The start of 2019 marks at least five years of an increasingly complicated international security environment and a return of geopolitical competition among great powers.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 and launched a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, a war has persisted on the European continent. Additionally, the U.S. has not fully come to terms with the fact that foreign influence hit home soil, highlighted by Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election of 2016. Russian attempts to sway all European elections of note, including the Brexit vote, have been a hallmark of these years, as well.
MORE: [5 Global Events To Watch in 2019]
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s administration has thrown down the gauntlet on Russia’s energy dominance in Europe by promoting America’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports and opposing Russia’s new gas pipeline project Nord Stream 2. Despite the ongoing tensions between Russia and the West, China has become another great power difficult to ignore. China and its economic diplomacy is increasingly seen with wariness not only in the U.S., but also in Europe.
Given those trends, I offer what I see as some of the greatest security threats that can emanate from Europe and Eurasia and that will impact U.S. and global security. The list is not comprehensive; as political scientist and humorist Leo Rosten once said, “Some things are so unexpected that no one is prepared for them.”
1. Conflict in southeastern Ukraine and the Kerch Straits
Late in 2018 a new focal point in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia emerged with the risk of a major flare-up this year: the maritime conflict over the Kerch Straits. Russia’s capture of Ukrainian navy vessels in the Kerch Straits near their new low-lying bridge connecting Crimea with the Taman Peninsula of Russia marked the start of this new conflict. This was the first time that Russian military forces openly engaged with Ukrainian forces, not hiding behind the labels of “separatists” or ” little green men” without insignia.
In 2019, risks run high that Russia could close the Kerch Straits, thus closing off access to the Black Sea for Ukrainian shipping and turning the Sea of Azov into a Russian “lake.” As a result, the southeastern Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov would be hard hit, hurting the economy and social stability in port cities such as Mariupol and Berdyansk. This region has been eyed by Moscow in ambitions to create a Russian-controlled corridor from Donetsk along southeastern Ukraine’s coast to Crimea.
Gaining influence or control over the southeastern coast would also strengthen Russia’s hold on Crimea, the peninsula that for now remains isolated from mainland Ukraine and thus with limited access to fresh water supplies. A risk of a major military conflict between Ukraine and Russia over the coast of southeastern Ukraine cannot be ruled out for 2019.
2. Economic and Diplomatic Divide Over Nord Stream 2
The natural gas Nord Stream 2 pipeline project aiming to bring additional Russian gas under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany is poised to divide Europe and to face sanctions from the United States in 2019. This year we can expect final blows to fall on the controversial project lobbied by the Russian government, led by their gas giant Gazprom and involving a number of European companies such as Engie, OMV, Royal Dutch Shell, Uniper and Wintershall.
The U.S., a number of European countries and some political forces in Germany are against this project. Nord Stream 2 is seen to undermine Europe’s energy security strategy by promoting dependence on Russian gas, increasing the spread of Russia-linked corruption and boosting the threats of military incidents or accidents in the Baltic Sea. If the pipeline were to be built, it would also enable Russia to bypass Ukraine’s territory and infrastructure in its gas transports, thus freeing Moscow’s hand to pursue a more active military campaign in the Donbas and along the Sea of Azov without the risks of interrupting gas exports.
Opposition to this pipeline project is among the few issues finding bipartisan agreement in Washington. In February, the Senate introduced the DASKA bill — Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act — that calls for mandatory sanctions on Russian energy projects. In December 2018, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the European Parliament passed largely symbolic but critical resolutions calling for the pipeline to be cancelled. With the U.S. government shutdown hopefully behind us, additional bills, resolutions and even sanctions against Nord Stream 2 are likely in 2019. They would could cause embarrassing economic and diplomatic tensions between Germany and the U.S. if the former does not back out of this increasingly controversial project.
Likewise, a hardening line in Brussels on Nord Stream 2 is to be expected in 2019 and it would bode poorly for Germany’s leadership to go against their European allies. A divided Europe with a fractured transatlantic relationship would be a major blow to American and European security.
3. U.S. Standoff with China, Ban on Huawei
The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy named China and Russia as “revisionist powers” and as potential threats to America and beyond. Until recently, the Trump administration voiced more concern over the trade imbalance and technology transfers vis-à-vis China. Now the White House is preparing an executive order to ban Chinese companies from selling equipment to be used in telecommunications networks as a risk of cyber warfare and espionage.
In Europe, the Czech Republic has raised questions about Huawei, the Chinese multinational that is one of the globe’s leading producer of consumer electronics and the leading manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. Likewise, Warsaw recently claimed that a Huawei employee in Poland was also a Chinese intelligence operative. Washington holds that Huawei and other Chinese companies should be prevented from participating in the building of infrastructure for the fifth generation of wireless technology (known as 5G) in the West. However, Germany is leaning toward allowing Huawei to participate in building the country’s high-speed internet infrastructure, signaling a further divide between the U.S. and the European Union on the issue. Smaller countries could face hostile retaliation from Beijing, especially if NATO or the EU do not take a common position.
This year we can expect a further cooling of U.S. and some European countries attitudes toward Beijing’s economic diplomacy. A rise in tensions is in the cards including over trade, military competition in the South China Sea, espionage, China’s economic influence in the West and realignments in Africa, Central Asia and Central Europe prompted by China’s Belt & Road political-economic initiative. As tensions escalate, the question remains whether China will flex its muscles and demonstrate its inroads in the West, or keep a low profile, or ally with Russia.
4. Anti-EU Parties to Capture the European Parliament
This May the European Parliament election is likely to bring unprecedented results and could even start an unraveling process for the EU. In the past, the European Parliament and their elections have never truly captured the attention or the imagination of the European public. The technocrats and their decisions in Brussels seemed too far removed. This will no longer be the case in May. Anti-EU sentiment and Euro-skeptic parties are expected to have a strong showing. Europe’s current main-stream parties, the conservative EPP and Social Democrats are expected to lose their majority.
If the new European Parliament is filled with Euro-skeptics we can expect deteriorating legislative capability, disagreements on policy, and even efforts to undermine or break up the EU from within. France’s right-wing political leader Marine Le Pen has said, “I Don’t Want this European Soviet Union.” Emboldened by the Brexit vote, other Euro-skeptic parties may try to follow a similar path. Given the rise of geopolitical competition from Russia and China and conflict on the EU’s borders, this would leave Europe’s security vulnerable and constrained in its response to growing external threats.
5. Attacks on Energy Grids
Energy security may seem like old news. With the U.S. having emerged as the leading natural gas producer and one of the leading oil producers in the world, concerns over energy supplies have moved to the background for Washington and many of its allies. However, with geopolitical competition increasingly relying on cyberattacks, data breaches, artificial intelligence and information warfare, the resilience of the energy sector is in question.
“An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these cyber tools to gain critical control of critical switches,” former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in a speech in October 2012. “They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
Those risks remain in 2019. Securing America’s or its allies’ energy companies and energy infrastructure such as grids remains as problematic as ever. Moreover, the list of potential hostile actors is growing: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, radical groups and individuals. An attack on American or European energy grids is thus a key security risk for 2019 that would have a direct disruptive impact on the economy and society at large.
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