The Finlandization of Germany

8 May 2014


Europe is criss-crossed by natural gas pipelines, but most of the supply comes from Russia, and flows west into Western Europe.

Europe is criss-crossed by natural gas pipelines, but most of the supply comes from Russia, and flows west into Western Europe.

In my previous post on the violence in Ukraine, The Finlandization of Ukraine?, I discussed Zbigniew Brzezinski’s call for the Finlandization of Ukraine as a way to deescalate the political situation and to arrive at some kind of diplomatic understanding that would leave Ukraine intact.

Strange though it may sound, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s hope for Ukrainian Finlandization was not all that different from Sergei Lavrov’s call for a “neutral and federal” Ukraine. Realistically, whether formulated in Brzezinski’s terms or Lavrov’s terms, the only way to prevent Ukraine from being dismembered and retaining its unity as a nation-state is to allow a great deal of autonomy so that the southern and eastern portions of the country could cultivate ties with Russia while the northern and western portions of the country could cultivate ties with Europe, while the Government in Kiev would have to step gingerly so as to avoid offending Moscow. The possibility of this solution is now probably close to nil, since the rising violence has disillusioned everyone and reduced what little trust there may have been between Russian-sympathizing Ukrainians and European-sympathizing Ukrainians.

What we are seeing is not the Finlandization of Ukraine that Zbigniew Brzezinski hoped to see, because he hoped to see Ukraine remain intact; what we are seeing is not the loose federalism that Lavrov suggested would have been acceptable to Moscow; what we are seeing is the de facto division of Ukraine between regions of majority Ukrainian speakers who look toward closer relations with western Europe and majority Russian speaking regions in which the people look toward their cultural and ethnic ties with Russia. Whether the partition of Ukraine remains de facto or is eventually formalized de jure as the two halves go their separate ways, there is little that can be done in the present climate to avoid partition (which, as I argued in The Finlandization of Ukraine?, is not the disaster it is made out to be).

For all practical purposes, then, Ukraine will be partitioned. But Finlandization is still relevant to the discussion, because the unwillingness of European governments to take a strong stand against Russia — they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk — reveals that those nation-states that will not be partitioned as a result of Russia’s resurgence many be forced into conciliating the Russian steamroller — i.e., Europe itself already finds itself forced into a gradual Finlandization as it scurries to show its support for Ukraine while not taking any action that would result in Russian using its fossil fuel levers to make Europe pay a real price for “supporting” Ukraine.

Europeans have been found to be quite idealistic when it comes to the criticism of US involvement in regional wars, but Europe is markedly less idealistic when it comes to issues that potentially can inflict direct damage upon the European economy — like supporting Ukraine materially in a way that would negatively impact Russia. Germany has the largest economy in the European Union, so it has the most to lose in any economic war that might come out of escalating sanctions between Russia and the European Union over Ukraine. Germany imports about 35 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and this is already setting the stage for political conflict. (Cf. Debate on Russian energy imports strains German coalition)

Russia has a long history of using its fossil fuel supplies as a political tool, and it has not hesitated to do the same in the present conflict over Ukraine. Ukraine, through which 15 percent of European gas transits, has been put on notice by Gazprom that as of June 01 Gazprom will only deliver pre-paid natural gas to Ukraine, which Gazprom is contractually entitled to demand because Ukraine is late paying for its gas. Gazprom has already raised the price of natural gas from $268.50 per thousand cubic meters to $485.50 — almost double. (cf. Moscow ups stakes in gas dispute by Jack Farchy in Moscow and Roman Olearchyk in Kiev)

Although the western press has contended to see who can be the most vociferous in the condemnation of Putin for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Putin is not doing anything surprising or unprecedented, as I attempted to explain in The Putin Doctrine. Putin has opportunistically expanded Russia’s influence in Eurasia, but he has not attempted to exert control on the ground in any region where the population is hostile to Russia. In other words, and despite the near-hysteria in the press, we aren’t going to see a Russian invasion of the Baltic states or Poland. These peoples have made it clear that they do not want to be part of Russia, and under contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection, it would be nearly impossible for Russia to establish a security regime in these regions. Similarly, it would be nearly impossible for Russia to establish a security regime in the northwest of Ukraine where the people are unsympathetic to Russia. But southern and Eastern Ukraine are another matter entirely. Where the Russians can use a sympathetic population as a foot in the door for geopolitical expansionism — whether in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Crimea — Russia will do so.

In the above paragraph I wrote of, “contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection.” What do I mean by this? What I mean is the particular nature and level of intensity of force projection that is accepted in the current international system. This is not anything that has been formalized in a treaty — there are treaties that address this, but they are without real teeth — but an unspoken convention that has emerged from the sociopolitical developments since the end of the Second World War. …

This long and slow development of a de facto set of conventions limiting force projection was one of the parallel threads of the Cold War that was simply not noticed because it was mired in the Cold War dyad, but the anti-colonial struggles under the dyad of superpower competition set the stage for this development, and once the Cold War ended this thread could become a dominant narrative (even if unrecognized as such) in the post-Cold War world. The unspoken convention to limit the use of force both reinforces and is enforced by the devolution of war as this developed from the global Cold War competition to countless local struggles, each unique rooted in the history of the region, and having little or no connection to a global narrative.

There are several contributing factors that have led to the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection. One of these factors has been the revolutionary, anti-colonial, and asymmetrical conflicts waged since the end of the Second World War. Asymmetrical conflicts in which poorly equipped, poorly funded guerrilla forces have humiliated much larger and better equipped forces has been the “proof of concept” of asymmetrical efficacy. Peoples all over the world, by reading the news and watching television, have been made pervasively aware that a guerrilla force that can move among a people like fish in the sea (as Mao put it), can exact unacceptably high costs on traditional military forces, especially when these forces attempt to occupy any geography with a hostile population.

In order to establish a security regime on the ground, any occupying force needs the cooperation of at least the majority of the peoples who live in the region, and even, given the ability of an armed minority to exercise a “violence veto” on any peace settlement, in some cases a robust consensus is required. Peoples have to accept the need for order and stability. If the majority of the population rejects the authority of a political power that seeks to establish a security regime on the ground by projecting force into a geographical region, it is nearly impossible to assert political authority in the region with the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection.

The level of direct physical force that is necessary to establish order and stability among a population that rejects the force seeking to impose order and stability would exceed the threshold of atrocity, meaning that the world’s attention would be fixed on the particular conflict, and the fact of the world’s attention being focused would change both the perception and the reality of the conflict, lowering the threshold of atrocity and making it all the more difficult to enforce a security regime on an unwilling people. The attempt to enforce order in the teeth of opposition and publicity is possible, but it would constitute a war of extermination, and wars of extermination are so far beyond the threshold of atrocity that even the most supine political regimes in the international system would be prodded into action.

Putin is not about to cross the threshold of atrocity, much less to pursue a war of extermination in southern or eastern Ukraine — or anywhere else. Russia will confine itself to the most civilized forms of economic warfare when it comes to its relations with Europe, and Europe will have to decide whether the conflict in Ukraine is, “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” or whether Europe is prepared to sacrifice on behalf of Ukraine.

In the unlikely event that Russia cuts off natural gas supplies to western Europe — and it is much more likely to reduce supplies, raise prices, and demand pre-payment, as it has done with Ukraine — the European economy would take a major hit. Probably the European Union economy would contract for several successive quarters, if not for several successive years (if, again, the unlikely event of Russia cutting off natural gas could be maintained year on year, which is even more unlikely). The European economy would not “collapse,” though it would have a few bad years. Efforts to shift to renewable resources would be accelerated, importation of Norwegian natural gas would increase, and other sources of fuel and opportunities for conservation would be found. All of this would be painful, but it would also ultimately be a stimulus to the economies of the Eurozone.

As noted above, the extreme scenario of a complete cutoff of Russian gas is unlikely, but it is survivable. Less extreme scenarios of raised prices and reduced supplies would also be painful for Europe, but less catastrophic in effect, and would give the European economies an opportunity to shift their procurement of energy supplies from Russia to other sources under less drastic conditions. But it is the fear of economic pain — economic contraction, recession, unemployment, budget deficits, social unrest — that is enough in itself to dissuade the Europeans, and especially the Germans, from taking a hard line with Putin’s Russia. Russia has already made this calculation, and who can fault them for making it? If the Europeans can be brought into line with the implicit threat of a few years of discomfort, this is a relatively cheap way for Russia to expand its geostrategic scope.

Even in this climate of avoiding confrontation with Russia, that is to say, in the climate of the Finlandization of Europe, we will see increased efforts in Europe to shift away from dependence upon Russian natural gas, but the more gradual and extended the transition, the more people are likely to forget the Ukrainian crisis and to once again look favorably upon Russian natural gas. The more that alternative supplies and sources are found, the price of Russian natural gas will drop as demand drops, and there will be a great temptation to become reliant of Russian natural gas once again. This is the virtue of a forced, rapid, and uncomfortable transition from dependence: the shift is decisive, and few are likely to forget the cause of it.

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Russian President Putin holds hand of German Chancellor Merkel.

Russian President Putin holds hand of German Chancellor Merkel.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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