The Future of NATO, Propaganda and Cyber Security
This year’s “Future of Freedom” annual consultation was all about security. The meeting was held in a region that has not been safe from aggression and war since 2014: Eastern Ukraine.
“Do you also organise sports events for kids?” “What do you mean kids, those are our soldiers.” We are looking at a picture of young men who are proudly posing after a competition. This picture, alongside a number of sports trophies, adorns the makeshift training facility of a Ukrainian paratrooper brigade. They are stationed in a former hospital, not far from the “line of contact”, the actual border of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The men explain that, as they moved into the building in the winter, there was no heating. The soldiers installed stoves and chimneys themselves and fitted the rooms with the bare essentials. The conditions still remain rather spartan. When the first sum of money from the government in Kiev came through, they bought gym equipment – because it is all down to their performance.
The “line of contact” is only 30 kilometres away, and the “truce” that has been in force since February 2015 is broken up to 80 times a day. “What if the Russians advance again and take Mariupol?”, a visitor asks, having in mind a land corridor between Russia and Crimea. “That won’t happen,” retorts the determined commander, though it sounds more like an order.
The visit to the paratroopers is one of the encounters that have made the participants in this year’s Future of Freedom consultation – liberal politicians and experts from 19 European countries – acutely aware of the realities of security challenges on their continent. They have also found out how a small TV station, Hromadske TV Donbas, combats propaganda and misinformation, or how dedicated humanitarian workers and the local authorities meet the challenges of the war. To hear peoples views attentively at a place where the dilemma of European security policies crystallise: hardly anything could be more thought-provoking for a discussion on NATO and other security alliances, hybrid warfare and propaganda or cyber warfare – and, at the end of the day, the revisionist aggressive policies adopted by the Kremlin since Vladimir Putin took over as Boris Yeltsin’s successor at the beginning of 2000.
“A new security policy for Eastern Europe?” is a central question at the conference, for which the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom has invited participants to Kharkiv, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. There is such a diversity of opinion among security experts, the military and politicians, as well as in the outlooks of the nations from Southeast Europe, Georgia, all the way to Estonia, but four highlights invariably emerge in the discussions:
Firstly, Russia is not understood enough. There is “little understanding, though a lot of misconception” of the big neighbour across Europe, concludes Falk Bomsdorf, former project director at the Foundation for Freedom in Moscow. A marked tendency to always find excuses for Russia’s foreign policy would give rise to an unholy alliance with insufficient awareness of the rest of Eastern Europe. Although there have been clear warning signs , as Taavi Roivas, former Prime Minister of Estonia, reminds us: Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, or the 2008 war in Georgia. However, the eyes of the Europeans were actually opened only by the annexation of Crimea and the military intervention in the Donbas region in 2014. While it was positive that Europe has reached greater unity on the matter, it was also extremely important to unequivocally counteract the aggression and not to ease sanctions. Andreas Umland called for an EU list of sanctions which envisages what measures are to be taken in the case of fresh escalations.
Some of the misconceptions in European politics and coverage stem from German chancellor Merkel’s comment at the security conference in Munich that there can be no military solution to the Ukrainian conflict. And yet, according to Anatoliy Grytsenko, leader of the Ukrainian Civic Position Party, Russia’s military “solution” is plain to see on a daily basis in Eastern Ukraine. At least call the aggressor an aggressor – that, in the opinion of the conference participants, would be a prerequisite for a faithful analysis. “Before we are in a position to refer to Russia as an aggressor against Ukraine, against Georgia, or against other NATO member states, we won’t be in a position to bring the situation under our control, and we won’t be able to defend our societies and citizens,” points out former Bulgarian defence minister Velizar Shalamanov.
Secondly, there is a common threat. While people in Germany are mesmerised by any potential Russian meddling ahead of the parliamentary election and ideally are aware of similar attempts in France and in the USA, there are serious attempts on the part of the Kremlin at intervening in Bulgaria, constant military provocations in the Baltic region and, last but not least, a perpetuation of the “frozen conflicts” which have been destabilising Georgia and Moldova for many years. Barely perceptible when looked at individually, the pieces of the puzzle of Russian involvement appear rather unwholesome when one looks at the bigger picture. ALDE’s vice president Henrik Bach Mortensen highlights what this means for all of Europe: “It’s not about protecting a couple of civilians on a piece of land. It’s about protecting our open societies and liberal values.” Not only the Ukrainians considered it important that in this respect the eastern neighbours of NATO and the EU are to be clearly included. “Europe cannot live in peace and prosperity, while Ukraine is unable to control its territory”, says Taavi Roivas.
Thirdly, the future of NATO depends on an adequate response to the challenges posed by Russia’s current policy. The role and the actions required of the Transatlantic Alliance are controversial topics among the experts. Is NATO adequately armed in case there is a military provocation on its eastern border similar to the one in the Donbas? To what extent will it stand by its commitment when it comes to its eastern member states? Should membership be offered to Ukraine and Georgia despite the unresolved conflicts on their territory? Or should we at least seek closer cooperation in the form of a special “Partnership Plus”? What alternative scenarios and security alliances are conceivable in relation to the security of Eastern Europe?
Dennis Gratz, a member of parliament from the strictly non-nationalist liberal party Naša Stranka in Bosnia and Herzegovina, notes that the role of the military is not always understood in the same way in our societies. Srecko Latal from the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network BIRN reminds us of the ever increasing tensions in the Balkans, where EU enlargement has proved to be a more significant force of stability than NATO; however, the EU is apparently not sufficiently committed anymore. All speakers agree that a quick and effective decision-making mechanism is needed in cases of aggression, and that a failure in such cases would call into question the NATO alliance itself. And how about the Trump factor? Bartlomiej Nowak, foreign-policy secretary of Poland’s Nowoczesna Party, sums up the changing transatlantic conditions: “We are currently very far from being able to seriously deter the Kremlin. And the price would be very high should we fail. It might be necessary for Europe to take action without US approval.”
Fourthly, we face enormous new challenges in terms of propaganda, fake news and cyber security. Pavel Felgenhauer, security commentator for Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta and Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, sums up the problem as “plausible deniability”, i.e. the difficulty associated with the opponent simultaneously attacking and not attacking, acting and denying.
The debate always returns to the Minsk II agreement, which – as signed in February 2015 by representatives of the OSCE, Ukraine and Russia, as well as the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” – was supposed to pave the way to a peaceful solution and whose implementation is repeatedly demanded by Europe. The conference offers the opportunity to understand in detail why the agreement in the meantime only serves to maintain the situation of conflict pursued by Russia. “When a number of doctors gather by the bedside of a patient and all of them collectively give a false diagnosis, then the treatment won’t be the right one either”, says Anatoliy Grytsenko. It is hard to explain, at least to the ordinary citizens, soldiers and aid workers immediately affected by the war along the “line of contact”, why Europe’s politicians have failed to come up with the right diagnosis.
So, is “a new security policy for Eastern Europe” viable? The conference participants say yes to a policy that is prepared and ready to protect our free and open society. Yes to a policy resting on a clear and faithful analysis of the situation on the ground. But no to any separate security policy specifically for Eastern Europe, rather than having a shared security and defence policy for all of Europe.
For more photos from the consultation, focusing on the panel discussions and subsequent debates, please visit the Facebook album below:
For more photos from the field visits, please visit the Facebook album below: