Europe and the Mediterranean: The Challenges in 2021

By Robbin Laird and Kenneth Maxwell

As 2021 begins the European and Mediterranean region is in the throes of fundamental change. How those changes work out in shaping new geo-political and strategic dynamics is an open question. What is clear, however, is that the changes underway raise any number of important questions and pose a series of challenges.

These challenges are particularly acute for the liberal democracies which are facing increasingly aggressive authoritarian states that are using an ever more effective mix of soft and hard power to expand and consolidate their zones of influence, and to subvert the democratic processes in what were, once-upon-a-time, the self-confident and democratic core-nations that founded the global order after the world-wide devastation of the Second World War.

We see a number of dynamics of change unfolding which include but are not limited to, the potential disaggregation of the United Kingdom, the enhanced role of China in shaping European infrastructure and with it significantly reshaping security and defense in Europe, the growing independence of Turkey from the western alliance with Erdogan shaping a Neo-Ottoman approach in the eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus, and Russia under Putin enhancing its influence and capabilities and leveraging Chinese actions in the region.

The Disaggregation of the United Kingdom

While much attention has been placed upon the United Kingdom reaching an agreement with Brussels with regard to its future relationship with the European Union, that is “Getting Brexit done” in the words of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the core problem is that both parties to the agreement are in the process of fundamental change.  With regard to the “United” Kingdom there is little doubt that a major question facing the Prime Minister and his team over the next months is actually keeping the “United Kingdom” just that.

Given the importance of defense installations in Scotland, and the role of the North Sea through to the Nordics in dealing with the direct Russian military threat, will these defense installations be part of a unified defense force which has the UK stamped on it? As Charles Grant recently put the challenge: “During 2020, the year of COVID-19 and the Brexit trade talks, support for independence among Scottish voters rose substantially, to about 60 per cent.”  The pandemic and the trade talks allowed the Scottish National Party (SNP) to portray the Conservative government as incompetent and acting against Scotland’s interests. “The more that Brexit appears to hurt Scotland, the better for the SNP and its policy of leave the UK to rejoin the EU.”[1]

The Scots did not fail to notice that during the referendum campaign and subsequently, few of the Brexiter Leavers – with some exceptions like Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove. who was born and brought up in Aberdeen (the key port for British access to the North Sea oil reserves) – cared much about the unity of the UK. Many Scots do not warm to the English nationalists who are so influential in today’s Tory Party.

The SNP is on course for a big victory in next Scottish elections which will take place in May. If the Prime Minister in London continues to say “No” to another Scottish referendum (as Boris Johnson does. He says it will occur in 40 years), and continues to insist that Scotland cannot become independent, with every successive SNP victory, it will be harder for London to sustain this hardline position. Scotland after all voted overwhelmingly against Brexit (as did Northern Ireland). Brexit has made Scottish independence much more likely.

The potential independence of Scotland has major security implications. The RAF Lossiemouth is where four Typhoon combat aircraft squadrons, one Poseidon MRS1 Squadron, and a RAF Regiment squadron, are based. The base is a key component in the UK’s defense of its northern Airspace and the Northern flank of NATO. This role is of increasing importance given the renewed Russian threat as perceived by Norway, Denmark and Finland (and Sweden). The HMNB base on the Clyde at Faslane, Helensburgh, on Gare Loch of the Firth of Clyde, is the base for Britain’s nuclear weapons and of Britain’s nuclear submarines armed with Trident missiles.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has long opposed Trident, and in 2016, 58 of Scotland’s 59 MP’s, voted against the decision to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system. According to YouGov polling a majority of Scots think that the Scottish government rather than the UK government should have the final say over Trident. The former SNP leader and former Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, hosts a political talk show on RT, the Russian backed broadcaster. He has come under cross-party pressure to abandon his program after a damning report by the UK’s intelligence watchdog which linked RT to the Kremlin’s strategy of sowing disinformation and division across the west.

The consequences of the Boris Johnson’ EU/UK free trade Brexit deal are also profound for the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain within the UK. In effect the EU/UK free trade deal establishes a border in the Irish Sea because Northern Ireland will remain part of the EU single market in order to prevent a hard land border being re-established between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and hence undoing the achievements of the Belfast Agreement which ended (with substantial US support) the years of violent inter-community violence. But the Boris Johnson deal makes the possibility of a “United” Ireland much more than a distant aspiration for many on both sides of the internal Irish broader.

These are all questions. They are not predictions. But they are challenges which need to be recognized and which have broad international implications.

The European Union and the China Insertion

The European Union faces a significant security challenge which underlies its capability to defend itself – infrastructure security, communications security, and secure networks. In the co-authored book by Laird and Delaporte on The Return of Direct Defense in Europe, a core element was the need of focusing much more centrally upon the defense of European infrastructure and reducing the interference of the 21st century authoritarian states in that infrastructure.

“The expanded challenge posed by the authoritarian states is highlighted by how the Russians and Chinese have used the free market mechanisms in Europe and the United States to invest in and to control key infrastructure in the West and thereby work to influence outcomes to their benefit. The EU clearly is crucial to any comprehensive European effort to deal with the threat from Chinese and Russian direct investments in Europe itself.”

The EU has just signed a comprehensive investment agreement with China. It is seen as the triumph of the last year of Angela Merkel’s long dominance of the German political landscape as chancellor, and of the German presidency of the EU Council (just before the rotating presidency of the EU council is handed over to Portugal.)

Angela Merkel has made developing a strategic relationship with China a priority of her last years as German chancellor with the support of German car makers and manufacturers who see opportunities in the vast Chinese market. Merkel endorsed the EU/China deal in a video call with the European Commission President (and the former German defense minister) Urula von der Leyden, and the European Commission President, Charles Michel, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.  The EU/China agreement still requires the official approval of the EU governments, the European parliament, and the national parliaments. The confirmation is expected to come during the French Presidency of the EU Commission in the first half of 2022.

Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University celebrity economist and co-editor of the “World Happiness Report” welcomed the investment treaty: “The New Year” he writes “will begin on a promising footing.  Now is the time for the World’s leading powers to stop casting stones from glass houses and should come together to end the pandemic and set the stage for a green, digital global recovery.”[2]

Many others have expressed skepticism.  Theresa Fallon of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies said: “The main deliverable from Beijing’s point of view was to drive a wedge in transatlantic relations, and Brussels seems to have complied.”[3]

And the Chinese commitment to workers’ rights is laughable in face of their treatment of their Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang Uyghur “Autonomous” region. President for life Xi’s diktat in Hong Kong where the imposition of Beijing inspired new security laws and the repression to eliminate dissent, hardly inspires any confidence in his respect for “human rights” let alone international agreements. Nor does the imprisonment for four years of the citizen journalist, Zhand Zhan, for her reporting on the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan.

It is difficult to see how trusting a regime like Xi’s enough to sign a comprehensive economic agreement makes any sense at all. With the very clear examples of the Xi regime in undercutting  liberal democratic values and the political and trade war against Australia and its sovereignty, Xi’s intentions are clear.

And if further evidence is needed, there is the Chinese performance in initially both covering up and lying globally about the Wuhan virus. And even more narrowly to the question of European interests, China’s expansion of its military capabilities directly against the key guarantor of European defense, the United States, is happening to such an extent that core capabilities needed for the direct defense of Europe might not be available due to the operations of the de facto Russian-Chinese alliance.

In light of these and many other similar dynamics, it is difficult to see why a German led EU would reach such an agreement except to further ignore the defense of Europe itself.

Erdoğan works his Agenda

It is very clear that the main value of NATO to the Turkish leader is to remove a threat from his back door. The Ottoman emperors always had to worry about the action of the Christian West against their interests. Erdogan is simply using his NATO membership to block such pressure or to attenuate it.  As we put it in The Return of Direct Defense: “Turkey is clearly using its NATO membership to reduce pressure on its actions, while at the same time reaching out to non-NATO “partners” to try to achieve Erdogan’s particular objectives on a case-by-case basis.”

The German leadership certainly knows that the migration card which Erdogan plays is a key lever to influence EU policy, and thus by extension with NATO and the EU, giving him a free hand for his policy in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Caucasus and in North Africa. Here he is clearly focused on sorting through some sort of accord with the Russians to sort out how both might benefit from the new situation.

The recent Turkish involvement in the conflict in the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaija conflict and in the Nagorno-Karabakh war where in operation “iron-fist” as the Azerbaijanis called it, Turkey provided Syrian mercenaries and supplied drones, long range artillery and conducted information warfare via social media accounts, to great effect.

Russia has brokered a ceasefire and Russian troops have been deployed, but the incitement to hatred in the Caucasus will not go away any time soon. Armenians have very bitter memories of Turkish atrocities in the past. They have only been reinforced by Erdogan’s recent Turkish expansionism. Yet the bottom line is that the geostrategic interest of both Russia and Turkey have been strengthened. Turkish support for Azerbaijan has been long standing since the fall of the Soviet Union and the access corridor in the ceasefire will provide Turkey with potential trade access to central Asia and to China’s “belt and road” network.

The conflict has much wider implications since it shows that as in Russian actions in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the deployment of hard power can be used to expand and consolidate influence in those grey areas of international competition. In the Middle East where both Russia and Turkey have employed hard power in Syria, the Abraham Accords, where Israel is a central player, and Saudi Arabia is a hidden partner (and where the long-standing dispute with Qatar has been resolved) is seen also a threat to both.

With regard to the way ahead for Russia and Turkey, Andrew Rettman wrote this recently in the EU Observer about their relationship: “Turkey and Russia have pledged to go further on military cooperation despite US sanctions, in a move that risks destabilizing NATO. “We prefer to solve all issues, including that of the S-400, through negotiations,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Tuesday (29 December), referring to a Russian-made air-defence system bought by Turkey.

Recent US sanctions over the purchase were “an act of aggression against our country’s sovereign rights” the Turkish minister said. “We will not give up on our intentions,” Çavuşoğlu added, after meeting Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi, Russia.

 The U.S. blacklisted four Turkish officials in December over the S-400 and previously excluded Turkey from a fighter-jet development program, amid concern Russian-made radars could jeopardize NATO assets in the region. 

 But for Russia’s Lavrov, the West was trying to drive a wedge between Turkey and Russia because they had defied its claim to monopoly on power.  “We appreciate … the principled disposition of our Turkish colleagues to continue cooperation in this area, despite the continuing illegitimate pressure from Washington,” Lavrov said in Sochi.[4]

Those states most concerned with the direct Russian threat, such as Poland, are not finding this relationship amusing, but it is notable that the Russian foreign minister went out of his way to highlight the importance of Turkish sovereignty versus its membership in NATO. This is a very revealing and accurate comment.

Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson’s government as just staged a free trade deal with Erdoğan, which came into effect on January 1st without the most rudimentary parliamentary scrutiny.  This is part of Johnson’s post-Brexit “global Britain” agenda. It comes, of course after Johnson scared the leave voters in the Brexit referendum with a vision of hordes of Turkish migrants arriving in Britain. Turkey has had a £18.6bn two-way trade with Britain in recent years and Britain is Turkey’s second largest export market. British trade with Turley involves £1.3bn in arms sales.

Russia Leveraging the Growing Impact of 21st Century Authoritarianism

The Chinese efforts to expand their influence in Europe, the Turkish approach to reshaping the Mediterranean region to their advantage with no regard to its NATO allies, and the growing capability of the Russians to savage the Western digital economies, puts them into a much better position than if they had to rely only on their own capabilities and positions.

It needs to be remembered as we face Obama III, that the Obama II team consistently underrated what Putin could do. For Secretary Kerry (now Climate Change Kerry), the Russians were living in the 19th Century. For Vice President Biden, the Russians were a weak power bound to fail in the face of the dynamic West.

This is how we put it in our book on The Return of Direct Defense in Europe:

 “The Obama Administration built its reset policy on the notion that Russia was weak and at best a regional power. His Vice President, Joe Biden, characterized the Russian challenge in 2009 as follows: “The reality is the Russians are where they are. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.”

What Putin will try to do as he faces opposition at home, and the very negative consequences of the COVID-19 situation within Russia, is what virtually all authoritarian leaders do in crises: leverage what their friends are doing and work it to their best advantage.

In short, these trend lines and there are more, set in motion the prospects for significant geopolitical change in the next few years.

[1] Charles Grant, “Ten Reflections on a Sovereignty First Brexit,” Centre for European Reform (December 28, 2020),

[2] Jeffrey D. Sachs, “Europe and China’s Year End Breakthrough,” Project Syndicate (December 31, 2020.)

[3] Hans Von Der Burchard, “Merkel Pushes EU-China Investment Deal Over the Finish Line Despite Criticism,” Politico (December 29, 2020),

[4] Andrew Rettman, “Turkey and Russia Arms Deal, NATO Headache,” EU Observer (December 30, 2020),