Amanda Paul. Screengrab from Youtube video of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Baku
On April 20-21 Tbilisi hosted the fourth South Caucasus Security Forum, an international conference bringing together security experts to discuss issues including American and European foreign policy, security in South Caucasus and the Black Sea region, Russian revisionism, and information security.
Civil.ge spoke about the regional security issues to Amanda Paul – a geopolitical and foreign policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, who was one of the Forum’s panelists.
Civil.ge: President Trump recently said that NATO was no more obsolete. But when justifying the point he spoke about how NATO finally awoke to the terrorist threat. He said nothing about Russia or Eastern Europe. In your opinion, shall we see, at some point during the Trump administration, a determined policy to contain Russia’s aggressive actions in Eastern Europe, including the Black Sea region?
Amanda Paul: I think, it is actually too early to give a clear answer on that. A lot would depend on what the Russians actually do next, if they do anything, in Eastern Europe, the Black Sea region. Obviously, it is too late for the Trump administration to react on what has already happened in Georgia and Ukraine. So, I guess Russia would have to carry out another severe activity in the region, for example a significant renewal of fighting in the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine – more than the sporadic fighting that has been going on recently – that would result in a lot of bloodshed, or some sort of confrontation in the Black Sea region. Because frankly speaking, NATO, the US, the EU – they are all on the back foot when it comes to the Black Sea, because the Russians have been busy, they are building up their security architecture in a very serious way, for a long time. And it is almost now that we are waking up to it – in the last one year, or so.
Q: The NATO Warsaw Summit Communiqué expresses concern, quite directly, about the Russian military build-up in the Black Sea region, among other things. And we know about establishment of the Multinational Division Southeast HQ in Romania. Do you think that, at this point, the Alliance is doing enough to counter this challenge from Russia in the Black Sea region?
A: I think that Russians are in a better position, simply because it is one man who decides – and they can do it. With the case of NATO, the Warsaw Summit conclusions were important, but it does take time to implement these things, and sometimes that can be painfully slow. Unfortunately, that is how multilateral organizations work. But I think there has been a significant shift of approach, because up until that point the NATO was very much resting on its laurels – lack of investment into NATO from most of the member states, et cetera, which are well-known facts. It is difficult to say when they will speed up the agenda, but ultimately, if they put the political will into what they have actually promised to deliver, they are going to have a much stronger position than the Russians, because NATO as an organization is clearly much stronger in terms of its military capacity. The only difference is that the Russians are ready to use force whenever they feel it necessary. NATO is not.
Q: How do you assess the appreciation in the Western expert circles and among policy makers of the threat from Russia that Georgia continues to be facing, including both Russian military posture in the Caucasus region which remains threatening for Georgia, and the constant covert activities including massive propaganda campaign within the country?
A: I think they are recognizing and appreciating it more and more. Let’s remember that the Russians have built integrated security structure that goes across the Black Sea, to the Caspian Sea, and down to Syria. I mean, it is quite an impressive arrangement – what they have done. And then, when you add to that their traditional military position in Georgia’s occupied territories, the very comfortable position they have in Armenia, and then you get into all their hybrid activities and propaganda activities – I mean, the Russians have a suitcase full of hard and soft tools – I do think that it is recognized more, but I also think that still there is a bit of complacency, thinking: “well, the Russians have got no reasons to have another stab at Georgia for this time.” We should not be complacent, we should be proactive, much more proactive in terms of helping Georgia achieve its security goals, resolving the protracted conflicts.
Q: How do you assess the same expert and policy-making community in the West looking at the possibility in the middle term, one to three years, of Russia escalating its military activities against Ukraine?
A: I think in the expert community it is recognized that it is possible. The Russians can re-heat up the conflict in the Donbass, they could do something else. When you look at policy-makers, it is a different story. There seems to be an impression across the board that the Russians are unlikely to do that because they do not want to have increased sanctions placed on them, because they are paying already for the sanctions, because they would have nothing to gain from doing it, et cetera. But I do not think we should ever underestimate the capacity of President Putin… I do not want to be a conspiracy theorist here, but the Russians are ready to do whatever it takes to achieve strategic goals. Because in the end of the day, they view this whole region as a necessary buffer, or as a beachhead for their own security. This is being the position of Russia through hundreds of years. It was a position of the leaders of Russia before President Putin came to office and it will maintain that way. So we should not underestimate, ever, the Kremlin.
Q: In this latest political reality that has been formed inside Turkey, how much do you think Turkey is going to be engaged with NATO as an alliance, specifically on the Black Sea security issues, first of all regarding Russia?
A: Turkey has been a strong NATO ally for decades, but the situation in Turkey these days – let’s say, is quite difficult. Following the attempted coup, and then the purge of the military, the Turkish military is not as strong as it once was. It is going to take time to rebuild the military. But I do think that for Turkey’s national security, keeping the Black Sea let’s say a neutral place, not dominated by the Russians, is of crucial importance. Whether Turkey is in a position to defend its interests in the Black Sea as strongly as it would like to under normal circumstances, remains to be seen for the moment. Because I do believe that to a certain degree the Russians have subordinated Turkey in the Black Sea region.
Q: Would you say that latest Russian actions to influence domestic politics of the Western nations resemble the traditional Russian policy of intervention into internal political affairs of their neighbors, of countries like Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and other post-Soviet states – not military actions, but covert political infiltration, which has been going on all these years since the collapse of the Soviet Union?
A: Yes, I think they go hand in hand. I do not doubt that the Russian Federation, the Kremlin, would like to see the disintegration of the EU. Obviously, they were very happy when President Trump came to office, believing that he would change the US line on Russia. That has not happened. But they are still engaged in trying to erode unity among different EU member states. And of course they have the tools to try and do that in different member states – supporting different parliamentary groups through newspapers, through academia, through think tanks, et cetera. So the Russians are always looking for gaps and spaces to get into. They are looking for areas where they can divide the EU. So, I think it is a continuation of what they are trying to do in the Eastern Europe – they are following this also in the EU member states.