AN UNSENTIMENTAL LOOK AT THE GEOPOLITICS OF CENTRAL EUROPE PART I

AN UNSENTIMENTAL LOOK AT THE GEOPOLITICS OF CENTRAL EUROPE*

Part I

“… a national interest is neither disinterested nor objective. Nor can it be said to bear any moral quality.”
(George F. Kennan: The Kennan Diaries. New York–London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, p. 334.)

Central Europe(1) has always been at the crossroads of history or, to put it less charitably, the region has always been a playground of sorts for major outside powers, especially Germany and Russia (the Soviet Union). Their various attempts over the centuries to impose their political, economic and cultural (value) systems are all too familiar to require any explanation; a look at the map and even the most superficial knowledge of their history or that of any of the Central European states would suffice. Since at least the end of the Second World War, the United States has also been considered to be a “European” power. As such, it exerted indirect influence over the fate of Central Europe during the Cold War, while after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist regimes in the region, it became a “Central European power” as well through its role in the Balkans in the 1990s and with the institutional expansion of NATO into the area in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Of course, one can make a (plausible) case that the US was an ”honorary Central European power” as early as the 1980s when Washington provided vital assistance to the Solidarity movement in Poland, and to the so-called democratic opposition in Hungary (especially at the time of Mark Palmer’s ambassadorship). We could also mention here the activities of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as the US is the single largest stakeholder in both financial institutions and practically nothing can be done by them without an American nihil obstat.

After the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe it seemed for a brief moment that geopolitics in this region had been cast on the “ash heap of history”. Paraphrasing Isaiah (11:6): the wolf and the lamb seemed to start a new life and to dwell not just peacefully, but also cooperatively side by side. The most important international organisation, the United Nations seemed to be functioning in harmony with the original idealistic goals: defending the sovereignty of the member states and settling international disputes by peaceful means. This blessed moment was not to last long: the successive crises in the Balkans pitted the West (the Atlantic community) against Russia again. The reinterpretation of international law by NATO and the introduction of “humanitarian intervention”, which was presented as superior to conventional international law, aroused the suspicion in Russia that the West was trying to bend the rules to its own interests and, as in so many cases, that the references to values simply served to obscure the real motives. Moreover, the “red lines” drawn by Boris Yeltsin with regard to the expansion of NATO were repeatedly transgressed by the Alliance.

The very existence of the “red lines” for the Russian leadership testifies that Moscow was still thinking in a geopolitical and balance of power framework; it seems that few Russian political leaders and security experts believed in the right of self- determination of the (East and) Central European states – in other words, theirs was an imperial frame of mind as was their predecessors’ for hundreds of years.(2) It must be mentioned here that the historians and political scientists of the “realist” school in the US, among others Henry A. Kissinger, George F. Kennan, John Lewis Gaddis, etc., also opposed the incorporation of Central and East European countries into the Alliance very much with the same balance of power arguments as the Russians. They argued that the US would unnecessarily assume new security commitments where it did not have any vital interests and fall into the trap of “imperial overstretch” (the term was popularised by Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1987). Besides them, there were the “Russia First” officials in the State Department, the Department of Defence, the White House, and a number of analysts at the various think-tanks who continued to believe that US–Russian relations should enjoy priority over US–Central European ones.(3) Resentment about being “cheated” over the tacit understanding with the George H. W. Bush administration that NATO would not expand further east (the Americans deny that any such understanding existed; the historical evidence is still inconclusive) was accumulating in Russia.

With the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin in 2000 this sentiment was increasingly coupled with (paranoid) Russian fears of being encircled, and a deeply hurt pride. To put it simply, geopolitics and balance of power were back in for Russia for all intents and purposes.(4) Moscow did not hesitate to give notice to the world of its old-new approach to international affairs. It either provoked an armed conflict with Georgia, or jumped at the opportunity of irresponsible Georgian provocations, and occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The conflict also gave a pretext for Moscow to provide a theoretical foundation to its aggression. The Medvedev doctrine (named after the “caretaker” President when Vladimir Putin was disqualified from a third consecutive term in office) declared, among others, that Russia reserved the right to “protect” ethnic Russians wherever they lived, and that Moscow demanded “special privileges” in the area of the former Soviet Union. The idea was first put into practice in 2014 when Russia incorporated Crimea, while Moscow’s continuing support for the Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine is also a case in point.

The annexation of Crimea was a game-changer in international relations on several accounts. First, it was the first time since the creation of the UN that a member of the Security Council invaded the territory of another UN member. Second, the annexation undermined international law; the principle of “might makes right” was (re)introduced. Third, it exposed the weakness of the international community: this clear act of breaching the international law has gone unpunished; it is more likely than not that the incorporation of Crimea into Russia is permanent and final. The Russian leadership and a clear majority of the Russian people feel that this action is fully justified as they conceive the Russian–West relationship in terms of competition above all else.

Russian attempts at revisionism do not stop at the borders of the former Soviet Union. It is one thing that Moscow is busy creating a new informal “empire”, or as it is more benignly called, a ”multidimensional integration”(5) with some of the former Soviet republics, including Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia (the proposed Eurasian Union, an offshoot of the Eurasian Economic Community and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation). President Putin’s ambitions are not limited however to regaining influence only in the Eurasian landmass. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about an abrupt asymmetry in the distribution of power and influence globally. Russia has been making great efforts to correct this imbalance: among others, it has started an ambitious 10-year rearmament and modernisation programme of its armed forces. However, given the wide gap between the size of its economy and defence spending and those of the US (informed estimates put the US defence spending at ten times higher than that of Russia’s even after the increased spending), it is a hopeless endeavour for Moscow to try to achieve parity with Washington. Therefore, the Russian leaders resort to a classic device in such a situation: they are doing their very best to “soft” balance the United States. It includes, for instance, trying to keep the Americans occupied in low-intensity conflicts in the greater Middle East by countering Washington’s policies in the area diplomatically (especially through the UN Security Council) and supporting forces hostile to Western interests with economic and military aid programmes alike.

A central part of this Russian grand strategy is attempting to split the Atlantic community, the European Union, and any sort of regional groupings within the EU, and trying to “bilateralise” the relations with the members of the community for obvious benefits in its negotiating positions vis-à-vis them. In fact, this approach is not alien to the Americans either. The most obvious example which comes to mind is Donald Rumsfeld’s distinction between “Old Europe” and “New Europe”, and “cherry-picking” among the allies during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Americans have not been above resorting to the same tactics during the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks either. The Russian attempts at “bilateralisation” are most obvious in their energy policy. The greatest achievement for Moscow in this respect was the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline, which established a direct supply route between Russian gas fields and Germany. The implications are varied and potentially far-reaching. First, from Central Europe’s point of view, the region has ceased to be a major transit route and, consequently, has lost some of its pouvoir vis-à-vis Russia (and Germany too). The deal brought back very unpleasant memories of German–Russian cooperation over the head and at the expense of countries in between – it was the then Polish Minister, Radosław Sikorski, who reacted most forcefully to the contract.(6) Second, it strengthened German–Russian economic relations. Third, it was not lost on a number of observers that the deal was completed by a Social Democratic Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder; the Social Democrats have been traditionally “softer” on Russia than the centre-right political parties: when they are in power, Moscow can count on a more benign treatment by Berlin (and Brussels by extension).

Fourth, in general, post-Cold War Germany struck a much more independent note from the US than it pursued during the Cold War. German support for US policies cannot be taken for granted any more regardless of the political composition of the government in Berlin; witness the Berlin–Moscow–Paris “axis” on the eve of the war on Iraq in 2003 (with a Social Democratic government in power); it was Angela Merkel who opposed, among others, the American proposal to invite Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2008; and it was likewise a government under CDU/CSU leadership that decided to opt out of the Alliance’s action against Libya as well. The dynamics of the US– German relations have unambiguously changed as a result of the disappearance of the Soviet threat in Europe and the (re)unification of Germany; Berlin does not have to rely on the US for security matters any more to such an extent as the Federal Republic had to for decades after 1945. Though it would be a mistake to overvalue the German–Russian rapprochement, it is a fact that the German leadership invariably adopts a voice of moderation independent of the composition of its government when it comes to dealing with Russia.(7) This fact is not, and should not be lost on the leaders of the countries which are located between the two great powers. It is also stating the obvious that the Central European states depend heavily on Russian energy imports and, as Gazprom is an extended arm of the Kremlin, the political consequences attached to energy supply are also beyond dispute. The other side of the coin is, however, that those who deplore the close energy cooperation between Russia and the Central Europeans have not bent over backwards to alleviate the rather one-sided energy dependence either.(8) Thus, a number of Central European states face a Hobson’s choice in reality as they have so many times throughout their histories. As Germany is indisputably the driving force in European matters, by extension, a German–Russian rapprochement is an EU–Russian rapprochement at the same time on one level. Even if the US– EU–Russian relationship is not a zero-sum game, US–EU links may ultimately suffer from an improved EU–Russian relationship, which could lead to a decline of American influence in Europe.(9) On another level, though, a German–Russian rapprochement may not be extremely popular with the French because it would further increase German clout in European affairs. (It is a different matter whether Germany has the economic power, the political will and the popular support at home and abroad to start acting as a “normal” great power.) France has basically two options to balance German predominance in Europe: one of them is the Russian option (“more Russia” in European matters), the other one is to revive one of the basic missions of the US in post-war Europe: “to keep the Germans down” in the memorable words of the first Secretary General of NATO, Lord Ismay.

It also seems that supporting anti-American and anti-EU or, at least, EU-sceptic forces is also part of the Russian strategy of splitting the Atlantic community and the EU alike. Reports are abundant about loans extended to such political forces as the French Front National, but certain Central and Southern European political parties have quite intimate relations with official and quasi-official Russian organisations and individuals close to the Kremlin. Such a Russian policy aims to kill two birds with one stone. The activities and increasing popularity of the anti-American and anti-EU political groupings in Central Europe discredit the democratic credentials of the countries involved in the eyes of the US leadership and some in Brussels too. What is more important from a Russian point of view is that these forces weaken the coherence of the Atlantic community and the EU. Hence we are back at square one to a certain extent: the end result may be the bilateralisation of the relations between Moscow and the Central European capitals. In such a situation Russia is in a much stronger negotiating position than it would be otherwise.(10)

Russia’s position is also strengthened by the fact that Vladimir Putin, and the revisionist policy he is representing, will be around for sometime to come. It is also worth remembering that “Russia is never as weak as it seems to be, and it is never as strong as it seems to be”. No matter in what shape Moscow is at any given moment, its ability to make mischief or to destabilise is remarkable in Central Europe. It can mobilise its financial assets in Central Europe,(11) and resort to disinformation campaigns to destroy political and business interests regarded as hostile to Russian interests. It is likely to have numerous intelligence assets in place in the region and, last but not least, Russia poses a potential serious security threat, especially in the wider sense of the notion of security. Deployment of Russian armed forces against the NATO-member states in Central Europe can be discounted, but in areas such as cybersecurity, there is real danger, as the cyberattack against Estonia a few years ago showed.

Ukraine’s fate is of special importance to Russia and (Central) Europe alike. Moscow is doing its very best to prevent Ukraine from joining the Euro-Atlantic community, and by doing so also exposing the impotence of the Europeans; it seems that Ukraine is the real “red line” for Russia. In reality, it was able to absorb the losses of the Central Europeans and the Baltic states (even that of Poland) without any major challenges to its security or economic well-being. On the other hand, for each of the Central European countries the incorporation of Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic community would mean that they too would be “embedded” into the Atlantic community. At the moment they are still in a peripheral and vulnerable geopolitical position, and this situation is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.(12) Ukraine’s membership in NATO and/or the EU is out of the question for years to come, while Hungary is also in an exposed position to the south as Serbia’s membership in either or both of the Euro-Atlantic organisations is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon, though Belgrade has better chances in this respect than Kiev.(13) Russia’s continuing obstruction of Ukraine’s orientation towards the West prolongs Central Europe’s vulnerability to Moscow’s policies on the one hand; on the other, though, it drives the Central Europeans closer to the US as it is practically the only country in the Atlantic community capable of providing them with hard security guarantees. It seems that for the strategists in Moscow, blocking Ukraine’s Western integration tops their concerns over prolonging a US military presence in Europe and risking a bigger American military “footprint” in Central Europe or, in other words, bringing an American “pivot” back to Europe.(At the same time, President Putin profits from a more prominent American presence in Europe in domestic politics: playing on anti-American sentiments and the idea of being encircled by the West almost always guarantees a hike in popular support for the Kremlin.) However, Russian policies on Ukraine may have unintended consequences. On the positive side for Russia, they seem to divide Central Europe over finding the proper response, but it is an open question whether it is in Moscow’s interest or not to jolt Germany – metaphorically – out of its back-seat into the driver’s seat in matters related to Europe and its neighbourhood. Given the initial differences between a “hard-line” American response to the events in Ukraine and a “softer” German response, Russia may benefit from a more active German involvement in great power politics.

A more engaged Berlin, however, may play into the hands of Washington, which has been trying for a long time to induce its European allies to assume more burdens in the Atlantic community. The Russian (c)overt intervention in Ukraine has also breathed new life into NATO, which has been in search of a mission again recently. The Alliance’s summit in Wales in September 2014 decided to accelerate the creation of command centres in Eastern Europe (though the Germans are against making them permanent), and to call a spearhead force into being. This force, regardless of its size, is bound to play a tripwire role, very much as the US ground forces did during the Cold War in the Federal Republic of Germany. The future course of actions in Ukraine will be crucial in deciding the question of whether it will strengthen the positions of the US as a “European power” and, consequently, cement US–EU bonds, or instead the Europeans (especially the Germans) will opt for compromise with Russia and attempt to bring about an Eurasian economic area with closer cooperation between the EU and the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Community. Either of these outcomes will have a profound impact on the geopolitical position of Central Europe as well. One of the more likely outcomes of the present situation is a sort of stalemate: Ukraine will “remain” in a “grey zone” between the US/EU on the one hand and Russia on the other. It’s highly unlikely that any NATO soldier would be willing to die for Donetsk or Luhansk (there is an inverse ratio of willingness to take strong measures against Russia and physical distance from Moscow), while many more Russian “volunteers” seem willing to take such a risk. In a broader context, Russia does have stronger geopolitical interests than either the US or the EU in Ukraine; however, as far as the economic and “soft” power is concerned, the West is superior to Russia. All in all, the situation is bound to lead to a compromise with mutual face-saving measures – in time.


* The views expressed in this essay are exclusively those of the author’s, and they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

1  “Central Europe” has practically as many definitions as one wants. This concept in this essay is meant to refer to what is commonly known as the V4 + B3, that is, the Visegrád Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) and the Baltic Three (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania).

2  As a sort of reverse “red line”, the East and Central European countries claim that Russia cannot dictate to them where NATO forces can be deployed. This idea runs counter to the NATO–Russia Founding Act of 1997, in which Moscow extorted a promise that no NATO troops would be stationed permanently on the territory of the potential new East and Central European members of the Alliance. The pledge, according to some observers, evoked a traditional fear of the East and Central Europeans, namely, that the great powers make deals over their heads.

3  For a detailed discussion of the debate see, among others, Ronald D. Asmus (2002): Opening NATO’s Door. How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era. New York: Columbia University Press.

4  The terms “resentment”, “sentiment” and “fears” all indicate that perception plays a crucial role in Russian (and, by extension, in each nation’s) behaviour in international affairs; in an ideal case, perception and reality overlap. It is a pity that they more often do not than do. A number of historians believe that, for instance, the outbreak of the First World War or the Cold War, especially its early period, are classic cases of disconnect between perception and reality.

5  Gregory Gleason: “Explaining Russian Behavior”. Per Concordiam. Vol. 5, Issue 4, 2014, p. 16.

6  See, for example, http://www.spiegel.de/international/indirect-hitler-comparison-polish-minister-attacks-schroeder-and-merkel-a-413969.html.

7  Sigmar Gabriel: “Wir wollen Russland nicht auf die Knie zwingen”. http://www.bild.de.3 January

2015. There is even a special term in the German language for those who are – sometimes too – keen on maintaining cordial relations with Russia: “Putin/Russland Versteher”.

8  The EU may be taking steps towards the right direction if it enforces the rules of the single market against Gazprom, which would oblige the Russian energy company to introduce unitary pricing for the EU countries as opposed to the current country-by-country pricing. See The Economist, 17January 2015, p. 26.

9  See, among others, the interview with Polish analyst Bartosz Cichocki. “Ukrajnában dől el Európa jövője” [Europe’s future will be decided in Ukraine], Magyar Nemzet, 17 December 2014, p. 16.

10For details see, among others, Anne Applebaum: “How He and His Cronies Stole Russia”. The New York Review of Books, 8 December 2014. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/ dec/18/how-he-and-his-cronies-stole-russia.html.

11  By 2011, Sperbank, Gazprombank and VTB had controlled more than 20 per cent of all bank assets in Central and Eastern Europe. “Navigating Uncertainty: US–Central European Relations 2012”. CEPA, July 2012, p. 34.

12  A Polish study classifies the countries in the region into three categories as to their security situation:(1) Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Romania are the most concerned and vocal about a potential Russian threat;(2) Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are trying to avoid antagonistic rhetoric with Russia; and (3) Bulgaria is worrying about destabilisation. Artur Kacprzyk: “Deterring Russia after Ukraine: CEE Divided on the Future of NATO Policy”. Policy Paper 13 (96), July 2014. The Polish Institute of International Affairs, p. 6.

13  Given the numerous internal problems of the EU, in addition to the so-called enlargement fatigue, Serbia’s eventual membership in the EU has become an ever more distant possibility.

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