Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Europe faces a perfect storm of crises on a scale not seen since World War Two. Endless streams of migrants are testing political cohesion. The euro zone crisis remains deeply unresolved, with the richer north and poorer south eyeing each other suspectly. A resurgent Russia provides an external threat in a way not seen since the Berlin Wall fell. Ukraine is a stark reminder that limited conflicts are not unthinkable.  But major, widespread European conflagration? It might remain unlikely, but no longer as unthinkable as it once was.  Some even predict it. In recent months, several current and former U.S. and European officials have told me they privately believe a major European war is no longer unthinkable. One even said he actively expected it to happen.  My own country, Britain, faces its own rather raw choice in June this year, deciding whether or not to remain a member of the European Union. The UK will probably stay in, informed opinion says — although there is also a consensus that the worse the news flow from the continent, the more likely it is to leave. It is difficult to predict how events will unfold, or even what the greatest risks might be: the effects of mass migration, the dangers of growing tensions with a resurgent Russia, the ongoing lingering threat that the euro might unravel. The worst-case scenario might be all of the above happening at once, prompting a collapse into chaos and violence that could be extremely difficult to manage or recover from. Worries over the effect of the migrant crisis skyrocketed after the November Paris attacks, and perhaps even more after reported New Year’s Eve mass sexual assaults in Cologne and other German cities, some blamed on migrants. Russia, meanwhile, is increasingly accused by some U.S. and European officials of deliberately exacerbating tensions in Europe through propaganda and disinformation. At the end of February Philip Breedlove, NATO’s military chief and head of the U.S. European Command went so far as to accuse Moscow of “weaponizing” refugees by stoking the Syrian war to undermine European institutions and resolve. Russia’s agenda remains extremely opaque — particularly since this week’s announcement by Moscow of a withdrawal from Syria. Vladimir Putin could be trying to push Bashar al-Assad towards the negotiating table by threatening to cut support — or simply trying to muddy the waters still further. For sure, the unraveling of the EU — and even more so, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — would offer Moscow considerable short-term advantage. It would also be a catastrophe for vulnerable Northern European states such as the openly nervous Baltics. Ultimately, though, a truly chaotic collapse in Europe could threaten Russia’s interests as much as anyone else.

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