Preventing Russian-origin threats in 2023: three priorities for risk reduction for the West. Analysis by Dionis Cenusa



The failure to prevent the crisis in Ukraine exposed the limitations of the warning and risk reduction mechanisms used by the EU...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

Many of the risks originating in 2022 stem from the war in Ukraine and continue into 2023. Financial and military allocations promised earlier in the year by the US, France and Germany will increase the capabilities of the Ukrainian military to defend themselves (by land and air), but also to organize effective counteroffensives against Russian aggression.

The inevitable continuation of the war is accompanied by the intensification of the effects of Western sanctions and, respectively, Russian countermeasures in the energy and agri-food fields. Although both the Global North and South will continue to be affected, the costs of geopolitical confrontations will be much higher for those in the South and may include inflationary risks, food shortages, etc. (Economist Intelligence, January 2023). Since the profile of foreseeable risks for 2023 is explicit, the West must ensure that it avoids the mistakes of 2022, when it misinterpreted Russia's intentions, allowing it to definitively destroy regional security without putting up effective resistance.

Although it demonstrated greater efficiency in the crisis management stage (Russian aggression against Ukraine), with radical and urgent decisions that made Russia the most sanctioned country in the world (13,072 sanctions as of December 2022), the West did not know how to anticipate the the crisis itself. Both American and European decision makers relied on the wrong strategy to reduce the risks associated with the materialization of a new Russian war in Europe. In this sense, elementary errors were made in the assessment of strategic threats, leaving negative scenarios completely aside.

The most serious lapse was repeatedly ignoring the unfortunate experience in connection with the manifestation of Russian militarism in Eastern Europe. Old lessons that the West failed to learn include the first war against Ukraine in 2014-2022, preceded by the war against Georgia in 2008. The West operated with diplomatic tools completely inappropriate to the direction in which the Russian threat was visibly escalating, turning into a crisis of proportions at the end of 2021. The Russian case can serve as a "cold shower" to repair the interception, risk reduction and prevention mechanisms with which the West, in general, and the EU, in particular, operate.

The origin of the risks for the EU and their anticipation

In addition to managing the current crises (security, energy, humanitarian), which implies reducing the negative effects and restoring the order prior to the crisis, the EU must review and strengthen its risk prevention mechanisms, caused by geopolitical (f)actors. This category includes three sets of (f)actors. In the Eastern European dimension, it is about the erosion of conventional and energy security in Eastern Europe due to Russian militaristic territorial revisionism. In the African sense, chronic instability persists in the Sahel region (Mali, Burundi, including the Central African Republic), facilitated by Russian interference through the private army of the "Wagner Group". Finally, in the Asian dimension, the focus is on technological vulnerabilities, which may be exacerbated by a possible "chip war" between the US and China. Alternatively, the EU may face problems if there are disruptions in the supply of tech equipment from Taiwan (about 60% of global contract chip production in 2022) following Chinese military aggression, which is rather imminent in the long term.

The high diversity of geopolitical risks, as well as the lack of cohesion in foreign policy matters, mean that the EU continues to be the most vulnerable actor in the West. For these reasons, the EU together with the Member States (EU - 27) must work closely in the process of monitoring and evaluating the trends in the evolution of threats in the three dimensions: Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. South America should not be overlooked, although it is not an urgent priority when it comes to threats of Russian origin.

The anticipation of new risks, which the EU needs, requires the integration of the “security culture” in the planning and decision-making process. And early warning tools must be used before a national vulnerability breaks out and has cross-border and, respectively, European or continental effects. Diversifying the voices that influence decision-making in the EU is another urgent need. Thus, members of the business environment of critical sectors and of the academia must be involved in the development and updating of risk management documents, within permanent platforms ("groups of wise men"). Thus, narrow and/or biased thinking, including interference from politicized national agendas, will be countered. In addition, the EU needs efficient cooperation of the security services of the Member States to guarantee access to accurate, verified, cross-referenced, and comparable information. The correct contextualization of the threat helps to adopt effective measures to reduce or even prevent the risks faced by Member States.

Reducing risks of Russian origin: three priority areas

Currently, Russia is the source and trigger of the risks facing the EU. The trigger event is the military aggression against Ukraine. Freezing this conflict will keep the source of risk, as well as the uncertainties related to the eventuality of unmanaged (but frozen) risk escalations. To reduce the likelihood of risks multiplying from the ongoing crisis, the EU has at least three solutions: 1) deploying proactive diplomacy in regions where Russia seeks refuge from Western sanctions; 2) putting an end to the process of energy decoupling in relation to Russia; and 3) provide Ukraine with political-diplomatic (intensifying Ukraine's global voice), economic-financial (confiscation of Russian assets and their transfer to Ukraine) and military (facilitating arms purchase) tools.

1. Robust Public Diplomacy in the “Global South”. Although Russia seems busy in Ukraine and isolated by the sanctions, it tries to influence, in parallel, other corners of the world. In addition to deepening political and trade relations with China, India, and Turkey, which allow Russia to soften the blow of sanctions, it is active in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, which constitute the "Global South". The effect of the Russian presence can be inferred by calculating the countries that have a neutral position or lean towards Russia regarding the war in Ukraine. Although they voted in the UN General Assembly against Russia, many countries in the Global South oppose the sanctions regime. By some estimates by 2022, the Russia-tolerant Global South accounts for about 63% of the world's population. The remaining 37% support Ukraine, represented predominantly by the West, which commands 70% of the global GDP (Economist Intelligence, January 2023).

The destabilization or de-democratization of the Global South is the preferred scenario for Russia, as interstate relations can be more easily tailored to Russian geopolitical and commercial interests. This category of actions includes the trip of Valentina Matvienko, President of the Council of the Russian Federation, to Latin America for meetings with the presidents of Brazil and Bolivia. In addition to the attempt to deepen the presence in countries not attached to sanctions, the Russian interest consists in promoting a multipolar vision of the international order (zones of influence around some poles). At the same time, Russia uses its disinformation sources (Sputnik, RT, etc.), blocked in the West, to spread the distorted version of events in Ukraine in English, French, Spanish, etc.

Not counting the embassies of Member States, the EU has 140 diplomatic missions around the world. However, Russian disinformation appears to dominate in the Global South, which will ultimately translate into opportunities for sanctions evasion. The diplomatic potential of the EU, combined with that of its Member States, is many times greater than that of Russia. But for it to produce results, the EU must have an integrated communication campaign in the languages spoken in the Global South, using the information capacities of Spain, France, and Portugal. The interaction of the head of the European diplomacy Josep Borrell with the Moroccan academia is a sample of successful public diplomacy, which should have been applied by all EU delegations immediately after the outbreak of aggression in 2022. European diplomacy can serve as a platform to intensify Ukraine's efforts in terms of public diplomacy.

2. Strengthening of “energy sovereignty”. Reducing Russia's energy dependence is the top priority to anticipate new episodes of energy blackmail in the future. At the same time, as a side effect, the removal of energy vulnerabilities in relation to Russia and the introduction of other restrictions on the energy sector (oil embargo, etc.) raise Russian budgetary costs, which increased by 27% in 2022, constituting 389 billion euros (Bloomberg, January 2023). This threatens the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin's regime and the morale of the Russian army. Thus, indirectly, the energy decoupling from Russia favors Ukrainian efforts to recover territories under Russian occupation.

At the same time, although the replacement of Russian energy resources has a high cost in the short term, their total or partial withdrawal represents a considerable investment in European security. In the case of Germany, the prioritization of security in exchange for privileged gas contracts with Gazprom was due to the limitations imposed by sanctions and Russian energy sabotage, both carried out from abroad. As a result, German imports of Russian natural gas, coal, and oil fell sharply from 55%, 50%, and 30% respectively to zero in the last 10 months of 2022. The German trend is also seen in other European states that previously relied on much of the Russian energy resources: Italy, France, Poland, Bulgaria, etc. Italy suggests creating a "north-south energy axis" with Africa, and Bulgaria plans to import liquefied gas (1.5 billion m3 per year) from Turkey until minus 2036 (FT, January 2023). Although in the short term, these solutions seem sufficient, the generation of new dependencies in Africa or Turkey, and Central Asia implies strategic risks, to the extent that these regions and countries are not democratized and/or stabilized, to ensure a circle of trust. . partners.

Contrary to the intention to lay the groundwork for new areas of energy-related vulnerabilities, the EU and its Member States must increase energy sovereignty in relations with all regional or global energy powers, regardless of their type of political regime. This requires prioritizing the “green transition” based on renewable energies and the hydrogen produced from them. If Germany is not able to build 1,500 wind turbines a year to meet its 2030 renewable energy targets (from 47% to 80%), other European countries with more modest resources will not be motivated to do so. This may jeopardize the overall objectives of the EU. In addition, a serious agenda to expand, renew and securitize critical infrastructure is mandatory (IPN, December 2022).

3. Learning from the "Ukrainian lesson". The lack of foresight of the 2022 war was due to the fact that in the eight years since the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Western policymakers (Germany, France, the US, and EU) were involved in actions diplomatic, perceived by Moscow as weakness and permissiveness. The West's goal was simple: to end the military confrontation at all costs, including at the expense of Ukraine's security and territorial integrity. Consequently, one way or another, the conflict had to be frozen (on the model of the separatist conflict in Moldova). The fatal mistake of Western thought was to believe that Russia also wanted to freeze the conflict.

Building on the "Ukrainian lesson", the EU must reassess the risks posed by Russia in the context of other crises on the European continent or beyond. It refers to the role of Russian peacekeeping forces in Moldova, Russia's mediation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Central Asia's dependence on Russian transport routes, etc. While it is essential to support Ukraine, along with the G7 partners, the EU must use its financial resources and external legitimacy wisely to remove the sources of instability planted by Russia in the three post-Soviet decades. Crises generated by Russian aggression can be used as opportunities to lay the foundations for a new regional security order in Europe and an international connectivity platform (Global Gateway) to block and protect against malign Russian influence.

Instead of conclusions…

The West's failure to effectively assess risks in 2021-2022 allowed Russia to mobilize its military on the Ukrainian border and launch a full-scale war without facing any external opposition. Instead of implementing strong preemptive measures such as sanctions in response to the destabilization of Ukraine, combating Russian disinformation in the "Global South," and beginning to reduce energy dependence on Russia, the West, and especially the EU, engaged itself in futile diplomacy of statements against Russia.

The failure to prevent the crisis in Ukraine highlighted the limitations of the warning and risk reduction mechanisms used by the EU. As long as the EU is unable to understand and anticipate geopolitical processes and the risks that may escalate into crises, it represents a vulnerable partner for the Western coalition and a potential victim of new threats, whether from Russia or other rivals, in 2023. To address this handicap, the first step is to build a powerful risk management mechanism.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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