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“Cannon to Right of Them, Cannon to Left of Them”: Coping with War Around Europe

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War over Nagorno-Karabakh, war over Palestine: there have, sadly, been many. Their direct impact on European and global security was mostly limited, but for the people on the ground they always meant horror. Wars often coincide: the first half of the 1990s saw the First Gulf War, war in former Yugoslavia, civil war in Algeria, and indeed war over Nagorno-Karabakh and the First Intifada in Palestine. And that was just in Europe’s periphery.


“Cannon to Right of Them, Cannon to Left of Them”: Coping with War Around Europe

War over Nagorno-Karabakh, war over Palestine: there have, sadly, been many. Their direct impact on European and global security was mostly limited, but for the people on the ground they always meant horror. Wars often coincide: the first half of the 1990s saw the First Gulf War, war in former Yugoslavia, civil war in Algeria, and indeed war over Nagorno-Karabakh and the First Intifada in Palestine. And that was just in Europe’s periphery.

Back then, Europe was more confident about its ability to cope, in the general spirit of optimism that followed the fall of the Wall in 1989. Though, in reality, successful intervention required a leading role for the US, while some wars only ended when the parties fought each other to exhaustion, or just went on and on. Today, in contrast, many commentators see every crisis and every war as the beginning of the end of the world order. That is a very unstrategic way of thinking.


The End Is Nigh?

I surely understand that last week’s terror attacks by Hamas are a “9/11 moment” for Israel. Just like the US in 2001, the country is shocked by the scale and sheer barbarity of the attack that came out of the blue. But “9/11” had global impact because the US responded with a Global War on Terror and, in addition to retaliating against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, decided to launch a pointless war against Iraq. Only if the war between Israel and Hamas escalates into a direct war with Iran, will it likely have comparable impact.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is of a different order of magnitude, because it directly involves a great power. It has already reshaped the geopolitics of Eurasia. It could become a “1989 moment”, if China were to support Russia to the same extent that the EU and the US support Ukraine. That would trigger a global bipolar cold war of Americans and Europeans against Chinese and Russians. But so far China has precisely sought to avoid this scenario, and so the world remains multipolar. If the war ends with a domestic collapse of Russia, that too could produce a reordering of the world akin to 1989. But that is entirely unpredictable, so the prudent assumption to base EU strategy on is that Putin will stay in power.


Think Strategically

My point is not that there is nothing new or nothing to worry about. There is. But describing every crisis as a turning-point that requires an entirely new strategy is, in fact, the opposite of strategy. Leaving one without anything to hold onto, such superficial analysis can only lead to confusion and improvisation.

Real strategic thinking means to assess events through the prism of one’s existing strategy: What are my interests? How am I pursuing them? If events have an impact on that, one has to reprioritise and reallocate means within one’s overall strategy. If they don’t, one can limit one’s reaction. Only when events undo the core assumptions on which one’s entire strategy is based, must it be thrown overboard. To give an example: a core assumption of EU strategy is that China will continue to pursue its interest through non-violent means; the day China launches a war, a whole new strategy is required.

Since the 1990s, the EU has developed a geopolitical strategy for its eastern and southern neighbourhoods (though it had not yet rediscovered the term “geopolitics”). What the EU once called “a ring of friends” were meant to be open, independent, and democratic buffer states, between the EU and Russia in the east, and between the EU and threats and challenges such as terrorism, trafficking, and migration in the south. But the EU was never quite clear about this geopolitical objective, and never managed to find a consistent balance between promoting values and securing interests, thus creating confusion and false expectations. In the east, ultimately the strategy failed because Russia simply wanted to force states back into its exclusive sphere of influence. In the south, bad local governance and conflict derailed the EU’s already shaky project.

The overall geopolitical aim remains the same: a stable and open buffer zone of cooperative states (though not necessarily democratic states). The wars now happening around the EU force the Union, however, to rethink the ways and means of achieving it.


Act Strategically

For Ukraine, that re-think has already happened. The country can no longer survive as a buffer state. Instead, it has become today already a member of the European security architecture. The EU underlined that by making it a candidate for membership (together with Moldova). Therefore, the EU interest now is that Ukraine becomes the strongest possible border state, on the largest possible territory. To that end, the EU urgently has to increase its military support, and sustain it over time. The war between Israel and Hamas does not have an immediate impact on EU or US military support. Only a regional war could draw in so many US military means that it would be to the detriment of Ukraine. In fact, the EU should have been preparing already to compensate for a gradually diminishing American military contribution, which was bound to happen anyway. Actually, Iran’s capacity to support Russia might be affected instead. Belarus, unfortunately, has been completely vassalized by Russia and is beyond the EU’s reach for now.

On the southern Caucasus, the main EU interests are natural resources and transport corridors. Prominent EU diplomatic efforts failed to maintain stability. With Russia entangled in Ukraine and unwilling to antagonise Turkey, Azerbaijan saw a window of opportunity, and exploited it expertly by taking military control of Nagorno-Karabakh. As all attention has shifted to the Middle East, this war seems to have been forgotten already. There is little that the EU can do to turn this back; moreover, Azerbaijan is a newly prominent partner in the EU’s Global Gateway, its infrastructure investment strategy. It is very cynical, but the exodus of the Armenian population from Nagorno-Karabakh may have settled the issue, though of course in a totally inhumane way. For Georgia, meanwhile, the promise of membership is not realistic. Georgia is a geopolitical outpost that does not border on the EU; in the current geopolitical setting its accession would weaken rather than strengthen the EU (and NATO). The EU objective should be to prevent the remaining regional disputes from escalating into war, and to enmesh all three states in a deep economic relationship with the EU and (and that should be a precondition) each other. Ideally, Turkey would be a partner in this.

In the Middle East too, natural resources and connectivity, notably the sea lanes to Asia, are a main interest. In recent years, the EU has paid far too little attention to the region, and it now has limited leverage. Nevertheless, it must contribute to diplomatic efforts to contain the war, for a regional war with Iran would directly threaten its interests. Even now, the India – Middle East – Europe Economic Corridor announced at the G20 Summit in New Delhi last September may be jeopardised. Regional stability will suffer in any case, as the projected normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia will at the very least be postponed. The tentative reconciliation that Iran and Saudi Arabia announced via China will likely be undone. China is rapidly learning what Europeans and Americans already knew: this is one complex region, and staying friendly with everybody is not easy. If Beijing wants to live up to its new-found prominence in the Middle East, it ought to play an active diplomatic role in de-escalation, rather than issuing bland statements in a futile attempt not to antagonise anyone.

Regarding Israel and Palestine, the EU, like most players, had long abandoned any hope of implementing an equitable solution. No cause, however just, ever justifies rape and murder of civilians: of course the EU condemns the terrorism of Hamas. Even though it is obvious that Israeli strategy could not but fail: building a wall and occupying Palestine, as a de facto colonial power, implies permanent repression and risk of war, and it has changed Israel itself, for the worse. That is why the European powers in the end abandoned their colonies. Nevertheless, Israel in the short term has no option but to use military force to end Hamas terror. Sadly, in the constricted and densely populated environment of Gaza, that will entail civilian casualties and collateral damage, but that cannot be a deliberate tactic. Nor is cutting water and electricity a legitimate form of warfare. It probably is very naive of me to hope that once this crisis is overcome, Israel can find the courage to revise its strategy and end the conflict with Palestine in a just way. Which requires a representative Palestinian partner, of course.


A Real Geopolitical Union

These are just some of the big geopolitical questions in the EU’s neighbourhood that EU strategy must address. There is also the enormous challenge of maintaining influence in North Africa and the Sahel. So far, the claim that the EU is a “geopolitical union” is an aspiration rather than a reality. For EU strategy to take geopolitics seriously, the Union must be much more precise in identifying its interests, taking into account the influence of geography. And then it must decide which courses of action it is willing to take to preserve those interests.



“Events, dear boy, events”: with so much going on, every scholar struggles just to keep abreast of the facts, let alone provide some sound analysis. Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop (Egmont Institute & Ghent University) keeps doing his best.


The medal, from Sven’s collection, is of the British General Service Medal awarded for service in Palestine in 1945-1948 – the last time Europeans intervened militarily in Israel-Palestine.

(Photo credit: Dave Photoz, Unsplash; Sheng-Hung Lin)