How NATO and the EU should confront the new ‘Axis of Evil’

As the West tires of Russian hybrid warfare, Francesco Foti argues that NATO and the EU should learn from history. To avoid further damaging consequences, they must do all they can to maintain a forceful, non-compromising and united response to the new axis of evil

NATO’s priorities

The West’s isolation of Russia is fuelling convergence among anti-Western forces such as Iran, North Korea and China. The consequences are dire. Isolation of Russia is helping the Kremlin prolong the war, and is exhausting Ukraine’s military arsenal.

The recently convened NATO-Ukraine Council, established during the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, committed NATO to maintaining support for Ukraine, and to replenishing NATO members' arsenals.

However, there is now an impasse between the US Congress Republican majority and President Biden’s Administration. This is reinforcing two obstacles to achieving NATO unity: Hungary’s withholding of funds to Ukraine, and Poland’s blocking of Ukrainian exports, despite the EU-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement.

NATO must help Ukraine to upgrade its weaponry, including air defence systems, new technologies and drones. This will enable Ukraine to extend its capabilities beyond Russian trenches and territory. The establishment of domestically supported military hubs, endorsed by the West, will play a crucial role in countering Russian influence. It will promote NATO standardisation within the Ukrainian military, and reduce dependence on Western support. To achieve this, NATO members must strive to reach their individual 2% GDP commitments along NATO lines.

Considering Ukraine's prospective entry into NATO, NATO and the EU need to expedite an ad hoc agreement between Poland and Ukraine to relieve the economic pressure on the latter and enhance European integration.

Iran and China

Iran’s Shahed-136 system, along with North-Korea’s ballistic missiles, have helped Russia achieve its objectives of damaging Ukrainian infrastructure, and inflicting harm on its civilians. Western defence systems are struggling to meet the challenge.

Before the war in Ukraine, Iran’s relations with the EU and NATO were already strained. The current conflict has further incentivised Iran's theocratic regime to strengthen its ties with Russia. Moreover, China’s dual-use technology is evidence of a military and political alliance with Russia. China’s ties to Iran have exposed divisions within NATO and complicated the forging of a united approach to supporting Ukraine.

War in Ukraine has given Iran's theocratic regime fresh incentive to strengthen its ties with Russia

This, combined with the EU’s previous appeasement policy towards Iran, is damaging Ukraine and threatening NATO’s security.

Turkey and Hungary enjoy strong business ties with the Kremlin; evidence of non-compliance with the sanctions regime. These business ties are helping Russia survive sanctions and continue its war. Russo-Chinese trade in energy, which is profitable for Beijing’s import needs, allows Moscow to diversify its business.

To expedite an end to the war, EU-NATO allies should try and find agreement on imposing sanctions on those countries in breach of the sanctions regime on Russia, especially China and the NATO members involved.

Open-door policy

The NATO-Ukraine Council was intended as an anteroom to Ukraine’s future NATO membership. Yet the US and Germany have postponed accession, mainly because they fear the triggering of Article 5 (collective defence). Ukraine’s corruption problem also plays a role, despite similar cases, such as post-Franco Spain, having been admitted to NATO in the past.

The status of the NATO-Ukraine Council signals a bypassing of the more formal Membership Action Plan. The plan stops short of granting a timeframe for membership (which would be impossible at any time but especially in time of war). Still, there is no doubt that Europe's wider security system and, broadly, the West, is increasingly suffering as Russia displays scant regard for NATO security in the region.

Indeed, NATO has long encouraged Russian disregard for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Divisions among NATO members date back to Bucharest 2008, when the Franco-German position effectively bowed to the threat of invasion by Moscow. It contradicted the open-door policy and NATO’s defensive nature.

Moreover, the Minsk agreement gave a green light to invade Crimea and the Donbas in exchange for remunerative business. Nord Stream2 is the most prominent example. Russian hostility to NATO will result in Ukraine’s formal invitation to join, ensuring that the NATO-Ukraine Council doesn't merely become an end in itself.

In response to Russian encirclement, NATO needs to create a body like the NATO-Ukraine council for Georgia, another would-be NATO member

To renew its open-door policy, NATO needs to create an analogous body for Georgia in response to Russian encirclement. This would enhance strategic security in the Black Sea, and isolate Moscow.

The EU needs to catch up with NATO in responding to Moscow’s imperialist and Eurasian designs on Ukraine and Eastern Europe. History shows that grey areas in EU or NATO foreign and security policy will quickly be exploited by hegemonic Kremlin policy.

The price of hesitancy

The 1994 Memorandum and the 1995 unfavourable Black Sea Fleet terms revealed Moscow’s historic untrustworthy and aggressive policy towards its neighbour. NATO needs to enlarge eastward as a containment strategy. Until now, NATO-EU hesitancy has emboldened not just Moscow but its allies within the Ukrainian politico-economic system.

Hesitancy on the part of NATO and the EU is giving Moscow and its supporters the notion that it may still win the war

Hesitancy is giving Moscow and its supporters the notion that it may still win the war. It suggests to the Kremlin that it may extract favourable territorial concessions, and Russia's right to choose the destiny of former USSR nations.

Failing to stand up to Moscow would weaken NATO’s standing and encourage China’s expansionism in Asia. It would also provide Moscow with a winning narrative to exploit in Africa and beyond. All this would fuel resentment among countries of the so-called Global South towards collective Western involvement.

A holistic approach

Russian aggression demands a holistic response in line with NATO’s core values. The NATO-Ukraine Council should lead to a formal invitation to Ukraine to join NATO. NATO and the EU should agree sanctions on countries helping Moscow. Finally, the establishment of a NATO-Georgia Council would ensure Georgia’s eventual integration.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Francesco Foti
Francesco Foti
Foreign / Security Analyst and Researcher

Francesco writes for Global Weekly, a non-profit online platform publishing on international affairs.

Graduated from the University of Westminster (MA) and Catania (BA), he focuses mainly on EU-Russian relations, the post-Soviet space (South-Eastern Europe, Balkans, and South Caucasus), the path to Euro-Atlantic integration / cooperation, and hybrid warfare by Russia.

He has written for outlets such as Mediterranean Affairs, Modern Diplomacy, Casimir Pulaski Foundation, European Studies Reviews, and the Cyprus Centre for European and International Affairs.

After graduation, Francesco pursued an internship on actionable intelligence at Tam-c Solutins (Israel), and freelanced for the business consultancy / think tank Global Initiatives and Solutions.

He interned at the Centre for the Study of Democracy (Bulgaria) on Russian disinformation, and published about South Caucasus and Russian narratives in Italy.

As part of Global Initiatives and Solutions, he was a panellist on security challenges at the Institute of National Security, Lodz, Poland.

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