The year 2021 is marked by the continued rise of China, unprecedented Russian military activities close to NATO borders and the weaponization of illegal migrants by Belarus, coupled with the continued COVID-19 pandemic and the international community’s attempts to address climate change. Indeed, the contemporary security environment is shaped by strategic competition, complex security threats, and struggles over power and technology.
China demonstrates its growing ambition not only in the area of global economics, but also in the military domain. It increases political and economic power and advances military modernization, including the fast development of its nuclear arsenal and missile systems. China is investing in critical infrastructure across Europe and beyond, increasing supply chain dependency. Benefitting from technological development, it’s making progress with 5G network technology. Our technological dependence on China in the future might have severe implications on our security.
China portrays itself as a strategic competitor and systematic challenger to the democratic community and the international rules-based order. Growing Chinese ambition poses multifaceted security challenges to the Euro-Atlantic region.
While observing China as a pacing power, we cannot turn a blind eye to Russia. When it comes to Euro-Atlantic security, China is still an emerging challenge, while Russia is an imminent one, and its decline is overestimated. It is attempting to expand its military footprint and benefit from international divergences/cleavages. Russia is intensively developing and integrating new weapons systems, rapidly modernizing its military structures and integrating Belarus into its military framework.
This year we observed a rapid — and therefore very worrisome — Russian military buildup at the border with Ukraine in April; the large-scale strategic exercise Zapad 21; and the alarming military buildup close to the border with Ukraine again at the end of the year, which was followed by aggressive rhetoric and false accusations that Ukraine is provoking a military conflict. We agree that Russian should deescalate the situation rather than deny its interference and blame Western countries for the negative impact.
At the same time, we observe Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko weaponizing illegal migration; blackmailing the European Union with the expectation there will be Western concessions; and using the situation to legitimize his regime. This artificially created crisis along the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia with Belarus diverts international attention from Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine.
Russia is developing novel systems, such as hypersonic weapons; laser weapons; electronic warfare systems; and anti-access, area denial capabilities. Its aggression against neighboring states, now coupled with the close integration of Russia’s and Belarus’ militaries, poses a major threat to the region.
Russia’s military has been its highest readiness and preparedness to act quickly since the end of the Cold War. This muscle flexing is a test for the entire Euro-Atlantic community — and the United States in particular. And the perception that “surprise is a strategy” from one of the biggest military powers should not be ignored.
Against this backdrop, the Euro-Atlantic community is currently engaged in a major strategic reflection. In 2021, NATO, the EU and the U.S. are carrying out major strategic reviews. The separate review processes are, indeed, closely interlinked: the U.S. National Defense Strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review, the Missile Defence Review and the Global Posture Review; the EU’s Strategic Compass; and NATO 2030 and its renewed Strategic Concept.
All the reviews have to address the contemporary strategic realities of an even more challenging, more complex and unpredictable contemporary security environment to evaluate major global power rivalry and technological change.
Indeed, the U.S., NATO and the EU are facing new strategic realities, and decisions taken today will affect the future of the Euro-Atlantic security community. They have to address China as a pacing power, and Russia’s growing military power along with its meddling into democratic processes. We have to consider pacing China, but at the same time we should not forget Russia.
China is rising, while Russia is still not out of play. As authoritarian states, Russia and China tend to cooperate closely; this cooperation might strongly impact both Asia-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic approaches. Russia should not benefit from the U.S. focus on the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. presence in Europe and its strong resolve should demonstrate the country’s assurances for NATO — the principal alliance to sustain trans-Atlantic security and defense. It would maintain security and stability in Europe, which in turn would support U.S. concern regarding China.
We must take into account the new emerging challenges such as cyberthreats; emerging, disruptive technologies; climate change; and strategic dynamics related to outer space. The sound trans-Atlantic bond — unity and cohesion between the Euro-Atlantic allies — is more crucial than ever. The unpredictable and deteriorating security environment calls for closer cooperation and cohesion of the Euro-Atlantic community and the greater resilience of Western societies.
The NATO alliance must retain its unity and cohesion while facing numerous threats and challenges, particularly those stemming from Russia. NATO should not allow its adversaries to drive wedges among the allies. A solid trans-Atlantic bond is fundamentally important for European security and stability. Therefore, it must be preserved and strengthened.
Arvydas Anušauskas is Lithuania’s national defense minister.