German chancellor Angela Merkel has cautioned that the adventurism of Russian president Vladimir Putin would not remain limited to Ukraine, or even to other countries bordering on Russia. Since Russia seized Crimea in February-March 2014, Putin’s provocative campaign has included imposition of phantom “governments” in two areas of eastern Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, and harassment of the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are members of NATO.
Close Russian military air patrols have been observed from the Arctic Circle as far as the Gulf of Mexico, simulating attacks on U.S. territory. Last month came the additional spectacle of a Russian naval squadron off the coast of Australia during the meeting of the G-20 nations held in Brisbane. Australian prime minister Tony Abbott had promised to confront Putin over the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, in which 38 of 298 fatalities were Australian citizens or residents. Australian naval vessels monitored the Russian ships as long as they were in local waters.
These maneuvers were followed by practice bombing runs in Scandinavia and the penetration of Swedish maritime space by an unknown submarine presumed to be Russian. According to Richard Milne of the Financial Times, in an article on November 25, both the Swedes and Finns, as non-members of NATO, have become “truly afraid.” Meanwhile Denmark, as a NATO partner, disclosed that “Russian jets had conducted a dummy bombing raid on Denmark this summer when they flew close to its airspace,” Milne wrote.
Interviewed by the FT, Danish defense minister Nicolai Wammen emphasized, “We have Danish F16 fighter jets ready to scramble 24/7. They will be on their wings if needed. We will not be provoked, but we are firm: the Russians know we will do what is necessary.”
Russian military misbehavior across the globe appears to express concisely the “Putin doctrine” that the Muscovite empire should regain the position of militant rivalry with America that it enjoyed during the Cold War. Putin stretches his resources to intimidate the world. Yet Angela Merkel’s admonitions about areas nearer to but not adjoining Russia, and dangerous for Europe’s stability, have stayed in the background. In a discussion following her delivery of the 2014 annual lecture at the Lowy Institute for International Politics in Sydney, on November 17, two days after the G-20 conclave ended, she said the issue with Russia is not just about Ukraine. Bloomberg News cited her observation that in the former East Germany “we first had to ask Moscow” to approve policy decisions. She stipulated, “It concerns Moldova, it concerns Georgia. If things go on like this, one can ask: Should we ask about Serbia? Should we ask about the western Balkans?”
Putin soon proved Merkel right about all the vulnerable lands she inventoried. On November 24, Russia published a new “treaty” with Abkhazia, the northwestern area of Georgia split from the latter by Moscow in 1992-93. Abkhazia will now coordinate its foreign, military, financial, social, and internal security affairs with Russia, and the statelet will benefit from $270 million in Russian aid. Abkhazia was promoted to “independence” by Putin after the brief Russo-Georgian war of 2008 but is unrecognized by most of the world’s nations and considered by Georgia to be occupied territory.
Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili denounced Russia’s renewed meddling in Abkhazia as a reaction to Georgia’s signing of the June 2014 EU integration agreement, also affirmed by Ukraine and Moldova. Garibashvili argued that Western failure to respond to Russian aggression against Georgia had convinced Putin he could do what he wanted in Ukraine. The Georgian leader then declared his hope for “more condemnation [of Russia] from our European and American friends.” Since last year, Garibashvili has lead the Georgian Dream party that assumed power when ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili was defeated two years ago. Expectation of significant immediate European and American solidarity with Georgia against Putin is doubtless a dream, as well.