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The Future of NATO’s Southern Flank

NATO’s Southern Flank is Turkey, for the most part. Greece is discussed in the article as well, but, more so in how the relationship between Greece and Turkey is balanced. The Eastern Flank is mentioned. This is Poland. With an eye to Ukraine if it can be accomplished.

A few paragraphs from a very long article

Historically, NATO’s activity in the south has always lacked a coherent strategy and has been subordinate to the east. Member states have often found themselves supporting different strategies and actors in the south, and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has further diverted attention to the eastern flank. Yet, this does not make the southern strategy any less important. Despite its geographical limits, the war in Ukraine directly influences the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Africa. The past decade has shown that NATO’s eastern and southern regions share intertwined security dynamics, driven by Russia’s geopolitical maneuvers and China’s systemic competition.

Russia has long aimed to limit NATO’s access to the Mediterranean and to increase its presence in the region by building up its naval forces. These long-held ambitions are strongly tied to gaining a strategic position in the Black Sea. Putin built a Mediterranean squadron largely drawn from the Black Sea Fleet, which was strengthened by Russia securing critical ports in Abkhazia and Crimea. For Russia, the ability to move maritime assets freely between the Black and Mediterranean Seas has been key in undermining the positions of NATO members in both regions.

Despite NATO being a regional alliance and China not being considered as an enemy, the systemic challenges posed by China require NATO to develop a strategy that integrates both the eastern and southern flanks. The possibility of an Indo-Pacific conflict is already reshaping the character of Euro-Atlantic security, with significant implications for U.S. defense and alliance commitments. Such a conflict would strain U.S. resources, leaving the European pillar of the alliance to assume greater responsibility for geopolitical threats. In a similar vein, war in Ukraine has increased alignment between China and Russia, leading to a systemic shift in the threat landscape.

Moreover, China’s economic integration through strategic investments in countries on NATO’s southern flank is part of a larger policy that increases dependency on China in key sectors such as critical infrastructure, minerals, supply chains, and areas such as telecommunications and clean tech. This dependency will need to be addressed by the alliance moving forward, especially as Europe scales up defense production reliant on these investments. Furthermore, the instability and hybrid threats emanating from both state and non-state actors are directly associated with Russia’s and China’s expanded influence along NATO’s southern border

A Nordic NATO– (Controlling the Arctic)

NATO’s completion of its northern puzzle is furthermore significant in broad geopolitical terms. More than a mere incremental addition to NATO, the new Nordic defense situation is a historic achievement that is likely to influence the Nordic countries’ strategic cultures. The unification of the Nordic countries inside NATO spells the end of the greater Nordic space as a centuries-old geopolitical buffer zone. From the end of the Napoleonic wars and for more than 200 years, this space was defined outside-in in geopolitical terms. Boxed in by Russia from the east, by the United Kingdom from the west, and, increasingly, by Germany from the south, the greater Nordic space, including the Baltic states, was subject to great power interests and a balance of power which varied over time.

After World War II, the Cold War divisions repeated the buffer zone’s logic: Denmark and Norway in NATO (but not without initial quibbles and talk of a Scandinavian defense union, which for the same reason had no legs). After the end of the Cold War, Finland and Sweden dropped their formal neutrality but stayed “alliance free.” All four states in various ways had special relationships with Russia: Finland’s dual approach of conventional military strength and political expediency gave name to “Finlandization”; Sweden fostered a double reality of deep military connections to the West and a public political discourse closer to the Non-Aligned Movement; Norway cultivated a pragmatic cooperation with Russia, especially on Svalbard; and Denmark, with some reticence, acknowledged its sovereignty of the Island of Bornholm. A geopolitics of the mind played out in all four countries. While de facto on the Western side in the great global struggle between capitalist democracy and communism, their political discourses, in various ways and to different degrees, often equated the Nordic experience with a way apart from the rest of the world, somehow elevated above the fray, outside of the logic of great power tensions. As Johan Jørgen Holst noted in 1984:

“The Nordic area constitutes a geostrategic unity shaped by . . . the prevailing constellation of contending powers. It forms in addition a psychostrategic unity shaped by a feeling of community and a recurrent nostalgia for Nordic separateness and autarky. Since the former constrains the manifestation of the latter, the two are in constant tension.”

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