2024 - RUSSIA’S DESTABILISING ROLE IN NATO’S SOUTHERN NEIGHBOURHOOD

Theo FRANCKEN (Belgium) - PRELIMINARY DRAFT GENERAL REPORT

15 April 2024

Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine has not only fundamentally altered the security situation along NATO’s eastern flank, but it has also had spillover impacts across the globe. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the MENA region as an integral element of his ambition to rebuild an empire from the Pacific to Central Europe and from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Burdened by structural weaknesses, Moscow is compelled to seek opportunity in instability to advance its regional agenda. Russia’s approach to the region is thus opportunistic, transactional, conditional, and ultimately, destabilising. 

Given its geopolitical opportunism and limited resources, Moscow has positioned itself to exploit perceived Western vulnerabilities in an asymmetric fashion while leveraging anti-Western sentiments prevalent among state and non-state actors in the region. Russia’s so-called “private militias” have spearheaded these efforts. Russian militia groups provide intelligence gathering, training, disinformation, and proxy militia functions in exchange for access to local businesses and natural resources. 

Russian attempts to weaponise migration are particularly concerning. In a fragile region further weakened by unaccountable governments, ongoing insurrection, weapons, and people trafficking, as well as climate change-induced desertification and famine, the risk of mass migration flows is ever present and of direct concern to Europe. Russian militia activities have only encouraged migratory flows by fuelling instability. Russia has done nothing to provide stability or humanitarian relief – it does not have an interest or the resources to do so. It traffics in instability and sees the mass movement of people towards Europe as beneficial in that it burdens frontline Allied nations. Europe must do much more to curb uncontrolled migration and cannot allow Russia to weaponise human lives for the purposes of weakening Allied solidarity.

Russia’s economy is highly dependent on energy exports, and it has worked particularly closely in the OPEC+ Forum to maintain high prices that compensate for losses linked to international sanctions on its oil industry. Energy revenues underwrite Russia’s war on Ukraine, and this makes its energy partnership with the Gulf countries particularly concerning. Efforts are needed to tighten energy sanctions on Russia’s energy secondary and enhance enforcement of these restrictions.

Russia’s burgeoning relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran demonstrates in a visceral way the linkages the Kremlin now makes between the Ukrainian theatre and the broader MENA region. Tehran has become a critical supplier of weapons to Russia and its missiles and munitions have had a devastating impact not only on the battlefields of Ukraine but also on its civilian infrastructure. While all Allied countries must concern themselves with developments in the broader MENA region, it is important to recognise the exposure of NATO’s southern Allies to developments in the region and the key role that they play in defending all Allies from threats emanating from there. These countries are all contributing to collective security through their efforts to stabilise the region, deter aggression, and work with southern partners and neighbours to address critical development, migration, and security challenges.


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