Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on May 16, 2024.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on May 16, 2024. (Alexander Ryumin, Pool Photo, AFP/TNS)

All is not quiet on the eastern front.

Russia, China and Iran are forming a despotic triumvirate hellbent on creating a superior world order built on force, autocracy and erosion of rights.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own hidden game in the South Caucuses is emerging, where a rival, undemocratic union is threatening to materialize and supersede Europe’s fragmented one.

Georgia’s billionaire prime minister recently passed a draconian new media regulation law, dubbed the “Russian law,” at a time when neighboring Armenia is seeking economic and security ties with the West instead of Russia.

While protesters against this law were brutally put down and disappeared by Georgia’s pro-Russian regime, the protesters against Armenia’s change of stance thrive with Russian backing.

Georgia’s ruling “Dream” Party is becoming Europe’s new nightmare.

Now, Europe must strengthen regional pro-European forces, or risk Russia re-creating its own competing union.

For there is a worrying economic dimension too. Georgia is set to become a haven for sanctioned Russian oligarchs, rubbishing European sanctions, potentially in return for a reintegration of its Russian-backed breakaway regions into Georgia proper — with Putin’s blessing.

This reintegration has remained the primary goal of Georgia’s ruling party — one that’s enabled them to retain a mandate to lead the country for over a decade. Recent polls show this issue is more important than joining the European Union.

China is benefiting from Georgia’s realignment and Russia’s games too. Georgia transferred the tender for a strategic deep-sea port in the Black Sea from a U.S.-led consortium to controversial Chinese firms, boosting China’s control over data-rich underwater cables beyond the South China Sea.

This move coincides with China’s ongoing belligerence in the South China Sea amid competition with America. Last year, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources published a map laying claim to vast areas belonging to the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The waters around Malaysia’s oil-rich Sabah region were included in China’s map, further complicating a geopolitical picture where a long-lost dynasty based in the Philippines — the Sulu Sultanate — lay claim to the same region with tremendous financial support from Silicon Valley and Western litigation funders, Therium, who fronted $20 million in legal fees toward a failed $15 billion claim.

The case is now being petitioned in Manhattan, where Therium is expected to be questioned over a $2 million payment to the — now criminally convicted — Spanish arbitrator, Gonzalo Stampa. But the wider geopolitical context in Malaysia’s Sabah largely mirrors the tussle for Georgia’s breakaway regions.

After all, Europe and the West will lose these “secret wars” if we render union with Russia, China or Iran more attractive than partnerships with the West.

Nowhere is this more apparent today than in Armenia, where pro-Western Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, disillusioned by Russia’s abandonment of “ethnically cleansed” Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, has turned to the indifferent West for new allies.

In light of this, former NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen called for Europe to “step up” its support for Armenia, but apart from French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent move to send military aid, it largely hasn’t.

To combat these developments, Europe must first reform its institutions and shred pre-accession bureaucracy in order accelerate membership toward its own democratic union.

This includes tightening existing sanctions and issuing new, broad sanctions against Russia’s emerging middlemen to curb further pivots toward Putin.

Second, Europe must reverse its growing energy dependency to Azerbaijan.

After Europe weaned itself off Russian oil and gas, Azerbaijan’s autocrat leader Ilham Aliyev emerged as a savior, despite Aliyev forging deeper ties with Putin amid $4 billion in trade.

This runs counter to the consensus that emerged among almost 200 countries at last year’s COP28 in Dubai. Driven by COP president Sultan Al-Jaber, the UAE Consensus promised to “transition away” from fossil fuels and transition to green energy. As one of the key signatories, Europe should be doubling down — not only to alleviate its reliance on oil, but as part of a more coherent security strategy.

In a grand bargain, Russia’s north-south strategic vision with Iran also depends on Aliyev achieving his own east-west vision with its own strategic partner, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Both Putin and Aliyev increasingly believe they can help deliver it for each other.

That is why these threats all weave together to support one last imperative: Europe must arm itself well beyond 2% NATO commitments for any sudden geopolitical shifts it remains perilously unprepared for.

“Trump-proofing” or not, Europe’s security begins and ends with renewing an appetite among European nations to not only fend for themselves but to demonstrate to hostile powers it has the capacity to deter or use devastating economic and military force when pushed.

Because if integration in the South Caucuses continues to follow Putin’s vision and significantly enhances Russia’s relationship with Iran, Europe won’t just have a belligerent Russia on its doorstep, but a resurrection of old Soviet powers reanimated by Putin for his war machine.

George Meneshian is a Greek-Armenian International Relations and security expert specializing in the Middle East and the Caucasus. As a former soldier he holds a unique insight into security and defense affairs and has co-authored several books on international relations and diplomacy. He is a researcher at the Washington Institute for Defense and Security and head of the Middle East Research Group of the Institute of International Relations (IDIS) in Athens.

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