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The Geo Interview with Prof. Rajan Menon

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

Prof. Rajan Menon

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

Professor Rajan Menon, Anna and Bernard Switzer Chair Emeritus in International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, speaks with The Geostrata’s Asish Singh on what’s next for Europe.

Asish: Welcome everybody to this special edition of The Geo interview. I am Asish Singh. And today we have with us Professor Rajan Menon, who is the Director of Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, the Anna and Bernard Switzer Chair Emeritus in International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York. Professor Menon is also a senior research scholar at the Saltzman Smith Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University, and a non resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He has authored numerous articles and books including co-authoring Conflict in Ukraine: the Unwinding of the Post Cold War. So it is in this series that we are going to discuss with Professor Menon some questions on Europe and on the wider plane, what is next for Europe, what comes next? So, Professor Menon, welcome to the Geostrata.

Prof. Menon: Thank you, Asish, thank you for the invitation. I'm happy to be here with you and the other members of the Geostrata audience.

Asish: Great. So we'll dive right in. So, Professor Melon, what's next for Europe from this point? In the Russian war on Ukraine, what might happen? Because Russia seems to have acquired momentum in the Ukraine, two new states are joining NATO and then there are other flashpoints ranging from sanctions to cyber attacks. So, your opinion on this, please?

Prof. Menon: The first thing to note is this is the biggest crisis that Russia and the West have been involved in since the end of the Cold War. By far, there were tensions building between the United States and Russia over Ukraine since at least 2014. I would argue even before that because in 2008, as you remember, NATO made the decision, in principle, to open its ranks to Georgia, but also Ukraine. There is no country of the post Soviet republics, that is the republics that were once part of the Soviet Union are now independent countries, that is more important to Russia than Ukraine.

Ukraine has a land area, Russia aside, one of the largest, if not the largest countries in Europe in population. It's about the fifth or sixth largest. Don't hold me to those numbers, but I'm estimating here. It's a fellow Slavic country. Ukrainians are by and large members of the Orthodox Church with about 1600 miles of border between them. And so the prospect that Ukraine would enter NATO was of grave concern to Russia. Then we have the 2014 crisis, which I'm sure your audience is familiar with. Nobody quite expected a full-on invasion by Russia or Ukraine, even though US intelligence in the run up to the invasion warned several times that it would happen.

I myself didn't expect it. I think most of us were caught off guard. So we now have a full blown war. The initial phase of the campaign, as you know, was from the north where the Russians tried to move through Chernihiv to Kiev with the idea, I think, of replacing the government, their activities elsewhere as well. That failed miserably. And since then, after about a three, four week calibration, the Russians have pivoted east of the Donbass, which is in eastern Ukraine. It is the industrial coal mining resource-rich area adjoining Russia with a substantial either ethnic Russian population or a population of Ukrainians, for whom Russian is the first language. The Russians appear to be making significant headway, although they've also taken significant losses in both soldiers and armour.

So that's kind of where we stand at the moment. One final thing, the latest development, as you I'm sure are aware, is the supply of the Himars weapon system from the United States to Ukraine. I think about eight have been delivered so far, and what we can see thus far is that weapons are taking a pretty significant toll on Russian ammunition dumps. Whether that reduces the Russian artillery attacks on the Donbass remains to be seen. But at the moment, those artillery attacks remain really fast and furious. If Russia is able to consolidate its control over Dunbas and also retain its holdings along the Black Sea coast and in the southeast, we're looking possibly at a partition of Ukraine, but the war is far from over.

Asish: Okay. Based on recent developments, could you please talk about the strategic significance as well as the vulnerability of the Suwalki Gap, of which we have been hearing a lot recently?

Prof. Menon: Right, so the Suwalki Gap controversy goes back actually to the Cold War. The Suwalki Gap is about 100 km long. It stretches along the Polish Lithuanian border. It's named for the town of Suwalki in northeastern Poland. So to the west of the Suwalki Gap, you have the Russian enclave Kaliningrad, which, as you know, is cut off from the Russian mainland. To the east you have Belarus, which is a Russian ally. To the north you have Lithuania, and to the south you have Poland. So the worry of Strategists is, it was true in the Cold War and is now, that if Russia decided currently to say, well, we need to escalate the war because the United States in particular, and NATO in general are in effect, cold belligerents because they are heavily involved in supporting and not supplying the Ukrainians.

I'm not saying this is going to happen, but this is what Strategists think about. If the Russians were to close the Suwalki Gap, the immediate consequence is that the three Baltic states who are members of the alliance would be cut off from the rest of NATO and therefore almost indefensible. Now, the frontline state, of course, would be Lithuania, but it is not in a position to offer much resistance to the Russian army because it has armed forces of about 20,000 and an air force with about five planes, including transport planes. So that's the significance of the Suwalki gap.

Do I personally think the Russians are going to attack a NATO state? I don't think so. They have their hands full in Ukraine. I think the attack on a NATO state would trigger Article Five of the Collective Security Alliance. I don't think President Putin is a risk taker or a gambler and wants at the moment to have an even larger war pitting Russia against Ukraine and certainly would not be a good thing for NATO to have a confrontation with Russia. I think it would be sheer madness to expect… to hope for any kind of outcome like that on either side.

Asish: Thank you. And building on this, what are some lessons that Europe should learn from this war, in so far as the European security architecture is concerned?

Prof. Menon: Right. So, as you know, once the Cold War ended, rather than create a pan European security architecture that included Russia, on the theory that the Cold War was over, Russia in the 1990s was being hailed as a democracy and a budding market economy, why not fold it into a pan European security architecture, right after the Cold War the last Soviet president, Michel Gorbachev, in fact suggested this. That was not received with receptive responses on the American side.

Gorbachev then suggested that once Germany was unified, that is, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the GDR, which was a Russian ally and a member of the Russian led Warsaw pact came together, that there would be an agreement that NATO would not station any troops in Eastern Germany, on the territory of the former GDR. That, too, didn't work out, now not flash forward to the 1990s, NATO expansion went from a concept, an idea in the mind of American strategists, to an actual plan. And NATO went from 16 members at the height of the Cold War to 30, now if Finland and Sweden join, which is very likely, it will be 32 members.

For Russia, this has been a significant problem. It is now seen as that NATO expansion is something that president Putin is obsessed with. But one has to remember that president Gorbachev was not and is not in favour of it. President Yeltsin in the 1990s repeatedly implored President Clinton not to go forward with it. Many Russians were perplexed because, on the one hand, the Cold War was declared to be over. Russia was hailed as a partner, and yet a Cold War alliance was marching toward the Russian border. So NATO expansion is one problem that will remain between Russia and the United States.

Now, when it came to Ukraine, at the Bucharest summit, as I mentioned, the decision was taken to, in principle, open the door to Ukraine and Georgia. Many people suggested that maybe a way to address Russia's concerns about potential Ukrainian membership in NATO was to make Ukraine a neutral country.

Prof. Menon: So Ukraine would be a non-block country but it would have the freedom to buy weapons from and train its soldiers in any country of its choice. That did not happen for a variety of reasons. So the one question is: NATO expansion, the rule of Ukrainian NATO and the future of Russia’s relationship with the West. Now as far as Europe as a whole, Europe fundamentally remains dependent as it did on American security guarantee. There is a debate about this and I can just represent to you where I stand on this.

My view is that there is no threat facing Europeans that in any way is comparable to the threat that the Warsaw Pact may have posed to Europe. And I say this even after the war with Russia. Now why do I say this, if you compare the GDP of Europe with that of Russia, the European Union has a GDP that’s about ten times larger. It's got a GDP of 17 trillion dollars. It's technologically advanced. Many of its members have very advanced defence industries. So there’s no reason in principle why Europe couldn’t articulate its own sense of strategic defence autonomy over time. So I am not calling for NATO to be liquidated tomorrow morning. But neither side, neither the Europeans nor the Americans wanted this.

No, why not. For Europe it’s a great deal to keep defence spending relatively low and to have the United States backstop its security. You might ask what’s in this for the United States. Being the prime defender of Europe makes the United States a European power. It also means that a major centre of international technology, trade and investment is centrally dependent on the United States for its security. If you add the fact that that is also true of Japan, South Korea and Australia, it means partly American primacy in the world drives from the fact that it is the security provider for important centres of global power.

So the next question is, what is the security architecture of Europe. I don’t think the option that I and others favour of an autonomous security structure in Europe is going to happen even though President Macron of France has suggested. In fact the US presence in NATO is going to increase to about a hundred thousand troops from the present level of about three hundred thousand. So if anything, the American security guarantee is going to become even stronger and there’s now a move to position American troops on a permanent basis in NATO's eastern flank which would require a revision, shall we say, of the 1977 Russia NATO Founding Act in which it was stated that there would be no such permanent station. So that’s sort of the lay of the land. If you take into account the prospect of membership of Sweden and Finland, NATO will become even a bigger security force in European security affairs.

Asish: And moving from that, what are your views on 2022 NATO’s strategic concept?

Prof. Menon: Yes, well I would say long on words, short on benchmarks and commitments. So to begin with, NATO has not had a new strategic concept since about ten years give or take. So the fact that it has a new strategic concept, is significant, and the obvious backdrop of the strategic concept is the Russian invasion of Ukraine which required NATO to think about what the alliance is supposed to be like now and what it will do. So it now has shifted NATO from thinking about Russia as a prospective partner to the number one security threat to NATO.

This is odd in some ways because now withstanding the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and we can talk about what it has done to Ukraine, it’s not clear why it is that Russia’s military performance in Ukraine would lead to the conclusion that it is now in a position to threaten all of Europe. Nevertheless, that strategic concept says that is the case. The Strategic Concept does not mention in its language something that has been talked about by NATO on the outside recently, and that is the creation of a rapid force for surging troops to the east if need be. So the rapid force is supposed to grow to about three hundred thousand members

I believe it is, and that would be seven times its size at the moment. That’s seven times more than what trained at the moment. But there’s no language in the NATO strategic concept about exactly who will provide how many troops to the rapid force. So who will provide troops, how would it be funded, would it be permanently stationed in the eastern flank or would it surge depending on need. Now why is there a lack of any commitment? First of all the strategic concept, my understanding is when Jens Stolkenberg, the Secretary General of NATO mentioned it, the other members of NATO were kind of taken aback. So that probably explains why it's not in the strategic concept.

Now even though its not, the question is will the rapid force reach the level of three hundred thousand. One has to be a little sceptical for the following reasons. First, if you go back to the NATO summit of 2014 in Wales, you will remember there were certain benchmarks that European NATO was to fulfil: 2% of national GDP in defence spending and 20% of the budget devoted to military for military procurement. If you ask how many countries have met both criteria, I think the numbers have been nine or ten out of thirty. So they haven’t even been able to do that, because there’s no guidelines and no enforcement ability and so on.

So coming back to the strategic concept, it has a lot of verbiage about the significance of the Russian threat, the importance of NATO, how good it is for the world, how good it is for Europe, but precious little in terms of the concrete commitments by all countries. Just a footnote on this: so you remember that after the war in Ukraine broke out, there was commitment by Germany to increase defence spending very significantly and there was a debate about whether this was a one-off thing or it would lead to a multi-revamping of defence spending in Germany which would mean maybe close to 2% of GDP, that was the expectation.

Given the economic crisis that’s enveloped Europe and is probably going to get worse in years to come, there’s a need to question whether the German defence spending will increase overtime substantially. At the moment the defence budget as of now has not been increased but overall spending would increase from the money set aside under the latest German commitment to increase overall defence spending but that money will tap out in the years to come and the question is would the German defence budget, proper, continue to increase nevertheless.

Asish: And this is a conjectural question but how long do you think will Russia be able to carry this war given its constraints… domestic constraints, sanctions and various other reasons.

Prof. Menon: Right, let’s look at the sanctions for a second. I think the western expectation of what the effects of sanctions will be was probably overly optimistic and misplaced in two respects. If you look at the history of sanctions, there have been some good studies, including a very good book by Professor Nicholas Mulder of Cornell on The History of Sanctions. And if I have to sort of just boil down the gist or the conclusion of sanctions, it sometimes tends to work, sometimes doesn't tend to work. They do not work when the country embarks on something it believes is vital for its national interest, countries have shown that they have prepared to endure a great deal of pain.

Think about the sanctions imposed on India in order to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons, it did not work, and the same thing for Pakistan. Think of the sanctions on Cuba, think of the sanctions on North Korea, think of the sanctions on Iran. So in some sense when the countries embark on a step that they think will invite a counter response they often price in the fact that sanctions will occur. So in that respect sanctions at best are a long-term proposition.

Secondly, I think there was probably not enough consideration given to how severe the boomerang effect of sanctions could be on the West itself in terms of higher oil and gas prices in particular, but because oil and gas are used in so many things from transportation to manufacturing what that would have on the inflation prospect. So at the moment in the United States, the inflation figures have released the consumer price index. It's about 9.1%, that’s the highest inflation rate in 40 years. Inflation prospects for Europe look very-very bad, same thing for Britain.

And the question is will the United States and Europe possibly tip into a recession. A recession in America in terms is defined as two quarters of negative growth. So that has not been taken into account significantly, by that I mean the boomerang effect of the sanctions. So I think the expectation that Russia will wind down this war because of economic pressures overlooks the fact that actually the Rubble has strengthened and Russia continues to earn a significant amount of oil and gas revenues and in fact and we may have to brace for the following:

So at the moment, the Russians have stopped shipping gas through the Yamal pipeline that runs through Poland to Europe. They have already stopped that.

Since the war began they have reduced the flow through the Nord stream, that is the Nord Stream 1, the one that actually was built, and the second one was a cancelled project, by about 40%. At the moment and until July 21 Nord Stream one is being shut down for maintenance. There is an increasing fear that Russia will not open up the Nord stream again which would have a very significant impact on Europe, especially on countries that are highly dependent on Russian energy supplies such as Germany, Italy, and so on. It is also possible that President Putin could reduce by a little bit the amount of oil that Russia puts on the world market.

And even if you reduce by about 3 million barrels a day that could push up oil prices and the double whammy of increased gas prices and oil prices would have a very very significant effect. And why would he do that? I think he would like to say that you have your weapons, like frozen 300 billion dollars of our assets, you put all kinds of other economic pressure on us, we have our tools as well. And his hope would be that the western world's continuous support to Ukraine will gradually begin to falter, that would be his bet. I am not saying that will happen but that might be his calculation.

Asish: And this would be the second last question and it might be a bit academic, so how do you see this war and its consequences in terms of the manoeuvring that Russia-China and the West are doing in terms of revamping the international economic order or the international security order for that matter. Even India, the Reserve Bank Of India recently notified that we can have trade- n rupees for example, perhaps to set up an alternative to the Dollar-dominated financial order, maybe to sort of evade the sanctions whenever they do something. How do you see all of this revamping through a realist or a liberal lens? Any theory you might choose.

Prof. Menon: So, one possible consequence we have to brace for is that although the dollar will continue to be the most important currency for denominating the value of products, oil for example, for storing value in foreign exchange and for settling accounts in international trade. It is going to be the most important. But its importance has declined gradually over time in the last few decades. Countries having witnessed the freezing of about 300 billion dollars in Russian assets are going to ask themselves well the dollar is very good, is very reliable and the United States is an economy that people have a lot of faith in, but should we store so much of our foreign exchange in dollars or are we to diversify to other currencies.

So that could be one consequence. The second consequence is working out mechanisms for settling an account in other ways. Now you mentioned for example or you alluded to the discussions in the BRICS countries about using their own currencies for settling accounts. We are a long way from seeing how that plays out but that is certainly a possibility. So, one question is what conclusions will countries draw about their own vulnerabilities to sanctions. You notice that countries like India, Brazil, and Mexico have not jumped to the front and also imposed sanctions on Russia and I think there are very good reasons for that and we can talk about that.

Second and this is more a geostrategic shift, there has been at least since the 1990s a partnership between China and Russia that isn’t declared by both sides, at least a strategic partnership that preceded President Yeltsin. That partnership while it won’t become an alliance is going to certainly strengthen. And so That will be one other consequence of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Now some suggest it's good for china the question is how good is it for Russia? So if you look back in history the Russian-Chinese relationship has had ups and downs from ideological solidarity to conversion interests to border disputes including shooting along the border, and now it is in a very good phase.

A Russian strategist might want to ask if they want to be more dependent on China, given the troubled history, or do we want to be in a situation where we are kind of equidistant in the sense that we have a western option as well as a Chinese option so we have bargaining leverage against both. The war for the moment at least has pushed Russia much closer to China. And the war while it has meant destruction for China means that the west is kind of tied out with war on its western flank…. And I think that the Chinese probably are not unhappy that it's happening

Asish: Great if I may say. And the last question would be how do you view the Indian position over Ukraine?

Prof. Menon: India has faced calls from the United States to condemn Russia, but it has not done so. It has faced calls to scale back on Russian energy imports, in fact, it has increased imports at a discounted price. India has not joined the sanctions regime and this must be understood against the backdrop of many decades of friendship with the Soviet Union which was one of India's most reliable partners during the Cold War. Relationship with the United States was correct at certain times and virgin and hostile at other times, the worst point perhaps being the 1971 India-Pakistan war which gave rise to the birth of Bangladesh.

And so I think they are asking the Indians to take a step that transforms the relationship with Russia from good to bad was much too big a step. The other thing to bear in mind is that while the rest of the world has announced to line up behind the sanctions regime and condemn the Russian invasion as a violation of norms, this is primarily a Europe-United States concern and while maybe it ought to be the concern of the rest of the world, it’s far removed from the present concerns of countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa. So Prime Minister Modi's position is not, I think for anyone who looks at the world from a realist perspective, in the least bit surprising.

Asish: Thank you so much professor Menon for this interview and just to summarise for our audience: we have discussed what are the basic motivations that have driven Europe and Russia to this war, what might be the consequences in terms of what is next for Europe, the international security and financial regime, India's interests, the fault lines across like the Suwalki corridor, European Union’s integrity, the new NATO Strategic Concept and the loopholes in that.

So We will be presenting this interview as a transcribed article on our platforms soon so please stay tuned for that. Professor Menon, thank you so much.

Prof. Menon: Thank you Asish, it’s been my pleasure.

Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page





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