25 years ago, the Russian historical empire melted down. Although often underreported, this also marked the end of alternative society in Europe. Collapse of the II world, made the 3rd way (of Yugoslavia and further, beyond Europe – globally, of the Nonaligned Movement) obsolete.
That 9/11 was a moment when the end of history rested upon all of us, the day when the world became flat. The EU entered East, but only as a ‘stalking horse’ of NATO. No surprise that Eastern Europe –following the slaughter of its pivot, Yugoslavia – has soon after abandoned its identity quest, and capitulated. Its final civilizational defeat came along: the Eastern Europe’s peoples, primarily Slavs, have silently handed over their most important debates – that of Slavism, anti-fascism and of own identity – solely to the recuperating Russophone Europe.
Terrified and rarified underachievers
Is today’s Eastern Europe a classic case of indirect rule? Is that a deep imperial periphery of nominally independent native rulers, while in reality the true power holder resides outside, although is domestically supported by a dense web of NGOs, multinational corporations and locally handpicked ‘elites’?
Everything in between Central Europe and Russia is Eastern Europe, rather a historic novelty on the political map of Europe (see four maps above). Very formation of the Atlantic Europe’s present shape dates back to 14th–15th century, of Central Europe to the mid-late 19th century, while a contemporary Eastern Europe only started emerging between the end of WWI and the collapse of the Soviet Union – meaning, less than 100 years in best cases, slightly over two decades in the most cases. No wonder that the dominant political culture of the Eastern Europeans resonates residual fears and reflects deeply insecure small nations. Captive and restive, they are short in territorial depth, in demographic projection, in natural resources and in a direct access to open (warm) seas. After all, these are short in historio-cultural verticals, and in the bigger picture-driven long-term policies. They are exercising the nationhood and sovereignty from quite a recently, thus, too often uncertain over the side and page of history. Therefore, they are often dismissive, hectic and suspectful, nearly neuralgic and xenophobic, with frequent overtones.
The creation of a nation-state (on linguistic grounds) in the Atlantic, Scandinavian and Central Europe was relatively a success-story. However, in Eastern Europe it repeatedly suffered setbacks, culminating in the Balkans, Caucasus and the Middle East, but also remains evident in the central or Baltic part of Eastern Europe.
Above statement might come as a shock for many. Why? For the last 25 years, our reporting on Eastern Europe was rather a matter of faith than a reflection of the empirical reality. This ‘rhetoric’ was dominated by fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural (e.g. poetry, paintings, film, etc.) than coherently economic and geo-political in focus as they should be. How one defines a challenge largely determines the response – effectively points out Brzezinski. Hence, the arts will always elaborate on emotions, science will search for and examine the facts.
If the front of Atlantic-Central Europe lately suffered (an economic) problem which has been diagnosed as a distributional and compositional, than who and when is holistically and scientifically to examine the Eastern-Rusophone Europe and its burning geo-economic (distributional, compositional), socio-political/ideological (space-time in history) and geopolitical (logical and areal) problem? Where is a serious research on that?
If the equality of outcome (income) was a communist egalitarian dogma, is the belief in equality of opportunity a tangible reality offered to Eastern Europe or just a deceiving utopia sold to the conquered, plundered, ridiculed and cannibalized countries in transition?
What is the current standing of Eastern Europe – state of its economy, the health of its society and the efficiency of its governance?
By contrasting and comparing available HDI data (UN DP’s Human Development Index) and all relevant WB, OECD, UNCTAD, ILO and WHO socio-economic and health indexes including the demographic trends of last two decades, we can easily spot a considerable green, economic and socio-human growth in Asia, in Latin America and moderate growth elsewhere. The single trend of negative growth (incl. the suicide and functional illiteracy figures) comparable by its duration and severity to this of Eastern Europe, is situated only in the sub-Saharan Africa (precisely the CHAD-lake region and partially between Grand lakes and Horn of Africa). Further on, recent generational accounting figures illuminate a highly disturbing future prospect for the youth of Eastern Europe. Neither their economic performance nor birth rates would sustain the financial burden left for the future by the present, irresponsible and defeatist, generation.
Ergo, euphemisms such as countries in transition or new Europe cannot hide a disconsolate fact that Eastern Europe has been treated for 25 years as defeated belligerent, as spoils of war which the West won in its war against communist Russia.
It concludes that (self-)fragmented, deindustrialized, rapidly aged rarified and depopulated, (and de-Slavicized) Eastern Europe is probably the least influential region of the world – one of the very few underachievers. Obediently submissive and therefore, rigid in dynamic environment of the promising 21st century, Eastern Europeans are among last remaining passive downloaders and slow-receivers on the otherwise blossoming stage of the world’s creativity, politics and economy.
East does not exercise its political sovereignty (gone with the EU), its military sovereignty (gone with the NATO), its economic and monetary sovereignty (gone with the massive domestic de-industrialization ‘preached’ by the IMF, EBRD, EIB and eventually ECB),and its financial sovereignty (gone by full penetration of German, Austrian and Swedish banks).Those national currencies still existing in Eastern Europe lost – for already long ago – the vital substance: their anthropological and economic function.
Most of the Eastern European states do not control a single commercial bank on their territory.East does not control its own narrative or (interpretation of) history: Due to the massive penetration of Central Europe, East grossly relativized, trivialized and silenced its own past and present anti-fascism. Additionally, this region does not effectively control its media space. Media there (of too-often dubious orientation and ownership) is discouraging, disorienting and silencing any sense of national pride, influence over destiny direction and to it related calls for self-(re)assessment.
East is sharply aged and depopulated –the worst of its kind ever – which in return will make any future prospect of a full and decisive generational interval simply impossible.Honduras-ization of Eastern Europe is full and complete.If the post-WWII Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was overt and brutal, this one is tacit but subversive and deeply corrosive.
East between Ukrainization and Pakistanization
It is worth reminding that the NATO remains to be an instrument of the US physical, military presence in Europe. Or, as Lord Ismay defined it in 1949: ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. The fact that the US remained in Western Germany, and that the Soviet Army pulled out from Eastern Germany did not mean ‘democratization’ or ‘transition’. It represented a direct military defeat of the Gorbachev Russia in the duel over the core sectors of Central and Eastern Europe. As direct spoils of war, DDR disappeared from the political map of Europe being absorbed by Western Germany, while the American Army still resides in unified Germany. In fact, more than half of the US 75 major overseas military bases are situated in Europe. Up to this day, Germany hosts 25 of them.
Admittedly, by the early 1990s, the ‘security hole’– Eastern Europe, has been approached in multifold fashion: Besides the (pre-Maastricht EC and post-Maastricht) EU and NATO, there was the Council of Europe, the CSCE (after the 1993 Budapest summit, OSCE), the EBRD and EIB. All of them were sending the political, economic, human dimension, commercial signals, assistance and expertise.These moves were making both sides very nervous; Russia becoming assertive (on its former peripheries) and Eastern Europe defiantly dismissive. Until this very day, each of them is portraying the NATO enterprise as the central security consideration: One as a must-go, and another as a no-go.
No wonder that the absolute pivot of Eastern Europe – Ukraine, is a grand hostage of that very dilemma: Between the eastern pan-Slavic hegemony and western ‘imperialism of free market’.For Ukraine, Russia is a geographic, socio-historic, cultural and linguistic reality. These days, this reality is far less reflected upon than the seducing, but distant Euro-Atlantic club. Ukraine for Russia is more than a lame western-flank’ geopolitical pivot, or to say, the first collateral in the infamous policy of containment that the West had continuously pursued against Russia ever since the 18th century. For Moscow, Kiev is an emotional place – an indispensable bond of historio-civilizational attachment – something that makes and sustains Russia both Christian and European. Putin clearly redlined it: Sudden annexation of Crimea (return to its pre-1954 status) was an unpleasant and humiliating surprise that brings a lot of foreign policy hangover for both the NATO and EU.
Thus drifting chopped off and away, a failed state beyond rehabilitation, Ukraine itself is a prisoner of this domesticated security drama. Yet again, the false dilemma so tragically imploded within this blue state, of a 50:50 polarized population, over the question where the country belongs – in space, time and side of history. Conclusively, Eastern Europe is further twisting, while gradually combusted between Ukrainization and Pakistanization. The rest of Europe is already shifting the costs of its own foreign policy journey by ‘fracking’ its households with a considerably higher energy bills.
In short, Atlantic Europe is a political powerhouse, with two of three European nuclear powers and 2 out of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, P-5. Central Europe is an economic powerhouse, Russophone Europe is an energy powerhouse, Scandinavian Europe is all of that a bit, and Eastern Europe is none of it.
* All displayed maps per the author’s idea made by Anneliese Gattringer.
- Bajrektarević, A. (2013), Future of Europe (Of Lisbon and Generational Interval), EU Journal Europe’s World, Brussels
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- OECD (2014), Society at a Glance 2014 – The Crisis and its Aftermath (OECD Social Indicators), OECD Paris Publications
- World Bank (2014), World Development Report 2014: Risk and Opportunity – Managing Risk for Development, WB Publications
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- Greco, T.H. (2009), The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, Chelsea Green Publishing
- Serfaty, S. (2014) Why we need to be patient with Russia, Europe’s World – the EU Foreign Policy Journal, Brussels (page 73)
- Bajrektarević, A. (2013), Multiculturalism is D(r)ead in Europe – MENA Oil and the (hidden) political prize Europe pays for it, Nordic Page, Oslo Norway
- Ikenberry, G.J. (2014), The Illusion of Geopolitics, Foreign Affairs Magazine 93(3) 2014
- Kagan, R. (2004), Of Paradise and Power, Vintage Books (page 85)
 A sharp drop in LE (life expectancy) in Russia, from age 72 to 59, is something faced only by nations at war. The evidence that Russia has suffered such a steep decline, unreversed ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is unprecedented in a peace-time history of any industrialized nation. Although not so alarming like in the post-SU Russia, the rest of post-Soviet republics and Eastern Europe closely follow the same LE pattern – not to mention devastating birth rates, brain drain and other demographic data. E.g. the projected LE of the today’s born Berliner is around 100 years, while of Muscovite is only 67 years. Simply, the East is unable to (re-)produce its own life. Or, once it is conceived, to keep (the best of) that life at home. Some would argue that it again is the war for a lebensraum, but this time of the self-imposed Endlösung (final solution).
 With some exceptions of Visegrád countries (such as Poland or Czech Republic, and lately Hungary) sporadically opposing a constant bandwagoning (but even that only in the domain of narrow EU fiscal or economic matters), Eastern Europe of today is unable to conceive and effectively promulgate a self-emancipating, balanced and multivector foreign policy. Fergusson goes as far as to claim for Eastern Europeans that: “they looked at Brussels (of NATO) the way former British colonies obeyed everything said and done in London.”
“The entry criteria for Eastern European states was particularly costly: the so-called small and open economies, de-industrialized and over-indebted didn’t have any chance to be equal partners. For most of them, FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) is the only economic solution, which turned them into colonies…” – admitted even the Nobel laureate, economist Stiglitz in his The Price of Inequality. Moreover, the overly strong and rigid exchange rate of the domestic currencies in Eastern Europe is good only for foreign landers. It awards importers while disadvantages domestic manufacturing base and home exporters. This outdated anti-growth and anti-green economic policy has been universally abandoned long ago, even by the LDC (the UN-listed Least developed countries). No wonder that the GDP in the most of Eastern European states is well below its pre-1990s levels, and their ecological footprint index is of an alarming trend.
According to findings of the Budapest Institute of Economics (Corvinus University), for the past two decades, the volume of Austrian banking sector has increased 370%. How is this spectacular percentage achievable for the country of a flat domestic economic and negative demographic growth? This covert occupation of south-eastern Europe by the foreign financial sector did not create new jobs or re-create any industrial base there. As the Budapest Institute concluded aftermath, it was only meant to dry-out the remaining liquid assets (and private savings) from the rapidly pauperized, defeated belligerent. In 1914, Austria controlled banks as well; in Croatia, Bosnia, western Romania, northern Serbia, Hungary, southern Poland and western Ukraine. However, at that time, it also had a strict governing obligation as all of them were a part of the Monarchy. By having recognized the formal sovereignty to each of these entities, Austria today (like Sweden towards the three Baltic States in the northeast flank of Europe, and Germany in the central sector of Eastern Europe) has no governing obligations whatsoever. It can easily externally socialize (externalize) all its costs including banking risks, and individualize all profits (internalize), yielding it only for itself. Hence, the EU accession criteria, combined with a nominal independence of Eastern European entities (pacified by the pre-paid media and guided by the post-paid ‘elites’), means that the economic and other assets are syphoned out, but the countries have to take a burden of the state maintenance solely on themselves. “Creating the market economy attractive for FDI (foreign direct investments) in our case meant a de-industrialization, pauperisation, which eventually led to defunding of most of the state social activities. When someone dare say ‘our education, housing and health sectors are knocked down due to this’, they are quickly denounced as socio-romantics and accused for the social conservatism…” says Head of the Croatia’s Economic Institute prof. Slavko Kulic, and concludes: “…suffering of ever larger segments of societies means nothing to the architects of misery, to those Talibans of neoliberalism.” Recently released edition of the Oxfam study on the wealth distribution worldwide, unfortunately, confirms this bleak picture.
 Current labor relations in the most of Eastern Europe (Rusophone Europe, too) resembles pictures of the 18th rather than of the 21st century’s conditions, especially in the private sector of employment. It is all with a weak or even totally absent trade unionism, dismal labor standards, as well as the poor protection of other essential social, environmental and health rights. “We have stringent labor conditions to the unbearable maximum, so that the few self-styled ‘top managers’ can play golf more frequently and for a longer time… How can you possibly build any social cohesion when disproportionately many suffer for the dubious benefit of the asocial, predatory few…” – confessed to me the Ambassador of one of the largest Eastern European countries who served as a mayor of his country’s capital, before his ambassadorship in Vienna.
Some ten years ago, at the special OSCE forum for demographics, I warned: “…lasting political, social and economic changes including very important technological breakthroughs – throughout our history – primarily occurred at generational intervals. This was an engine of our evolution…Presently, with demographically collapsing East European societies (natality rates, generational and brain drain), the young cohort will never constitute more than a tiny minority – in the sea of aged, backward-looking, psychologically defeatistic and biologically incapable, conservative status quo keepers. Hence, neither the generational change that brings fresh socio-political ideas, nor technological breakthrough –which usually comes along – will successfully ever take place in future of such demographies.” (For a detailed demographic outlook and tentative recommendations/ conclusions, see: Bajrektarevic, A. (2005), Our Common Futures: EURO-MED Human Capital beyond 2020, Crans Montana Forum, Monaco, 2005, as well as Bajrektarevic, A. (2005), Green/Policy Paper Submitted to the closing plenary of the Ministerial (Chairmanship summarizing the recommendations and conclusions of the OSCE Ministerial Summit Prague 2005), OSCE Documents EEA 2005.)
 Eastern Europe is Hondurized – this term refers to an operationalization of Monroe Doctrine in Central America, by which Washington allows its strategic neighborhood to choose their own domestic political and economic systems to an acceptable degree, while the US maintains its final (hemispheric) say over their external orientation. The so-called Brezhnev doctrine (of irreversibility of communist gains) postulated the Soviet (Suslov-Stalin) equivalent to Honduras-ization – Finlandization.
 Eastern Europe, the (under-)world of dramatic aging which, is additionally demographically knocked down by the massive generational and brain drain. Passed the dismantling of the communist order, these emerging economies, countries in transition of the new Europe contain reactionary forces (often glorifying the wrong side of history), predatory ‘elites’ and masses of disillusioned (in a life without respect and dignity, humiliated and ridiculed in the triviality of their lasting decline). Even if the new jobs are created or old kept, they are in fact smoke screens: Mostly a (foreign-loans financed) state-sponsored poverty programs where armies of the underemployed and misemployed cry out miserable wages in dead-end jobs. Former Slovakian cabinet minister laments in private: “Our ‘liberated East’ lives on foreign loans, or in the best case as the industrial suburbia of West Europe, having these few ‘generously’ franchised factories like Renault, VW or Hugo Boss. Actually, these are just automotive assembly lines and tailor shops – something formally done only in the III World countries. Apart from the Russian Energia-Soyuz (space-program related) delivery system, what else do we have domestically created anywhere from Bratislava to Pacific? Is there any indigenous high-end technical product of past decades known? … Our EU accession deals are worse than all Capitulation agreements combined that the Ottomans and Imperial China have ever signed in their history.”
 Gorbachev’s capitulation helped Germans to further gain confidence: Once territorially extended (or to euphemistically say; unified), Western Germany transposed that new size and its centrality into the advanced version of Machtpolitik – drang nach export-based über-economy. No wonder that the über-Mutti’s cabinet is gradually maneuvering the country out of the NATO-enforced Westbindung (an alliance, it does not see any more as its strategic necessity) towards an old, solely/unilaterally determined Ostpolitik of Wandel durch Kopf-Handel (change via altered mindset). Chancellor Markel’s ambassador Michael Schäfer is even more forthcoming on this eventual post-Western Made in Deutschland foreign policy. In the interview for the leading Chinese press he concludes: ‘I do not think there is such a thing as the West anymore.‘ /Kundnani, H. (2015), Leaving the West Behind – Germany Looks East, Foreign Affairs Magazine 94(1) 2015/
 Through the EBRD–EIB conditionalities and EU accession criteria, Eastern Europe was dictated to practically dismantle its essential industrial and service base. This dictatum upon defeated belligerent – euphemistically called countries in transition or new Europe – was followed by loans and assets received from the EU Accession and Structural funds. It was ‘sold’ to the East as award and as such presented to the deceived population. (However, it was rather to tranquilize the population at large and to pacify their local scenes, not at all aimed to modernize, re-industrialize or diversify economy, or to make production and service sector more efficient or competitive. Consequently, it was merely to subsidize the deteriorating purchasing power of the East – to make the peoples there accustomed to and encouraged for the foreign goods and services.) Thus, the funds were predominantly consumed for the western commodities. Ergo, Atlantic and Central Europe extended themselves geographically, while economically they skillfully managed to subsidize their own industrial base. To this very end, Eastern Europe’s elites readily took loans, while –in return– laying down sovereignty by issuing the state-debt guaranties. By doing so, they indebted their own states beyond bearing, and hence, they finally eliminated their own countries as any current or future economic competitor or politico-military challenger.
This is further burdened by the imperialism in a hurry – an inflammable mix of the Lithuanian-Polish past traumas and German ‘manifest destiny’ of being historically yet again ill-fated; impatient for quick results – simply, unable to capitalize on its previous successes. One of my German students recently very vividly satirized: “The irony of unintended consequence is that the intense relationship between Über-mutti (Chancellor Merkel) and boxman at large Klitschko is interpreted by Moscow as asexual, but not as apolitical.”To say, overly cosmopolitan interest for a faith of foreigners living in Germany for someone who infamously said: “multiculturalism is dead in Europe…” (Sarkozy, Cameron and Merkel openly and repeatedly viewed and diagnosed ‘death of multiculturalism’), as if the cluster of Atlantic-Central Europe’s national-states lived a long, cordial and credible history of multiculturalism on its soil.
Ukrainization could be attributed to eastern and western Slavs– who are fighting distinctions without significant difference. Pakistanization itself should describe the southern Slavs’ scenery: In lieu of truth and reconciliation, guilt is offered as a control mechanism, following the period of an unchecked escalation, ranging from a hysteria-of-a-small-difference to a crime-of-otherness purge.
Georgia in the Post-Liberal World Order
The purpose of this article is to help start the discussion on Georgia’s foreign policy amid the changing world order.
We live in a post-liberal world order. Post-liberalism does not mean abandoning liberal values, although the energy and ambitions that have characterized this global project under US leadership since the 1990s are nowadays dwindling significantly. Post-liberalism will lead to great geopolitical shifts. America can no longer be as active in spreading democracy and liberal values as it used to do. This ushers in the age of more constrained US involvement in various parts of Eurasia.
There are many reasons for this. The first is probably that the unipolar world order is finally coming to an end, which means the gradual emergence of several geopolitical and geo-economic poles in the world. China, Russia, India, and relatively small and ambitious states such as Iran and Turkey – these aim at re-organizing their immediate neighborhoods. The re-emergence of spheres of influence also involves the rejection of liberal values, and the introduction of a multipolar world order. Multipolarity also means the end of the liberal world order because it is impossible to be a supporter of liberal internationalism, limit your ambitions to certain regions, and avoid spreading liberalism all over the world. Liberalism, a kind of revolutionary movement that cannot be stopped, is either everywhere or nowhere.
To this changing geopolitical landscape must also be added America’s growing rivalry with China. In the coming years, much of the US’ economic or military resources will be focused on opposing China. All of this, in the long run, reduces Washington’s willingness to pursue as active a foreign policy in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, or the Middle East as it did in the 2000s. From now on, all American attention will be shifted to the Indo-Pacific region. As a concrete example, the Biden-Putin summit held in Geneva avoided issues such as Ukraine and Georgia, as NATO enlargement will cause troubles with Russia.
Where is Georgia?
A multipolar world order affects all countries. Some will be more fortunate because they have a friendly and close political-economic relationship with a major power of this or that region. Others have a better geographical position since they are located in Europe and easily remain a part of Western institutions.
The case of Georgia is much more difficult. The country has been trying since the 1990s to move closer to the West at the institutional level. A lot of success was achieved on this path during Eduard Shevardnadze’s presidency and subsequent Georgian governments. The balance of geopolitical forces in the world in the 2000s gave Tbilisi a legitimate expectation that the Western geopolitical power in the South Caucasus would inevitably succeed. Indeed, America was building a liberal world order, and the spread of democracy throughout Eurasia, as it was then believed, should have been a matter of time.
Georgia had decades to become an institutional part of the West. This failed to materialize, and today, when illiberal forces have grown stronger and are in fact forming a strong anti-liberal movement, Georgia’s chances of joining Western economic, political, and military institutions are much lower.
In search of a new foreign policy vision
What then can Georgia do to achieve its foreign policy goals and strengthen its security amid the changing global order and the less active America? Formulating a multi-vector foreign policy could be one solution. This does not mean that Georgia reneges on joining the Western institutions – NATO and the EU will remain the focus of Georgia’s external policy. However, doing so in parallel with a multi-vector foreign policy may prove more effective. Multi-vectoralism will be based on political realism, very similar to what the neighboring states have been pursuing of late. Official Tbilisi could consider establishing more intensive political ties with major players in the region, as well as Eurasia. Though Georgia has tried to pursue a similar policy before, the need for it in the post-liberal world order will greatly increase.
The multi-vector foreign policy may also be driven by another important trend. Eurasia is slowly splitting into spheres of influence. Russia, China, India, in part, and a few powers smaller than them, are slowly creating exclusive spaces where their political and economic influence will play a leading role. Georgia, to avoid falling under the influence of an undesirable power, could regard the active pursuit of a multipolar foreign policy as a solution. This means engaging all neighbors in a rather intense political-economic dialogue. It also means developing closer ties with China and India, and strengthening military contacts with Turkey and Azerbaijan, etc.
Georgia’s Obstructive Geography
Georgia’s foreign policy dilemma revolves around its fixation on the West. Though profitable in many ways, is also serves as an impediment. But multipolar foreign policy too will face significant obstacles. For example, strengthening relations with Iran and China could damage Georgia’s ties with the West. Furthermore, the illegal control of Georgian lands by Russia limits the possibility of a dialogue with Moscow.
In a way, geography makes Georgia destined to be fixed on the West even if it ends up damaging it. But Georgia’s troubles are also compounded by the fact that a conditional border between the West and the anti-liberal powers will be transiting through the Black Sea and the South Caucasus. Much will depend on the West: was its support for Georgia merely an expression of the spread of liberal values, or a result of concrete geopolitical calculations? If the West is driven by geopolitical interests in Georgia, it can be assumed that the country will be in the camp of liberal democracies. Otherwise, the historic opportunity that Georgia had to join the Euro-Atlantic institutions during the heyday of the liberal world order could be lost for a long time to come.
Author’s note: forst published in georgiatoday.ge
Is Ukraine at War? Navigating Ukraine’s Geopolitical Conundrum
In April this year, amidst rising tensions with Russia, a Ukrainian diplomat warned that Kyiv may be forced to acquire nuclear weapons to safeguard the country’s security if NATO does not accede to its membership demand. On the same lines, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky challenged his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin, to meet him in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to talk on ending ongoing conflict in the region. He further urged the west to give “clear signals” of whether they were willing to support the country in its standoff with Russia.
But why has this situation emerged? Why is NATO and west so reluctant to proceed with forming partnership with Ukraine? Is Russia aggressive towards Ukraine? And as no geopolitical conflict in today’s complex world is possible in isolation or between just two parties, who are the other actors involved in this conflict? This paper investigates these questions to analyse the case of post-soviet Ukraine and how Ukraine remains important to the geopolitical dynamics of not just the post-soviet space, but also the broader Eurasian region as well as the world.
Ukraine has been often deemed as the cornerstone of the Soviet Union. It was not only the second-most populous republic, after Russia, but was also home to much of the Soviet Union’s agricultural production, defence industries and military. However, Ukraine’s history is intertwined deeply with the birth of Russian kingdom itself, as the beginning of Ukraine was the establishment of Kievan Rus which united the Eastern Slavs and laid the foundation for Russian identity. After centuries of direct existence under Russian rule however, Ukraine post-1991, decided to embark on its separate journey, hoping to de-intertwine its fate with that of Russia’s. However, this has not become a success to the extent Ukrainian leaders might have expected. The nation’s proximity to Russia has meant that any government in Moscow will do anything in its capacity to maintain some control over Kiev’s foreign as well as defence policy, in order to keep at bay any adventurist objectives by the western bloc of EU and US. Today, Russian policy’s primary aim is to keep Ukraine out of foreign alliances and geopolitical blocs like that of EU and NATO, and for this, periodic show of strength has become an explicit policy in the last decade for Russia. Further, post the Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2014, where Russia allegedly invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea according to Russian critics, NATO has been forced to increase its presence in the Black Sea region where Crimean Peninsula exists geographically and has stepped up maritime cooperation with Ukraine (as well as Georgia, who too have similar concerns with Russia). However, although the relations between NATO and Ukraine were updated in June 2020 and Ukraine is now one of the six countries having tag of ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ and makes significant contributions to NATO operations and other alliance objectives, NATO’s scepticism and reluctance on giving full member status to Ukraine is seen in Ukrainian political circles as west’s non-serious attitude towards the nation. Similarly, while EU remains the most important trading partner for Ukraine, its path to becoming an EU member has been harder than the leaders would have imagined. In the later parts of this article, the 2013 trade war between Ukraine and Russia over the possibility of Ukraine joining EU, and the subsequent toppling of the presidential regime in Ukraine in the next few months is highlighted.
However, even though Russia, EU and NATO have been primary geopolitical actors in Ukraine, recently, new actors have joined the ongoing geopolitical conundrum. The entry of the likes of China and Turkey has not only made the situation more complex but has also raised the stakes for the primary actors. Ukraine has in recent years, encouraged the presence of Chinese businesses in its market and welcomed further expansion of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, to the extent that in 2019, China replaced Russia as Ukraine’s main bilateral partner. In case of Turkey, president Tayyip Erdogan has time and again reaffirmed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. Further, Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in the military sector has dramatically increased in the recent years, replacing the traditional Russian base. Interestingly though, Ankara has maintained and has even grown in its partnership with Moscow which somehow softens the stance towards conflict between Ukraine and Russia as gets limited to following the EU-US stance more often than not, unlike in the case of Azerbaijan-Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where Turkey had explicitly supported Azerbaijan when Russia has tried to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Perennial Question: What does Russia want?
Prior to 2014 Ukraine-Russia conflict, Russia had hoped to have Ukraine into its single market project- Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and benefit from the enormous Ukrainian market and population which could have boosted Russian industrial base. However, post the conflict, any hopes for integrating Russia-Ukraine markets have collapsed. Whereas Russia supplied most of Ukraine’s gas until 2014, the supply stopped entirely by 2016. Today, Russia is looking to complete infrastructure projects in terms of energy commodities, which would bypass Ukraine to starve Ukraine from the billions of dollars of transit fee that Russia has paid since long to Ukraine to reach Central and Eastern European markets. Further, since 2014, EU became the main trading partner and has been in talks with Ukraine since very long for Ukraine’s accession to EU. However, Russia for long has seen EU membership as an immediately preceding step to NATO accession, and hence sees the aspect of avoiding EU membership for Ukraine as not only an element of Russian economic policy, but also that of its security policy. Further, Russia now sees EU as not just an economic bloc, but ‘a potential great-power centre in the making’, whose further expansion in post-soviet region is bound to negatively affect Russian credentials of a hegemon as well as the arbiter in the regional conflicts. Russia’s recent mobilisation of troops at the Ukrainian borders which was more of show of strength rather than a potential act of aggression, had raised concerns in the new US presidential regime. In one interview, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu explicitly linked Russia’s mass-mobilization drills to NATO’s ‘Defender Exercise’, which has been the biggest military exercise taken in the Black Sea region since the cold war era, saying that ‘The scale of US led military activity required response’. In a way, Ukraine has become a battleground for both Russia and US to showcase their influence and Ukrainian leadership is finding itself in a dilemma, being unsure and insecure of the extent of intentions from both the warring blocs.
The Western Dilemma: Why Ukraine still not in EU and NATO?
There have been several factors at work which has made Ukraine’s path to membership to EU and NATO difficult. Firstly, in the recent years, there has been a concern in the EU political circles that there is no political will in Ukraine to fight vested interests and go beyond the promises of showing credible commitment to genuine domestic reforms. However, on the flip side, the argument is often made that beyond financial and technical assistance that EU can provide to Ukraine and its market, Brussels does not have any new offer to motivate Kyiv in implementing reforms. Further, since the coming of new presidency in 2019 (of Zelensky), the primary focus of the government has shifted to resolving the Donbass conflict where Ukraine is struggling against separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, who are allegedly supported by the Russian side.
Moreover, it is also an open secret that many member nations in EU itself would prefer to have a different relationship with Russia, who since 2014 has been facing several sanctions in realm of trade, be it in energy sector, consumer goods, or defence and space technology. This is clear when we take in consideration the case of Germany and how the government has for long insisted on getting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project completed amidst mounting pressure from other members of EU and the US. The project is expected to resolve the energy demand issue for majority of German households for the near future once in function.
In Russia, EU is deemed as the ‘Trojan horse’ for NATO expansion as already mentioned before. However, for NATO, a different set of concerns exist altogether. NATO has been wary of Russia’s continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine and the continuing unrest in the Donbass region. If, however, Ukraine becomes a NATO member, any such conflict would mandate NATO to get involved in the region and aid Ukraine, which then might escalate in a bigger conflict. And this is another important reason for NATO’s restrained stance.
China- The ‘Well-settled’ player in Ukrainian Market
In recent times, China’s economic might has enabled it to leverage the benefits in a variety of ways. Not only does China influence the decisions indirectly at times, but any economy which is intertwined and dependent on Chinese economy, can today expect to feel direct effects of this economic inter-dependency when it comes to foreign policy. An increasingly observable phenomenon is that China in gaining foothold much quicker in those nations of the post-soviet space, where Russia is deemed as a hostile neighbour or state. This was visible in a 2020 public opinion survey by SOCIS which highlighted that almost 60 percent of Ukrainians see Chin as a ‘neutral’ state even if only 13 percent see China as ‘friendly’, but over 63 percent see Russia has a ‘hostile’ state, with only 5 percent deeming Russia as ‘friendly’. Today, China is complementing Ukraine for its deficits, for instance in the field of technology and defence where it is replacing Russia and competing with Turkey, and in realm of exports, China is proving to be a worthy destination for Ukraine’s agricultural products by having a large population and increasingly developed market system. This is quite clear by the statistics which show that Ukrainian exports to China surged 98% in 2020 driven by iron ore, grains, and palm oil. Ukraine’s president on his part recently praised China for respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and highlighted China’s assistance in combating COVID-19, however, it remains to be seen how these developments would be perceived by both US and Russia.
Turkey- An Emerging Vector
Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in military technology has increased dramatically post the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict and today, Ankara supports Kyiv’s bid for membership to NATO as well as peaceful solution to the conflict in Donbass (Donetsk and Luhansk region). Further, in April this year, the two sides pledged in a 20-point statement, ‘to coordinate steps aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, in particular the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea… as well as the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions’.
However, there is a renewed enthusiasm in the recent Ankara-Moscow dynamics, where the two have come closer since President Erdogan’s policies have become more nationalistic and non-secular in nature, driving Turkey away from the ambit of west and US, and raising concerns about the increasingly populistic approach being undertaken by Turkish government. Further, US’ plans to build new naval bases in the Black Sea region and enhancing military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia also concerns Turkey, as it directly would result in reduced role of Turkey and a blow to Turkish president’s ambitions of renewing Turkey’s status as a regional powerhouse.
The seven-year war between Ukraine and Russia, which is still ongoing, has changed the relationship between the two countries completely and permanently. Since Ukrainian market is now open to EU and China, a competition to dominate this market is soon to become more and more visible. While Russia would want to avoid Ukraine’s EU accession till as long as possible, Moscow will go to even greater lengths to prevent Ukraine’s NATO membership. On its part, not only will NATO be wary of Russian insecurities, but it will also consider the fact that increasing tensions with Moscow might push it towards Beijing, and a possible military alliance between the two military powers might be the greatest challenge for NATO in the coming future. Since Russia has lacked the economic might post the Soviet union’s dissolution, an alliance with China might balance out almost every limitation that Russia and China have in terms of their superpower capabilities. EU on the other hand keeps a close eye on developments in Kyiv too. Although Kyiv is yet to come up with overhauling reforms which would strengthen EUs believe in Ukrainian system, EU member states themselves will need to overcome a sort of internal division, where several member states hope of having a more normal relationship with Moscow. US on its part is expected to align with Turkey and US in bringing Ukraine in close cooperation with EU and NATO and to do everything possible to detach Kyiv from a possible rapprochement with Moscow. It remains to be seen, how other post-Soviet states like Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan react to these developments taking place in Ukraine and assimilate this in their own discourse of balancing the west and Russia.
‘Strategic Frivolity’ of the West and the Belarus Issue
The Western countries’ reaction to the detention of an opposition leader in Minsk has revealed the high degree of readiness of the United States and its allies to create risky situations for the sake of momentary political benefits. No matter how the actions of the Belarusian authorities were consistent with international aviation law and customs, the behaviour of Washington and most of European capitals showed that they are difficult, if not hopeless partners for the rest of the world community. Now we have no reason to fear that developments will turn into an uncontrolled escalation — the attacks of the West against Lukashenko do not directly impact Russian interests. However, what has happened in the media and in diplomatic circles in recent days provides ample opportunity to consider the need for new containment measures in relation to the habit of the US and Europe to take European and international security so lightly.
So far, Russia’s reaction to these emotional outbursts has been restrained, because the actions of the Western countries did not directly harm its interests. But if such hysteria repeats, it will confirm the lack of intentions in the West to establish any kind of stable dialogue with those powers that are not willing to subordinate their respective domestic and foreign policies to its demands. Is this some kind of a “strategic frivolity”, whose appearance in international affairs and the behaviour of the EU and the US has become more and more regular as the balance of power in world politics shifts? Russia, for its part, can show any amount of restraint, but the line beyond which this will become impossible, may be passed unnoticed.
As a matter of fact, such a reaction of the West to the stoppage of an international flight by the Belarusian authorities and the detention of one of the passengers did not come as a surprise. In recent years, Russia, China and others have become accustomed to the fact that the United States and Europe have been quick to sacrifice international stability when it has suited their concurrent goals.
The EU countries have been grasping at any straw in their attempts to confirm their greater relevance in terms of international law on the world political stage. It hasn’t been working out very well so far.
At the summit on May 25, the leaders of the European Union countries approved a resolution calling for a package of measures against Belarus — personal sanctions and broader measures against the Belarusian economy. But it is clear how ineffective these measures will be, even to the European observers. After the failure of the EU to work out a common position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the failure of another attempt to “punish” the government of Alexander Lukashenko will serve as another blow to the international reputation of the EU.
Britain, which left the EU, but remains the closest satellite of the United States, is in principle trying to behave as the main opponent against any country whose position does not coincide with Washington’s wishes. Now London’s position is aligned with that of the Baltic states, which are most irresponsible in their statements and actions. It is unlikely that this will strengthen London’s position on the world stage. The United States, for its part, is acting in its usual way — while lacking any direct interests, it easily creates risks for others. Surprisingly, in this respect, the behaviour of the US resembles the behaviour of Minsk, which is also not always ready to take into account Russia’s diplomatic wishes.
For Russia, the recent diplomatic “plane crash” involving Belarus does not pose immediate threats, but it may become another test for Russia’s legendary restraint. Moscow is clearly accustomed to the fact that the Western states are not always predictable in their actions and, in principle, live “in their own world”, where there are certain rules for them, and completely different ones for others. So far, Russia has reacted to all this in a very reserved manner. The measures the West has taken against Minsk do contradict basic Russian interests in the field of European security, but they do not create threats and do not harm Russia. However, it is the ease with which the West enters a conflict with any nation, at the slightest pretext, that causes Russia’s concern.
It will be extremely fortunate if, during the Russia-US summit, scheduled for June 16 in Geneva, the parties can deliver some appeasement to international or regional politics. It is unlikely that the summit will result in any breakthrough of a general nature; there are no preconditions for this. But the very ability of Russia and the United States to discuss common interests will show that both great powers retain the responsibility necessitated by their strategic importance. So far, however, we cannot be sure even of such a minimal positive outcome of the expected meeting.
Russia concurs that the actions of the Belarusian authorities are no example of prudence. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that Moscow has adequately estimated the scale of Western pressure on Minsk and understands that in the situation that has arisen, reactions such as that of the Belarusian government are quite predictable, and even justified. In 2020, a number of Belarus’ neighbours in the West openly supported a movement to overthrow President Lukashenko. Russia then supported the legitimate Belarusian government and warned of its readiness to provide it with practical assistance.
Lukashenko himself can pursue his interests as much as he wants, and sometimes even refuse to coordinate actions with Russia — Belarus is a sovereign state. However, the alternative to his regime now is an attempt to bring to power such forces that will confidently follow the Ukrainian scenario.
The internal political crisis in Belarus, even if it enters a hot phase, would be beneficial to the interests of the United States and would have a devastating effect on European security. However, as we can see, now the countries of Western Europe are in a state of political “knockdown” and cannot control events that risk putting an end even to the minimal independence and choice possessed by Europe. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are ready to create risky situations, because outside the conflict with Russia, they have no future in international politics. The fact that the future within the framework of this conflict may turn out to be very short for all of them does not bother them at all. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are dominated by forces, for which adventurous behaviour has become the basis of politics inside and outside. Germany and France cannot stop them because they are engulfed in colossal internal problems.
We can hardly expect that the next surge of “strategic frivolity” will have really dramatic consequences. In any case, the world history of all-out wars does not know examples when large-scale armed conflicts would have really insignificant incidents as a pretext. In all known episodes, a “tragic accident” has always involved the interests or security of one of the leading powers. Now we don’t see this, and most politicians in the West are therefore behaving irresponsibly, because they do not expect a serious escalation. Moreover, the Lukashenko government is indeed becoming one of the permanent opportunities for the United States and Europe to stage high-profile political campaigns without a real threat to the world. But this is not a guarantee that if there are grounds for a big conflict, the behaviour of the West would be more reasonable than these days.
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