Publication: The Military Balance 2015
15 December 2014
Risks and threats to European security were in 2014 thrown into sharp relief by events in the region’s eastern and southern periphery. To the southeast, the three-year-old civil war in Syria engulfed northern Iraq, with the Sunni jihadist organisation Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) proclaiming in the summer a caliphate spanning parts of both countries. Conditions in Libya, which experienced NATO intervention in 2011, deteriorated further, with the attendant risk of comprehensive state failure. Insecurity and conflict continued on Europe’s southern flank, with some member states’ armed forces remaining on active, advisory or peacekeeping service in parts of Africa. In the east, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March and continuous action to destabilise eastern Ukraine, including alleged direct Russian military support for separatist militias in the Donbass region, generated a fundamental test for Europe’s security architecture with the potential to change the post-Cold War paradigm of European security.
Throughout the first half of 2014, Western governments struggled to recognise that the two-decade policy of courting Russia as a partner in building Euro-Atlantic security had failed, and that a shift back to a more adversarial relationship was under way. Speaking in Estonia in May 2014, outgoing NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen argued that ‘by demonstrating a willingness to use force to intimidate and invade its neighbours, and by declaring a doctrine of protecting Russian speakers everywhere, Russia has created uncertainty, instability and insecurity across the continent’. A week later, he told delegates to a security-policy conference in Slovakia that Russian behaviour amounted to ‘a blatant breach of the fundamentals of European security. It is a dangerous attempt to turn back the clock … Russia is trying to establish a new sphere of influence.’
Most policymakers and analysts in Europe had subscribed, before 2014, to a security narrative that saw Europe as a zone of stability, built on cooperation and civilian conflict-resolution. Challenges to that order in recent years seemed limited to transnational risks and the indirect effects of state failure and fragility in other regions of the world. Defence reviews focused on how the weaknesses of other states contributed to international insecurity and instability, and armed forces were remodelled to support overseas deployments to mitigate the effects of these. Such challenges continued to exist, but decision-makers in Europe were forced to recognise that to the east of NATO and the EU a powerful actor was willing to employ military force in a way associated with the great-power conflicts of the past. Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer wrote in August that Europe was ‘being thrown back in time by the return of power politics at its borders’.