Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has claimed that Russian president Vladimir Putin is out to conquer the “whole of Europe”. Following Putin’s aggressive annexation of Crimea last year, the international community as a whole has been waiting to see where the Russian leader trains his sights next. Poroshenko’s allegations reflect what much of the current international leadership fears: that the 2014 Crimean conflict is only the beginning of a new geopolitical dynamic.

Ukrainian President: Putin Wants The 'Whole Of Europe'
Source: Pixabay

Speaking to French radio station RFI[1], Poroshenko voiced the fear that the Russian President, who has quickly earned a reputation for his bellicose tactics, is unlikely to be satisfied with his triumph in Crimea and will likely look to expand territory across Europe. He went on to warn that Putin would push the envelope as far as he is allowed to, possibly moving on other European states like the Baltics and Finland next.

Revisiting Europe’s Security

Poroshenko’s interview has brought the growing concern over European security back into the limelight once again. The Ukrainian President did acknowledge that as recently as 2013, the idea of new conflicts over annexations and territorial expansions would have seemed absurd given the modern security system and global world order. However, as recent events have shown, the postwar international system can easily be challenged; all that was missing was a challenger.

Poroshenko also asserted that the continuing conflict with the Russian-supported fighters is a threat to security all over Europe, and not just eastern Ukraine. “Is an attack on Finland possible? Yes, and Finland knows that. Is an attack on the Baltic States possible? Yes,” he warned, going on to add that the danger to democracy wasn’t limited to just Ukraine but extends to the entire European continent.

This interview follows in the wake of growing discomfort across Europe, and the rest of the world, over Putin’s actions. The mounting geopolitical tensions in Europe are making headlines everyday; as recently as 3rd August 2015, NATO has been reported to execute aircraft ‘scrambles’ to intercept Russian airspace violations and unusual activity with rising frequency. As of 2014, NATO has carried out 500 air-policing procedures, four times the number of missions in 2013. Statistical data shows that 85% of these attempts were aimed at thwarting Russian aircrafts. This has been the highest recorded activity in aerial policing since the close of the Cold War.

Even as officials maintain that these are routine security measures, the sheer rise in numbers is indicative of a political climate fraught with tensions. Officials have been quick to point out that these incidents are rarely ever cases of definitive airspace violations and military action; however, it is important to note that they are both causes and effects of a changing geopolitical dynamic.

NATO states have not reported any challenges to their airspace sovereignty in 2015, but other European states like Sweden and Finland have not enjoyed quite as peaceful a year. Sweden has recorded nine violations this year, and twelve in 2014. Finland observed a breach on 26th June 2015, a fact that can be interpreted to mean that Poroshenko’s analysis might not be too off the mark.

The Greater Picture- International Security

Experts have cautioned against alarm, stating that these random isolated incidents could be just that- random. NATO officials have clarified that incursions into other states’ airspace might not always equal military intimidation and could be influenced by other factors, like fluctuations in the weather and poor visibility.

However, the fact that there has been a significant upsurge in these ‘random’ occurrences in the last two years has not gone unnoticed by the international community. Russian aircrafts have been observed passing over military vessels belonging to various European and other countries. Russian bombers have also been spotted outside of their usual routes, flying close to British, Portuguese and US airspace.

Russian officials maintain that the recent trends in military activities have been in response to an increase in drills and sorties on the part of NATO and its allied states.

NATO To Reconsider Its Strategic Policy

NATO spokesman and chief of media operations Lieutenant-Colonel Jay Janzen has been quick to point out that the Russian government is resorting to media spins and subterfuge to justify the recent spike in air activity. While Janzen and other officials acknowledge a rise in NATO patrolling, they have maintained that it is part of the NATO mandate to protect the airspace and sovereignty of NATO member states. As such, even though NATO is in talks to reduce the number of air patrols this year, the rising geopolitical hostilities in Europe call for greater alertness and security sensitivity than before.

NATO officials have gone on record to accuse Russia of not complying with international regulations on military airspace activity; it has been established that Russian military aircrafts do not fly with their transponders turned on, as is the norm. Without the transponders switched off, the aircrafts don’t produce an identifying signal and don’t register any “squawks” on the monitoring radars, making it difficult for air traffic controllers to detect them. Russia also stands accused of not disclosing information regarding flight plans, adding to the political tensions and the risk of midair collisions.

It is no secret that the U.S.-led NATO coalition has been hoping for tensions in Europe to ease in the wake of the Crimean crisis. However, if current trends are anything to judge by, the Russian President will not be retracing his steps anytime soon. NATO echoes Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s views that European stability is at risk as well. Though the Kremlin has refuted charges that Russia supports the insurgency into eastern Ukraine, NATO states cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the conflict. There is a growing demand from officials of various member states to rework the NATO strategy concept.

The document, last amended in 2010 in Lisbon, had gauged the security threat to NATO to be minimal. However, recent developments have caused officials to discuss the need for exercising greater vigilance and keeping counter-measures on the ready. NATO has reiterated its interest in maintaining and strengthening a collaborative alliance with Russia, however, given the latter’s belligerence towards international territorial and sovereignty laws in recent times, a change in strategy is not being ruled out[2].

The Possible Return Of The Soviet Union

Apart from the overt security concerns in the aftermath of 2014’s Crimean crisis, Putin’s decisions and actions have also raised questions about the long-game: is the Russian President moving to resurrect the erstwhile Soviet Union?

On 10th June 2015, United States President Barack Obama spoke of President Putin’s recent activities at the G7 summit in Bavaria. The American President alleged that his Russian counterpart might be looking to bring back the Soviet empire.

The United States has been critical of the Russian Government following the Crimean issue. The U.S., along with several other states, has levied sanctions against Moscow for its alleged support of the insurgents continuing the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Even though Russian authorities have rubbished these accusations, the Obama government continues to be wary of Moscow’s intentions.

President Obama warned that Putin’s insatiable and misplaced desire for a Soviet return to supremacy may completely destroy Russia’s economy and ruin its ties with its European neighbors and other international players.

Back To The Future: Cold War, Part II?

The fast-accelerating tensions in Europe, NATO’s wariness, the United States’ dedication to upholding democratic ideals globally and Putin’s political choices are all coming together to recreate a geopolitical atmosphere that harks back to another era, namely, the Cold War.

Political commentators the world over are asking if we’re heading back in time and looking at an international society fractured into ideological/political divisions. As Yezhednevny Zhurnal[3] defense columnist and deputy editor Alexander Golts put it, “We are moving very rapidly to start a new Cold War”.

NATO officials, thus far reluctant to get drawn into an open conflict with Putin, are talking of incorporating contingency plans to keep up with the changing security landscape of Europe. Even as state leaders like Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko call for strict action against Putin’s Russia, the international community is not keen to dive into a second Cold War. The desire for a constructive alliance with Russia has historically driven NATO strategy, but the post-Ukraine European climate has forced many officials to consider the need to reassess the likelihood of cooperation with Russia.

Juozas Olekas, the Lithuanian Defense Minister, has gone on record to identify Russia as a threat to NATO in general and European geopolitical balance in particular. Olekas spoke of reframing the NATO strategic concept to prioritize the Europe-Russia issue as “one of the options” for responding to President Putin’s strategic choices over the past year[4].

Political figureheads and experts have noted that much of Putin’s political strategy is rooted in antagonizing the West ceaselessly[5]. NATO’s growing unease with the Kremlin is sparking a greater debate on international security and the European situation, even though member states like Germany are unenthusiastic about a formal policy change at this juncture; the alliance does not wish to provoke Russia into military action and jeopardize the potential for cooperation.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s arguments regarding Putin’s expansionist ambitions and ruthlessness, however, clearly resonate with much of the current global leadership. NATO diplomats have indicated that the 2016 Warsaw meeting will possibly be dedicated to possible containment measures with a view to stabilize the situation in Europe.

[1] Radio France Internationale is an international public broadcast channel operating out of France.

[2] U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute shared NATO’s displeasure at Russian activity with the media, while maintaining that the 28-state alliance hasn’t formally moved to amend policy just yet.

[3] The Yezhednevny Zhurnal is an e-newspaper covering political news, with a focus on Russia.

[4] Juozas Olekas spoke with Reuters correspondents during an ongoing NATO meet in Brussels in May 2015.

[5] A NATO diplomat, on grounds of anonymity, has been quoted on The Moscow Times website saying that Putin’s ” permanent confrontation with the West” will cement the growing divide between the West and Russia.