Eastern Europe and the Return of Geopolitics

Walter Russell Mead is Editor-at-Large of The American Interest and Professor of American foreign policy at Yale University. You may follow him on Twitter @wrmead

MANY in the West and some in Russia believed that the fall of the Soviet Union would usher in a new and more positive relationship between Russia and the West. Russia and the United States, after all, had a long history of friendly relations before the Cold War. In the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, Russia sympathized openly with—and at times aided in—the American cause. In both of the two world wars of the twentieth century, Moscow and Washington were on the same side. Additionally, many Western analysts assumed (and more than a few Russians hoped) that, like many of its former Eastern European client states, Russia would come to accept capitalism and join in a new liberal world order. Throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, this post-historical assumption remained a cornerstone of American foreign policy.
The hope that Russia would accept the Soviet defeat and move on to embrace capitalism and democracy was strongly held within both major American political parties. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations sought to help Moscow in economic and political development efforts, assist with security concerns, placate Russia in matters of national pride, and look the other way when troublesome details, such as Russian tactics during the Chechen Wars, came up.

Relations deteriorated under President George W. Bush—less because the United States had switched to an anti-Russian policy than because American policies, ranging from the invasion of Iraq to the construction of missile defense facilities in former Warsaw Pact nations, irritated Moscow.
The situation was deeply galling for Moscow; the United States felt no hostility towards it, but disregarded its interests and failed to consult with Russia on issues that, to Moscow, were of paramount importance. As President Vladimir Putin revived the power of the central government in Russia, and reined both oligarchs and restive regions back under his sway, he also began to express Russia’s opposition to American designs more forcefully, and set about rebuilding the elements of state power and international competitiveness that had fallen into ruin during the difficult post-Soviet years.

President Barack Obama came into office promising a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations; he wanted the relationship between the Kremlin and the White House to be characterized by arms treaties and bold efforts to solve tough Middle East conflicts, not confrontational maneuvering. But Obama’s conciliatory spirit failed to impress the Kremlin. By September 2015, U.S.-Moscow relations were icy; as Russian planes fired on U.S.-supported rebel forces in Syria, the two countries were back to the kind of competition last seen during the Cold War.

But it was not just between Washington and Moscow that the temperature of international relations changed during the Obama years. Geopolitical competition was heating up in the South China Sea and in the Middle West, as well as on the plains of Ukraine. By autumn 2015 it was possible to speak of a new era of geopolitical rivalry between the United States and its allies and three revisionist states in Eurasia: Russia, China, and Iran.

Revanchism as a Global Trend
Aside from Russia, Iran and China are the two major revisionist powers who do not accept the post-historical liberal order that the United States and its major allies sought to impose after the Cold War. Of the three revisionists, China is potentially the most important, with technological and economic potential that the other two cannot match.

Despite its great strengths, however, China is caught in a geopolitical trap. Flex its muscles too much, and it sends its neighbors—Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Australia, and others—into the arms of the United States. But the alternative is to accept the existing Pacific order, and that also benefits the United States. Additionally, American and Chinese economic interests are so interconnected that it is difficult for either power to act in ways that would endanger those ties.

Iran is much weaker than China or Russia, but it has had the most success in advancing its interests in recent years, supporting allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen in a way that threatens to transform the regional balance of power. At the same time, the difficulties the United States has found in responding to the Iranian surge have frayed the network of American regional alliances in the Middle East. (In the Middle East as elsewhere, Washington’s unparalleled network of alliances is a principle source of American power. Disrupting and degrading those alliances must be a primary goal of any power seeking to alter the current world order).

Russia is somewhere in the middle. It has had more success than China in challenging American power and extending the sphere of its influence. But Russia has not had an impact on its region comparable to that of Iran.

Beyond resisting and resenting American hegemony, China, Russia, and Iran have few long-term shared interests. China again is, in particular, the odd man out: it’s a net petroleum importer and has much more invested in the international capitalist market system built by the United States. Iran and Russia share a greater desire to challenge the status quo and, as net petroleum exporters, a preference for high oil prices.
Russia sees opposition to the United States in the Middle East as an opportunity to frustrate the American agenda, and Iran views that as most useful. And now the two seem to have found common interests in propping up the Iraqi and Syrian governments. Cooperation with Iran helps Russia achieve its goal of frustrating the Sunni Jihadis who constitute a serious long-term threat to Russia at home, prop up a useful regional ally in Syria, chip away at American prestige globally and, in the circumstances of the refugee crisis, force European leaders to deal with Putin if they want help to stem the refugee flow.

The underpinnings of the Russia-China relationship are less solid. After Russia’s incursion into Crimea-and in response to NATO sanctions-Putin announced grand plans to boost trade with China to $100 billion by the end of 2015. Still, in the first half of this year, trade between Russia and China fell by 29 percent due to a variety of factors, including low oil prices and China’s own economic woes. Chinese foreign investment in Russia fell by 25 percent in the same period.

Nonetheless, Putin continues to make pronouncements about creating an alliance between the Kremlin and Beijing. The Russian and Chinese navies conducted joint exercises recently, and Putin was a high-profile attendee at President Xi Jinping’s big Victory Day parade. But there is little substance behind the rhetoric and symbolism. Indeed, in the long term, Russia’s core geopolitical project—of recreating a great global power centered on Moscow between Europe and East Asia—would be an obstacle to Chinese ambitions. Even their opposition to the United States is asymmetrical: China, seeing itself as a rising power, is much more patient than Russia, which fears decline if it doesn’t move quickly.

Russia on the Move
Russia’s challenge to the post-Cold War order is primarily focused on three regions: the former territory of the Soviet Union, Europe, and the Middle East. In the post-Soviet region and the Middle East, Russia has shown that it is willing to use force to achieve its goals, and in both these regions, and in Europe as a whole, Russia believes that its interests are fundamentally at odds with those of the United States. (In Asia, Russian interests are broadly aligned with those of the United States).
Putin’s ambitions in Europe are far reaching but indefinite, and their relationship to his goal of reconstituting the former Soviet territories into an effective geopolitical unit is anything but fixed. Given the incorporation of the Baltic republics and many former Warsaw Pact states into both the EU and NATO, any attempt to reinsert Russia as a great power in European politics would require some revision of the current order. Putin fears the current European system; it is hostile to his vision of Russia ideologically, economically, and geopolitically. Politically, it represents a serious threat to him; should the Russian people become convinced that a law-based, modern democratic state represents Russia’s best chance to move forward, Putin’s system, and Putin’s own power, would be unlikely to endure.

Western observers find it difficult to believe that Putin is serious about his larger ambitions. We have become accustomed to thinking of the European order and the transatlantic alliance as so deeply rooted and so strongly grounded that they cannot fail. The institutional and legal ties that bind the EU together, and the deep links between security establishments and political circles that has marked NATO through almost 70 years of history, make these seem like permanent features of the landscape.

One hopes that they are. Nevertheless, from Putin’s point of view it is possible to see cracks in the imposing edifice of Western order, and much of Russian foreign policy can be seen as an effort to exploit and widen the structural flaws in the Western project. One should focus less on the struggle between Washington and Moscow, and more on the struggle between Moscow and Berlin over the future of Europe, in order to appreciate both the opportunities Putin believes he sees and the efforts we can expect as he seeks to change Europe’s direction.

Western observers tend to look at contemporary European politics through liberal internationalist and institutionalist lenses. One may safely assume that older analytical tools are preferred in Moscow, and that Russian thinkers view Europe in classic power politics terms.
The unification of Germany was the most important geopolitical consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union, and, given the relative weakness of Russia in the European state system, Germany had a free hand to remake Europe, especially in the East, to its liking. It would not be seen as a coincidence in the Kremlin that the boundaries and political arrangements in Eastern Europe since 1990 have looked more like a return to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk than to any other period in modern history. German industry and finance have integrated the Warsaw Pact and Baltic Republics into an economic and political zone that reinforces Berlin’s dominance in the rest of Europe and contributes cheap labor and markets for the German industrial machine. As events since the euro crisis have shown, France and Italy, to say nothing of the other European countries, have lost the ability to mount an effective challenge to German domination. Chancellor Merkel’s mix of Atlanticism and soft but decisive leadership in Europe, combined with the general American retreat, has led the United States to acquiesce in a German hegemony in Europe that would have filled Kaiser Wilhelm II with joy.

From the Kremlin,s perspective, this German system must be decisively weakened, if not destroyed, in order for Russia to achieve its necessary goals. The Soviet Union cannot be reconstituted, and Russia cannot reinsert itself as a decisive factor in European politics, unless this period of German hegemony can be brought to an end.

Moscow’s focus is more on Berlin -- Photo: Guliver Image/Getty Images


How can this be accomplished? Germany is a much richer country than Russia. Standing in the center of post-1990 Europe, it has consolidated its power in European institutions and policies. Enjoying military and political backing from Washington, it seems secure against any military attack that Russia could mount. Moreover, the emergence of Poland as a serious and successful European country-reconciled with Germany but as alienated from Russia as ever-shifts the regional balance in Germany’s favor. Similarly, with the antagonisms of the 1940s now fading into the background, but the long and ugly era of Soviet domination still fresh in the memory of the Baltic states and many of the old Warsaw Pact countries, Russian ‘soft power’ is at a low ebb.

Yet, from a Russian point of view, this German Europe is not as solid as it looks. The transatlantic bond with the United States is potentially fragile; if the Americans continue to retreat from Europe, the value of the alliance will diminish. If, on the other hand, a conservative Republican president attempts to revive America’s global presence, it is likely that both the policies and the rhetoric will grate on German sensibilities, as they did in the days of George W. Bush.

At the same time, German control of the European Union is creating problems that the Kremlin can exploit. Countries like Italy and France are desperate for the growth that eludes them in the austere fiscal climate that Germany has imposed. This isn’t just a problem for disgruntled unemployed workers; it is a serious problem for the banks and industrial groups who exercise significant power in those countries. Their hunger for more Russian trade is palpable; it is also likely that many in the foreign policy establishments of those countries would like to see German power in Europe balanced by other forces. It was never the intention of Charles de Gaulle or Alcide de Gasperi for the European Union to become an instrument of German hegemony.

For Russia, it makes sense to sprinkle sand into the gears of the European Union whenever possible. Supporting anti-Brussels political movements and using Russian economic resources to create rival political and economic establishments and firms in countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania have been effective in weakening the coherence of European policymaking and governance. Implicitly aligning itself with nationalist resistance across Europe to the ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ of Brussels is creating a new ideological position for Russia inside Europe. That Russian troops are now in Syria—source of the migrants who are currently causing political upheavals all over Europe and once again driving wedges between Germany and other states—will seem to the Kremlin like yet another useful card to play. From a Western point of view, this might look like sheer malignity; from a Kremlin perspective, it is a way of forcing its European neighbors to revise their political and economic arrangements in ways that take Russian interests into account.

Putin’s goals in Ukraine have perplexed Western analysts from the beginning. Almost no one predicted the Russian invasion of Crimea, overt support for ‘rebels’ in eastern Ukraine, or the subsequent annexation of Crimea—in open defiance of the principles of international legitimacy and law which had been the basis of earlier Russian stands against Western actions in places like Kosovo and Iraq. Even today, some analysts believe that Putin’s primary goal remains territorial acquisitions, and see any slowdown in the pace of Russian military advances or signs of willingness to accept a ‘frozen conflict’ status within the current ceasefire lines as a check to Putin’s plans.

This is almost certainly wrong. Putin has two goals in Ukraine, both of which he has substantially achieved. He wanted to use the invasion to boost his popularity at home, and he wants—nay, needs—Ukraine’s efforts to become a normal European state on the Western model, and to align itself firmly with what he continues to see as a German-dominated Europe, to fail.

A victory for Western political and economic ideals in Ukraine—so that Ukraine, however slowly, clearly advances along the road taken earlier by countries like Poland and the Baltic republics—is a serious threat to Putin’s position at home. Russian nationalists would see the ‘loss’ of a land that they believe Russia’s mission is to control; liberals and many others would see in Ukraine’s success evidence that Western ideas can work in an Orthodox and Slavic context. Ukrainian success would destabilize Putin’s Russia; Putin’s Russia must destabilize Ukraine to ensure Kiev’s failure.

Putin’s ally in this struggle, next to the Russian Winter, is inertia—the most powerful force in the region. The deeply corrupt nature of Ukraine’s governance, the post-Soviet fusion of criminal and business enterprise, the country’s low productivity, criminalized police and court system, and its general lack of economic resources, make it difficult for Ukraine to change. The EU, torn apart by struggles over the euro and migrants, overburdened financially and politically, is already suffering both enlargement fatigue and Ukraine fatigue. Foreign investment is wary of entering one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Putin has his problems, most notably those resulting from an energy price collapse which he did not anticipate. But his opponents have their problems as well; the Kremlin does not yet appear ready to reconsider its course.

Opportunistic and Focused
Hostility with the West helps Putin at home. It was George Kennan who noted an old pattern in Russian history in his famous Long Telegram, and the words still ring true today: Soviet authorities, he wrote, paint [the] outside world as evil, hostile and menacing, but as bearing within itself germs of creeping disease and destined to be wracked with growing internal convulsions until it is given final Coup de grace by rising power of socialism and yields to new and better world. This thesis provides justification for that increase of military and police power of Russian state, for that isolation of Russian population from outside world, and for that fluid and constant pressure to extend limits of Russian police power which are together the natural and instinctive urges of Russian rulers. Basically this is only the steady advance of uneasy Russian nationalism, a centuries old movement in which conceptions of offense and defense are inextricably confused.

Putin may be more comfortable with the consequences of his foreign policy than many in the West are ready to believe. Given the intersection of Russian and Iranian interests in the Middle East, the most reasonable conclusion seems to be that the new era of geopolitical competition between Russia and many of its neighbors is set to continue, and that the West should brace itself for more surprises from an opportunistic and focused opponent. 

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