It has been a couple of months since Alexander Lukashenko’s reckless regime in Belarus initiated a carefully calibrated assault on the eastern frontier of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) – and, of course, the European Union (EU). Minsk has ramped up the assault over the past week, an attack which started with an attempt to push migrants – flown in from the Middle East – over Belarus’ borders into Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Thousands of people are now stuck in the frigid forests of Belarus, with Lukashenko’s security forces wielding batons behind them.
Simultaneously, the Minsk regime threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe. Minsk is ‘weaponising’ migrants in an attempt to draw the European democracies to the negotiating table on its own terms, after the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, the United States (US) and EU imposed successive sanctions on Lukashenko’s gang. These sanctions were imposed in two waves: firstly, after Lukashenko squashed the Belarussian election in 2020 and, secondly, after he ordered his air force to intercept and hijack a commercial aeroplane carrying a suspected opposition figure earlier this year.
The resulting instability caused by the influx of migrants – a deliberate attempt to cause mayhem beyond the threshold for outright war – has led Lithuania, Latvia and Poland to declare a state of emergency. At the same time, the unfolding humanitarian tragedy undermines public trust in the authorities and polarises political opinion in the three countries, and beyond. Some feel compassion towards migrants, while others advocate for higher and stronger fences to protect the border.
Although Lukashenko may have initiated this crisis by himself, Russia’s kleptocracy has subsequently signalled its support by deploying strategic bombers and staging snap military drills in Belarus. In addition, the Kremlin has made further threats to Ukraine, a country which has faced, since 2014, dismemberment at the Kremlin’s hands and an ongoing low-grade offensive in its eastern territories – the Donbas and Luhansk. Just as Warsaw and the Baltic capitals monitor Russian activity in Belarus, Russia has built-up approximately 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, to the extent that the US has warned that Russia may be planning a new invasion.
Britain’s role in the defence of Europe
Of all the countries in Europe, the UK has once again taken the lead in supporting its NATO allies. Alongside Canada, Britain was the first country to implement sanctions against Lukashenko when he failed to step down after losing the Belarusian election. Now the UK is the first European power to send a team of military engineers to Poland’s border with Belarus to provide advice to the Polish authorities, a package carefully tailored to reassure but not escalate an already tense situation.
Already, the UK already provides more troops to more locations in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence than any other ally. It has also deployed more fighters to NATO’s Northern, Baltic and Black Sea air policing missions than any other ally, just as it has led the way in safeguarding freedom of navigation in the Black Sea with a persistent naval presence. Only this summer HMS Trent and HMS Defender visited the region, with the latter vessel humiliating the Kremlin when it steamed through waters off the coast of Russian occupied Crimea.
In reinforcing further its footprint in Eastern Europe, the UK is once again stepping up to act as Europe’s guarantor of last resort. Indeed, despite all the noise professing that Britain has relinquished its role in European security since the country’s decision to leave the EU in 2016, the UK has developed the most sophisticated and realistic approach towards European security – particularly Russia.
Meanwhile, France and Germany, whose interests and perspectives, due to their sheer power within the EU, are frequently projected as the EU’s own, have floundered under the peculiar fantasy that they can ‘normalise’ their relations with the Kremlin, and through so doing, also ‘normalise’ Russia itself. This logic has animated the geopolitical debacle otherwise known as Nord Stream II, just as it has led France and Germany to reach out to Russia’s regime in a forlorn attempt to forge a new consensus on European security.
The UK, on the other hand, has sought to contain the Kremlin – identified in Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s recent Integrated Review as a ‘direct’ and ‘acute’ threat to British interests, as well as to NATO and important partners in Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine.
A new British vision for Europe?
Although Britain has done more than any other European country to underpin the defence of Europe, HM Government now has the opportunity to go a step further and use its ‘aligning power’ to shape European geopolitics so that an open continental order prevails. As authoritarianism surges to Europe’s east, Britain ought to stand resolutely behind the principles of self-determination, democracy and openness. By fashioning these principles into a coherent and attractive vision for Europe during an age of intensifying geopolitical competition, Britain will be better placed to provide the leadership needed to uphold European security.
Such a vision may now be taking shape. Building on HM Government’s Integrated Review, Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary, recently emphasised that ‘Global Britain’ would stand behind a ‘network of liberty’. In a European context, she argued that the UK would prioritise relations with the three Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and the so-called ‘Visegrad Four’, namely Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary. These countries, she pointed out, sit at the ‘frontier of freedom’, from which she declared the ‘United Kingdom will not look away. We will stand with our allies in the region.’
Given the evolving threat to Europe from Russia, this makes sound geostrategic sense. Although the UK has already ‘aligned’ other European countries with the creation of new defence agreements – such as those with France and Poland – and new ‘plurilateral’ groupings such as the Joint Expeditionary Force, it has also remained heavily wedded to formal multilateralism, particularly through NATO and the EU. However, in an age of strategic competition, ‘plurilateral’ groupings may have greater utility given that they can be created quickly and have the potential to respond more rapidly. Moreover, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU opens up new opportunities for creative new arrangements which go beyond traditional allies, such as France and Germany, whose interests on key issues – from Russia to European integration – sometimes differ to the UK’s own.
Likewise, although NATO remains central to British geostrategic interests, the forming of new and complementary ‘plurilateral’ groupings could draw in important European countries which sit beyond NATO’s mutual defence guarantee. To use a mediaeval analogy, Ukraine, for example, has become the ‘gatehouse’ of Europe insofar as it stands against the Kremlin’s malicious activities. For Britain, the stronger the gatehouse is, the greater its ability to resist and keep aggressors out of the castle. As the UK steps up efforts to support Ukraine, London and Kyiv could orchestrate new defence arrangements – for example, a new trilateral grouping not unlike AUKUS could facilitate closer cooperation between the UK, Poland and Ukraine – which would strengthen Eastern Europe’s voice and potentially help pave the way for Ukrainian membership of NATO. Such a trilateral could also provide the vehicle for a coordinated naval presence in Eastern Europe’s maritime littorals and enhance the maritime resiliency of regional allies and partners.
Of course, as the Integrated Review makes clear, ‘Global Britain’ will be defined by ‘actions rather than words.’ The UK has already started to put in place mechanisms and forms of support to empower its European allies and partners. But an integrated British vision for Europe needs further development. This will help HM Government to demonstrate European leadership and to communicate British resolve to defend what is important: self-determination, democracy and an open international order. It will also help to signal that Britain is not stepping away from European security after Brexit and that it will remain deeply engaged.
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