Prof. Dr. Rob de Wijk – Towards a New Iron Curtain

Towards a New Iron Curtain

By Prof. Dr. Rob de Wijk / The Hague Center for strategic Studies and Leiden University


The Russian war against Ukraine will have important implications for the future European security order. Many analysts, including myself, did not believe that Putin would attack: 150.000 troops are simply too few to ‘demilitarize’ and to ‘denazify’ a country, let alone to occupy it. The results of bad intelligence, wishful thinking and a poorly functioning armed forces became soon visible. A quick victory would no doubt have strengthened Russia’s position in Europe, granting Putin his long-held wish of a new buffer zone.


With today’s knowledge, a stalemate followed by a cease fire seems to be the most likely outcome. It is highly questionable whether after a ceasefire there will be a peace settlement in which both sides confirm the status quo. A case in point is the cease fire between North and South Korea which has been in place for 70 years without a peace agreement in sight. Therefore, a frozen conflict is the most likely outcome.


Such an outcome is dramatic for all parties. Ukraine could lose territory, but its armed forces will be transformed into Western style armed forces. This will put Russia in a very unfavorable position against NATO that can and will be exploited. Further enlargement of NATO with Sweden and Finland is a first step. This is already a massive strategic defeat for Putin.


But a ‘cease fire only’ agreement is also a bad outcome for the West. The main reason is that it is not in line with the declaratory objectives of the sanctions and arms supplies. Both the US and the EU strove for a clear victory for Ukraine.


Unachievable goals?


The European Council Conclusions of the 24th of February demanded that ‘Russia immediately ceases its military actions, unconditionally withdraws all its forces and military equipment from the entire territory of Ukraine and fully respect its territorial integrity and independency within its internationally recognized borders’. By imposing sanctions, the EU invigorated these words, but it was unclear how the sanctions could coerce Russia to accept those demands.


The sanctions were designed ‘to cripple’ the Kremlin’s ability to finance the war and to impose ‘clear economic and political costs on Russia’s leadership and diminish its economic base’. In another document the EU spoke about ‘weakening the ability to finance the war’. ‘To cripple’ was also the verb used by high Commissioner Borrell. Von der Leyen spoke about ‘destroying the Russian war machine’. The US president spoke similar words, but defense secretary Austin broadened the discussion by adding ‘the weakening of the Russian economy’.


Sanctions as a response to the unprovoked aggression against a sovereign state are justified, but the way the sanctions were imposed was problematic for several reasons. First, the sanctions were only supported by some 40 countries. The lack of broad support for the West also became clear in the UN. As the UN Security Council was paralyzed, a Uniting for Peace procedure transferred the voting to the General Assembly. A majority voted in favor of the resolution, but the number of abstentions (35) was worrying – including India, South Africa and China. Those abstentions represent half of the world’s population. A repetition of this voting behavior took place in October during the sentencing in the General Assembly of the Russian annexations of occupied territory.


Second, one must make a distinction between the goals of sanctions and the result of sanctions. The goals of the sanctions should be the departure of all Russian soldiers. But the sanctions did not stop the ‘war machine’. This was to be expected. The formula for successful sanctions, or coercion in general is simple: the costs of defiance borne by the target must be greater than its perceived cost of compliance. In recent history, the disruption of a military intervention impairing the military capabilities of the target country has never succeeded. Success can only be achieved by a combination of sanctions and military force.


The result of the sanctions is that they have a severely weakened the Russian economy.  A Yale study revealed that Russian domestic production has come to a complete standstill with no capacity to replace lost businesses, products, and talent. The hollowing out of Russia’s domestic innovation and production base has led to soaring prices and consumer angst, and with the exodus of some 1,000 global companies, Russia has lost companies that represent some 40% of its gross domestic product. Tens of thousands highly skilled workers have left the country. Limited-target sanctions thus became part of a broad strategy of economic warfare that used money transfers, oil, gas, food, and commodities as weapons.


Third, a crucial mistake by the EU was the announcement to block Russian oil imports arriving by sea by the end of 2022 and the commitment to reducing gas imports from Russia by two-thirds within a year without a clear understanding of the economic consequences and the alternatives at hand. Thus, the EU made itself vulnerable to blackmail by Russia. The reducing of the flow of gas caused panic in Germany and in many other EU-member states, causing a price explosion and general doubt whether we had enough gas for heating our homes in winter and keeping our economies running. The Hungarian PM Orban did not comply and brokered a new gas contract with Gazprom.


As the coercer got coerced, the EU should have either completely halted the import of Russian gas or threatened President Putin with sanctions if he would use energy as a weapon.


What is next?


We’re entering a new Cold War. After the end of the previous Cold War, European leaders accepted the principles of the 1990 Charter of Paris. They embraced the principles of a ‘Europe whole and free’ where all nations could join the organizations of their choice, could choose their own political and economic system, and would accept the Helsinki principles and the obligation to settle disputes peacefully. Unfortunately, both the Charter of Paris and the principles codified in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act are dead.


This is a dangerous situation. The situation could become even more dangerous if Russia, because of its own blunder, again feels humiliated and resentment grows. If we do nothing, we will have a new Cold War without the traditional OSCE-safety belt. Indeed, with a defunct INF treaty, it is necessary to revitalize confidence and security building measures as codified in the 1990 Vienna Document. The Confidence and Security Building Measures on transparency, the exchange of military information, notifications on certain military activities and exercises, and for example on-site inspections have not been revised and have hardly been followed since 2011. This is a high-risk situation that should be addressed. This means that it is now necessary to think about the future security order in which Russia will find a place.


But due to the deterioration of the relationship between the West and Russia, in the short run, a new Iron Curtain seems unavoidable. NATO membership of Sweden and Finland are important steps in this direction. This new iron curtain will be defended by a reinvented NATO, one that already took the decision to strengthen the defense of its outer borders with battle groups that will be upgraded to brigades as part of a decision at the 2022 Madrid summit to put 300,000 troops on high alert.


The EU could play also an increasingly important role. This crisis turned the EU into a military player. Member states were reimbursed for their weapon supplies to Ukraine. They took steps towards a more credible European defense posture. Indeed, the EU has no choice but to develop into a security player with a revitalized European defense industry and multinational units. I would not be surprised if the war will strengthen the EU and contributes to greater European integration.


Indeed, the financial crisis of 2010 accelerated financial integration; the Covid-19 crisis accelerated common crisis response mechanisms and collective efforts regarding heath care; Brexit made the EU politically stronger; and the transatlantic crisis during the Trump years exposed the vulnerability of too much reliance on the US. And this crisis, like the other ones, strengthened the EU as a geopolitical player, one that is willing to complement geo-economic power with military power.


A very important point of departure for the EU Member States is that the US has made it clear that China is the major competitor, not Russia. Washington urges Europe to take care of its own security risks. Moreover, after the Trump years, Europeans know that collective defense without US leadership is no longer a given.


In conclusion, the most likely results of the war will be another frozen conflict and a new iron curtain. For that reason, the member states of the EU must think about the desired the European security order. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that such a cooperative security order will be built while Putin remains in power.



About the Autor


Rob de Wijk is the founder of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) and Professor of International Relations and Security at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University. He studied Contemporary History and International Relations at Groningen University, and wrote his PhD dissertation on NATO’s ‘Flexibility in Response’ strategy at the Political Science Department of Leiden University. Prof. De Wijk started his career in 1977 as a freelance journalist and later became head of the Defense Concepts Department of the Dutch Ministry of Defense, head of the Security Studies at the Clingendael Institute, and Professor of International Relations at the Royal Netherlands Military Academy.