Russian propaganda, going back to czarist and Soviet times, often claims that Western powers are encircling Russia, forcing Moscow to be belligerent against its wishes. Russia is the perennial victim of aggressive foreign powers trying to keep Moscow locked in the steppes and, in the worst case, to install themselves in the Kremlin. Undoubtedly, Russia has been invaded repeatedly in the past: Mongol hordes, Napoleon, and Hitler all tried to extend their power over it. But now claims of a potential repetition of such invasions by Russia’s Western neighbors ring hollow. Neither Europe nor the United States has any interest in controlling Russian lands. On the contrary, it is Russia that has managed to extend its reach along a front from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and is projecting power to the Arctic and the Atlantic. Europe is being encircled by Russia — not the other way around.
Russia asserts that it is under siege by the West. Western antagonism, the argument goes, is evident in NATO’s addition of new members, including the latest one, Montenegro, which joined in 2017; in the U.S. and EU support for various “color revolutions” that erupted across a belt of countries from Ukraine to North Africa and the Middle East; and in the U.S.-led wars in the Middle East. In a 2019 speech, General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff, accused the United States of conducting a “policy of expanding the system of military presence directly at Russia’s borders.” Such a Western policy of encirclement supposedly forces Moscow to lash out to defeat the “Trojan horse” of “color revolutions” and the various military offensives allegedly targeting Russia.
The claim of encirclement serves well to justify Putin’s neo-imperial policies. Russia’s wars in Georgia (in 2008) and in Ukraine (ongoing since 2014), its support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the various forms of political warfare it carries out in Europe and the United States are considered responses to a consistent Western offensive. In brief, Western powers, led by the U.S., are reawakening a sense of deep insecurity in Russia, perennially fearful of another Mongol invasion from the east or of a new Napoleon or Hitler penetrating deep into Muscovite lands from the west. These claims are repeated by those in the West who are opposed to NATO enlargement, to an American engagement in Central Europe or involvement in the wider Middle East, or to any policy that seeks to impose costs on Russian misbehavior. From this point of view, Russia is aggressive because we made her so.
The geopolitical map, however, tells a different story. Not only is the argument that Russia is being encircled deeply flawed and factually incorrect (starting from the misconception of NATO as an offensive alliance), but it also completely misses the main developments of the past few years.
Along Europe’s eastern frontier, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Russia has a sizeable military presence and has demonstrated its willingness to invade and control territories (e.g., South Ossetia in Georgia; Crimea and eastern Ukraine). It has entrenched itself in Syria in order to buttress Assad, returning to a position of influence in the Middle East that it has not held since the late 1970s. It has developed a partnership of sorts with Erdogan’s Turkey, convincing it to buy S-400 air-defense systems and thereby making that country an ever less reliable U.S. ally. It has built or upgraded seven military bases in the Arctic region, gaining control of one of the key shipping arteries between Europe and Asia, estimated to be 40 percent faster than shipping through the Suez Canal. In a surprising show of force in late 2019, Russia surged ten submarines into the North Atlantic, demonstrating a capability that had been dormant since the late Cold War. And in recent months it has increased its engagement in the messy war in Libya, becoming a key player in direct competition with Turkey in the political dynamics of this Mediterranean area.
The effect of these Russian actions is that Europe is now facing a consistent pressure along a crescent that goes from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, combined with a latent military threat from the North Atlantic and the Arctic. In itself, the existence of an unstable outer zone on the margins of the European Union and NATO is not new. The wars in the Middle East and North Africa and the fragility of the states located between NATO (and the EU) and Russia have multiple long-term causes, and those domestic and regional dynamics are distinct from one another and unfolding with their own tempos and rationales. The war in Libya, for example, has its own causes and developments, which are different from those of, for example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the conflict in Syria.
Over the past few years, however, Russia’s interventions in these regions have imparted a geopolitical cohesion to what previously had been separate zones of instability. Russia is now a central player along the length of this volatile frontier. European security is increasingly at the mercy of Russia, and not just along the tense but geographically limited Central European frontier that historically separated the core of Europe from Moscow’s westward imperial aspirations.
This is an enormous success for Moscow, for which the Obama administration, eager to “reset” relations with Russia and to charm this revanchist power into a progressive community of “responsible nations,” bears much blame. In Ukraine, the Obama administration refused to counter the Russian invasion and did not provide lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainian army. In Syria, Obama never enforced the “red line” crossed multiple times by Assad, who used chemical weapons against his own population as Washington demonstrated unwillingness to oppose him and his Iranian and Russian supporters. In Libya, the U.S. infamously “led from behind,” a euphemistic catchphrase for the abdication of American leadership. And, more broadly, encouraging the Arab Spring without the determination to manage its outcomes created an image of the U.S. as a reckless agent of upheaval. Russia then could offer its services to the embattled authoritarian regimes, for instance in Syria, to restore order and maintain continuity. The unexpected but now real outcome is the geopolitical encirclement of Europe by Russia.
Russia can now exercise some influence over the flow of migrants from Syria and North Africa (through Libya), exacerbating at will a problem that has bedeviled European political leaders over the past several years. By abetting further violence by the Assad regime, for instance, Russia contributes to pushing thousands of people out of Syria, giving it the power to blackmail Europe in a tactic similarly adopted by Turkey. The approach is brutally simple: Threaten to flood Europe with migrants (through Greece for those coming from Syria, through Italy for those coming from Libya) to obtain some benefit such as money (as Turkey does) or economic and political alignment (as Russia seems to want) in exchange for keeping European borders sealed. Given the demographic pressures from sub-Saharan Africa, the state that has the ability to control the population flow into Europe wields long-term influence over the security and the domestic politics of much of the European continent. Russia has positioned itself to be that power while simultaneously keeping military pressure on Europe’s eastern frontier. In Ukraine, Russia continues to wage war and occupy Crimea. And Russian military exercises regularly train for offensive actions against Moscow’s European neighbors.
To deal with such a geopolitical encirclement, European states are adopting increasingly separate policies. Never short of big ideas, President Macron of France is leading the charge to open the doors to Putin and “normalize relations.” More business-like, Germany is trying to have it both ways, keeping energy deals with Moscow alive while not wanting to follow the openly pro-Russian approach of the French. Italy, the country most immediately affected by Russia’s foray into Libya, from which most of its migrants arrive, is deeply unhappy with the other two European powers, and with France in particular because Paris together with Moscow supports the opposing side in the Libyan war while Italy and Turkey are behind the U.N.-approved government. In the end, however, Italy, more interested in stopping the flow of migrants than in competing for natural resources in Libya, is likely to support a soft approach toward Russia. The Central European EU and NATO members are at best perplexed and at worst deeply worried by their Western allies’ friendly overtures toward Russia. And this is just one aspect, centered on Russia, of the various intra-European rifts.
There are no European solutions to these growing divisions. The European Union is a complex but fragile and inefficient political construction that, in a geopolitical competition with a risk-taking imperial Russia seeking to expand its influence over the European continent, is incapable of achieving strategic coherence among its members. It has no meaningful answer to Russia’s presence in Libya, in Syria, or in the eastern Mediterranean, to Russian occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, or to Moscow’s diplomacy attracting European leaders with promises of peace and stability and economic engagement. There are of course renewed attempts to energize an EU security policy with various initiatives (such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation on defense, the European Defense Fund, and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense) aimed at increasing intra-EU military cooperation and development. But these efforts often give the impression that the EU is seeking “strategic autonomy” from the United States rather than addressing the security threats around its frontiers.
Moreover, no matter how many new coordinating efforts are launched by the EU or even NATO, the hard truth is that only a few European states are willing to take security seriously, devoting the necessary resources and mustering the national will to compete with Russia. The military capabilities of most European states remain atrophied. The fear that stronger European states would be a threat to Russia, exacerbating an already tense relationship, is misplaced. A militarily powerful Estonia or Poland will not invade Russia, and a sizeable European military contingent in the wider Mediterranean basin has no means of threatening Moscow. More broadly, the purpose of larger European military capabilities would not be to counter Russian forces directly in every location in which they are present, but rather to be able to stabilize North Africa and parts of the Middle East while enhancing deterrence on Europe’s eastern frontier. By doing so, Europe could remove some of the opportunities that Russia used to insert itself into a belt of weak and divided states.
A strong, coherent Europe, even if suffused with anti-American sentiment, would be preferable to the current situation of a weak Europe appeasing Russia and allowing Chinese economic penetration. The former could conceivably maintain repose on the Continent and prevent further Russian encirclement. A Europe that protects itself and radiates stability would be a welcome geopolitical development. But there are no signs that this will happen. Europe cannot find strategic unity from within. The EU-driven push toward “strategic autonomy” derives less from a shared threat assessment than from an aversion to the United States as the protector of the West, combined with a particular disdain toward the Trump administration.
Rather than uniting Europe, Russia’s encircling embrace of the Continent is dividing it. In fact, Europe will become progressively more divided between nations that seek an accommodation with Russia (e.g., France) and those that seek to stop its enveloping expansionism (e.g., Poland, the Baltic states). The threat assessment will vary among countries depending on their proximity to Russia and therefore on their vulnerability to a Russian military attack, on their dependence on Russian energy supplies, or on their reliance on the Russian ability to stem the flow of migrants. Some European countries will choose to oppose and deter Russia to protect their political sovereignty and territorial integrity. Others will see Russia as a benefactor, a supplier of needed natural resources or of stability in North Africa and the Middle East. This is not a prediction of a future scenario but a description of the current landscape. There is not, and will not be, a unified European political will to impose costs on Russia and to develop a coherent strategy to deter further Russian expansion.
Such a situation creates a great leadership opportunity for the United States. Because Europe and its institutions cannot resolve the deep divisions on the Continent, the ability of the United States to shape European dynamics will only increase, if it chooses to exercise that ability. The only power capable of slowing the ongoing Russian encirclement of Europe is the U.S., in part through its leadership in NATO but in part on its own with a select group of interested allies. The United States can therefore limit some of the intra-European divisions by removing the source of insecurity, mitigating the effects of the geopolitical encirclement of Europe by Russia. This is the logic that characterized much of the transatlantic dynamics of the last century: U.S.-led protection allowed Europe to be confident and united. There is nothing to indicate that conditions have dramatically changed and that therefore this logic has become obsolete.
Over the past few years, the U.S. has become more focused on China as its principal great-power competitor while losing interest in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. Whether such a reorientation leading to a withdrawal from the Middle East is wise remains to be seen, but for now this China-first trend is the reality. Therefore, the most likely outcome in the near future is that the U.S. will end up strengthening its relationship with the European allies that are willing to compete with Russia and China, creating different layers in the Western alliance. Some European allies, if they choose to join the U.S. in this larger geopolitical rivalry, will simply become closer American allies than others. In other words, the U.S. cannot rely on a “Western alliance” but must rely on particular Western allies that will underpin the security and stability of the Continent.
The United States is not withdrawing from Europe, and in fact, despite resurgent isolationist voices, there is no plan for it to do so. On the contrary, the current American administration is actively competing with the powers hostile to the West and is leading efforts to hinder Russian enveloping moves around Europe, from Syria to the North Atlantic. A Europe, and a wider Atlantic region, that is free from domination and influence by a hostile power is a security necessity for the United States, and this principle is deeply ingrained in American grand strategy. But European states that are weak, lack confidence, and ultimately acquiesce to their continental encirclement by Russia will not hold the attention of every future U.S. administration. What is strategically necessary may become politically untenable for a U.S. president. And the Russian lines ringing Europe will become more pronounced and lasting, bestowing on the occupants of the Kremlin an enormous influence over the Continent.
Ultimately, motivated by its aspiration to be the main shaper of European politics, Moscow will not stop on its own in its effort to encircle Europe. European states will have to make a choice. They can either be at the mercy of a weak but aggressive Russia or they can oppose Moscow’s push to encircle Europe. The former option will be the fulfillment of the current grandiose EU rhetoric advocating “strategic autonomy” and of the policy pursued by key European capitals to placate Russia. The latter option — to counterbalance Russian power — will require a much closer relationship with the U.S. and at least a pause in the insistence of many European leaders that Washington is a threat comparable to that presented by Moscow and Beijing.