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In this week’s edition: NATO’s Russia worries, China on EU’s (investment) mind and Croatia’s border violence.
In a snowy Latvian forest, some 1,500 NATO troops rehearsed battle skills earlier this week, seeking to prevent an attack on Riga by disrupting and stalling a ‘hypothetical’ adversary’s advance north of the city.
Located roughly 300 kilometres from the border with Russia and an hour outside the Latvian capital, the Canadian-led battlegroup at Camp Ādaži is considered a crucial part of the alliance’s Eastern defence.
It was not a coincidence that NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and other NATO foreign ministers visited the base ahead of their meeting in Riga this week, where they discussed responses to the Russian build-up.
If Russia makes a military move against Ukraine, “there will be consequences,” Stoltenberg told EURACTIV, emphasising that there should be no doubt about NATO’s resolve to “defend all allies in the region”.
The Latvian base, hosting soldiers from 10 NATO members, is one of four NATO multinational battlegroups deployed in the Baltic region and Poland after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and increased its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
NATO soldiers in Latvia told EURACTIV they closely followed developments and wondered how events could affect their deployment.
“We’re constantly monitoring what is happening around us,” Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John Benson, commander of the NATO battlegroup in Latvia, told EURACTIV during the military exercise dubbed ‘Winter Shield’.
Asked whether there would be a different threat perception in light of the latest developments, Benson said they “have not seen significant changes in any threats or challenges to us in recent weeks or months”.
The Baltic States are considered to be NATO’s most vulnerable flank. They are linked to the alliance’s main territory by a tough-to-defend land corridor of around 60 kilometres between Poland and Lithuania. Known as the Suwałki gap, it is located between Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave.´
Asked whether NATO’s battle groups are sufficient to defend the gap, Benson said the “mission is deter and, if necessary, defend”, which would mean “spending time understanding what this area means to the host nations, but also to NATO as a whole”.
“But the most important message we can ever provide in terms of deterrence is that more than 1/3 of NATO countries are here regularly, and I am convinced our adversary is following this,” Benson said.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin expressed concerns about “military drills” near its borders and earlier this week accused NATO of building military infrastructure in Ukraine.
Although unclear whether he referred to the latest exercise in the Baltics specifically, Benson stressed NATO’s presence remains strictly defensive.
“We are able to accomplish the tasks that are asked of us, absolutely no doubt – but we are here in a defensive posture,” Benson said.
“The enhanced forward presence in Latvia has been here for almost five years now,” he said. “There’s been no significant changes to what we do here in Latvia.”
INTERVIEW | In case you missed it, read here our exclusive interview with NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg from earlier this week.
With EURACTIV, he also spoke about how the current situation with Belarus influences Eastern Europe’s security, the EU’s ambitions for strategic autonomy and NATO’s future challenges.
EU, NATO, US CONCERNS | Is everyone concerned? Yes.
Tensions over Ukraine escalated this week after Russia’ demanded ‘guarantees’ from NATO that the military alliance would not expand to Europe’s East.
Ukraine urged NATO to prepare economic sanctions on Russia to deter a possible invasion if needed, which it said could end up in a large-scale military offensive at the end of January.
The US, meanwhile, said it is tracking enough indicators and warnings surrounding Russian military activity near Ukraine to trigger “a lot of concern”. US President Biden will hold a ‘secure video call’ with Russian counterpart Putin on Tuesday to underline US concerns about Russia’s build-up of forces on the border with Ukraine, the White House has said.
Eastern Europeans, are concerned too, with Latvia having called for a permanent US military presence to deter Russia, wanting to boost its defences with US Patriot missiles.
EU’s EASTERN ROLE | Against the backdrop of tensions with Russia, the situation at the Polish-Belarussian border, and Russia’s renewed troop build-up in and around Ukraine, Lithuania has called upon the EU to step up it’s role in the East.
If the EU wants to become an important geopolitical actor, it needs to play a role not only in Africa but in its Eastern neighbourhood, Lithuania’s deputy defence minister, Margiris Abukevičius, told EURACTIV at the sidelines of the NATO ministerial in Riga, Latvia.
EU IN THE WORLD
GATEWAY BLUES | Seen by many as a response to China’s Belt and Road initiative, the European Commission unveiled a new plan to invest €300 billion by 2027 in infrastructure, digital and climate projects around the world to strengthen Europe’s supply chains, boost EU trade and help fight climate change.
The trouble is that while €300 billion sounds like a lot of money, one can’t take this figure at face value.
This comes at a time when the political stand-off between Lithuania and China is taken to another level: Beijing banned Lithuanian products from entering the Chinese market amid growing tensions. The European Commission said it is gathering information and will return to the matter later.+
BELARUS SANCTIONS | EU diplomats agreed to add 28 individuals and bodies to its Belarus sanctions list in response to the alleged channelling of migrants to the bloc’s borders. There are now in total 183 people and 26 entities listed. The latest round of Western-coordinated sanctions aims to significantly increase pressure on Lukashenko.
According to EU diplomats, work on a sixth sanctions package has already started, but should not be expected before January/February next year.
BELARUS BORDER | In other Belarus-related news this week, the EU’s executive proposed temporarily looser asylum rules, allowing Poland and its two Baltic neighbours, Lithuania and Latvia, to handle migrants pushed by Belarus to their shared border, but the proposal angered EU lawmakers and rights groups.
DEFENCE DIALOGUE | A previously touted US-EU dialogue on security and defence is set to be launched in early 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell announced. Possible areas for cooperation would include addressing cyber threats, climate change as well as joining efforts on disruptive technologies.
TRIO VISIT | Prime ministers of the self-designated trio of the EU’s Eastern neighbours hoping to one day join the bloc came to Brussels this week in an effort to chart a way forward for their cooperation. But so far the initiative has received little support from the EU’s executive.
TORTURE REPORT | The Council of Europe’s Committee for the prevention of torture (CPT) published a report this week detailing Croatian police border violence against migrants crossing from Bosnia, following Zagreb’s attempts to block the body’s work.
These allegations echo the first-hand testimonies given to EURACTIV by migrants in October this year, which detailed signs of systematic illegal border violence and pushbacks by Croatian police.
Meanwhile, EU Commission home affairs chief Ylva Johansson has welcomed Croatia’s handling of media revelations showing border officers beating migrants despite NGO reports of continuing violence at the border with Bosnia.
MIGRATION TALKS | Home affairs ministers from the EU and the Western Balkans agreed on the need to improve the exchange of information and cooperation on the ground in the combat against organised crime, and terrorism and in-migration management. Pushback allegations, however, were dismissed.
KAZAKH CARBON | Kazakhstan plans to align its revamped carbon emissions trading scheme closely with the EU’s as part of its domestic green transition plans, its lawmakers said.
WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING
ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…
We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe’s looks towards a busy end of the year. Here’s what’s coming up next week:
- European Parliament’s SEDE Committee meets on Article 44, Indo-Pacific
| Monday, 6 December 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- Biden-Putin phone call on Ukraine
| Tuesday, 7 December 2021 |
- International Court of Justice rules in Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute
| Tuesday, 7 December 2021 | The Hague, Netherlands
- European Commission to present Schengen Border Code update
| Wednesday, 8 December 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- SPD’s Olaf Scholz is elected as new German Chancellor
| Wednesday, 8 December 2021 | Berlin, Germany
- US President Biden hosts Summit for Democracy
| Thursday, 9 December 2021 | virtual
- European Parliament’s AFET Committee meets
| Friday, 10 December 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
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