With Russia’s military invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of respecting the inviolability of borders and the primacy of international legal norms. It is time for Europeans to end their wishful thinking of a continental order determined by the rule of law. The world, unfortunately, isn’t like that. It is much harder, and power rules.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria and Europe’s refugee crisis underscore this point. Europe must recognize that if it doesn’t take care of its geopolitical interests, sooner or later crises in its neighboring regions will arrive on its doorstep.
Unlike the United States, Europe is not a continental island insulated by oceans. It is the western end of the giant Eurasian land mass. Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are its direct neighbors, and this unstable neighborhood poses the greatest security risks to Europe in the twenty-first century.
How should Europe deal with a Russia that is again pursuing great-power politics and making almost the same mistakes as the Soviet Union, which similarly relied on authoritarianism to try to reconcile the ambitions of a military superpower with the reality of a moderately developed and scarcely modernized economy?
Russia is Europe’s neighbor, which means a modus vivendi is essential. At the same time, Russia’s geopolitical ambitions makes it a continual threat to Europe’s security. For that reason, a strong transatlantic relationship remains indispensable for Europe, as is the revival of its own deterrence capabilities.
In the short term, the relationship with Russia will probably be dominated by efforts to end the war in eastern Ukraine, safeguard NATO territory in the east, and prevent the crisis from expanding toward the southwest and the Balkans. Beyond the current crisis, however, a much more fundamental strategic challenge is emerging.
Europe is currently pursuing a policy vis-à-vis China – the emerging world power of the twenty-first century – that is based on an unrealistic and inconsistent mix of concern for human rights and for corporate profits. Here, too, Europe must demonstrate much greater awareness of the geopolitical risks and its own best interests.
China, located at the eastern end of Eurasia, is planning to reopen the continental Silk Road through Central Asia and Russia in the direction of Europe. The pragmatic explanation for this gigantic strategic project (with an investment volume of about $3 trillion) is the need to develop western China, which has so far benefited little from the coastal regions’ economic success. In reality, however, the project is of paramount importance mostly in geopolitical terms: China, a land power, wants to challenge the potential economic and political influence of the US, a naval power, in Eurasia.
In practical terms, China’s Silk Road project will create a strategic alternative to Western transatlantic structures, with Russia either accepting a role as a permanent junior partner or risking serious conflict with China in Central Asia. But the choice of an Eastern or Western orientation is not in Europe’s interest. On the contrary, such a choice would tear Europe apart both politically and economically. Europe, which is most closely tied to America in normative and economic terms, needs the transatlantic security guarantee.
That is why, in dealing with Russia, the European Union should pursue a course of steadfast adherence to its principles and to NATO. Yet it simultaneously needs good relations with China and cannot block the Silk Road project. So, in dealing with China, Europe must be clear about its interests, which will require a high degree of unity.
Meanwhile, the refugee crisis highlights the paramount importance for Europe of the Balkan Peninsula (including Greece), which is the land bridge to the Near and Middle East. Turkey is even more important for European interests in this regard. European leaders gravely miscalculated at the start of Turkey’s EU accession talks, believing that close ties would make the Middle East’s conflicts Europe’s problem. As current experience shows, in the absence of firm ties with Turkey, Europe’s influence in the region and beyond – from the Black Sea to Central Asia – is practically zero.
Domestic developments in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the renewed militarization of the Kurdish question make a political approach anything but easy. But Europe has no alternatives (and not only because of the refugees). This is all the more true given that Russia’s emergence in Syria and the Kremlin’s de facto alliance with Iran are once again pushing Turkey toward Europe and the West, which means that there is a real chance for a new start.
Nonetheless, the potential for European influence in the Middle East remains low, and the region will remain dangerous in the long term. Indeed, Europe should avoid taking sides in the conflict between Shia and Sunnis or between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead, Europe’s interests would be best served by pursuing a course of strategic ambiguity.
That is not true, however, in the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, the entire Mediterranean region, including the strategically located North African coast, plays a crucial role in Europe’s security calculations. The choice is between a mare nostrum or a region of instability and insecurity.
In the same vein, the EU’s Africa policy must finally abandon post-colonial thought patterns in favor of the pursuit of Europe’s own interests. The priorities must be the stabilization of North Africa, humanitarian aid, and long-term support for political, economic, and social progress. And closer ties should include opportunities for legal migration to Europe.
The return of geopolitics means that the fundamental choice facing Europe in the twenty-first century will be between self-determination and external domination. How Europe addresses this question will determine not only its own fate, but also that of the West.
Joschka Fischer was German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998-2005, a term marked by Germany's strong support for NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, followed by its opposition to the war in Iraq.