Conflicts around Europe 1.

Leiden University By Ilia Barboutev, PhD candidate Leiden University


We are nearing the 30th anniversary of Francis Fukuyama’s famous prediction that Western liberal democracy will come to be the universally accepted and final form of government. In the summer of 1989, Mr. Fukuyama, while witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Empire, prophesized a future world largely devoid of ideological struggles, where consumerism, a general sense of boredom and intellectual stagnation would rule the day.Hoping that we have not come into possession of the same faulty crystal ball that Mr. Fukuyama was using, we strive to highlight some of the major potential risks that Europe currently faces in a world where liberal democracies are being unexpectedly eroded by both internal and external powers and where boredom is in short supply.

Even though the Soviet Union was relegated to the dustbin of history in 1991, the plethora of ethnic and religious tensions upon which its totalitarian government kept a lid with an iron fist have resurfaced. While conflicts such as those between Armenia and Azerbaijan merit significant attention, the primary challenge posed to European security comes from a newly resurgent Russian Federation.As major EU member states move to phase out their nuclear and coal power plants, the increased reliance on Russian oil and gas supplies is eminent. The combination of energy dependence and diverging geo-political goals between Russia and the EU requires member states to formulate a coherent strategy to deal with their Eastern neighbor.

Russia’s recent armed conflicts with sovereign nations from the former Soviet Space have come as a surprise to many. Nevertheless, the warning signs were evident long before President Putin’s rhetoric and conduct became more belligerent as he began to insist on certain non-negotiable national interests.

The transformation of Russia from a potential strategic partner to a rival has largely been the result of Russia’s own internal weakness and the unmet expectations from the post-Communist transition.

On the economic front, the Russian Federation blames the West for not having been more generous with financial assistance in the 1990s and for taking over what Russia used to consider its own protected markets in Eastern Europe. On matters of security and foreign affairs, the Russian government has expressed strong disagreement about the enlargement of NATO to its former Warsaw Pact Allies, the promise of membership in the Trans-Atlantic alliance to Georgia and Ukraine, and unilateral actions against Serbia and Iraq, both of which having had a special relationship with Moscow.The war in Ukraine is currently the largest conflict occurring on the border of the European Union with over 10,000 people killed and millions displaced. It seems unlikely that Russia will alter its position on its current military intervention there.The Crimean Peninsula, a de jure Ukrainian territory, has a Russian ethnic majority, serves as the headquarters of the sizeable Russian Black Sea Fleet and has an important place in Russian national consciousness.

In the Donbass conflict of Eastern Ukraine, the battle lines between the Ukrainian Army and Russia-backed separatists have been largely solidified despite frequent outbursts of violence due to ceasefire violations. A Moscow-proposed plan to deploy peacekeepers between the two sides is unlikely to be endorsed by the government in Kiev, as it will effectively freeze the conflict for the benefit of the Separatists.Russia’s interest and ability to intervene militarily goes further than Ukraine and its other present entanglements in Moldova and in the Southern Caucuses. Central Asia, consisting of four Turkic and one Persian-speaking state, is another area in what Russia terms its “near abroad”, the fourteen other sovereign states that declared independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.Despite acquiescing to the independence of the Central Asian Republics, the Russian Federation continues to play an active role in the region’s security. Russia’s military intervention in the Tajik Civil War, similar to its support for Bashar Assad in Syria, was key to the survival of Emomali Rahmon’s regime.

Should Russia feel that its interests are compromised, it is likely to intervene in much the same way it has in Ukraine and Georgia. The growth of Islamic extremism and unresolved inter-ethnic tensions in the region make it impossible to say where and how such an intervention might happen first.Nevertheless, Kazakhstan shares many of same the characteristics with Georgia and Ukraine, which made the Russian-instigated hybrid warfare possible. Around 20% of its population is ethnically Russian and the provinces where they are concentrated are directly adjacent to the Russian border.

Kazakhstan has not had a transfer of executive power since 1991 and its 77-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev faces a major succession crisis. It is very likely that once Nazarbayev exits politics, Russia will attempt to influence the succession process for its own benefit, much like it did when it lent support to Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. If Nazarbayev’s successor turns out not to be to Moscow’s liking, then another hybrid conflict involving Kazakhstan’s regionally concentrated Russian minority becomes a distinct possibility.

Will be continued.

Editorial Policy: The contents of issues of MAKING SENSE are the sole responsibility of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sen Foundation. The director will select submitted contributions mainly on their added value for current debates, quality of reasoning and clarity of expression. Ilia Barboutev opens the series and will assist in collecting and editing other contributions. Advanced researchers and students are invited to present conclusions of their research which are relevant for public policy or contribute reflections on important policy questions. Submissions should not exceed 600 words. MAKING SENSE will be issued at least once a month and more frequently if the occasion arises.