08/20/2014 06:24 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Europe's Neighborhood Nightmare

Europe is currently facing its most alarming security environment in decades. With the return of old fashioned hard power aggression on its eastern flank and the spread of terrorism, instability and failed states at its southern doorstep, Europe is now stuck in a geopolitical perfect storm. What's worse: unless Europe can finally get its act together to respond to these threats in a strategic and comprehensive way, they will continue to fester for generations.

The invasion of Crimea by Russia in February was indeed a wakeup call for many Europeans. For far too long, many Europeans ignored the worrying signs coming from Moscow, favoring instead to maintain a business-as-usual relationship with Putin. Warnings from the Baltic countries and Poland about Russia were often met with indifference and skepticism in Western European capitals. And despite much talk, progress on energy security in Europe has been very slow.

A grave mistake it turned out. After the invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, Russia has opted to continue to destabilize Eastern Ukraine despite Western sanctions and condemnation. As a result, Eastern Ukraine now risks turning into a permanent frozen conflict -- with tremendous negative long-term repercussions for European security as a result. If Putin concludes he can get away with his actions in Ukraine, there are few reasons to believe he would hesitate to also send "green men" or use other forms of hybrid warfare against, say, one of the Baltic states. If anything, a feckless Western response may even further embolden Putin to pursue a more destructive path.

To deal with Russia, Europe needs a strategic response. The first pillar of such a strategy is redoubling its commitment to energy security. Europe must improve its energy infrastructure and must diversify its supplies by embracing North American oil and gas while also reversing decisions on banning nuclear energy in countries like Germany. The second pillar is a beefed up NATO. At its summit in Wales in September, the alliance should decide to place troops in Poland and the Baltic states on a permanent basis. Meanwhile, European states should also reverse the long-term negative spending trends on defense.

While the relationship with Russia has returned to Cold War levels, an arch of instability now stretches from Libya all the way to Pakistan. The Arab Spring, it seems, has turned into an Arab Hell. Most pressing is of course the situation in Iraq-Syria where the terrorist army ISIS has succeeded in combining al Qaeda's brutality with Hezbollah's administrative know-how. Despite the latest US-led bombing campaign, the group still has its powerbase in Syria and could eventually threaten stability in Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey. Moreover, it only a matter of time before some of the 3,000 EU passport holders currently fighting for ISIS return to Europe to carry out terrorist attacks there.

Instability in the region also risks bringing huge refugee flows to Europe. Thousands of Syrian refugees have already reached Europe, a number that could easily explode as the situation in Syria further deteriorates and new conflict spreads throughout Iraq.

Elsewhere in the region things are not looking too bright either. While Israel and Hamas are engaged in another spiral of violence Egypt is coping with political uncertainty and Libya could be on the verge of complete collapse. Even Tunisia, the poster child of the Arab revolution, recently saw its deadliest attack in 50 years occur at the border with Algeria. Further South, in the Sahel, challenges stemming from post-Qaddafi Libya and the 2012 crisis in Mali have already given rise to a worrying upsurge in refugees, terrorism, and illicit and organized crime. France has deployed sending a small rapid reaction force to Chad to operate throughout the region, but other EU states have so far chided away from contributing.

So far, Europe's response to the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa has been lackluster. Having failed to adequately support Arab states in transition, Europe is now scrambling to cope with the adverse effects of regional instability. But the EU, which prides itself with being a soft power superpower, could do much more to provide humanitarian assistance in Iraq right now. Moreover, besides band-aid solutions such as humanitarian aid, Europe must also provide real military assistance to local Iraqi and Kurdish forces who can fight ISIS. As a part of a long-term strategy for the region as a whole, Europe must also be wiling to extend opportunities for trade, people-to-people exchanges and other partnerships to foster development and stability.

Ultimately, Europe is facing an existential crisis in its near neighborhood that will not improve anytime soon. For far too long, Europeans have believed in the false notion of "Fortress Europe," that crises in its neighborhood are distant and can somehow be contained. The reality is that modern security threats know few borders.

The deadly combination of unprecedented geopolitical threats in the East and South is a wakeup call for the continent's leaders who can no longer afford to keep hitting the snooze button. Europeans must therefore abandon their false sense of security and begin dealing with the world the way it actually is, not the way they would prefer it to be. Although bold leadership may not be in the EU's DNA, rising to the occasion and adopting a robust and strategic response to regional instability is now called for.