|Between Moscow and Paris: Central Europe's Emerging Reality
May 31, 2005 2213 GMT
By George Friedman
In the past month, two momentous events have taken place. First, the 60th celebration of Germany's World War II defeat turned into an acrimonious confrontation between the United States and Russia. After it was over, the head of Russian intelligence accused the Americans and British of covertly using political groups to try to destabilize and destroy Russia. Second, French voters rejected the proposed European constitution. Since France is a keystone of European unification, the French vote -- regardless of how President Jacques Chirac tries to spin it -- represents a heavy blow against extending European unification beyond the economic realm. The idea that a European state is about to emerge has been shattered.
The deepening suspicion in Moscow and the events in France are important and interesting to everyone in the world. But for the countries of formerly communist Central Europe, from the Baltics to the Black Sea, these events are riveting and ominous. A stalled or fragmenting Europe, coupled with an increasingly hostile Russia, is their worst nightmare. Europe has not yet shattered and Moscow has not launched a new Cold War, but what has happened during these three weeks in May cannot be lightly dismissed. Central Europeans are people who do not take things like this lightly. History has taught them that pessimism and realism are one.
Let's consider what has happened from their point of view.
World War I caused the collapse of four empires: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires. A string of new states was created, running from the Baltic Sea to the Balkan Peninsula -- caught between the new Soviet Union in the east and the remnants of Germany to the west. None of these states were strong enough to resist either of the great powers, nor did they trust each other sufficiently to create successful local alliances. They were used, manipulated and dominated by Germans and Soviets. In a practical sense, they were nothing more than a fragmented buffer zone separating Germany and Russia, sovereign only to the extent that the geopolitical calculation of the great powers allowed it.
Under these circumstances, countries such as Poland or Romania had only three choices. First, they could attempt to be militarily self-sufficient, at least to the point of posing a challenge significant enough to deter the Germans or Soviets from aggressive action. Second, they could align with one of the great powers, exchanging geopolitical alignment for domestic autonomy. Finally, they could seek military and political alliances with a third power -- normally France, supported by Britain. Poland adopted the first and third policies, as did Czechoslovakia. Hungary pursued the second.
A combination of military self-sufficiency and alliance with an Anglo-French power appeared on paper to be the most rational strategy. But this option had two weaknesses. First, the Anglo-French entity could not project forces east of Germany, meaning that it could not supplement indigenous power directly. The only way that this entity could carry out its obligations was to go to war with Germany from its own soil. That option wasn't available with the Soviets. This led to the second problem. Whatever the treaty might say, the French and British would go to war only if it was in their interests to do so. They declined combat over Czechoslovakia. When they did go to war over Poland, they were in no position to assist Poland directly. Poland was not helped by intervention. Guarantees had only deterrent value. Geography rendered the security guarantors irrelevant to national survival. The result was catastrophic.
Poland's national catastrophe continued after World War II. The Soviet Union, devastated by the German invasion, sought and won a buffer zone from any future invasion launched from Western Europe. The buffer zone was the Baltic-Balkan strip that had been created after World War I. With the ambiguous exception of Yugoslavia, every Central European nation fell under the control of the Soviets. Not only did they become the battleground of any future war, but the linkage to the Soviet economy created generations of poverty.
The collapse of communism and then of the Soviet Union created an historic opportunity for these nations. For the first time since the fall of the four empires, three conditions obtained:
1. Moscow was no longer the center of an aggressive and capable power.
2. The potential guarantors of Central European security and prosperity were no longer separated from the Soviet satellite states by a hostile Germany. On the contrary, Germany was an integral part of both NATO and the European Union.
3. Hostile relations between Central European countries were minimal. With the dramatic exception of the republics of the former Yugoslavia, all Central European countries were able to suppress potential flashpoints.
To the extent to which there was any tension, it was the tension between the increasingly unified Europe, led by France and Germany, and the United States. These tensions did not begin with the Bush administration but certainly intensified after it came to office. Nevertheless, there could be no comparison to the level of tensions and the nature of the choices between the interwar period and the post-Cold War period. The Central Europeans have had a relatively easy time of it.
In the 15 years since gaining their independence from Soviet domination, the Central European countries -- excepting Serbia -- have pursued a consistent foreign policy. They have been driven by two primordial fears: First, unlike the United States, they were not convinced that Russia, as the dominant power of the region, was finished for good. They did not expect a sudden reemergence of Russian dominance, but they were not convinced that, over time, shifts in Moscow would not create new geopolitical realities.
Second, the people of Central Europe did not, at root, trust Germany. They had seen Germany undergo too many shifts in policy to believe that German history ran in a straight line. Particularly with the fall of the Berlin wall and German reunification, Germany's emergence as a dominant European power made them uneasy. Two things comforted them: NATO and the European Union. So long as Germany was integrated into both structures, so long as Germany spoke and acted through multinational institutions, they felt that Germany would be contained. Indeed, they felt that Germany would be self-contained.
The reversal in Moscow's tone over the past few months is unsettling to Central Europe. It is not, ultimately, unexpected. The people of this region think geopolitically. They have seen the contraction of Russia, and they have seen the systematic way in which the United States in particular has encouraged and exploited that contraction. Their hope was only that Russia would have passed the point of no return before Moscow shifted policies. At the moment, it is simply unclear whether that point has been reached. A covert battle is intensifying in Russia's near abroad. From the Central European point of view, any battle that takes place on the other side of the Carpathians is a good battle, leaving them out of the line of fire. Still, they have learned to expect nothing but the worst from the east in the long run. There are no surprises there.
The events in Europe have been far more disturbing, particularly since they have taken place in the context of the Russian reversal. Both of the main European institutions have been seriously damaged. First, the U.S. invasion of Iraq created a crisis from which NATO is having a great deal of trouble recovering. Franco-German policy and Anglo-American policy have paralyzed an institution that requires consensual decision-making.
This crisis has driven Central European leaders closer to Washington on security matters. But even this is disturbing to them: Prior to World War II, the states of this region depended on the British and French to guarantee their security; they now depend on the Americans. In effect, it is the same policy, with the same problems: They are dependent on an entity that is too distant to bring military power to bear on their battlefields, and must rely instead on a strategy of indirect pressure that didn't work the first time around. The great comfort is that there are no immediate threats to the security of Central Europe. Russia remains bogged down, with more immediate concerns to its east. Nevertheless, the people of this region are well aware that events evolve in unpleasant ways. The paralysis of NATO, if it becomes permanent, and the re-emergence of a Russia pursuing its national interests will be frightening for them.
The French vote compounds the crisis. Central European countries stood to gain two benefits from the European Union: membership in an extremely prosperous and successful economic entity, and the creation of a transnational European state that would permanently contain German nationalism. The Central Europeans saw the EU as a permanent solution to the German problem.
That is not going to happen. Whatever comes out of the French repudiation of the EU constitution, it will not be a robust solution that will systematically suppress Europe's nationalisms. The vote was for French nationalism, after all. And in any competition of nationalisms, the Central Europeans know they will lose. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called a snap election after his party's devastating defeat in a traditionally Social Democratic state. Such an event is hardly historic, but it does point to an important fact: Germany is not doing well economically or socially, and the reasons are not transitory. There is a deep-seated malaise in Germany and a national sullenness. There is nothing immediately threatening or unusual about this mood. But it is a mood that the Central Europeans have learned to regard with unease.
The Russians have not returned to Central Europe, but the mood in Moscow is angry. NATO hasn't collapsed, but it is ineffective. The European Union remains the center of gravity of Europe, but it is not likely to evolve into a political and military entity. Germany is in no way threatening to Central Europe now, but there will be no permanent institutional solution to the German problem. There must be a recognition from the Baltic to the Balkans that the region's situation has not deteriorated, but that it will not improve much either. Put another way, from a national security standpoint, the only direction in which the Central European states will move is down.
It is all the more important for them, therefore, that the situation east of the Carpathians be clarified as quickly as possible -- and run against the interests of Moscow. Two developments would be significant for the security of Central Europe: First, the Ukrainian government must be consolidated and protected; and second, as hinted by the United States, the Lukashenko government in Belarus must be replaced by a pro-Western regime. The Russians already have been accusing the Poles of meddling in these affairs. It is now in the interests of Hungary and Romania to join that meddling as well.
The problem is that Russia now has its back up. Moscow understands the game. The Central European states want to lock down their eastern frontiers by crippling the Russians. For this, they need the Americans, who have their own reasons for wanting to cripple the Russians. This creates an active alliance between the United States and Central Europe, which further fragments the EU -- something to which the Americans have no objection whatsoever.
But the problem is this. The interests of the United States in this matter coincide with those of the Central Europeans only at the secondary level. However, the Russians are fighting for fundamental national interests. So are the Central Europeans -- but in the end, they have minimal weight to bring to bear. The United States is far away. The Russians are next door. If Moscow can reverse the trends the United States has set in motion, it will be the Central Europeans who will again face the brunt of the Russian return in a decade or so -- and who knows what Europe will look like by then?
Central Europe has spent the past 15 years on a monumental high. We now see the first sign that things might be getting a bit tougher for the region soon.