July 8, 2024No Comments

Cold Horizons: The Arctic’s Strategic Role Then and Now

by Isolde Sylvia Hatgis-Kessell - Arctic Desk

The Arctic region played a crucial role in the strategic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, with its unique geographical and environmental conditions shaping both military and scientific efforts. This article explores the Soviet Union's Arctic strategy, focusing on its dual purposes of showcasing military might and technological superiority; subsequently, it explores the significant changes in the region since the Cold War, namely climate change and increased Chinese involvement, and anticipates how these factors will influence Moscow’s current ambitions in the Arctic.

Overview of the Role of the Soviet Arctic Strategy 

During the Cold War, the Arctic acted as another arena for strategic competition between the United States and Russia, the importance of which was underscored by the unprecedented close proximity between the adversarial states. For the Soviet Union, the Arctic was a critical region as it possessed the “longest Arctic circumpolar coastline” and the largest population of Arctic inhabitants from one state. Moreover, Russia under both the Tsarist and Soviet systems, had a longer history of involvement in the region. 

The Russian Arctic served two key purposes for the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War; firstly, it was home to a significant portion of their advanced military equipment including the nuclear Northern Fleet. Secondly, the High North gave the Soviets a stage to exhibit their technological advancements and military might, a key competition during the Cold War.

However, the Arctic region remained underexplored and underutilised across various sectors due to harsh weather conditions; thus, the utility of the High North was closely tied to the advancement of technology which enabled effective exploration and greater understanding of the area.

A vital component of the Soviet’s Arctic strategy was the use of the region as a theatre to demonstrate scientific and military strength, directly playing into Cold War dynamics. A key example can be seen in the development and testing of the Tsar Bomb, commissioned by Nikita Gorbaschev in a bid to demonstrate Soviet strength. The thermonuclear bomb remains the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated; the test took place on the island of Novaya Zemlya inside the Soviet’s Arctic Territory. The Arctic arena became a frequent stage for projects that strengthened the Soviet’s Mutually Assured Destruction strategic doctrine. 

Scientific superiority underpinned by military objectives, an important characteristic of the Cold War, extended to the Arctic as well. The Soviets developed the Severny Polyus drifting research station in the Arctic; while the projects themselves were aimed at scientific goals, the information that they collected was used to help inform the military action and procurement. 

Ultimately, the Arctic provided the perfect theatre for the Soviets to prove their strength in both science and force and therefore cement their position on the international stage and against the United States. 

Key Changes Since the Cold War 

The Soviet’s strategy in the Arctic during the Cold War can serve as a good starting point to understand how Putin and the Russian Federation might use the region now, particularly as relations continue to deteriorate with the West. Nonetheless, three key changes must be considered in any analysis of the region. 

First and foremost are the effects of climate change which has increased sea levels, changed patterns of wildlife, and importantly melted a significant amount of the region's ice. Paradoxically, these devastating environmental consequences open up a breadth of new economic opportunities. As a result, interest in the region from the rest of the littoral Arctic states and beyond has increased drastically; this leads directly to the second defining shift, increased Chinese involvement. 

As the ice continues to melt, opening new possibilities for oil and gas exploration and increasing the feasibility of the Northern Sea Route, China’s interest in the Arctic has developed as well. Generally, Beijing has looked to Moscow for partnerships in the region which has alienated many of the other Arctic states. 

Lastly, all the Arctic countries are now members of NATO except for Russia; as the war rages on in Ukraine and tensions with the West deepen, this reality threatens Arctic exceptionalism which thus far has been dictated by cooperation overriding competition. 

Source - Photo by Bo Eide on Flickr - credits

Understanding Russia’s Current and Future Strategy in the Arctic 

Most recently, the 2023 Russian Foreign Policy Concept gave the international community new insight into Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic. With regards to the High North, the document highlights the importance of possible economic development in the region for the greater Russian economy including oil and gas exploration and the development of the Northern Sea Route. A noticeable change from the 2016 concept was the decision not to address any existing multilateral format such as the Arctic Council, and instead emphasise that partnerships with other nations, most likely with the other Arctic states, would be on a bilateral basis. 

Understanding Russia’s strategy in the high north through the prism of Soviet action in the Arctic indicates that Putin, with the help of the Chinese Communist Party, may use the Arctic as an arena to exert strength in the energy sector, shipping routes, and the military, possibly setting up a parallel system to Soviet times in which these aims become intrinsically linked. 

As the war in Ukraine continues, in turn highlighting the weakness of the Russian military and leadership, the Arctic can again serve as an easy arena to demonstrate strength. Novaya Zemlya remains a key test base for nuclear weapons including the unconfirmed 9M730 Burevestnik, a nuclear cruise missile. The war in Ukraine has emphasised that much of Russia’s military equipment is old and reserves of modern weapons are ultimately too small. Consequently, Moscow may attempt to reaffirm their military prowess by developing weapons for a harsh environment that NATO Arctic states lack. 

Another defining trait of the Ukraine war has been the West’s sanction regime and subsequent consequences for global energy markets. The decision not to purchase any oil from Russia has had serious, though not insurmountable, repercussions, particularly for European countries. As the potential for new energy resources opens up the Arctic, it is possible that Russia looks to establish a strong position in this development to maintain its foothold in international energy. 


The Soviet’s Arctic strategy throughout the Cold War was a critical component of their broader geopolitical and military objectives; the High North provided a strategic platform for the Soviet Union to demonstrate both scientific advancements and military prowess. As Russia continues to build up its presence in the Arctic, parallels to Soviet-era strategies, especially in energy and military domains, are increasingly likely, underscoring the region's ongoing importance for the U.S. and the Nordic countries as well as global power dynamics

March 2, 2023No Comments

Dr. Stephen J. Blank on Power competition in the Caspian Sea region

Dr. Stephen J. Blank, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, discusses power competition in the Caspian Sea region.

The European Union is searching for energy sources around the world to replace the role that Russia once played. They are looking towards Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, including Azerbaijan. A trans-Caspian pipeline would need to be built to get energy from Central Asia to Europe. However, this would be met with opposition from Russia and Iran, who would try to destroy it, making a security guarantee necessary.

Interviewers: Fabrizio Napoli & Davide Gobbicchi - Russia & the Post-Soviet Team

November 28, 2022No Comments

Africa: the pursuit for growth and sustainability

Authors: Michele Mignogna and Miguel Jiménez.


The current global energy crisis has proven how energy is the lifeblood of today's economies and highlighted the need for and advantages of an expedited scale-up of less expensive and cleaner sources of energy. To protect the planet, it is essential to make a global effort to transition to cleaner energy. As such, the most affected players by climate and history, African economies, are gaining momentum to address this issue and any comprehensive energy transition can only be achieved bearing in mind their situation

Africa’s energy outlook

In sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of the population has access to electricity and this number has dropped by 4% since 2019 due to many brownouts, blackouts, and load-shedding. Even in the industrial powerhouses of South Africa and Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa, electrical networks regularly fail to sustain the region's current generation capacity, making it impossible to fulfill demand. The situation is similar in the north of the continent, where Egypt, one of the largest economies of the continent, suffers the same destiny. A study conducted under the Bank’s New Deal on Energy for Africa, shows a financial deficit of between $17 billion and $25 billion, with the abovementioned economies counting for around 33% of this gap.

Moreover, despite having the least culpability for the issue, Africa is already more severely affected by climate change than most other regions of the globe. Africa has the lowest carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per capita of any continent, contributing less than 4% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, while having about one-fifth of the world's population. The adverse consequences of climate change, such as water stress, decreased food production and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, are already being felt disproportionately by African populations.

Africa's potential to leapfrog is not lacking and has already been discussed by the literature. However, dialogues on the actions to take to tackle the realities of climate change also center on how to manage energy use. Africa is at the center of a vital trade-off between using energy resources, which may significantly advance the continent's economic growth, and mitigating climate change. Although the world is experiencing an energy crisis of historic proportions,interest in its enormous gas resources is also growing north of the Mediterranean

Image Source

A matter of  economic justice

The Paris Agreement targets of keeping average temperature increases well below 2ºC and trying to not surpass 1.5ºC by 2050 with respect to pre-industrial levels set a roadmap to follow to fight climate change. This was to be achieved through National Determined Contributions (NDCs), that is, every signatory country would pledge to set a roadmap for cutting emissions, theoretically, following science-based targets. Despite being a move in the right direction, it does not come as a surprise that African economies yet to blossom are reluctant to curb their emissions at the same pace as developed countries.

By making a quick analysis of past and present events one can’t help but sympathize with the land that gave birth to mankind. On the one hand, going back a couple of centuries, the Scramble for Africa by European countries stands out as a watershed event in the continent’s history. The methods used for the continent’s partitioning and subsequent establishment of imperial powers have given rise to many maladies which have had long-lasting effects in inhibiting economic growth as has been proven over time and time again by academics. To name a few, depopulation through slavery has been found to account for 47% of the income disparity between African nations and the rest of the world. Moreover, the artificial nature of colonial boundaries has increased the likelihood of ethnic-driven conflict taking many lives and leaving many countries in a continuous “standby” situation. The previous two factors, coupled with the establishment of extractive institutions causing resource depletion to fund America and Europe’s industrialization, have contributed to the underdevelopment of the institutional framework in the aftermath of independence, which remains at a primitive stage to this day.

The outsized impacts of climate change make it a serious threat for the continent’s economics, which could be constrained by up to three percent by 2050 and further precipitate the fall into poverty of millions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, combining the deterring effects of colonial legacy and the increasing consequences of climate change on the continent, asking for the mistreated African people to decarbonize by giving up growth and letting their momentum pass is historically unfair and currently unrealistic. This resonates even more when some data is explored concerning the continent’s future energy demand. By 2040, Africa will acccount for 50% of the global workforce.

Growth as we know it

Nonetheless, considering the demographic prospects and the further increase in energy coverage, a boom in energy demand is expected, and this, in turn, forces any durable global solution to climate change to take into account the region’s interests and constraints. Even though it is clear that Africa’s will can’t be overlooked, growth as we have come to know it implies for the continent to follow China and India’s emission history, 1st and 3rd largest polluters respectively, and to become, in the near future, the biggest polluter. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that if we take into account how much ground is the renewable energy scenario gaining and Africa’s suitable renewable energy endowments. For instance, the continent receives 60 per cent more sunlight a year than the global average. Hence, solar energy has been coined the backbone of Africa’s new energy system, making it a solid challenge for the conventional fuel industry. Yet, for this to materialize the aforementioned investment gap should be dealt with. Healing previous wrongdoings and a solution to the investment deficit have been manifested, implicitly and explicitly, by US Climate Envoy John Kerry in the latest proposal at the COP 27. Under the name of “Energy Transition Accelerator” (ETA), its ultimate purpose is achieving the decarbonization of African countries by channelling a constant flow of private capital from big companies. Yet, what’s in it for the big polluters in the game? 

Carbon markets have been around for quite some time and are divided between mandatory and voluntary ones. The former ones are regulated by states, and represent a tool for them to decarbonize specific sectors. The European Emission Trading Scheme does this by capping the emissions allowed and making companies buy and trade carbon credits equivalent to one tonne of CO2 in order to justify excessive emissions. Voluntary Carbon Markets (VCM), on the other hand, represent the market for companies to further advance in their own voluntary pledges for decarbonization. In VCM, credits are earned  either through avoidance/reduction projects or through removal/sequestration projects. ETA’s proposal focuses on the former offsetting solution, that is, private companies would earn credits by helping African countries either by phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure already in place  or by fostering the use of renewables in places where fossil fuels are not in place yet. 

This proposal would expand VCM which has not yet exploded as a result of an untapped demand and a disorganized supply. However, these markets have been plagued with critics due to the lack of monitoring, and some of them apply to ETA’s proposal as well. The most notable issue is the lack of additionality that these projects may have. This means that the installation of renewables would occur given the plunging cost of wind and solar power, regardless of the credit's existence. Secondly, unless proper monitoring is enforced, companies may end up earning credits for building climate resilience, i.e. building walls for rising sea levels, a well-intended action which, however, deviates from the principle of one credit equivalent to one tonne of carbon sequestered. 


All in all, African investment needs are immense, particularly in the area of infrastructure, making it imperative to seek cooperation between the public and private sectors. Furthermore, attending these needs requires from developed countries to understand the African context. Years of failed aid should have taught us that much. In this sense, even though it has some flaws that should be corrected before its implementation, ETA may be determinant to guarantee the proper transition of the African continent towards renewables without compromising the continent’s growth. Successive COP rounds have failed to address this issue, and dealing with global climate change through the achievement of national decarbonization targets seems to be a battle that will be fought by governments on domestic ground. ETA’s proposal may make the giant non-state polluters step in, and in doing so,  unlock millions of private capital in the right direction. In the hypothetical case where environmental integrity is compromised as a result of some  credits being earned by fostering climate resilience, this still would allow the African population to combat climate change consequences which they are mainly not responsible for, and in turn, allowing some compensation for centuries of injustices.

May 30, 2022No Comments

The Geopolitics of the Energy Transition’s Momentum

Authors: Riccardo Bosticco and Michele Mignogna.


The main result that Putin has achieved until now with the aggression of Ukraine is a solid stance from the European Member States to halt gas imports from Russia. This and other green commitments have pushed the EU and the whole world to give renewed impetus to renewable energy. Moreover, the relation between climate and industry policies is increasingly evident. In a broader context of power competition trade, investment policies in the energy and climate sectors play an ambivalent role: energy dependencies have been conceptualized as mutually benefitting; yet, the current war unveils their risky nature. After a brief description of the renewables’ geopolitical dimensions, this article outlines what is at stake for the EU’s primary areas of energy cooperation. 

The Impact of Renewable Energy on Geopolitics

Renewable energies have the potential to transform interstate energy relations. Renewables have fundamentally distinct geographic and technological properties than coal, oil, and natural gas. Sources are plentiful but intermittent; their production is increasingly decentralized and utilizes rare earth resources in clean tech equipment and, lastly, their distribution is predominantly electric and entails tight management standards and long-distance losses. This contrasts sharply with fossil fuel resources’ geographically fixed and finite character, their reliance on massive centralized production and processing facilities, and their ease of storage and transit as solids, liquids, or gases worldwide.

The energy transition provides a chance to rethink and revise long-standing trading relationships. It also allows countries to engage in previously closed energy value chains. Significantly, the future of the energy world will likely redefine the concept of energy security. However, in this society, the impulse to produce things domestically will collide with the logic of size and global supply networks. The energy transition will rewire the planet, but how much of it will transcend international borders is still unclear. A crucial element will be the commerce of minerals, distinct from that of oil, gas, and coal in terms of location. Nonetheless, such business will follow a familiar pattern: resources will be harvested in one region of the world, transported to refineries and processing centers, and then transformed into final goods. Diversification, bottlenecks, extraction disputes, and rent-seeking dynamics will all be present, although with different details.

Such developments will require a significant shift in energy strategies, indicating that areas pursuing industrial policies rather than decarbonization may reap climatic advantages. The previous energy map established a link between natural resources and markets. Yet, the new energy map will be much more complex.

The Geopolitics of the Energy Transition and the EU

Bringing together the words ’geopolitics’ and ‘renewables’ leads to the study of renewables and related security risks, the effects of the energy transition on traditional energy relations, possibilities of mutually beneficial ties, and windows of opportunity for countries to move up in the global power hierarchy. The energy transition is indeed a process where the industrial advantage is likely to bring with itself political benefits and leadership status. In the context of the current war in Ukraine, this is becoming clearer every day. Yet, the energy transition is expected to become part of power competition as the most impellent challenge – posed by the war as well as climate change and the security risks with it – of our times and will likely create amities and enmities.

Take the example of Russia. In the past decade, Russia has perceived the EU’s energy transition problematically. The EU-Russia energy relationship was primarily based on gas, oil, and coal. Nonetheless, the association is characterized by different conceptions of energy and energy security, although both actors recognize the potential of energy interdependence. While the EU and European countries are more enthusiastic concerning the transition, Russia’s discourses are more conservative yet try to defend the role of natural gas in the energy transition.

While it is difficult to predict an essential role played by Russia nowadays, given the progressive isolation it is forced to, the energy wire will see China having high stakes in renewable developments and geopolitics. Concerning relations with the EU, some have argued that the energy transition is likely to be the determinant of the future of EU-China relations. Energy in EU-China relations does not play the same role as relations with Russia. While the renewable sector has encouraged interdependence between the two powers in the past, more recently, nationally oriented policies have hindered the precedent path.

Still, the energy transition will significantly shape relations between the EU and the Arab states. While Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are challenged by balancing relating with the US and China, managing regional crises, the pandemic, and containing Iran as the primary regional rival, the last point precisely is preventing some of the Arab states in the Gulf region to act assertively against Russia. Nonetheless, looking ahead to the 2020s, how those countries manage the energy transition will have consequences on internal and external political and economic environments. Especially Gulf countries envision a sustainable future, thus setting the stage for redrawing energy investments. In this context, the EU will play a crucial role, opening to the Gulf’s market interests and advancing regional security interests.


Overall, the current war is not only highlighting the strategic value of energy resources and energy ties but also how the transition to new energy systems is likely to rewire the world. In a context where the main political divide on the global stage is between liberal and illiberal forces and strong energy dependences revealed security threats, future systems of alliances will have to account for this. For the EU, the energy transition will have to deal with Russia, act as cohesively as possible, and strengthen its strategic thinking concerning big partners such as China and the Gulf States. The transitions’ stakes entail a strategic opportunity to avoid past errors.

April 5, 2022No Comments

Putin’s War and the Shaping of a New Global Energy Map

By: Riccardo Bosticco, Lorenzo Caruti, Sofia Dal Santo, Miguel Jiménez, Michele Mignogna.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, is already showing significant effects on a global scale. As most States and international organizations have officially condemned the war - from West to East between America, Europe, and Africa - openly criticizing Putin's behavior and deciding to sanction Moscow heavily, the biggest problem concerns the aspect inherent to energy supplies. "Europe depends on Russia for about 40% of its natural gas, with most of it transported by pipeline", explains Reuters. Luckily for them, most European countries have cut reliance on Russian gas in recent years. Yet dependency is still weighty, and the most recent sanctions on Moscow caused a further growth of gas prices. European states and companies have acknowledged the danger of relying too heavily on Russian energy, and also those countries that had a commercial, yet controversial, understanding of energy relations with Russia, like Germany, decided to act firmly.

The United States proposes solutions to Europe, while oil and gas producers in the MENA act controversially, and China remains cautiously in the background, carefully observing the evolution of the situation without intervening directly or taking a clear position. Where will the current energy decisions drive us?

The European Union 

The EU is a substantial energy importer, largely reliant on Russia's supply. Accordingly, due to sanctions imposed to punish Russia, the EU has set about to make a significant course correction. The European Commission has proposed an outline of a plan to make Europe independent from Russian gas before 2030: REPowerEU. The main goal of this ambitious plan is to diversify to the greatest extent possible the gas suppliers of the EU by increasing LNG Imports and constructing alternative pipelines. To do so, a strong political will by the Member States to follow the correct route and avoid uncoordinated actions is needed.

Currently, there are not sufficient LNG terminals in the Eastern EU, although growing investments have been undertaken in recent years by the Union; it is, therefore, crucial that such countries have access to regional gas hubs. In addition, even the construction of alternative pipelines prompts some issues. Unsurprisingly, European customers are unwilling to commit financially to long-term gas purchase contracts, which would be necessary to sustain pipeline development, due to EU green obligations. Furthermore, authoritarian governments like Azerbaijan's, Turkey's, and the Gulf monarchies' influence on the gas trade would remain, leaving the door open for political exploits of energy flows. Besides, the existing alternative sources of natural gas to the EU appear to be already at the highest production level. Therefore, the most likely option seems to import from the Caspian Sea. 

Overall, an emphasis is placed by the Commission on boosting energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewables. This is essential since it contributes to terminating the EU's overdependence on a single supplier, even though it does not provide a suitable solution in the short term. Last but not least, the Commission has even undertaken initiatives to mitigate high energy prices

The United States 

Since the energy sector is the primary source of Russia's revenues, this was a primary target for Western sanctions. Yet, while the EU depends heavily on Russian energy, the US is a net energy exporter. Biden recognized this fact. When asked about Italy's carefulness at sanctioning energy, he answered that "this is an alliance of nations that each have their priorities and their […] concerns". Yet, on March 8, the US sanctioned all of Russia's energy exports in the US. The United States is now trying to convince the European allies to do the same by offering additional LNG supplies. On March 25, while in Brussels, Joe Biden announced that the US would send another 15 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas to Europe. The United States' primary objective is to disentangle European energy dependency on Russia. The challenges at stake are significant, and the following lines highlight them.

While the strategy to realize such an objective is to rely on scale capacity, what matters in a crisis like this is spare capacity, a factor that might complicate things for the US. Further, the opacity around the technical aspects surrounding the March 25 deal seems indeed mirror the difficulties of disentangling the EU from Russian gas. Moreover, LNG infrastructural capacities in Europe need funds. Turning to oil, the US has demanded an increase in oil output to avoid prices spiking. However, national frackers and OPEC+ countries show little interest in ramping up output. The dilemma is over the first-mover's disadvantage. There has been a phone call between Biden and King Salman of Saudi Arabia concerning additional output; yet, Riyadh answered that it does not want to politicize oil, preferring to observe the other producers' moves and the outcome of the Iranian sanctions lift issue. So, what is next for the US energy strategy?

MENA Region 

While the war is taking place in Europe, it will have long-term effects in the Middle East, too. The leaders found themselves at a crossroads: they condemned Russia but did not agree to impose such severe punitive sanctions. Russia is an essential economic and strategic ally, necessary to maintain control over the Iranian nuclear threat. Moreover, it is the main supplier of wheat, on which many countries in the North African area depend. However, the United States is a fundamental player, too, especially for the political stability achieved in recent years by some countries. In the war context, the oil-producing countries in the Gulf have seen increased revenues. However, beyond the economy, the outcome of this conflict could have significant geopolitical implications for the region, including reshuffling alliances and redefining pipeline routes.
The geopolitical consequences of the war also affected the oil market. Leading OPEC Plus member countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have stressed that cutting Russia out of the oil market would have severe consequences for both the European Union and the United States. Both Ryad and Abu Dhabi are moving closer and closer to Asia, also considering accepting the Yuan instead of the dollar as the oil currency, distancing themselves from Washington, which has been indifferent to the recent missile attacks they suffered. Another debate on energy matters is underway in the Mediterranean area. For example, Turkey is trying to maintain neutrality in the conflict in Europe: with the new energy alternatives that Europe could have at its disposal in order not to be dependent on Russian gas, Turkey could act as a bridge to bring gas to Europe via the Turkstream project, a possible option if Nordstream is not activated, and also for the East-med Pipeline, currently stalled due to the recent withdrawal of the US from the project.


The eventual termination of European energy contracts would put Vladimir Putin under strain since these cash flows are helping the president sustain an already longer than expected invasion. That is where China comes into play. Even though the "red dragon's" stand on Russia's invasion has been somewhat ambiguous, the country has got many reasons for stepping up and taking over the gas imports that Europe will, in time, refrain from. Energy has fueled the extraordinary growth of the "workshop of the world". The country began to aggressively pursue energy sources beyond its borders after 1993, when it became a net energy importer. This deficit was accentuated by the surge of bilateral and multilateral deals after joining the WTO in 2001. The prospects which visualize the country undergoing a structural transformation and moving towards less energy-intensive sectors might alleviate these increased energy needs. However, guaranteeing energy security is a top priority for the one-party state until then. 

Surprisingly, oil meets a tiny fraction of China's domestic total energy demand, and much of it gets to China through the South Sea, a heavily disputed route among Asian countries. This supply uncertainty prevents China from reducing its coal consumption, representing 60% of energy consumption. Nevertheless, China's commitments to be carbon neutral by 2060 do inevitably accelerate the phasing out of coal. Besides having long-term plans for heavily investing in nuclear energy and hydrogen, natural gas supplied by Russia has become increasingly more relevant. The first steps towards this alliance materialized in 2019, with Siberia's pipeline pumping liquefied natural gas to northeastern China. This association was scaled up on February 4, when a 30-year contract was settled which secured the construction of a pipeline connecting with the northeast of the country. Yet, this alliance may even go beyond natural gas. Recent news of the departure of oil giants such as BP, Shell, and Exxon from their joint ventures with Russian companies have spurred speculations of China's state-owned companies stepping in.  

As soon as the shock of the Ukrainian war arrived, the West discovered a hard truth: even in a globally interdependent world, it is not safe to be heavily dependent on a single country. As mentioned above, Europe is moving towards making plans to become energetically independent. Nevertheless, West leaders are conscious that the road to independence will be long and winding, indeed taking years to make it. However, the problem is not only a European matter: as previously said, even a solid Russian ally like China is facing the effect of the energetic crisis. On the other hand, Beijing will probably be seen as the only winner at the war's end, mainly for its ambiguous position. At the same time, the United States is dealing with a different situation: even though it does not depend on energy imported from Moscow, its role as a leader is put to the test. Washington needs to help its allies and, simultaneously, avoid the MENA Region ending up in the hands of China. Therefore, what is at stake is not only the energy question: the current world order could become very different at the end of the day.

July 1, 2021No Comments

European Security Challenges II: Russia

By: Alessandro Spada

Picture via West vs Russia: the Clash of Narratives | Madan

The tensions between the European Union (EU) and Russia have considerably increased over the last years. In this context, Ukraine has become a crucial geopolitical flashpoint. Ever since the annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, the relations between Russia and the EU have deteriorated progressively with the adoption of severe sanctions by the latter.

In addition to the Ukrainian crisis, both the Russian intervention in the Syrian war and the attempted poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skipral and his daughter by Kremlin agents in 2018 are worth recollecting. Besides, the use of targeted actions to influence and to destabilise European countries such as disinformation, cyber-attacks and support for pro-Kremlin political parties and NGOs, and in the end, the attempted murder by poisoning of Alexei Navalny, one of the most fearsome opposition leaders of Vladimir Putin, have imposed EU to take further countermeasures.

The Russian threat can be subdivided into the following three categories: 

  1. Military threat: The high-risk level of Baltic States to be invaded by Russian troops in just a few days and short-range Iskander missiles stationed in “the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad” with high capacity to deliver nuclear warheads attack and to reach Poland and Eastern Germany in 2013. In this regard, it is worth highlighting that the repeated NATO airspace and sea space violations have often provoked several skirmishes between the Russian and NATO planes and warships in the Black and the Baltic Seas. In addition, more than 100,000 Russian troops have been deployed to the border between Russia and Ukraine and Russia’s navy presence around the whole Crimean Peninsula, including also the Sea of Azov, are not absolutely less alarming for Ukraine, NATO and European allies.
  2. Hybrid threat: This is meant as financial and political support for pro-Kremlin parties and NGOs, also spreading disinformation. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning the cyber-attacks to influence and cause instability within European Countries and borders. For example, Moscow was able to build strong ties with populist and mostly far-right political parties such as Rassemblement National (RN) in France, Lega in Italy, Alternative für Deutschland(AfD) in Germany, Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium and Catalan independence movement in Spain. Among Russian hybrid tools, the state-owned RT news channel and Sputnik news agency, are considered propaganda instruments, which disseminate anti-establishment conspiracy theories, aim at creating divisions on sensitive issues such as migration and Islamic terrorism. At last, it is worth recalling the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the St. Petersburg-based “troll factory”, specialized in fake social media profiles on Facebook and Twitter.
  3. Energy threat: Russia supplies a third or more of EU oil and gas demand and “a large share of this is delivered via pipelines crossing Ukraine, a country whose relations with Moscow are even more problematic than the EU's, raising the possibility that Europe's gas supplies could be held hostage to geopolitical tensions”. Indeed, the energy crisis in 2006 and 2009 created serious warnings for gas supplies.

In reaction to these threats, 4500 troops have been stationed on a rotational basis in Poland and Baltic countries by NATO since 2017 and Lithuania approved the reintroduction of compulsory military service in 2015. The three Baltic countries have significantly raised their defence budget and two neutral countries as Finland and Sweden strengthened partnership with NATO. Furthermore, this year, many European countries took part in DEFENDER-Europe 21, “an annual large-scale U.S. Army-led, multinational, joint exercise designed to build readiness and interoperability between U.S., NATO and partner militaries”. Last May, 600 NATO and non-NATO forces, including troops from Ukraine and Georgia, were involved in the "Trojan Footprint" military exercise across five Eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Georgia, and Romania). The drill took place “alongside much larger Defender-Europe 21 NATO joint exercises”, mentioned before, which had “some 28,000 forces participating from 26 different countries”. 

Numerous countermeasures have been taken by EU countries to counter Russian disinformation. For example, media literacy training has been introduced in school curricula by several countries and “regulators have clamped down on pro-Kremlin outlets such as RT for failing to comply with media standards”. In 2015, EU created a special task force as East StratCom Task Force for a weekly publication of Disinformation Review identifying and unmasking disinformation from pro-Russia sources. Moreover, it has the purpose to cooperate with Eastern Partnership countries for building resilience to pro-Kremlin disinformation, for example explaining EU policies to audiences from the region by producing Russian-language materials and training journalists. In 2018, the disinformation Code of Practice and the Action Plan were both adopted by the European Union. Several media companies signed the Code of Practice, committing to remove fake profiles and allowing users to see who pays for online political adverts.

The EU has taken meaningful measures to mitigate energy shortage. For example, it has started to build new energy infrastructures - such as interconnecting pipelines enabling EU Member States to share gas, building terminals to import LNG from USA and Qatar and storage facilities to keep gas in reserve. In this context, NATO plays a fundamental role as well, establishing “three main priorities regarding energy security. The first is to enhance allies’ strategic awareness of the security implications of energy developments. The second goal is to support the protection of critical energy infrastructure, including tankers and offshore energy installations. Third, NATO has prioritized enhancing energy efficiency in the military”.       

The EU will have to support Eastern European member countries politically, military and economically to counter Russian threats. It will have to promote major policies of economic development, social inclusions fighting inequalities created by pandemic, more cooperation and investments in counter-intelligence and cybersecurity technologies. Additionally, it will have to invest more financial resources to rebuild the economy based on renewable energies, being less hostage by the Russian oil and gas. In the end, it will need to be more independent from the American influence and speaking with a common and single voice. If Europe does not follow this path, it would put at risk the foundations of European democratic institutions, causing their disintegration, paving the way to antidemocratic and populist political parties and lastly it would continue to be subject to energy blackmail of the Kremlin.

What is sure for now is that Russia is still perceived as a real threat to the whole Western world, as also demonstrated by the UK and USA. Indeed, concerning this last one, in spite of the constructive U.S.-Russia Summit in Geneva on 16th June 2021, the deep underlying tension between the superpowers seems less than solved.

Here you can read the first part of this article.