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Mainstream, VOL LX No 24, New Delhi, June 4, 2022

Re-drawing the Security Architecture in Europe | Gautam Sen

Friday 3 June 2022


by Gautam Sen

February 24, 2022 heralded starkly the beginning of the re-drawing the post-Cold War security architecture of Europe, albeit forcibly and unilaterally. The architecture began to evolve after December 1991 in the post-Gorbachev era with the dismantling of the former Soviet Union. Madeline Albright, former US secretary of state in the president Clinton administration, had initiated the process of realignment of east European countries with the collapse of the former Soviet Union. A new security architecture had started to emerge. The reigning in of vicious Serbian assaults and application of force on the constituent units of former Yugoslavia, by the predominant state of Serbia, and resultant Dayton Accord under USA`s aegis and without interference of Russia, was the outcome of the new security framework. At that time, USA was virtually at the pinnacle of its power. The Warsaw Pact military alliance had also ceased to exist with the dismantling of Soviet Union, and countries within its fold had begun charting their own course in the strategic sense.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military alliance of western European countries with USA as its principal member, had been instrumental in motivating most of the former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO and carry on its eastward expansion up to Russia`s borders. The re-alignment of east European – former Warsaw Pact countries, had obviously had its strategic implications on Russia. Russian president Putin has been trying to turn this tide of NATO expansion and consequent adverse impact and threat perception of his country. He seems to have perceived the aggravation most acutely in the case of Ukraine – a former constituent of the Soviet Union, with its president Zelensky`s utterances evincing interest in joining NATO and the European Union (EU) politico-economic block of nearly 30 countries. Ukraine, a territorially large country of approximately 45 million people, on the Russian border and Black Sea littoral, as a member of NATO and even EU, was obviously expected to change the strategic dynamics of central and eastern Europe vis-à-vis Russia.

However, the recent Russian military aggression or all-out war against Ukraine started on February 24 this year, termed ``special military operations`` by president Putin, has to be viewed in a larger perspective. His apparent intention is revivalist and intended to restore the aura of the erstwhile Russian Romanov monarchical dynasty of the Tsarist era and also put in place a political structure which to an extent resembles the Soviet Union. This explains Russian intervention of 2008 in Abkhazian region of Georgia and formal recognition of Abhkazia as an independent republic by Moscow to the detriment of unity and integrity of Georgia – another former constituent of Soviet Union. Similar is the interference through pro-Russian elements and their clandestine activities in Transnistria area of Moldova, an independent state and earlier part of Soviet Union. The same trend of Russian policy is evident in the full-fledged political and military support to the separatist elements in Donbas south-eastern region of Ukraine bordering Russia since 2014. The Russian military intervention and seizure of Ukrainian territory in Crimea on the Black Sea coast in 2014, has also to be viewed in this backdrop. Zelensky was not president in 2014, but with his becoming Ukraine`s president in 2019, the threat to Russian interests has obviously been considered by Moscow to have accentuated and also an opportunity for the latest military intervention.

The conflict in Ukraine will be long. It has become a war of attrition for both the combatants. Russia will try and is consolidating its hold on the Donbas region of Luhansk and Donetsk – already recognized by Moscow as independent republics in the north-eastern and eastern regions of Ukraine on the periphery of Russia. Russia has also achieved military dominance over the territory in and around Kherson and Mariupol where, the Azovstal steelworks was fought for in a grueling manner and finally captured on May 19, by the Russian and Donetsk separatist forces. Crimea is already under Russian military control since 2014. The issue is whether, these constituent areas of Ukraine will be kept outside Ukraine and the Zelensky regime`s control. While president Zelensky has publicly ruled out any ceding of Ukrainian territory to Russia for a political settlement and stopping the war, the Putin government in Moscow has put conditions stipulating that Ukraine has to maintain a neutral status – implying virtually a de-militarised status, abjure as a decided policy the joining of NATO and EU, and give up the territory under present Russian control in Donbas and the adjacent militarily subjugated areas. These are irreconcilable conditions. Unless there a military stalemate in the on-going conflict, and the stalemate continues for a few months, chances of complete cessation of hostilities and some modus vivendi in the operations, may not be possible. Therefore, the direct and indirect contestants ie. Ukraine, Russia and NATO, particularly the USA, have either to maintain their high level of deployment of war material and manpower in the conflict or seek a political rapprochement. By all accounts, it appears that US president Biden`s administration, the US Congress and NATO headquarters and the particularly affected adjacent NATO-member countries like Poland, the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, would like the attrition to continue. German Chancellor Scholtz and his coalition government also seems inclined towards this posture.

Seen in a historical perspective, international acceptance of any Russian control of the recently captured areas, is likely to replicate the Munich syndrome of September 1938 and the years which were a prelude to World War-II. Even if the Donbas area republics are accepted as fully autonomous co-federating units of a larger Ukrainian federation, a political enforceable solution has still to be found which does not allow or sanctify retention of areas forcibly captured by Russia as territory alienable from Ukraine. A security architecture for Europe has to be devised within a framework of international law and more importantly of a rule-based international order under the UN Charter system. The Russian aggression based territorial changes, are required to be negated. This is a tall order because, the UN system rests on security management under the aegis of the UN Security Council (UNSC), with the UNSC functioning with the permanent five members of this principal UN organ empowered to nullify any majority decision by their veto power bestowed on the five under the `Yalta Voting Formula` by the super trio of Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin, at the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Thus any adverse decision to Russia in the UNSC is likely to be rejected in a juridically valid manner by the Putin government.

The problems in the way of a stable security framework for Europe, are very serious and manifold reckoning that, a major country and a super power like Russia is involved. Any decision or outcome in the matter will affect the situation in other parts of the world and particularly the Taiwan Straits where, another major power and UNSC member, China is involved, and the security scenario in the Asia-Pacific region. Such decisions have perforce, to be adopted in a consensual mode among the major countries and within the UN system, which appears unlikely soon. A major impediment in the way of a new security architecture in Europe, at this juncture will be the instituting of an assured safeguard for the territorial integrity of Ukraine - even without Donbas, against further Russian incursions. Deciding on the minimum security infrastructure which Ukraine will be allowed to maintain which is acceptable to Russia and without interference in the polity and governance in Ukraine, will be the other related contentious issues. It cannot be denied that a key factor aggravating the Russian interference-cum-involvement in Donbas, consolidation in Crimea, aggrandisement in Ukraine and the present war, has been the political ascendancy since December 2018 and eventual assumption of Ukraine`s presidency by Volodymyr Zelensk in April 2019.

(Author: Gautam Sen is a retired Civil Service officer who has served in senior appointments of the Government of India and comments on strategic affairs)

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