Eastern Europe is the Key to America’s Vital Interests on the Continent

Eastern Europe is the Key to America’s Vital Interests on the Continent

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By Alex Alexiev and S. Enders Wimbush

Mr. Wimbush is distinguished senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, Washington, DC. and a member of the International Board of Advisors to bulgariaanalytica.org
Mr. Wimbush is distinguished senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, Washington, DC. and a member of the International Board of Advisors to bulgariaanalytica.org

As Europe fractures and NATO declines, the New Europe­ – Old Europe dichotomy offered some years ago by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld becomes clearer. Russia’s aggressive military interventions in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), and its constant pressure on much of the post-Soviet space and even the Balkans, has been the trigger for the peoples of New Europe, stretching from the Baltic states through Poland and along the Black Sea to Bulgaria to reexamine their security. They privately and increasingly publicly question the reliability of both the European Union or NATO’s backing if Russian president Vladimir Putin puts any of them in his sights. New Europe’s anxieties can only have been magnified by a recent Bertelsmann survey reporting that only 31 percent of Germans believe that if Russia attacked a NATO ally Germany should fulfill its NATO and EU obligations. Germany, the Eastern Europeans fear, inevitably, would drag most of Western Europe behind it.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

They hope that the United States has learned from their mistaken policy for a “re -set” of relations with Russia. This unfortunate policy has been Putin’s pathway into Ukraine and Syria, as well as almost daily continued encroachment in Georgia. Under the “re-set’s” parameters, irritants to Russia’s ambitions were swept away. Georgia, which many in the Obama administration understood to be particularly obnoxious to Mr. Putin, rapidly slid to the bottom of America’s menu of strategic priorities. This despite that small country’s voluntary military assistance to NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan, which at last count had cost Georgia 31 lives and nearly 300 wounded soldiers. The Georgians fought for us while most of Western Europe sat on its hands.

 

Imagine Georgians’ surprise when U.S. ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, recently declared at the Aspen Security Forum in London that neither Georgia nor Ukraine has any possibility of joining NATO in the foreseeable future. The reason according to Amb. Lute: If Russia is really declining steadily, “it may not make sense to push further now and maybe accelerate or destabilize that decline.“ This novel strategic concept apparently accepts that Russia’s decline should be allowed to destabilize everything around it. Wouldn’t strengthening Russia’s periphery to contain its deterioration be more consistent with America’s interests?

 

We should not be surprised that a number of states in and around Eastern Europe have begun to consider overlapping alliances outside of NATO. The Visegrad Group of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary is perhaps the oldest of these. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey have embarked on their own alliance. Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria are in talks to form joint military units. Most of these countries, from Greece and Bulgaria to Poland and the Baltics, are working together to promote a north-south energy corridor as a counter to the traditional east-west gas supplies coming from Russia.  These combinations and others being discussed unapologetically feature security against Russia as a principal driver.

 

The most ambitious idea of those second guessing NATO and the EU to integrate in ways that might compensate for those institutions’ perceived reluctance is the idea of a Baltic Sea to Black Sea federation of states to deter Russia. To Eastern Europeans, this is not a new idea, but rather the recreation of the powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth that guarded Europe for centuries against Moscow’s imperial designs.  Today’s Intermarium alliance, like the historic alliance, would be powered by Poland, where the new Polish government has spoken favorably of its creation. The Intermarium would reach from the Baltic states southward to the Black Sea and, in some variants of the idea, include even the Turkey and the Caucasus. Romania and Bulgaria would be key players. Significantly, it would encompass all of Ukraine, which Eastern Europeans see largely as “one of us.” Security would be its central pillar, although it would also accommodate trade, energy, and other economic activities.

 

This is an idea whose time has come. But it is unlikely to be realized without direct and dedicated help from the United States.  Many obstacles litter the pathway. Ukraine and Belarus are logical members, but the first is already at war with Russia, while the latter has only recently begun to express interest in a more European identity. Russia would likely oppose either’s membership, perhaps forcefully.  Other members of the proposed Intermarium advocate different kinds of nationalist security hedges. Eastern Europeans, who could be expected to welcome secular Turkey, are unlikely to welcome its current Islamist government.  Most unwelcome is Turkey’s current bazaar-like dealing with Germany’s Angela Merkel over refugee flows from Turkey. Eastern Europeans see themselves again subjected to German dictates, as Mrs. Merkel has assigned herself to be arbiter of which states in their region get unwanted migrants and in what numbers.  Turkey, in this sense, becomes a cat’s paw for undesirable German dictates.

 

Without a coherent strategy and the United States to help advance a pathway through the many roadblocks, the states of the Intermarium will have little recourse but to watch Russia’s decline — and the more assertive risk taking that will accompany it — from the questionable safety of NATO’s fading shadow.

 

American presidential candidates show no evidence of understanding Russia’s decline and the growing menace it presents. Mr. Trump appears not to believe it. It’s time they spoke out. Will a President Trump throw Ukraine and Georgia under the bus to placate his putative friend President Putin? Will President Clinton seize the opportunity to rebuild New Europe’s security against Russia, and repair the damage her infamous “re-set” caused?  Will the United States return to Europe to help build the essential bulwarks to a Russia flailing, desperate, and prepared to employ any instrument to remain in the game?  Even if Europe survives its multiplying fissures intact, America must assume that stepping up to a more direct role to protect our vital interests by reshaping security in Eastern Europe and reassuring our many allies there will be essential.


Special to bulgariaanalytica.org

 

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