) and militarily.

There are incentives for Russia to step back. But Vladimir Putin does not place economic benefits over what he sees as geopolitical necessity. The result will be a long period of frosty relations, punctuated by future episodes of brinkmanship and crises.