The European Centre of Gravity is Shifting to the North-East

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By Federico Petroni

The Baltic and the Arctic are downgrading the Mediterranean. As a consequence of the aggression against Ukraine, the geopolitical centre of gravity of Europe is shifting to the north-east. Resources and attentions will be drained from the Mediterranean. This sea’s relative importance is diminishing, even if it retains an enormous wealth and incredible problems. 

Powerful forces are driving the shift towards the NATO-Russia border. The United States is more interested in propping up the North Atlantic than in entangling itself in the Mediterranean fray. The threat posed by Moscow is forcing Russia’s neighbours to keep their eyes fixed on land and sea borders. Heavyweights such as Britain, Germany, and Poland have to look after their domestic seas. Germany’s difficulties and Poland’s growth are triggering a competition between the two. Where Russia and NATO touch each other, several flashpoints are coming back into focus. The melting of the Arctic is forcing the Kremlin to move into the north, triggering Western countermeasures.

The danger of war and the certainty of being right over Russia give the countries facing the northern seas more weight in setting the priorities on European agendas. Or, at least, these factors prevent a convergence of the north-eastern quadrant centred on Poland and the western quadrant centred on the Franco-German axis. Italy no doubt needs NATO’s northern flank to be firm. However, because of these tensions, it will struggle to share the challenges on the southern flank with its partners. Meanwhile, Russia sees Italy as the alliance’s soft underbelly.

The Arctic-Baltic theatre

The Arctic and the Baltic count not as seas, but as the centre of two seaside systems – this is, the criterion of land as seen from the sea. One of these two systems runs from St. Petersburg to Great Britain and from the coast of Poland to Svalbard, encompassing the Baltic, North, and Barents Seas. We shall call it the Arctic-Baltic theatre – already known in the Cold War as NATO’s northern flank. The centre of the other system is the glacial sea and it involves the opening of new routes. We shall call it the Northern Sea Route theatre.

Let us analyse the geopolitical dynamics at work in the Arctic-Baltic theatre.

For the United States, it matters because it is an oceanfront on the North Atlantic. The minimum, and therefore the most sensitive, objective of US strategy in Europe is that no threat be established on the coast opposite New England. For the moment, the only threat in Europe is Russia, and Russia cannot reach the ocean by land. It can only get there by sea and the shortest route is not through the Mediterranean: the Dardanelles, Sicily, and Gibraltar all lie in between and Russia’s adversaries can easily obstruct them. In the Baltic Sea, the Danish straits are well sealed. The only way for the Russians to threaten communication between Europe and America is from the north. This is the route that must be protected. It is not a Herculean task, but in times of war, scarce resources, and conflicting priorities (facing China in the Indo-Pacific), the fundamental interests of the United States dictate that the Arctic-Baltic is a more important oceanfront than the Mediterranean.

Another dynamic concerns a basic fact. It is in the north, not in the south, that NATO and Russia touch each other. Putin invaded Ukraine out of fear that they would also touch each other in the south. But this in turn caused Russia’s neighbouring countries to fear a Russian invasion – just look at how quickly Sweden and Finland put aside their decades-long reluctance to join NATO. 

Fear is one of the most powerful driving forces for human beings. The fear triggered by the war in Ukraine has had a strong impact on north-eastern European countries. They find themselves having forcibly to take care of their own security. They are elderly nations, unaccustomed to war and weakened by thirty years spent on strategic holiday. But they are driven by a warlike sentiment towards Russia that is not found in the Mediterranean nations – irrespective of the exaggerations, migrants and terrorists are not as frightening as the ancestral terror of an invading army. One only has to look at Polish rearmament, popular participation in territorial defence in the Baltic republics, or the concepts of total defence that form an integral part of the Nordic countries’ pedagogy – things unthinkable in Italy. In a narrow space like Europe, fear is an instrument of influence. The more you fear, the more you count.

A further factor is that between the Arctic and the Baltic there are as many as three major European players: the United Kingdom, Germany and Poland; on the Mediterranean, there are one (Italy) and a half (France, due to its multiple fronts on the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the other two oceans as well). 

The three northern players devote increasing and exclusive attention to their geographical surroundings.

London is trying to contain its internal difficulties by focussing on foreign matters, particularly in the north-eastern quadrant of Europe. It offers itself as a special protector of the Ukrainians and the Baltics and as an alternative to the ambiguities of the sluggish Franco-German duo. With Warsaw it is forging an informal anti-German axis. London is relaunching the military and security dialogue with the Nordic countries and its maritime presence in the Arctic as an explicit anti-Russian exercise. Even though it is doing it also in order to starve the independence sentiment in Scotland any legitimacy – in the eyes of London, Scotland is, as it were, an indispensable protective outer garment in the north, as well as the base of His Majesty’s underwater power. 

A lot of this is just theatre; but it has also its own concreteness. The Brits rely on real though magnified proximity to the Americans, unique intelligence resources, and sophisticated tactical and media capabilities. In all this, they are encouraged by the US, eager for allies ready to take on specific regional responsibilities – see their approval of an Anglo-Baltic(-Turkish?) nucleus in NATO in support of Ukraine.

The case of Germany is instructive. As an economic locomotive, it depends more than any other European country on sea routes. Many nations can endure, albeit with great sacrifice, sharp reductions in exports. Not the Germans, for whom income from foreign markets accounts for half their national wealth. It follows that Berlin should be a staunch champion of the security of the British Channel-Gibraltar-Suez-Malacca “superhighway of the seas”. In reality, it is starting rebuilding its armed forces from scratch. In the special defence fund launched in February, there is money for P8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft (12 are on the way), two U212 CD submarines (developed together with the Norwegians in Kiel), five corvettes, frigates and agile warships to be stationed in the North Sea at Wilhelmshaven and Nordholz. It is clear that Germany is not preparing an ocean fleet but one to deal with the Arctic-Baltic theatre. It is also clear that it won’t be acting alone, but as a cog in NATO’s naval forces. This is confirmed by the increasing integration of its navy with the Norwegian one, spurred by Russian activism. For the security of the sea lines to and from Asia, Germany is forced to rely on the US: Berlin can’t do much more than stage aerial exercises in the Indo-Pacific to signal to the Chinese (and Americans) where they stand.

The Russian threat lends authority to Poland, the fastest-emerging power in Europe. Poland benefits from the greater homogeneity of the north-eastern quadrant, over which it harbours not too veiled ambitions of leadership. It has in fact imposed the idea of a “Fortress Europe” to seal off migratory flows from the Mediterranean. It leads exquisitely geopolitical initiatives such as the Three Seas Initiative to cement its influence and to disengage from the influence of others (Russia and Germany). Poland’s approach to the war in Ukraine is driven by its determination to put an end once and for all to Russia’s empire idea, a goal it promotes as the only possible goal in international fora. Poland’s protagonism is driven by the fear of being abandoned by the Americans, whose protection it needs, but doubts. This is also why it has launched a massive rearmament plan, bordering on the unrealistic. It aims to devote 5% of its GDP to military spending, have an army of 300 000 soldiers, and acquire the most advanced war technologies, among other objectives.

Poland fears Russia, the abandonment of the US, and Germany too. One cannot understand Polish strategy unless one grasps this last aspect. Berlin has long wanted to assume responsibility for NATO’s Baltic Maritime Coordination Function, that is, to lead the alliance’s Baltic naval forces; Warsaw is trying to prevent this. Berlin wants to join the Three Seas Initiative; Warsaw ignores it, and so does Washington. Berlin wants to equip itself with the third largest military budget in the world; Warsaw also rearms itself so as not to risk falling (again) under Berlin’s influence. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau equated fear of the Russians with fear of the Germans, when in a recent essay he likened “Russian imperialism” to “imperial practices within the EU”. He added that the “EU does not need German leadership but German self-control”, tackling the subject as an “existential challenge”.

The emerging competition between a struggling Germany and a growing Poland (with British support), widens the fault line between East and West. It also moves the heart of European business away from the Mediterranean and the Rhine.

Consider Nord Stream. Nothing like the twin pipeline sums up the greatest fault lines in European geopolitics. There is Moscow’s influence on Germany. There is Berlin’s need to feed an advanced economy. There is the historical tendency of Russians and Germans to use each other. There is the Americans’ German obsession and their aim to sever the ties between their Russian rival and its European satellites. There is the unbridled Polish hostility. There are the vain French and Italian attempts to enter the dynamic. The Mediterranean is absent. The eventual interruption of Russian gas flows to Germany has the power to disrupt the economies of the entire continent, integrated as they are in the German production chain, and in particular, Italy’s economy. Italy is the continent’s second-largest manufacturer, though only because it forms part of the Rhine-Bavarian production chain.

Resources and attention from the southern front are not being drained only by the increased geopolitical weight of the north-eastern countries, but also by the hotbeds of tension. Kaliningrad has already begun to serve as a source of friction. Sweden’s and Finland’s entry into NATO will add strategic depth, hence a sense of protection, to the Baltics and Poland. They could use Kaliningrad to put pressure on Moscow if the Ukraine war continues to weaken it. Conversely, the Russians could stage provocations along the Suwałki corridor, using military means but keeping them below the threshold of armed conflict, to highlight NATO’s internal flaws.

Then there are the Russian-speaking communities in the Baltic countries. Local governments fear they could turn into Kremlin fifth columns. The war has provided impetus to speed up their assimilation: borders have been closed, visas denied, Russian TV channels banned, Soviet-era monuments removed, and only the local language will now be used at school. This is all incendiary material for Moscow’s propaganda, centred on protecting ethnic Russians abroad.

Finally, the Svalbard Islands are a fairly big wound in Russian strategy. They are the missing link in a chain of islands between the Bering Strait and Greenland that would move the first line of defence a long distance away. And it would guarantee Russia the possibility to move deeply into the North Atlantic. As things stand, however, the archipelago obstructs the transit of submarines, and exposes them to monitoring. Here, tensions are not in danger of exploding, but they give an idea of the length of the frontline and the problems that have to be tackled. 

The northern sea route theater

Let us now look at the second theatre. Russia has militarised its part of the Arctic and nationalised the northern sea route. The purposes behind these manoeuvres are diverse. According to the siege mentality typical of its strategic thinking, Moscow considers the opening of new, immense spaces as conducive to new potential avenues of attack. Having an adversary at the gates of the North is a less concrete scenario than it was in Ukraine. But as the ice melts, it is no longer impossible. Moreover, the Kremlin wants to keep its deterrence factors intact, that is, its second-strike nuclear capabilities based in the Kola Peninsula fortress and the ability to operate in the North Atlantic in the event of war. Finally, the Arctic route connects crucial Russian deposits (that make up about a fifth of its GDP) to European and, increasingly, Asian ports, and must be secured. But for Moscow, “security” still means two things: owning large spaces and garrisoning them with visible military means. In short, it is a matter of pushing the first line of defence well beyond the northern sea route.

Russia is a long way from this to achieving hegemony in the Arctic. But the ice is also melting for the other countries on the (no-longer-so-)glacial sea. These countries interpret Russian militarisation as a threat and aggression. Not because it necessarily is such, but because the possibility cannot be excluded. What you use to protect yourself with today, you can use tomorrow to increase influence on your surroundings and to put pressure on Europe and North America. Consequently, neighbouring countries adjust their military deployments, and in turn these adjustments are interpreted by Moscow as threatening and aggressive – an interpretation Moscow is happy to feed its besieged-by-the-West propaganda.

For the US, the Arctic only matters as the shortest missile attack route from Eurasia. It is the only coast of their otherwise unapproachable continent off which a strategic rival conducts regular military activities. Washington is upgrading all military bases in Alaska. Case in point: the 54 F-35s at Eielson Station; with the F-22s in Anchorage, the number of stealth fighter planes exceeds a hundred. Across Europe and counting helicopters and logistics, the US has 217 aircraft. As Alaska is the closest State to Taiwan, those aircraft can also serve against China, whereas those on the European continent cannot.

However, the chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has made it clear that, although the Arctic will become increasingly geostrategic, other theatres now take priority. This is clearly a hint to other NATO members to spend more. For example, the Americans got the Canadians to allocate $5 billion to modernise the continent’s antiquated missile early warning system. NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg is urging the Europeans – Germany in particular – to focus on the northern front to guard against the Sino-Russian couple. The Arctic is probably the only theatre where NATO can give substance to its new focus on China without ending up out of area. It is a further example of how the northern seas are knocking insistently at the doors of the European chancelleries while the Americans think of Beijing.

Conclusions

The Arctic and the Baltic will not drain the Mediterranean – it retains an inescapable centrality. A tenth of the globe’s submarine internet cables pass through it, carrying about a quarter of the world’s data traffic. Similarly, a tenth of international trade passes through the Suez Canal but it is worth just under a third of the planet’s container traffic. It is clear that the Mediterranean is embedded in the world’s most important value streams. 

However, this geoeconomic approach is not necessarily valid at the geostrategic level. Although growing crises and conflicts make it the arena of choice for various emerging powers, none of the Mediterranean’s current problems are sufficient to raise it to an existential level for the Americans and the Chinese. Washington’s first concern in the Mediterranean is not at the centre of the sea but at one of its shores: the containment of Turkey. The Americans must prevent Turkey’s emergence to damage to the US-led Euro-Atlantic system and to offering alternatives to the rivals of the US. As for the rest, the world’s leading power has long since renounced its ambitions to resolve regional geopolitical issues. Having repeatedly burned its fingers in the Middle East and North Africa, the US has accepted chaos, when it did not actually fuel it. Nor does Beijing appear to be making any qualitative leaps (if anything, it is stagnating) in its penetration from the south. For China, finding a base on the Atlantic matters more than navigating in the increasingly contested Mediterranean waters.

The only major power firmly aiming at the Mediterranean is Russia. Not coincidentally, NATO’s strengthening in the north-east corresponds to an increase in Moscow’s pressure from the south. The Kremlin sees the southern front as the alliance’s soft underbelly, around which it foments unrest in the hope of being recognised as an arbiter or to manage to wrest concessions in Ukraine. It has done so since 2013 in vain but it is not granted that it will relent. Actually, the setbacks in Ukraine could lead Russia to stage a provocation in the Mediterranean, maybe against NATO’s warships.

In particular, Moscow sees Italy as a weak link. Russian incursions into the Ionian and Adriatic Seas are an opportunity, perhaps the only one, to be exploited by Rome to convince its European partners of the enduring centrality of the southern front. However, Italy must offer itself to take on some responsibility, for example ensuring the safety of at least a section of the maritime routes in the Mediterranean. It should do so along with partners, not only from NATO. Italy should offer a security role also to countries south and east of the Mediterranean. Otherwise, it could find itself alone to face challenges that cannot be tackled alone. This is a real risk in a fragmenting Europe that pushes countries to cultivate their own maritime garden.

(translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)