The Strategic Importance of Eastern Europe in the Modern World
By: Blaze Joel, National Security Intern
Via White House
For the majority of the twentieth century, the U.S. was embroiled in the Cold War, directing money, resources, and attention towards stopping the advances of communism across the world and in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Twenty-five years ago, the Cold War suddenly and, seemingly unexpectedly, ended as the Soviet Union dissolved. America’s focus on Eastern Europe, however, did not. With the brutal wars in the former Yugoslavia and the transition to democracy among other former Warsaw Pact nations, the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton Administrations had to make Eastern Europe a priority. The former pioneered a U.S.-Russian strategic partnership in 1991 while the latter defined the role of NATO in a non-Cold War world with its use in the former Yugoslavia – the first military operations in the history of the Alliance.
After 9/11, the strategic landscape understandably shifted away from the former Communist Bloc and more towards the Middle East as the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq began in the early 2000s. These wars and the consequent changing global landscape – with its proliferation of non-state actors and terrorist networks – facilitated a fundamental change in the U.S. strategic outlook and foreign policy that dominated the bulk of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Presidencies. As the Obama Administration comes to a close and with either a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump Presidency set to begin in January of next year, Eastern Europe again looks to – and should – be a focus of American foreign policy.
A “return” of sorts to the Eastern Bloc should be a priority of the next administration for a number of reasons. First, and most immediately, the primary trail for Syrian refugees crosses the Balkans through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary. Last fall, we saw tensions rise in the Balkans as several nations closed off their borders as a means to try to stem the flow of migrants who hope to resettle in Germany or other locations in West or Central Europe, thus inflaming tensions in the region.
Second, political commotion and economic stagnation is becoming more prevalent in the region. The Ukrainian Crisis is about to enter its fourth year this November. Right-wing politics have risen in Hungary with the Jobbik Party, Austria with Norbert Hofer and his FPÖ, and Poland under Andrzej Duda’s Presidency. In the Balkans, Croatia’s government recently collapsed, Bosnia continues to be politically divided, Macedonia’s “Colorful Revolution” continues, and a recent New York Times article detailed the emerging radicalization among young Muslims in Kosovo, some of whom are turning to ISIS as an alternative.
Third, Russia is becoming a more major player on the world stage under Putin. This is not only evident in Russian efforts in Syria that have helped to bolster Assad’s strength, but also seen in an increased Russian role in Eastern Europe. This is exemplified by the war in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, but is more prevalent than just Ukraine. Russia continues to try to keep Serbia as an ally in the region, working to deny Kosovo recognition in the UN and pushing Serbia to guarantee its military neutrality (and therefore prevent it from joining NATO). In the face of European sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin has not backed down, creating tension on the continent with several European nations hesitant to restart a “new Cold War” with Russia due to its resource and oil wealth.
All of this is exacerbated by potential unrest in the European project as a whole, as exemplified by the British referendum on leaving the EU this past month. With this move, The United Kingdom set off a chain reaction that has impacted financial markets and undermined the political stability of Europe itself. Leader of the French National Front, Marine Le Pen, has called for a “People’s Spring” to bring national concerns to the forefront of international politics and minimize (or negate) the role of international institutions in domestic governance. While the consequences and potential “domino effect” of the Brexit vote are still unknown, uncertainty will likely define European politics and international relations for the foreseeable future.
In the face of these tensions, the Obama Administration has recently begun to step up its presence in Eastern Europe. On June 13, NATO announced that it would deploy four multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, which became official at the NATO summit in Warsaw last week. This move is seen as desperately needed, not only by Poland and the Baltic states, but also by Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, who said on June 23 that “Russia could conquer the Baltic states quicker than we could get there to defend them.” Last year, Hodges was similarly wary of a Russian threat, citing a threat from the Russian ambassador to Denmark that the Danish Navy could become a nuclear target if it participated in NATO’s missile defense program.
Whoever the next President of the United States is, he or she will face an increasingly complex world that requires increasingly multifaceted policies. To name a few of these upcoming issues: ISIS will continue to be a threat to the Middle East and the world; North Korea has shown signs of wanting to increase its global status through its nuclear program; the Syrian Civil War will be entering its sixth year; political instability has come to Latin America in Venezuela and to a lesser extent Brazil; ISIS and Boko Haram terrorize northern and western Africa and the civil war in South Sudan has begun anew. Despite the plethora of global issues, Eastern Europe must be crucial to the next President’s strategic plan. An increasingly bold Russia, political and economic stagnation (including growing inequality) and uncertainty, and the increasing of national tensions exacerbated by the migrant crisis mean that the region once thought to be the bastion of expanding democracy and stability through its new NATO and EU members is at risk of becoming a point of tension once again.