Entwined Security Architectures: Europe & the Middle East

Alastair Crooke, Valdai Discussion Club, 25 January 2016
Europe is thinking less about ‘values’ and more about functionality — a functionality that consists almost wholly of exporting its ‘security expertise’ to the Middle East.
“Reality”, as the saying goes, “is a bitch” — as the EU currently is finding. The many-headed Hydra and Cerberus (the hound of Hades) have taken up residence in the formerly demure, and prim world of the EU. Prefering to be proselytising in the Middle East for democracy, human rights and ‘liberal values’, the EU understands it has little choice. Today, in its crisis of refugees and acts of terror shaking Europe’s cities, it must serve a purpose or find itself discredited entirely. It is facing a continuing flood of refugees from abroad (there are an anticipated 16.8 million displaced persons in the Middle East presently); relations between member states are gravely frayed (i.e. Germany and Poland); and if an answer is not quickly found, the failure may fracture the edifice irreparably.

In face of this reality, Europe is thinking less about ‘values’ and more about functionality — a functionality that consists almost wholly of exporting its ‘security expertise’ to the Middle East: training border police, selling high-tech border-monitoring equipment, bracing up the local security services, police and judiciary and re-organising their intelligence services along the European nation-state model. All of this is pretty standard stuff, although we would guess it will not exactly be welcomed with open arms in the region (which now has some years experience of these affairs) – and with the exception of those special interest groups in places like Lebanon and Libya who will welcome the chance to leverage EU security assistance to their advantage, in the Roman Forum of their own domestic jostlings.

However, the EU political leadership is aching to seen to be doing something more bold and dramatic against ISIS terrorism, rather than just boilerplate training missions. In Syria, Russia has somehow stolen the show, so now the EU – or rather certain influential member states – have their eyes on Libya. They say that Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco cannot possibly remain stable, so long as there remains a militia and ISIS-filled void in Libya, radiating instability across north Africa. It seems quite possible then, that we shall shortly see some EU military intervention in Libya, if the EU can strong-arm together a national unity front, whose main purpose in existing will be to issue the invitation for further foreign intervention.

But however such a Libya initiative turns out (probably badly: it may in fact create just the implosion of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco that it is aimed to prevent), and whatever the consequences of a second Libyan intervention, they will be of far lesser significance than that other strand of EU thinking: the desire to build an EU regional ‘security architecture’. How this is approached may well determine the future structure not just of the Middle East – but of Europe too: for the choices made regionally, may come to shape Europe’s security structure as well.

At present, the EU tentatively seems to be thinking of a structure that engages both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey and Russia. But there are evident problems with this concept. Some in Europe see a role for European mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but this seems a very unlikely prospect: Iranians are deeply angered at Saudi, and Saudi seems more interested in doubling-down on its positions than in accepting mediation. In any case, these states already posses their own channels for reconciliation – should they wish to avail themselves of them.

In sum, all the prospective members of such ‘architecture’ are at this time, in one way or another, pursuing military facts on the ground – rather than showing interest in any regional political settlement. Whatever way one looks at it, some pillars (Saudi Arabia and Turkey) look both shaky per se, and simply wholly incompatible with the other presumed pillars of such an edifice (Iran).

Seemingly lost in discussion is the fact that there is a Middle East security ‘architecture’ already taking shape. Not only has it taken shape: it is in operation. This is where reality clashes with the EU’s liberal political instincts. It is the P4+1 alliance (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria plus Hizbullah). And – if its operational activities in Syria – prove to be a success, then this ‘architecture’ is likely to endure beyond the Syrian conflict. Indeed it may develop to become the basis of a wider arrangement linked to the SCO (to which Iran is likely to be offered membership this summer).

What is significant about this less mentioned alliance is that EU engagement with this security structure offers – beyond just its operational capabilities – engagement with Russia. It can, in other words, help fill the lacunae in Europe’s own security structures. President Putin precisely pointed to these lacunae in European structures in an extensive interview with Bild (part 1 & part 2) on 5 January 2016 in Sochi, when he referred to hitherto unpublished records relating to the ‘working discussions’ in 1990, which involved the then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and German Foreign Minister Genscher, who were assisted by two influential foreign-policy aides from either side – Valentin Falin who headed the International Division of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee at that time, and Egon Bahr, the brilliant SPD politician who is most remembered today as the creator of the historic ‘Ostpolitik’ (Germany’s ‘Look East’ policies) under Chancellor Willy Brandt.

This was the crucial moment in European history when its security architecture might have been set very differently. President Putin points out very clearly where things went amiss:

Question (Bild): Mr President:

We have just marked the 25th anniversary of the end of the Cold War. Last year, we witnessed a great number of wars and crises across the world, something that had not happened for many years. What did we do wrong?

President Putin: You have started just with the key question. We did everything wrong from the outset. We did not overcome Europe’s division: 25 years ago the Berlin Wall fell, but Europe’s division was not overcome: ‘invisible walls’ simply moved to the East. This created the foundation for mutual reproaches, misunderstanding, and crises for the future … After the Berlin Wall fell, there were talks that NATO would not expand to the East … By the way, some German politicians of that time gave warnings and proposed their solutions, for example, Egon Bahr.

You know, before meeting with German journalists I, naturally, thought that we would anyway come to the issue you have touched upon now, so I took archived records of talks of that period (1990) between Soviet leaders and some German politicians, including Mr Bahr. They have never been published.

Question: Are these interviews?

Vladimir Putin: No, these are working discussions between German politicians Genscher, Kohl, Bahr and Soviet leadership (Mr Gorbachev, Mr Falin, who, I think, headed the International Division of the Central Committee of the Communist Party). They have never been made public …

Look what Mr Bahr said: “If while uniting Germany we do not take decisive steps to overcome the division of Europe into hostile blocs, the developments can take such an unfavourable turn that the USSR will be doomed to international isolation.” That was said on June 26, 1990.

Mr Bahr made concrete proposals: He spoke about the necessity to create a new alliance in the centre of Europe. Europe should not go to NATO. The whole of Central Europe, either with East Germany or without it, should have formed a separate alliance with participation of both the Soviet Union and the United States. And then he says: “NATO as an organisation, at least its military structures must not extend to include Central Europe.” At that time, [Mr Bahr] already was the patriarch of European politics, he had his own vision of Europe’s future, and he was telling his Soviet colleagues: “If you do not agree with it, but on the contrary agree with NATO’s expansion, and the Soviet Union agrees with it, I will never come to Moscow again.” You see, he was very smart. He saw a deep meaning in that, he was convinced that it was necessary to change the format radically, move away from the times of the Cold War. But we did nothing.

Question: Did he come to Moscow again?

Vladimir Putin: I do not know. This talk took place on February 27, 1990. This is a record of the conversation between Mr Falin representing the Soviet Union and Mr Bahr and Mr Voigt representing German politicians.

So what has actually happened? What Mr Bahr had warned about – that’s what has happened. He warned that the military structure – the North Atlantic Alliance – must not expand to the East. That something common, uniting the whole of Europe must be created. Nothing like that has happened; just the opposite has happened what he had warned about: NATO started moving eastwards and it expanded.

We have heard a thousand times the mantra from our American and European politicians, who say: “Each country has the right to choose its own security arrangements.” Yes, we know that. This is true. But it is also true that other countries have the right to make decisions to expand their own organisation or not, act as they consider appropriate in terms of global security. And leading NATO members could have said: “We are happy that you want to join us, but we are not going to expand our organisation, we see the future of Europe in a different way.”

In the last 20–25 years … there was absolutely no desire to turn either to international law or to the United Nations Charter. Wherever they became an obstacle, the UN was immediately declared outdated … Apart from NATO’s expansion eastwards, the anti-ballistic missile system has become an issue in terms of security. All this is being developed in Europe under the pretext of addressing the Iranian nuclear threat.

In 2009, current President of the United States Barack Obama said that if Iran’s nuclear threat no longer existed there would be no incentive for establishing the ABM system; this incentive would disappear. However, the agreement with Iran has been signed. And now the lifting of sanctions is being considered, everything is under the IAEA control; first shipments of uranium are already being transported to the Russian territory for processing, but the ABM system is being further developed. Bilateral agreements have been signed with Turkey, Romania, Poland, and Spain. Naval forces that should operate as part of missile defence are deployed in Spain. A positioning area has already been created in Romania, another one will be created in Poland by 2018; a radar is being installed in Turkey.

We strongly objected to developments taking place, say, in Iraq, Libya or some other countries. We said: “Don’t do this, don’t go there, and don’t make mistakes.” Nobody listened to us! On the contrary, they thought we took an anti-Western position, a hostile stance towards the West. And now, when you have hundreds of thousands, already one million of refugees, do you think our position was anti-Western or pro-Western?”

President Putin is being abundantly clear: Russia is not acting out of anti-western motives. It is reacting to the sense of being ‘doomed’ to being incessantly ‘cornered’. Putin does not mention it here, but for sure he is thinking of the internal cornering of Russia (US Treasury wars, currency wars, oil and sanctions) – as well as NATO encroachment, and ABM expansion. And then suddenly, Ukraine out of nowhere, explodes as a point of friction. It is obvious that unless this ‘cornering’ of Russia is walked back, this dynamic will soon explode into major Russian military push-back. The Russian firing of its own ballistic missiles into Syria (whose range and sophistication shocked NATO) was precisely intended to underline this point.

What is not addressed in Putin’s interview with Bild is precisely the question of why Chancellor Kohl did not resist President Clinton, when from 1994 onwards, the US President pressed hard for NATO’s expansion outwards, towards Russia’s borders. Nevertheless, Putin somehow answers that unspoken question: Bahr was quite clearly warning at the time that Germany and Europe should not go to NATO, and explicitly notes that NATO has both military and other (unspecified) structures. It is not too difficult to see that he is warning of NATO as a vehicle for the continued political occupation of Europe (which would result in a divided Europe) – even as America’s formal military occupation of Europe drew to an end. No doubt, precisely for these reasons, harsh pressure was applied on Kohl. And NATO policy today, effectively is, as it were, Europe’s foreign and security policy.

And this is the point at which the two ‘architectural structures’ of Europe and the Middle East inevitably become entwined. The unsettled issue of Europe’s ‘ostpolitik’ remains pawned to NATO interests, whilst, as Putin noted in the same interview in respect to the Middle East:

“If anyone had listened to Gerhard Schroeder, to Jacques Chirac, to me, perhaps there would have been none of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, as there would have been no upsurge of terrorism in Iraq, Libya, or other countries in the Middle East.

We are faced with common threats, and we still want all countries, both in Europe and the whole world, to join their efforts to combat these threats, and we are still striving for this. I refer not only to terrorism, but also to crime, trafficking in persons, environmental protection, and many other common challenges. Yet this does not mean that it is us who should agree with everything that others decide on these or other matters. Furthermore, if someone is not happy with our stance, they could find a better option than declaring us an enemy every time. Would not it be better to listen to us, to critically reflect on what we say, to agree to something and to look for a common solution?”

So, as the European Union considers what security structure to adopt, it might prudently reflect that in the Middle East, there already is an existing structure – and it is one led by Russia. Were the EU to grasp the nettle and engage with this regional structure, it could also begin the process of undoing the lacuna to which Egon Bahr had warned: “the division of Europe into hostile blocks”, and the turn of events which has led to a “Russia, doomed to international isolation”.

The obvious rejoinder is that Washington will not wish to see the EU engage with the Russian-Iranian coalition against ISIS – as we witnessed when President Hollande’s efforts to move in that direction after the Paris bombings were rebuffed and crushed . Many have noted President Obama’s visceral personal dislike of President Putin. And, of course, Putin’s demonisation continues unabated in the US. But for the EU, terrorism on the streets of Europe, ISIS, and the prospect of thousands more refugees arriving on the shores of Europe, are no minor issues. One might suggest that the future of the entire European project hangs in the balance depending on how it responds to this challenge. Is it to be held hostage to the American President’s bad chemistry with Russia’s President, and to the American agenda for Europe?

Can the EU afford to be stuck for its Middle East security structure constructed around the erratic and problematic 29 year-old Saudi leader of a virtual (effectively Sunni) ‘Islamic Alliance’, which is more about cornering Iran, than it is about combatting terrorism, even if a Saudi-centered alliance would be Washington’s wish? Or will it engage with Russia and the Russian-led coalition (and take the steps advocated by Bahr in 1990). Probably, it will not. It is not just in Germany that Washington holds decisive sway. The danger here is, just as Bahr warned about an Europe divided, we shall see a ‘region divided’ with the P4+1 denounced as anti-western (which it is not), and with the rest of the Middle East and North Africa ‘emptying’ their ‘displaced persons’ into a seething, and ever more fractious Europe.

Leave a Reply