‘Mare Nostrum’, Euro-Atlantic Challenges

Michele Testoni

7 mins - 8 de Marzo de 2024, 07:00

It was just a few days ago that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reached its second anniversary and Hungary’s parliament ratified – at last! – Sweden’s accession to NATO. We also heard French President Emmanuel Macron talk about the possibility of allies deploying troops to Ukraine to support the defence of Kiev, whose war effort seems to have reached a critical point – an eventuality ruled out, for the moment, by other Western leaders, and to which Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded, once again, with the threat of a nuclear attack.

Since the last years of the 20th century, the Euro-Atlantic region’s centre of gravity has gradually slid eastwards towards the Old Continent; the parallel and practically simultaneous enlargement of NATO and the EU towards the former Soviet bloc has been one of the greatest successes of our ‘good neighbour policy’: political, economic, and social development – albeit with many difficulties and contradictions – for (and with) our partners who were on ‘the other side’ of the Iron Curtain.

However, both a larger number of members and a more ‘mitteleuropean’ centre of gravity end up producing a more heterogeneous picture of strategic priorities, for instance, making it more difficult to harmonise, more oriented towards the most numerous, better coordinated groups of countries, such as the Nordic states as a whole, and, despite their idiosyncrasies, those of the East

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Reality dominates the agenda. Ukraine’s aggression has been the catalytic event for Europe to begin to abandon (albeit, admittedly, lazily and reluctantly) its long ‘strategic holiday’: the containment of Putin’s Russia is the top priority of our collective defence system; a persistent threat due to the shape of the great North-European plain stretching east of the river Elbe, in which the absence of any natural barrier between Central and Eastern Europe – the so-called ‘Polish funnel’ – shines through. Powerful energy is geography! Moreover, the likelihood – concrete and toxic – that Donald Trump will once again become president of the United States means that we Europeans must hurry to acquire effective military capabilities to reduce our strategic over-dependence on the US.

True, in the short term the main focus of Euro-Atlantic security is on the ‘eastern flank’: we must continue to strengthen the credibility of our collective defence system and its multiple domains (land, sea, air, and cyber); we must continue to consolidate the protection of Lithuania and Poland and prevent Putin from using the ‘Suwalki gap’ (64 km of EU and NATO territory separating Belarus from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad) to expand the war; we must prolong our support for Moldova and avoid the risk of a revival of the conflict in Transnistria, where Moscow has had troops deployed since 1992; and we must be more active in detecting and neutralising all kinds of interference (Russian in the first place) in our media and electoral processes.

However, when the war in Ukraine is over – the most realistic scenario is that of a frozen conflict, a sort of Korean model – it will be inevitable to return to a more global and systemic view. It is therefore impossible not to realise that in the medium to long term an equally, if not more, important focus needs to be devoted to the ‘southern flank’. 

The ‘wider Mediterranean’ is marked not only by many endemic factors of fragmentation, poverty, instability, and criminality, but also by the growing impact of exogenous variables such as, first and foremost, climate change and the progressive intervention of authoritarian and anti-Western powers. This region is characterised by the existence of a so-called ‘arc of instability’, namely a long and interconnected chain of politically fragile states that stretches from the Gulf of Guinea and, through the Sahelian belt and North Africa, to the Middle East, the Balkans, and the shores of the Indian Ocean. A unique ecosystem, because it is here that (perhaps as in no other area of the planet) an array of state and non-state actors and a plurality of traditional and non-traditional threats capable of destabilising both Euro-Atlantic security and global stability are concentrated.

There are at least three kinds of risks that require us to pay more and better attention to the ‘southern flank’. First: the militarisation of the Mediterranean Sea. The struggle for maritime power, a constant and central element in the establishment of global hegemony, inevitably involves the growth of the great powers’ naval power, that is, the instrument with which they protect their economic interests and hence their trade routes. Both China and Russia, in their eagerness to expand their spheres of influence, will soon seek to establish naval bases in the Mediterranean, a hinge sea that connects the Red Sea, the Black Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean, thus creating a ‘maritime T’ of existential importance. And for the ‘mare nostrum’ to remain such, a renewed strategy is needed that is not limited to the defence of the existing strategy – the control of its three approaches and maritime security and protection operations such as ‘Sea Guardian’ – but the formulation of one that proactively safeguards Euro-Atlantic naval dominance.

Second, the resurgence of the explosive mix of tribal armed groups, mercenary militias, illegal trafficking, and religious radicalism. According to the Fragile State Index 2023, the Sahel and Central Africa are the regions of the world with the highest concentration of vulnerable states and the highest risks of instability and crisis, and where a veritable epidemic of coup d’états is taking place (ten in the last four years, plus another five failed attempts). To make matters worse, Senegal – a key West African state – is in a situation of great tension and uncertainty following the postponement of presidential elections originally scheduled for 25 February. Political insecurity, judicial uncertainty, and the ineffectiveness of the state to defend national security and guarantee a minimally stable social order: the ‘three I’s’ of political underdevelopment whose most common consequences are the empowerment of armed gangs, insurrectional movements, systemic corruption, illegality, discontent, and, in short, migratory flows towards Europe.

The third risk factor defining the ‘southern flank’ is desertification. This is a phenomenon that depends not only on the perverse consequences of climate change, but also on the unintended effects that affect developing countries’ economies and societies, such as demographic expansion, over-urbanisation and infrastructural deterioration. Moreover, since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the countries of the ‘southern flank’ are exposed to strong inflationary pressure and increasing domestic supply shortages of agricultural products, a fact that contributes to their fragility and vulnerability. 

In sum, it is true that the ‘mare nostrum’ is not characterised by the presence of an existential threat to the collective defence of the Euro-Atlantic space; however, the Mediterranean continues to present a set of risk factors that require more and better attention from the entire international community - not just NATO or the EU. To assume that these dynamics are not priorities or, worse, to turn a blind eye to them, would be a strategic blunder.
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