By Robbin Laird
I have had the opportunity over the years to visit what I refer as the defense arc from the UK through the Nordics to the Balts to Poland. The CEO of Risk Intelligence, Hans Tino Hansen, has been a key guide to thinking through the process of change in defense and security affecting Northern Europe over the past decade and a half.
On February 8, 2022, I had a chance to discuss with him what he sees as the view from the Nordic side of the current Ukraine crisis and its implications.
Question: How does the current Ukraine crisis fit into the evolving history of European direct defense?
Hans Tino Hansen: “With the preoccupation with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the West has in a certain sense had its head in the sand and developed a geopolitical blindness with regard to European geopolitics. Putin has not. And he has been working his approach to determine who in the West is willing to do what in meeting his ongoing demands.
“He proposed several demands which he knew – as a self-fulfilling prophecy – the West could not accept. But what he is observing is that the European states along with the United States and Canada are laying out their real red lines. The Western written response to his demands stated very clearly in paragraph 12 of the reply that NATO would act to defend any NATO member. This means from Putin’s perspective, that NATO states would not directly defend Ukraine.”
Question: Let me pick up on your point about geopolitics. I think it is safe to say that for many in the United States policy community, with globalization and a focus on climate change, geopolitics seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Both President XI and Putin are refocusing attention, but we seem to have very different perspectives coming from modern Europe and the Biden Administration about what this crisis is about compared to what Putin thinks it is about.
What is your take on the apparent disconnect?
Hans Tino Hansen: “It is if the two sides are playing the well-known strategic game, Risk. But the two sides are using different playbooks.
“For Putin, a key objective is to reinforce his position that the West is the aggressor and will not meet his “legitimate” demands about creating a buffer zone between the West and Russia.”
Question: Indeed, in both the Russian military doctrine statement issued in July of 2021 or Putin’s presentation last fall to the Valdai Discussion Club Meeting 2021, it is clear that his position is that Russia is in a state of permanent war with the West, and to use Putin’s words, the inferiority of the West is proven by the simple fact that there is a debate in the West about who is man and who is woman. We are talking about big cultural gaps, and those gaps are also replicated within divisions in the West as well.
Is this not just the next phase in Putin’s approach to determine who is friends and committed enemies in the West really are?
Hans Tino Hansen: “For Putin, this is a fight about long-term survival of the current Kremlin leadership, which makes it all the more dangerous. To him, it is legitimate to use virtually all means to achieve his objectives. For Western publics and leaders, this appears so old fashioned and antiquated, but not to a number of former Warsaw Pact states who see the Russian threat as very real indeed.
“I think for states who take the defense threat seriously, and certainly Nordic states increasingly do so, there is a recognition that some of the lessons learned in the Cold War need to be applied again but in the new context. It is not so much history repeating itself but the need to remember and relearn what is relevant from that history and applying to a new technological and cultural context. But it most certainly is about geopolitical conflict.
“We have cleaned the chalk board of the realities we faced militarily in the Cold War. There was nothing left of the knowledge and experience from the Cold War, and nothing left about geopolitical analysis and understanding of geopolitical threat. After the 30 years of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the military sent to distant realms.
“The direct defense of Europe in a modern geopolitical context has simply disappeared as a core subject of analysis and focus of attention for the general public and its politicians.”
Question: What now the response within Europe going forward?
Hans Tino Hansen: “The closer you are geographically to Russia the more focused you are on a direct threat, so for Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania or for Norway the Russian challenge is not ever far from sight. For a state like Germany, energy, inflation or climate change is more pressing than a Russian take-over of Belarus for example.
“For us it cannot be.
“The Russian de facto swallowing of Belarus connected to their ramped-up presence in Kaliningrad poses a direct threat to the Nordics, the Balts and the Poles. Kaliningrad, while on one side a military stronghold, it also puts Russia into a more vulnerable position than many realized, and one response to this crisis could well be significantly enhanced cooperation among those states who take the threat seriously.
“But with regard to Germany, with what I call the “Schröder-Merkel trap” their leaders have tied Germany tightly into the Russian spider’s web and significantly reduced their freedom of maneuver in political, energy and military terms.”
Question: Macron has recently visited Moscow to negotiate with Putin? What is the view from the Nordic region of such actions?
Hans Tino Hansen: “Who is Macron representing? Although France currently heads the EU, it is not clear in the media that he is representing the EU. Given he has declared NATO as “brain dead”, we hope he does not think he is representing NATO and he may be representing France, so it is unfortunately unclear.
“For the Northern European states, NATO is critical and the role of U.S. and the UK, in particular. Even the states who are not formally part of NATO see NATO as crucial, and they have ramped up their cooperation since 2014 with the organization.
“So returning to Macron, the Prime Minister’s in Northern Europe do not have Macron on the top of their call list although especially Denmark has been building military cooperation with France over the recent years.
“And looking forward, there will be greater cooperation in our region on defense matters. And we have some significant equipment in common which will allow us to do that, notably the F-35 will be flown by Poland and Finland, along with Denmark on the way and Norway is already doing so.
“This will not be limited to F-35 for new submarines and surface ships will come online in common as well over the next decade.
“Putin has done more to ramp up the common defense in Northern Europe and between the Nordic countries and the Poles and Balts than any NATO meeting could have.”