In Europe’s Borderlands, the Winds of Change Blow in Every Direction
On the west of this group, the European Union is roiled by divisions in the wake of the Brexit vote and intensifying nationalist sentiments, as crucial elections take shape this year in France, Germany and possibly Italy. On the east, Russia has the ear of the new U.S. administration, which is seeking to improve ties with Moscow as it focuses more on the homefront. Though a major reconciliation is a stretch, even the possibility of an understanding or realignment with the United States has enabled Russia to grow more assertive in its periphery.
All of this is rumbling the geopolitical tectonic plates of the borderlands. With a dearth of geographic barriers separating them from Western Europe and Russia, the borderlands have always been susceptible to competing influences from both Moscow and the West. Historically, the results have produced dynamism and volatility across the political, economic and even military spectrums. From the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires to the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the wave of color revolutions in the post-Soviet era, these countries are no strangers to major geopolitical change and upheaval.
Once again, the geopolitical winds are blowing strongly in and around the borderlands.
These winds are blowing in different directions, however, and each of the borderlands countries — which include the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the countries of the Caucasus — is reacting to the shifting geopolitical circumstances differently. Some are choosing to pursue closer ties to Russia, others are doubling down on their bets on Western integration, and still others are attempting to walk a tightrope between Moscow and the West. Understanding what each country is doing to adapt to the fast-evolving geopolitical conditions and determining where they are headed requires examining the context of geography and national strategy across the region.
In the northern reach of the borderlands, the Baltic states and Poland are directly exposed to Russia. Sitting at the northeasternmost stretches of the North European Plain, Estonia and Latvia border the Russian mainland close to St. Petersburg, while Lithuania and Poland border Kaliningrad, a militarized Russian exclave right in the heart of the borderlands. These countries are quite vulnerable to Russian military power, as their history under Russian occupation from the 18th to the 20th century attests. More recently, buildups of weaponry and frequent military exercises and overflights by Russian forces in both areas highlight this vulnerability. As members of the European Union and NATO, however, Poland and the Baltics have a layer of protection from Russia that a country like Ukraine lacks. NATO has recently strengthened that bulwark with the deployment of NATO troops to each country on a semi-permanent, rotational basis.
Nevertheless, these countries are uneasy and cannot be certain of an indefinite NATO commitment, particularly since Donald Trump called the alliance “obsolete” while running for office before somewhat moderating his position as president. This has prompted Poland and the Baltics to build regional security collaboration in parallel to NATO by expanding military ties with Nordic countries such as Sweden and Finland and with neighboring Ukraine. Such efforts will intensify in the coming months and years as these countries seek an insurance policy in the event of a decline in NATO (and particularly U.S.) support.
Moving south along the Central European borderlands, where the plain gives way to a more rugged landscape, a different vantage point emerges. Whereas Poland and the Baltic states are among the most vulnerable within the European Union and NATO when it comes to Russia, countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia enjoy more of a buffer from their large eastern neighbor. In addition to the absence of direct frontiers with Russia, these countries are also somewhat protected by the high altitude of the Carpathians, a mountain chain that snakes around their northern and eastern borders. Unlike Poland and the Baltics, the three countries were shielded from Russia for much of their history, only succumbing to Russian military power and political influence after World War II through the end of the Cold War. Not coincidentally, these states’ relationship with Moscow is less antagonistic. Hungary in particular has been calling for a revision in EU ties with Russia, even advocating an end to the Russian sanctions regime. Until now the European Union has maintained unanimity when it comes to sanctions votes, but this year will see the most significant test to EU solidarity on the issue, especially if the United States lifts or eases its sanctions against Russia.
The southernmost countries in Central Europe, Romania and Bulgaria, have less geographic protection from Russia given their position on the Black Sea, where Russia has also been building up its forces. Historically, Romania has been at odds with Russia over control and influence in Moldova, a former Romanian province seized by Russia in the 19th century. Bulgaria meanwhile has not had such territorial disputes with Russia, and so has had a more pragmatic relationship with Moscow. This dichotomy persists, with Romania embracing NATO plans to step up its activities and presence in the Black Sea area and Bulgaria less enthusiastic. Romania can thus be expected to increase its security engagement with NATO — as well as with regional partners like Poland — while Bulgaria will seek a more cooperative and less provocative relationship with Russia.
Moving eastward along the borderlands, the picture becomes more complicated. With virtually no barriers separating them from Russia, the Eastern European states of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus are even more geographically exposed to Russia than are their Central European counterparts. These countries are historically much more integrated with their large eastern neighbor, and none of these states are currently EU or NATO members. This means these countries have experienced even more dynamic shifts in their foreign policy in response to the geopolitical changes currently underway in the West.
The country with perhaps the most to be concerned about is Ukraine, which abuts the Russian heartland and is arguably the most strategic country for both Moscow and the West in the former Soviet periphery. Since the Euromaidan uprising in 2014 that led to the replacement of a Russian-leaning president with a pro-Western government, Ukraine has relied on backing from both Europe and the United States in its standoff with Russia. That standoff has escalated to having Moscow occupy the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and back an ongoing insurrection in eastern Ukraine. Kiev now must confront the prospect of potentially losing this backing, as Trump has said he would like to work more closely with Russia in areas such as Syria, even suggesting U.S. sanctions against Russia could be traded for cooperation on matters like nuclear arms reduction. Regardless of whether this comes to fruition, such talk is extremely alarming for Ukraine.
Against this backdrop, escalated fighting in eastern Ukraine shortly after Trump’s inauguration came as no surprise. Both Kiev and Moscow have an incentive to draw the new U.S. administration’s attention to the conflict. They have sought to do this by creating enough instability to make it harder to say the conflict is frozen and therefore non-negotiable. Russia currently has the upper hand in this competition, having become involved in hot spots like Syria precisely to get the United States to the negotiating table on issues of greater strategic importance to Moscow, such as Ukraine.
Meanwhile, EU leader Germany is still pressuring Russia to do more on its end to implement the Minsk protocols, the agreement intended to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine signed by Kiev, Moscow and Ukrainian separatists. But EU sanctions are becoming a source of division within the bloc, divisions that could widen depending on the outcome of upcoming elections in Europe. This leaves Ukraine in a precarious position in regards to its Western backing. Further erosion in Western support for it could occur as the year wears on, leaving Kiev looking for supplemental alliances with countries like Poland and the Baltics.
Moldova, a small yet strategic borderlands country, is in the midst of a significant reorientation of its foreign policy. Like Ukraine, Moldova in recent years has pursued a Western integration strategy, signing an Association Agreement with the European Union in 2014. But growing public disillusion with the country’s pro-Western government led to the election to the presidency in November 2016 of pro-Russian Socialist leader Igor Dodon, who has advocated canceling the EU agreement and establishing closer economic and political ties with Russia. Though Dodon faces opposition to such efforts from a parliament led by an EU-oriented coalition, Moldova is on course to move closer to Russia and further from the West, a trend that could be sealed in Moldovan parliamentary elections next year.
Though Russia’s position relative to the West has improved in several states in the borderlands, it has had setbacks recently, too. Tensions have grown with Belarus, a country firmly within Moscow’s alliance structure, over natural gas prices. Belarus’ announcement that it was liberalizing its short-term visa policy for over 80 countries (including the EU states and United States) caused Russia to tighten border controls with Belarus. But exchanges of fierce rhetoric over these issues aside, the leaders of both Belarus and Russia have said their strategic alliance is not under threat, and indeed the two countries’ bilateral security and military ties have grown in recent months. Nevertheless, Minsk’s limited and gradual outreach to the West serves as a reminder to Moscow that its position in the borderlands is never fully secure, even among its most loyal allies.
Swinging farther east and south to round out the European borderlands, the mountainous and fractious Caucasus region has also been significantly shaped by the Russia-West standoff and its evolution in recent months. Geographically speaking, the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges present a degree of protection between Russia and the Caucasus countries. But such barriers are not impenetrable, as Russia’s gradual incorporation of the South Caucasus into its empire starting in the 18th century proved. Though Moscow’s control of the Caucasus ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, independence did not make them invulnerable to Russian clout.
This is particularly the case with Georgia, which has for the past decade been strongly oriented toward the West and has pursued closer integration with the European Union and NATO. This has placed it at odds with Russia. The two fought a short but sharp military conflict in August 2008, when Russia used the Soviet-era Roki Tunnel — one of a handful of routes transecting the Northern Caucasus Range — to invade its southern neighbor. It quickly built up, and still maintains, military positions in the Moscow-backed breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which comprise a fifth of Georgia’s former territory. Georgia nonetheless remained committed to Western integration in subsequent years, signing an Association Agreement with the European Union in 2014 and opening a NATO training center on its territory in summer 2015.
Changing geopolitical circumstances in recent months, however, have led the Georgian government to pursue a more pragmatic relationship with Russia. Tbilisi and Moscow have developed stronger economic and energy ties, while Georgia has floated plans to soften its punishing isolation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Georgia is unlikely to abandon its Western integration efforts, it appears increasingly willing to work with Russia so long as it must question security commitments from the West.
On the flip side, Armenia is a Moscow-dependent Russian ally in the borderlands that has seen its relationship with Moscow tested in recent months. Despite Armenia’s membership in the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance and a 5,000-strong Russian troop presence on its territory, Moscow has been tenuous in its backing of Yerevan in Armenia’s ongoing standoff with Azerbaijan. The key issue dividing the two neighbors is Nagorno-Karabakh, a strategic, mountainous and forested slice of what was part of Azerbaijan in Soviet times but that had an ethnic Armenian majority; it broke away in a 1994 war. The conflict still prompts cross-border shelling between the two countries. Russia adopted a neutral position following an escalation in hostilities last April, leaving Armenia disillusioned with Moscow over its lack of security and political backing in the conflict. Even so, Armenia’s lack of alternative partners has left Yerevan no choice but to maintain its strategic alignment with Russia, and this despite the fact that security cooperation between Moscow and Baku has grown in recent months.
Russia has in effect solidified its position as the main arbiter in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Moscow is thus in a position to use the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to further its strategic interests in both countries. Azerbaijan has every interest in shaking up the status quo on Nagorno-Karabakh and is willing to work closely with Russia to move the conflict in a direction that reopens negotiations, since this could see territory returned to Azerbaijan — an aspiration Russia can play to its advantage to increase its influence in Azerbaijan. Armenia meanwhile cannot afford to make a big move on its own, especially since Russia is in control of its most strategic weapons systems. As the standoff lingers, neither side can make a big move in the conflict without reaching an understanding with Russia first.
The sum of shifting dynamics means that both Russia and the West are seeing significant evolutions in their geopolitical positions, all of which have sent rumblings throughout the borderlands. As the trajectory of the U.S.-Russian relationship and Europe’s own political situation changes, the tectonics of the borderlands are suddenly active again, with each of these countries reassessing their respective foreign policy positions in a way that corresponds to their geopolitical imperatives and national strategy. The problem for the borderlands — just as it has been for millennia and as it will continue to be — is that their fates lie outside their direct control, instead being shaped and influenced by external forces and the larger powers that hem them in.